Sunday, June 27, 2010

SSDD

And so it is over, just like that. For the seventh time in nine appearances, the Americans end their run short of the quarterfinals. Want to know why? Here's a hint:

Gerrard (3')
Birsa (12')
Boateng (4')

Actually, that's not a hint. That is why. The US were even for just 70 of the 180 minutes of first-half soccer they played this year; they trailed for the other 110. If Algeria had more accurate attackers, it probably would have been only 30 of 180, trailing for the other 150. (Oh yes, and officially, they led for 0 minutes, right? Because the only match they won came on a goal that was scored in stoppage time.)

Worse yet, if the USMNT had proper focus at the beginning of these matches, they would have had 9 points in the group stage, not 5, winning it easily (and perhaps resting a player or two against Algeria), and they would have beaten Ghana in regular time. Instead of being 4-0-0 at this point, they went 1-2-1 and are done.

Yes, the finishing was not so good against Ghana, but the problem was more the constant struggle to catch up. In three of the four matches, the US blew a play defensively within six minutes of kickoff; in two of those, the mistake cost them a goal. Against Slovenia, the mistake came almost ten minutes later. (sigh) For good measure, the eventual winning goal by Ghana came just two minutes into extra time.

Finishing? Yes, there were goals against Algeria and Slovenia that didn't count, but let's talk about the round of 16. The US had six shots on goal: one was Donovan's PK and the rest were directly at Richard Kingson, the backup keeper for Wigan. I follow Wigan. Yes, Chris Kirkland is pretty good, but Wigan aren't, at least not last season, and Kingson has no chance of cracking that lineup. This isn't like, say, beating Tim Howard. Too few shots actually tested Kingson.

Yes, Ricardo Clark made another mistake that led to a goal, but that wasn't the problem as much as Bradley's decision to start him, which led to a first-half substitution to replace him, which meant the US had only one late-match substitution for extra time (with the usual second-half kickoff sub for Feilhaber). Would it have made a difference? Yeah. Did you see how few people were attacking the goal late in the match? Altidore did seem to be out of gas; Gomez came in for him late, but it would have been nice not to start Findley and to put in someone who can actually do something at the attacking end.

Yes, the Americans acquitted themselves very well, and there were some players who did a solid job, but ultimately this was yet another USMNT that did not play to its potential in the World Cup.

So I guess it's Gold Cup time now ... two more of those (2011 and 2013) and then we can start talking about Brazil 2014. The nice thing is that many of these players may be in good shape for the next Cup run, but they'll have to finish when they get there. The US are past the point of being able to underperform and make excuses for it: at some point, they need to get it done.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

What won't EA fix in Madden 11?

Ha. I could probably write ten posts about that, but I won't. I rake them over the coals enough as it is. I'm sure they'll get around to fixing a few things, particularly high-profile problems (like, say, the total absence of a salary cap in online franchise mode), but you know there will be a large stack of bugs, mistakes, and shoddy efforts that they simply won't touch.

Example: Madden Moments. Too many of the "moments" have some kind of half-assed description like "march downfield to tie the game" when that's not really what the goal is. "Could this be the One?", for example. I've tried it probably 200 times, and finally I managed to get the TD and two-point conversion. Was the "moment" over? No, because I was actually supposed to win the game, so instead I get nothing and have to retry it yet again. (Which, by they way, is a design flaw they won't fix: you can't simply restart a moment, even though you can, for some stupid reason, restart a game in franchise mode. You have to quit out to the list of "moments" and then reselect the one you want to retry.)

What other things won't they fix?

