Friday, December 26, 2008

Post-Holiday Thoughts

Christmas without translation

"Any man who goes around with the words 'Merry Christmas' on his lips ought to be boiled in his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart"
Yup, got to play Ebenezer Scrooge in a Christmas play back in grade school and loved it. After getting past the toy/game acquisition phase at some point in high school, I have never been a big fan of Christmas. I used to knock myself out trying to find just the right gift for each family member and friend. It was gratifying when they opened these presents, but I also resented having to spend so much time, energy and money all at once.

These days, I give stuff to people all year around. When I see something a friend would like, I get it and give it to that person, regardless of season. And for the holidays, I get back to the real purpose of all these winter celebrations, which is to counter the seasonal cold and darkness. In the immortal words of Wayne, "Party On!" Such partying is not as uninhibited as in earlier decades, but a lot of lights, imbibing and socializing helps get you past the Solstice.

Receiving gifts graciously is an art I've been slow to develop. Sometimes a gift will come from someone out of the blue and I feel embarrassed that I didn't reciprocate. But finally I've come to learn that the gift you give back is the gratitude you express to the giver, the thanks for caring. (And then, I make a mental note that down the road to keep that person in mind for a gift whenever I come across the right thing.)

The Oregonian gave me an unexpected gift on Christmas Eve, although belatedly. The paper never arrived on my porch that morning, but because of the egregious travel conditions, I didn't call up circulation . Instead, I read the paper later at a coffee house and inside it was a column by Garrison Keillor. Everyone knows Keillor from his radio show and many also because of his Lake Woebegon books, but Keillor also writes a fine newspaper column, the best since Russell Baker retired from the New York Times. He writes one every week, but The O chooses to publish it about as often as every lunar eclipse. Why I don't know. The editors dutifully run syndicated columns by the pathetically predictable David Broder, as well as reprinting all the Times' columnists the following day.

But for Christmas, they gave me Keillor, and I give him to you here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

An Oregon Appointment???

Who would you pick?

Hendrik Hertzberg is an editor for The New Yorker who always has fresh information and insight on issues even though his columns come out days after the newspapers and blogs have had their say. In a piece on the hubris of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and the looming U.S. Senate appointments in Illinois and New York, Hertzberg comes up with an unconventional and brilliant idea.

He suggests New York Gov. David Patterson think outside the political box when choosing the person to replace Hillary Clinton, who will give up her Senate seat when she takes over as Secretary of State:

What if Governor Paterson, prompted by the squalor of his Illinois colleague’s maneuverings, were to put aside mundane calculations and take full advantage of his theoretically unfettered freedom of choice? The Senate was originally conceived as a sort of chamber of notables, but most of its members, over the years, have been notable mainly for their mediocrity. New York is full of interesting people. Want some suggestions? Try these, collected from an informal canvass—a baker’s dozen, in alphabetical order:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, thoughtful and scholarly, would give the new President someone to shoot hoops with. Christiane Amanpour would be a slam dunk for the Foreign Relations Committee. The impossibly distinguished Vartan Gregorian is a one-man academy of arts, letters, and the humanities. Bill T. Jones, who doesn’t need words to make a speech, would make C-SPAN 2 worth watching. A non-dynastic Kennedy, the novelist William, would give upstate New York representation of the first order. Paul Krugman would provide ornery economic smarts. Arthur Laurents, conveniently, is already in Washington, directing the National Theatre revival of his “West Side Story.” If you doubt that Lou Reed knows politics, listen to his album “New York.” Felix Rohatyn is as senatorial as you can get without wearing a toga. Ed Sanders—poet, Pentagon levitator, classics scholar, founding member of the Fugs—is a political force in Woodstock, New York. Toni Morrison’s majestic voice would warm the Senate chamber. No one who ever spent the equivalent of two Senate terms in a complex, ceaselessly scrutinized job in New York has ever done it better than Joe Torre did as manager of the Yankees. Harold Varmus, the head of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and, like Morrison, a Nobel laureate, got lots of money from Congress for the National Institutes of Health when he ran them, during the nineteen-nineties. Perhaps he could do the same for New York—not that such petty considerations are worthy of this exercise.

Read the entire column here.

