Saturday, June 19, 2010

NCAA Conference Merry-Go-Round

To paraphrase "Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me"'s Peter Sagal, the only thing more American than sports is pointless arguments about sports. He was talking about baseball, but if there's one sport that's almost as American as baseball, it's college football. And the pointless argument du jour is conference realignment. Conference realignment isn't all about football--it's about all athletics, and even about academics (what a concept)--but it's gotten the most attention in the light of football, so that's mostly how I'll consider it.

All this buzz about conference readjustment started when the Big Ten started throwing around notions of expanding to a horrific 14 teams, and the Pac-10 announced its truly idiotic plan to pursue Texas as its twelfth member. True, like Oregon and California and Arizona, it's a massive public land-grant institution. The similarities end there. Conferences are traditionally geographic for a reason: competition is more fun (and collaboration more worthwhile) when it's with your close peers... and who wants to drive literally halfway across the country to go see a football game?

The Pac-10 was all prepared to accept Texas, but fortunately for everyone involved, Texas stood their ground in the Big 12. Their departure not only would have made the Pac-10 into a nonsensical cherry-picked mess of a conference, but it would have set the precedent across all of college football that it was okay to do that very thing. This isn't to say that Texas acted selflessly, only looking out for the good of the game--they surely got its own sweet financial deal, and more power to them.

Despite my strong objection to Texas joining the Pac-10, I do feel like some expansion was justified or even necessary:

Big Ten

Eleven teams is a miserable place to be, I'll give you that. You're too big to enjoy the cohesion of a small conference where every team plays every other team every year--that's only feasible with ten or fewer teams. But you're not big enough that you can really build meaningful divisions or have a championship game; 12 teams is the magic number there.

At first, I thought it would make the most sense to go after Cincinnati, which is a school consistent with the conference's current geography and one that's established itself as a football powerhouse in the last few seasons. I thought that Rutgers and Syracuse would be good options as well--apparently I felt that pillaging the Big East was much more acceptable than taking from the Big 12.

But the more I think about the Nebraska addition, the more I like it. Nebraska brings many of the same benefits as Texas--big state school, storied football program with plenty of depth and tradition. But it makes more geographic sense. Like Iowa, Nebraska is one of those gray area "sort of the Midwest, sort of the Great Plains" states. Nebraska borders Iowa, which means the Big Ten retains its geographic contiguity, which is perhaps more important to me than it should be.

Finally, it's an interesting move for the Big Ten's audience. Did any Nebraskan ever watch a Big Ten game before? Now they'll be watching twelve. Did any Kansan? Now they'll be watching at least one, because there's no reason to think that they'll stop playing the same series they've been at since 1892. They're not huge markets, but they'll do nothing but boost the Big Ten.

Unsolicited advice to the Big Ten: stop here. Change your name to something that makes more sense (though avoid going for "Big 12"), but quit adding teams. If you hit 13, you're going to be in as awkward spot as you were in with 11, and you're going to have to keep adding until you reach a full-on superconference of 16.


Ten is not a horrible place to be, but the more teams that play a conference championship, the less relevant your conference becomes for the first two weeks of December, and that's revenue you don't want to miss out on.

Utah seemed the natural choice for expansion, so I'm happy that that's going to happen. The 2009 Poinsettia Bowl didn't exactly have the best outcome for us Cal fans, but it showed us that Utah is going to give the conference some entertaining opposition indeed.

At first, Colorado didn't strike me as particularly "Pacific", but then again neither is Arizona, and it fits in just fine with the Pac-10. While Colorado isn't as powerful an athletic addition as Utah, it does represent a good move to expand the conference into the Rocky Mountain states.

Unsolicited advice to the Pac-10: change your name to "Pac-12" and be done with it for exactly the same reasons the Big Ten needs to quit while it's ahead.

Big 12

Losing two schools is bad, but at least it's not your prime moneymakers (anything in Oklahoma or Texas). You can recover.

Unsolicited advice to the Big 12: fight back. Get two more members, and do it quickly, or you're going to be marginalized in the end of the season the same way the Big Ten has been for the last decade. And don't do it by raiding any other "major" conference, or the merry-go-round will just keep turning.