  • The camera on place kicks. Of course we don't have control over it, that would be useful. Instead, we'll struggle to figure out whether we'll see it from offense, defense, sidelines, or some other ridiculous angle. No wonder it's nearly impossible to block a kick. (And of course, when you do, it's simply caught by someone. Don't look to Madden for realistic physics.)
  • Opponents' personnel. Never mind that you can only have 11 players in the huddle. For some reason, EA ignores this and pretends that you can magically switch from goal-line personnel to a 5-WR set without the defense noticing. (You should either be able to see opponent's formations in real-time or their ability to switch should be limited.) And, of course, on onside kicks, for some magical reason, you're completely incapable of seeing how the other team is lining up.
  • Cut scenes. They take up so much space on the disc and there are so few of them, meaning that you know exactly what the result will be depending on which one is shown. For example, there are three for first-down measurements. Furthermore, some are absolutely ridiculous, like the one where a ref changes immediately from complete to incomplete. Finally, some are shown at inappropriate times, like the cut scene for a catch when the ball is five yards out of bounds and clearly dropped.
  • The rank commercialism in the game. (Chompetition? Really?) EA has demonstrated in several titles that adding advertising to a game does nothing at all other than line the producers' pockets if that is what they choose. Some fool at EA decided that what we wanted was a TV telecast. Really? I've never met anyone who said how much they liked the stupid placements, particularly when they come up and block your vision. Of course, there aren't any ads in the stadiums where they would actually make sense.
  • The increasing trend toward making Madden a fighting game, where combos and button-mashing trump actual football strategy. The running game, in particular, is completely out of control. Online, it's not uncommon to face players who will simply run sweeps to left and right all game; offline, even in simmed games, CPU RBs can't be brought down. In my current franchise game, there were three backs who ran for more than 2000 yards in 2009, led by Michael Turner with 2730 – yes, suspend your disbelief, please. In 2010, three backs again, led by Adrian Peterson with 2,683. (Of course that only happens with 12-minute quarters, which is the only way to approach realistic statistics in terms of number of plays and scoring.) And of course CPU WRs elude tackles time and time again ... it's hard to avoid the conspiracy-theory thoughts that this happens when the CPU is trailing and needs a big play.
  • Punt returners nonsensically running deep into their end zone to field punts, particularly when a block is on. Seriously? Have these guys ever watched an NFL game?
  • The completely worthless halftime report. Speaking of wasted space, think of all the time they spent on video and sound for that. Sure, if you want to waste five minutes, go right ahead, but give the rest of us an option to skip it completely. One of the best things about online games is that you skip the entire thing.
  • Achievements. Guess how many have to do with season performance in 10? Zero. How about game performance by a player or team (100 yards, 500 yards, etc.)? One, ten "user catches" with Larry Fitzgerald. Career performance? Zero. It's not as bad as the infamous 06 achievements, but it's bad enough.
  • The stupid rocking camera when a player breaks away. There's no purpose to this at all.
  • Editable playbooks. Hey, it's another 2-TE, 2-RB formation. No problem, I'll just use a 4-4 ... oh wait, I don't have one, but I do have a dollar defense. Dollar? Seriously? I barely even use 7-DB defenses. What a waste.
  • The obsession with combining return yards and total offense. Nobody does that. It's stupid and misinformed. Total offense is passing + rushing. Return yards are separate. If you are going to combine them, it's actually receiving + rushing (for yards from scrimmage) plus return yards, and that gives you all-purpose yards. "Total yards" as EA imagines it is completely wrong.


Well, you get the idea. Here's hoping they actually fix some things rather than giving us a bunch of crap like hand towels and "Pro-Tak".

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pandemonium

Halfway through the second match, against Slovenia, the US looked to be heading home after yet another disappointing showing. Bob Bradley would be "fired" (for some reason, the US chooses a new coach for every World Cup cycle), the stars would be derided for disappearing when the chips were down, and soccer would once again be the sport that everyone plays but nobody watches. 45 minutes later, the US had two things: hope and anger. Hope that they could still qualify for the knockout stage and anger that calls that affected the game could be missed so badly.

So, coming into the third match, we knew this: FIFA refs suck, just like officials in all sports do, and the USMNT would have to play extra hard to overcome that, just like every other side does. (It's no different than in other sports. Champions play through bad calls.) Of course, it wasn't all in our hands, at least not with respect to winning the group. Defeating Algeria would put the US through, but coupled with an England win by the same margin or less, Group C would go to the Americans, and that would mean an apparently favorable draw, possibly avoiding Germany in the round of 16 and maybe even getting South Korea in the quarters.

The bar where we watched both matches was full, naturally. It's a soccer bar anyway (opening at 7 during the tournament, which is no mean feat in a state where you can't even buy beer on Sundays, mostly), and with both the US and England in action, seats were scarce. (At this point, I was grateful to be self-employed.) I got the table, everyone arrived, I got my food, and it was time for soccer ... sort of.