That got me to thinking fanciful thoughts that can only be thought on an inclement day cloistered inside—with an hour’s break to slog a few miles in the snow just for some exercise. Okay, what if Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden somehow got appointed to a post in Obama’s cabinet? Not likely, since his big issue, health care, has been handed to former colleague Tom Daschle. But just suppose? And suppose that Gov. Ted Kulongoski departs from his pedestrian, professional politician’s posture and thinks creatively for once? Even less likely, for sure. But play along with me.

Who among our Oregon citizenry should the Guv select?

It’s not as if Oregon has always sent seasoned politicians to Washington. Wayne Morse, one the greatest, had never been elected to anything before becoming the “tiger of the Senate.” Maureen Neuberger served adequately in the Senate when her husband, Richard, died in the early sixties.

So how about William Kittredge, the foremost authority on the modern West (see Owning it All, among other writings)? Storm Large, who was in the middle of a lot of political events this year, would certainly shake things up in Washington. For a tough, no-nonsense approach to the nation’s business, one could do no better than Gert Boyle, chair of Columbia Sportswear. On the other hand, to get Oregon’s fair share of federal pork, go with Oregon State University basketball coach Craig Robinson, who is Barack Obama’s brother-in-law. Trailblazer GM Kevin Pritchard has shown he is an organizational genius and a great judge of character and talent—and he’s assembled a near-perfect team now; making more trades would only mess up the chemistry. Phil Stanford, who seemed to know a lot of inside stuff, is looking for a new job, I hear. And Simpson’s creator Matt Groening could form the first Senate comedy caucus with Al Franken (if Franken squeaks in).

Who else? What are your suggestions?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Accentuate the Positive

More Time for ‘Zilla

We break once again from the mundane world of politics, policy and urban agriculture to confront a more serious threat to our city: mainly, what’s with the Blazers as of late?

Going into tonight’s game against Sacramento, the Portland Trailblazers have lost three in a row—three squeakers. Two were decided by last-second shots and the third went into double overtime. They could have—and arguably should have—won all three games.

Blame can be passed around on these losses. In the first two, Travis Outlaw played not only miserably but stupidly, getting beat on defense and attempting poor shots on offense. In the overtime loss to the Clippers, Steve Blake was suddenly possessed by the ghost of Chris Dudley and missed four crucial free throws down the stretch.

These games did not have to be as close as they were. The Blazers, however, are taking a risk and suffering big when that risk doesn’t pay off. They need to make a decision now: whether to go for a high playoff seed by changing their starting lineup or try to develop Greg Oden and because of that settle for probably the last seed or possibly not make the playoffs at all.

Rookie center Oden seems to be a nice, hardworking kid, but as for this year, he’s neither the best center on the team nor the best rookie. Rudy Fernandez, the perpetual motion machine from Spain, could be contending for Rookie of the Year on many other teams, but on the Blazers he doesn’t get the minutes and generally plays behind Brandon Roy.

More pertinently, Joel Pryzbilla has been the Blazers unsung hero so far this season, even gracefully yielding his starting slot at center to Oden and not complaining about declining minutes. But somebody better complain, because Pryzbilla is demonstrably better than Oden. Even now playing less than half the game, ‘Zilla is the Blazers leader in rebounding and blocked shots, the two major stats for centers.

A far more telling stat is the +/- column. You don’t see this stat in The Oregonian’s abbreviated box scores, but you can on or Yahoo Sports. What the +/- shows is how many points his team gained or lost while he was in the game. If you have a +10 for a game, then your team scored 10 more points than the opposition while you played.

Here is the +/- line for Oden and Pryzbilla for the last three games:

Game.....................Orlando................Utah................L.A. Clippers

Oden......................... -10......................-8........................... -3

Pryzbilla ..................+15 ......................-1...........................-2

Now this is not a perfect stat for a player, because the score depends on the other four players in the game. With Blazers coach substituting a whole second unit at a time, it can be like comparing apples to kumquats.

Generally, the starters should have a better +/- than the bench, or else they shouldn’t be starters. Oden plays most of his minutes with Roy, Lamarcus Aldridge, Steve Blake and a rotation of Nick Batum, Outlaw and Fernandez. Pryzbilla usually plays with Sergio Rodriguez, Channing Frye, Outlaw and Fernandez. In the Utah game, Pryzbilla played a lot with Outlaw, who had a horrendous -12 for the game. In the Clippers game, he was stuck for much of the time with Rodriguez, who had a -13 impact on the outcome.