Instead, focus on the so-called "mid-majors", the FBS conferences that aren't guaranteed a piece of the BCS pie. TCU would be an excellent pickup, but the upward-trending Mountain West might not be so happy to lose them. Conference USA then becomes the best place to go. Houston would be an excellent addition to the conference--it's within spitting distance of most of the Texas schools, and it's proven to be a contender in recent years. And there are a handful of other schools in Texas that might fit in just fine.

Mountain West

I, along with probably a million other armchair commissioners, decided back at the BCS-busting 2010 Fiesta Bowl that Boise State would be a natural addition to the MWC. The conference might have weak bottom half, but what a top half Boise State, Utah, TCU, and BYU would be--and Air Force, to their credit, is no slouch of a program either.

Utah is leaving, so that dream of a "mid-major" won't be happening. But I think if the MWC plays its cards right, it can still become a power player at its level, and perhaps even ascend to the upper echelons of the game.

Unsolicited advice to the Mountain West: hang on to your top-tier programs, which at this point are BYU, TCU, and now Boise State. Consider your own expansion to 12 teams--look at Nevada, which is a natural rival for UNLV, and Idaho, which was the surprise of the WAC last year in that they managed to give Boise State a run for their money.

The superconference idea

What happens if (when) someone expands beyond 12 teams? 13 is as bad as 11, and 15 is no better either. 14 is okay, but why stop there? 16 just seems better. At this point, you're more than a conference, you're the first superconference.

A 16-team conglomeration may seem downright unholy, but they make more sense the more you think about them. There are several specific proposals, but the basic idea is this: four 16-team conferences are formed out of the six current eight-to-twelve team conferences. The four conferences that remain are the ones with the biggest impact, or most iconic regional representation, or most robust history. Under this plan:

The ACC expands to 16 teams by absorbing the more "coastal" Big East teams (like Rutgers and Connecticut). Its geographical profile remains essentially the same, ranging down the Eastern seaboard from Boston to Miami, but its presence in the northeast strengthens.

The SEC expands to 16 teams by absorbing the more "southern" Big 12 teams (like Texas and Oklahoma). Its geographical profile remains mostly restricted to the traditional "southeast" but grows in the west.

The Big Ten expands to 16 teams and changes its name to the Big Sixteen by absorbing the more "midwestern" Big East teams (like Cincinnati) and the more "northern" Big 12 teams (like Nebraska, which it has already done). It remains a mostly "midwestern" conference but expands slightly to the east and west.

The Pac-10 expands to 16 teams and changes its name to the Pac-16 by absorbing the more "western" Big 12 teams (like Colorado, which it has already done). If necessary, it also takes the more "Pacific" schools in the WAC and MWC (like Utah, which it has already done).

The Big East is dissolved and divided more or less equally between the ACC and the new Big Sixteen (though West Virginia strikes me as a very SEC-friendly team).

The Big 12 is dissolved and spread among the SEC, new Big Sixteen, and new Pac-16.

Each conference would be comprised of two eight-team divisions. Every team would have a nine-game conference schedule, consisting of seven in-division games, one fixed inter-division "rival", and one rotation inter-division opponent. The other three games would be some combination of FCS opponents, inter-conference rivals, and anything else.

This setup even lends itself to a mini-tournament to close each season: the Pac-16 winner plays the Big Sixteen winner in the Rose Bowl, the ACC winner plays the SEC winner in the Fiesta of Sugary Oranges Bowl, and the winners of those two bowls play each other in the national championship. Or, to expand the tournament to 8 teams, take the winner of each division, seed them according to national ranking, and play a 7-game single-elimination tournament.

Any thoughts? Is expansion good for the game? How about superconferences?

Currently listening: "Window", Guster

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Concert Don'ts

In the last few weeks, I've had the pleasure of attending concerts from both Minus the Bear and Flight of the Conchords. Both shows were fantastic. I would strongly recommend either of them. But a few friends and I noticed some troubling patterns of behavior in our fellow concertgoers.