In a close game earlier this year, Oden had a -22 while Pryzbilla was +23.

It’s clear that Pryzbilla should be the one playing 30-35 minutes a game, with Oden getting the remainder. Given real starter’s minutes, Pryzbilla would easily be among the top five in the league in rebounding and blocked shots. He’s not a scorer, but he’s improved immensely in the past year. He’s developed a little hook shot and he seems to have improved his ability to catch passes, which has been his major downside over the years. His free throw shooting is now above average.

More than that, the Blazers seem more relaxed and confident with Pryzbilla in the middle. He’s predictable. He knows what to do and he’s go their back. Oden makes rookie mistakes and is inconsistent. He may develop into an all-star center, but he’s not holding his own against Dwight Howard of Orlando, or even Kendrick Perkins of the Celtics. Someday, he might be another Nate Thurmond, or merely another Tree Rollins. We know what Pryzbilla is going to be, just what he is not, maybe a bit better.

Apparently, after all the hype about Oden—and then the delay of a year because of his injury—the Blazers think they need to play him as much as possible. And talk about hype. Watch a Blazer game and during the commercial breaks, he’s pitching more products than the Schonz ever did. His face is billboarded throughout the city and splashed across all kinds of media. Meanwhile, Pryzbilla probably might get mentioned in the back pages of Mother Earth News.

There are times when McMillan sees the game slipping away and puts Pryzbilla in hoping his defense will reverse the momentum. Yet he seems committed to starting Oden and playing him the majority of the time—or else upper management had ordered him to do so.

To win, the Blazers don’t need to rush Oden’s education in the NBA.

They would be better off to put Oden back on the bench and let him be the understudy to Pryzbilla this year. He would feel a lot less pressure and thus be more relaxed when his time to play comes around. He also fits in with the faster paced second unit.

More importantly, the Blazers would start winning again.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

An extraordinary rendition

Saving Oregon via Outsourcing

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski has released his budget for the coming biennium and it appears the state faces a $1 billion shortfall because of the lousy national economy. The economic malaise is going to precipitate hundreds of cuts to state agency budgets, plus, perhaps, a few small tax increases.

Now if our government was run like a business—specifically like a modern corporation—instead of minor decimation to most departments, the main tactic would be to spin off the unprofitable divisions. And if that’s not possible, then outsource everything that can be outsourced.

Of all the general fund and lottery money spent by the state of Oregon, 93 percent goes to one of three categories: education, health and human resources, and public safety. These are sometimes called “education, medication and incarceration.”

How could we save money in Oregon through outsourcing? Under the Oregon Health Plan, the state pays for certain approved medical procedures and some prescription drugs. Those drugs could be purchased more cheaply from India. In fact, it may also be less costly to send patients to hospitals in several Asian nations that specialize in medical tourism than to treat them here. A lot of the state's health services, however, are for things like immunizing children, pre-natal care and drug treatment—things that might not be feasible overseas.

More than half the budget goes for education, ranging from kindergarten to the university level. Higher education remains grossly underfunded here, even while tuition at state universities continues to rise beyond the means of the middle class. The offspring of wealthy moguls and plutocrats of other nations have flooded Oregon's campuses. Perhaps, then, Oregon should send its students to lower-priced colleges in Europe and elsewhere. After all, it's often said that travel broadens one's perspective.

Oregon college professors complain they are not paid as much as their peers in other states, yet for a fraction of their salaries, the state could hire professors in India to teach via teleconferencing or satellite video hookups. If a daily newspaper in California can do it, why not the University of Oregon, which today is renowned primarily for its football team, anyway.

The best solution, however, comes out of the public safety budget, which comprises 17% of the total. Because of Measure 57, Oregon will have to spend well over $1 billion in the next budget cycle on prisons. Hmmn...$1 billion. Exactly the same as the current budget shortfall.

What if we outsourced all incarceration to some other country? Shortly, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of former Bush Administration officials seeking work and many of them will be experts on the practice of “extraordinary rendition.” They could be brought in as consultants to match Oregon's convicted criminals with the best and most economical black sites. Surely, it would be cheaper to house our prison population in Eastern Europe or Egypt than in Oregon.

Wonder if Kevin Mannix had this in mind all along?