Six-foot-three guy: Obviously I'm not going to sit here and call you out on your height. You can't change the fact that you have four inches on me, and almost nine on the average American concertgoer. What you can change, however, is where you're putting those inches. If you're going to tower over the rest of the crowd, do us all a favor and tower over it from the relative back. Rule of thumb: if you can comfortably take a picture by lifting your camera over my head, you're encouraged to do so.

Totem-pole couple: As a sort of corollary to "six-foot-three guy", if you're closer to 5'3" than 6'3", it is not okay to perch yourself on your boyfriend's shoulders and then stand in front of everyone. In this case, I might suggest the method of "stand closer to the stage"... as long as you've gotten there legitimately, of course.

Elbowing to the front: Look, I appreciate that you're a fan of the band, and that you're excited to see them live and in person. After all, that's why you're at their concert. But... I'm a fan of the band too, and I'm also excited to see them live and in person. After all, that's why I'm at the concert. If it's imperative to you to stand twelve feet nearer the stage, then I admit being a lesser fan than you. In that case, it would befit you to arrive earlier than I do so you can secure that prime spot.

Spilling your beer: I don't feel like I should even have to say this, because presumably you paid money for your beer, and it is not something you would like to waste. But an inordinate amount of time, it would appear that the enjoyment you derive from drenching the floor in front of me with beer is greater than what you would have gotten from drinking it.

Make-out couple: If you started saliva-swapping on some street corner, chances are good that you'd get some dirty looks, and people would sarcastically tell you to "get a room" or something similar. Therefore, why would you assume it's okay to do it at a concert? I'm all for affection, but might I suggest the more subtle "holding hands" or "arm around the other person"?

Getting in a fight: To quote Jake Snider, lead singer of Minus the Bear, "we're all cool people... how about you just relax and enjoy the music?" Seriously, if you feel like you must join a mosh pit (and a Minus the Bear concert is an odd place to do that, to be sure), keep it peaceful.

Weed cloud: I'm every bit libertarian enough not to care if you want to go to the privacy of your own home, light one up, and rock out to some Minus the Bear. That does not mean I want to smell it at a concert.

"You mind if I squeeze in here?": Let's think about this for a second. We're at an event with general admission seating. I'm on row 15 out of 20, which is not the best seat in the house, but at least it's not on the lawn behind all the bleachers. All of the seats in the bleachers--all of them--are taken. During an intermission, you see some open seats. Either 1) you have stumbled upon the only three open seats in the whole venue, or 2) those three people are using the restroom. Which seems more likely?

Wearing the shirt of a lesser band: It's a bit like wearing a Mississippi State shirt to a Florida-Alabama football game. You're supporting a direct competitor, and not even one that's any good. It's bizarre and out of place. I think you could get away with wearing a shirt of an entirely different kind of band--like wearing a Juliana Theory shirt to a Flight of the Conchords concert, or a Cal shirt to the aforementioned Florida-Alabama game.

But wearing a Phoenix shirt to either Minus the Bear or Flight of the Conchords? Nope. I'll conclude with a quote from my friend Nicki, who actually knows what she's talking about when it comes to music: "Phoenix is a band for people who haven't bothered to discover anything better. Not bad, but this album is absurdly overrated."

Currently listening: "Goodbye Girl", the Shins covering Squeeze

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Lost Speculations and Observations: It Only Ends Once, Part Four

To conclude my discussion of Lost, I'd like to give another retrospective, this time talking about my favorite episodes of the show. Two themes I've noticed are that these episodes are either ones that fundamentally changed our notion of what was going on, what to expect, and how to interpret what was going on, and/or they're ones that provide intense and satisfying moments for some of the show's greatest characters. In order of original airdate:

"Walkabout", season 1 episode 4, John Locke flashback

"Walkabout" was the first truly great episode of Lost. The Pilot was what got us hooked, but it was necessarily more expository than narrative. "Tabula Rasa" got the ball rolling with the character-centric format that would carry more than three quarters of the show, and its title foreshadowed one of the most important philosophical debates that the show tackled... but it was after all a Kate episode.

But with "Walkabout", we get the first iconic centric episode. In the same way that "The Man Behind the Curtain" is essential Ben, "The Constant" is essential Desmond, and "The Long Con" is essential Sawyer, "Walkabout" is the defining John Locke moment. It also offered the first big twist of the series, when we find out that Locke used to be in a wheelchair.

At the same time, it showed the first Island miracle: John Locke's healing. Until "Walkabout", the Island was dangerous, and the undercurrent of each discussion was the hope of rescue. "Walkabout" dared to introduce the possibility that the Island was beautiful, and it added an element of purpose and destiny to the conversation. In doing so, it began the exploration of science versus faith, coincidence versus fate... and Jack versus Locke.

"Through the Looking Glass", season 3 episodes 22 and 23 (season 3 finale), Jack flashforward

"TtLG", as it has come to be known, is the pinnacle of Lost, its pièce de résistance, the first-among-equals in a collection of excellent episodes. Just when everyone had thought Lost was settling into a routine, just when we were comfortable assuming that the series finale was going to involve these people finally getting rescued, the entire directional temporality of Lost gets turned on its head.

In one fell swoop, we learn that there was (or is, or will be, or will have been) a rescue. Even though we don't end up seeing the rescue itself until the end of season 4, it becomes immediately clear that there is life beyond the rescue. And even more shockingly, that off-island life isn't exactly the fulfillment that that survivors of Oceanic 815 thought it would have been.

We finally understand why that is: as Jacob pointed out in his fireside chat, he brought those people to the Island because they needed the Island as much as the Island needed them. The quest to find a purpose--for all the castaways and especially for Jack--becomes the cornerstone of the next half of the show.

And that's not even to mention all the rest of the episode that often gets overshadowed by the brilliance of the flashforward. Charlie's heroic death. Alex meeting her mother. The culmination of the "us versus them" conflict of the survivors of 815 against the Others. Hurley's DHARMA van "moment"... and that's barely scratching the surface.

"The Constant", season 4 episode 5, Desmond flashback

"The Constant" is probably the biggest cliche of "best of Lost" lists. Practically every one you see has glowing praise for this episode, so before I committed it to my own list, I decided to go back and re-watch it, to make sure it was as brilliant as everyone says it is and as I remember.

Don't worry, it is... but here's the thing about "The Constant". The plot is basically irrelevant to the macro-story of Lost. Sure, we see some advancement of the freighter story line, and we see some development of Keamy as a villain. But mostly the plot deals with some pretty esoteric stuff: the time discrepancy on the Island? Faraday's 11-hertz oscillator? Eloise the rat's nosebleed? Even Desmond's consciousness traveling through time, which looked like it might become an important installation, didn't pay off until the second half of season 6.

"The Constant" was light on mythology too. The auction scene established some tenuous connection between the Hanso family, the Black Rock, and Charles Widmore, but that was pretty much it. Finally, for a show so ostensibly focused on characters, the only main characters besides Desmond that did much of anything were Sayid, Charlotte, and Faraday.

In short, this episode has no apparent reason that it would be any good, and it doesn't have a "turn the perception of the show on its head" moment like "Walkabout" or "TtLG" did. Why was the episode so beloved then? Simple: the Desmond-Penny relationship is one of the most sincere and inspiring ones in the show. The writing, acting, music, and editing all come together beautifully, especially in the climactic phone call scene at the end, to create the most genuinely emotional moment in the entire series.

"Jughead", season 5 episode 3, Desmond flashback

If "The Constant" is the biggest cliche of my top five list, then "Jughead" has to be the biggest surprise. It's admittedly a little esoteric too: let's watch Locke and Sawyer traipse around 1954 and run into a hydrogen bomb? Uh, okay. But unlike "The Constant", and much like "Through the Looking Glass", "Jughead" is instrumental in changing the way we look at time and its passage through the story.

Prior to season 5, our understanding of the timeline was discrete and simplistic: our people crashed in 2004, the DHARMA Initiative did their thing in the 70s and 80s, some ancient civilization built a statue and a donkey wheel thousands of years ago, and the Others showed up somewhere along the way. It would be impossible and uninteresting to fill in every year or even every century along the way, but Jughead takes the step of starting to bridge the gaps.

Even though it's technically a Desmond-centric episode, and Desmond is one of the best characters on the show, the parts that made "Jughead" so great didn't involve Desmond at all. Instead, the on-Island 1954 plot made the episode intriguing. The Others have been here for at least 50 years, and possibly a whole lot longer if that Latin is any indication. The whole "Richard/Locke/compass" arrangement makes sense now! Widmore was an Other! And yet another layer of the "mythological onion" is peeled back.

"Dr. Linus", season 6 episode 7, Ben flash-sideways

Amidst an exceptionally strong slate of episodes in season 6 ("LA X", "Ab Aeterno", "The Candidate", and "The End", just to name a few), it's all too easy to forget "Dr. Linus". And that's a shame, because "Dr. Linus" is Ben's finest hour. We don't realize it as we're watching for the first time, but it's not Ben's confession to Ilana that ends his story, it's him realizing in his afterlife that he still has some making up to do with Alex before he can truly "move on".

But the confession is probably the most important thing that happens to his character. It directly follows the climax of his character arc, which happened in "Dead is Dead" and continued through "The Incident", where Ben realizes he has done some truly terrible things in supposed service to the Island.

Michael Emerson himself said that if you never saw Ben's character again after "Dr. Linus", you would still be wholly satisfied. It's high praise for the episode, and completely deserved. Unlike many episodes of Lost, "Dr. Linus" manages to be relevant and important to the plot and characters, but also a hell of a television episode in its own right, something that you can watch by itself and get something out of, even if you're not a fan.

And just like that, we've come to the end... at least as far as the series proper is concerned. I'm sure I'll find ways to work Lost into future blog posts, of course, and there's a good chance I'll do a rewatch sometime, which is bound to generate all sorts of crazy ideas. To all the fans who have read what I've had to say, thanks for the support and the comments that added to the conversation. To all the non-fans that have read my posts anyway, or at least put up with them, I appreciate that too--and having been through the whole experience of Lost, I vouch for the show's quality. Watch it. You will not be disappointed.

Currently listening: "A Winner Needs a Wand", Sufjan Stevens

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Lost Speculations and Observations: It Only Ends Once, Part Three

(or: all the ridiculous crap I've predicted over the years that wasn't close to true)

I've predicted a lot, and it wouldn't be feasible for me to analyze every single one of my prognostications. I will hit some of the highlights--and a lot of the lowlights.

My first ever Lost post was at the end of season 2. In it, I predicted/wondered/considered:
  • Maybe the Others' camp that we see in season 2 is a fake (it was).
  • How the Others know about the Pala ferry and the magic bearing to leave the Island (probably an artifact of what Ben knew from the DHARMA days).
  • "What's up with the four-toed statue?" Ah, if only...
  • Whether Radzinsky knew anything about the workings of the Swan station and how he could be traced back to the DHARMA Initiative. Of course, by now we know that he was the guy who designed the Swan, but it would have been a stretch to have predicted that back in season 2.
  • I offered a willingness to bet that Widmore "knows something about what's going on on the Island." It seems so ludicrously obvious in hindsight.
  • What would happen with the season 1 dangling power cable; turns out we'd have to wait for season 3 to see the Looking Glass.
  • That the Others were the remnants of DHARMA who banded together after they found out Alvar Hanso was doing something terrible. Like many fans, I bought way too much stock in Hanso during season 2, thinking that he'd end up being important to the story at all.
  • Finally, quoting my own earlier post: "So how did Hanso come to fund the Dharma Initiative at all? Magnus Hanso (whose "resting place," according to the Blast Door Map, is the Black Rock) was Alvar's father; he was the captain of the Black Rock. Alvar first came to the island while he was looking for his father. At this time, he became aware of the strange electromagnetic fluctuations coming from the area around the Swan. Hanso decided to fund the Dharma Initiative to study those fluctuations." Turns out Magnus is actually Alvar's great-grandfather, but I still think the rest of that theory is entirely plausible.

Being in France at the end of season 3, I didn't make a post then, but I was back in full force at the end of season 4. My thoughts from then:
  • In one of my favorite bad theories from several years ago, I thought that Richard's agelessness was because he was a manifestation of the smoke monster.
  • I actually did put forth the theory that Christian was another Yemi-like manifestation of the smoke monster, but I don't seem to have believed my own theory, probably because of the inconsistencies with his presence in Jacob's cabin.
  • Another "ah, if only...": "How in the hell did [the smoke monster] get on the island, and who put it there? Why?"
  • I wondered if Rousseau's expedition, Widmore's boat race around the world, and the real Henry Gale's balloon ride were Widmore's pre-freighter attempts to find the Island. We now know that Widmore was still on the Island when Rousseau's team landed, but my theory stands for the other two.
  • What are the "rules" between Ben and Widmore? We never really find out. I think they're akin to a "gentleman's agreement" where Widmore's exile came with some sort of implicit rules that Ben and Widmore wouldn't interfere with each others' lives following the exile.
  • How do we reconcile the similar but not identical sets of orders given to the two teams (the science team and the mercenary team) on the freighter? Good question. Given the Widmore sent the freighter, and put both Keamy's and Naomi's people on it, why is there so much discord between the two teams?
  • Another theory totally off-base that I get a kick out of now: Matthew Abbadon worked for DHARMA, who sent the science team to the Island to get revenge on Ben for the Purge.
  • I think by this point, we can reasonably conclude that Widmore put the wreckage in the Sunda Trench to distract the worldwide media from the possibility that Oceanic 815 crashed on his beloved Island.

In seasons 5 and 6, I started much more in-depth analysis posts roughly every month. Among my gems in season 5:
  • In my proudest moment, I did predict that Jacob and/or his people had been on the Island since Roman times.
  • Widmore was forced to turn the Wheel. Later in season 5, we learn that his exile was a much more mundane walk down a pier, but this wasn't too far off.
  • When Eloise suggested that the Island "wasn't finished with Desmond" yet, I expected Desmond to have to trek back to the Island to save Penny, or that she'd die and Desmond would have to return to the Island to "bring her back" (to whatever extent the Island allows). Happily, no fate this tragic ever befell Penny.
  • At various moments, I suspected that the Statue was Horus, then Sobek, and I had reasoning for both of them far better than "it looks like Taweret." According to the producers, the Statue is meant to represent Taweret, but I'm still in denial.
  • Now I think that Richard's immortality comes from his "creative use of time travel", which is a more plausible theory than "Richard is actually the monster," but still not close to the truth.
  • I'm back to waffling on Christian Shephard by the end of season 5. Apparently I bought into the Man in Black's lie that "Christian" had the authority to speak for Jacob.
  • And I never came close to calling that the Man in Black and the smoke monster were the same entity.

Before the season started, I started forming theories about the episodes, centricities, and major plot points of season 6.
  • I did predict the Richard Alpert reveal episode near the middle of the season, where he decides his allegiance for the final battle. I predicted it would be called "... At Sea" in a nod to some season 1 titles (and secretly, I still like my title better, even though "Ab Aeterno" is fine too).
  • I did predict the volcano showing up at some point, and Desmond having something to do with it. But my theory was way wackier than what actually happened. I thought that the volcano would explode halfway through the season and that Desmond would have to work the second half of the season using his electromagnetic immunity and time travel abilities to undo it. In my defense, I did call that "Desmond’s unique talents are the Chekhov’s gun that has to be used before the end of the show."
  • I also predicted that the Jin/Sun reunion episode would be far earlier than it actually was, and that it would be called "...Love" in another shout-out to the season 1 patterns. I did predict a late-season episode called "The Candidate", but like most fans, I read way too far into Ilana and Bram's speculation that Lapidus was a "possible candidate".

Finally, throughout season 6, I made a whole of awful predictions about the flash-sideways... but who didn't?

Currently listening: "Funnyman", KT Tunstall