The first half brought some surprises. For one, Bradley changed his lineup around in a surprising way, and it worked great. The US had only one major defensive lapse, and fortunately for them, the wide-open Algerian striker hit the crossbar squarely. Possession was used better, and the ball was frequently seen moving from flank to flank, rather than shot directly into a cloud of midfielders or launched over the top for yet another hopeless run.

Even better, the US produced a number of chances, the best being Clint Dempsey's goal that was incorrectly disallowed by the referee's assistant. (FIFA doesn't need replay and they're happy with that. Reminds you of MLB, doesn't it? And yes, Sepp Blatter is even dumber than Bud Selig, if you can believe that.) Yes, you'll read about it over and over again, but the point to take away from the half was that it should easily have been 2-0 or even 3-0. This wasn't like the Slovenia match at all.

But England had scored on Slovenia, and that pushed the US into third if nothing were to change.

The second half was more of the same: poor officiating (just ask Dempsey's face), US chances, and no goals. No change from the other match as well, and as the minutes ticked away and opportunities continued to be wasted, the tension grew. There was always someone encouraging the bar, but you could tell we were concerned.

Finally, the play. Injury time. Howard throws the ball out to Donovan (something keepers figure is more accurate than kicking with this ball), Donovan finds Altidore, Altidore feeds Dempsey, Dempsey can't chip and simply smacks it off the keeper, Donovan swoops in .... GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAL!

Have you ever seen an explosion of emotion? An entire bar of American fans (well, with one or two English or English/American fans) stands as one and screams in delight. From the agony of defeat to the thrill of victory with just minutes remaining ... and not only do the Americans win (clinched a minute later when the Algerian captain is wrongly sent off), they finish top of Group C, and instead of drawing die Mannschaft, they get second-placed Ghana.

Yes, it's in Africa, but hey, Algeria is also in Africa, and there were plenty of US supporters there. In Saturday's match, the US should be able to advance ... and then with either Uruguay or South Korea waiting in the quarterfinals, the US has a path to the semis for the first time since 1930. Can they make it? If not now, when?

So what should the score have been, if the US had, as they say, clinical finishing?

19' - Gomez shoots directly at the keeper rather than into the net. He collects the rebound and finds Dempsey for an easy goal. This, of course, is the one denied incorrectly. Way to go, FIFA. Nonetheless, Gomez should have scored initially.

36' - Donovan shoots, the rebound comes straight out, and both Altidore and Donovan swing high and send the ball well over the net.

56' - Dempsey with a beautiful chip that crashes off the post; the rebound returns and he puts it well wide.

67' - Buddle places a header directly at the keeper with the entire net at his dispoal.

That's four goals right there (counting the missed Gomez shot, not the offside call).

Further, you have three calls that were flat-out missed:

19' - You already know this one. Dempsey scores and the assistant calls it offside.

48' - Dempsey is elbowed in the face in the box. No foul.

80' - Dempsey is smacked in the face by the Algerian captain, Yahia, who already has a yellow card. This should have been a PK and a second yellow, but instead is nothing at all. (Karma strikes back as Yahia is sent off later for doing nothing at all, a case of mistaken identity.)

The US dominated Algeria and scored but one goal, exactly like a football team with 400+ yards of total offense and a single touchdown. You get no credit for possession, only for balls in the net. Let's hope we see more American celebrations for that on Saturday.

Monday, June 14, 2010

World Cup: so what now?

We're in first and you're not. Uh, not "we" we, "they" we. You know, them.
Well, now that the first set of Group C matches is complete, we know ... well, very little. With Slovenia's 1-0 victory over Algeria, the US find themselves tied for second in Group C. Not a bad position to be in, but it could be better. (Ask Slovenia.)

What do we need to do?
End up with 5 points or more. Yes, you can get through with 4, but you can also fall short with 4, and we don't want that, do we? Get 5 points, and you're advancing. You might even win your group.

So that means we need a win and a draw in our last two matches. Two wins, of course, would be better: with 7 points, we're through automatically. (The most you can have and not advance is 6, and that would require a three-way tie and a bad tiebreaker. That hasn't happened since the World Cup went to eight groups and sixteen teams advancing in 1998.)

Everyone, beat these guys, or else.
Right. So we advance with 5?
Pretty much, unless a) everyone beats Algeria and b) everybody draws with everyone else. Then it comes down to goal differential, which is basically how badly we beat Algeria, and then after that, goals scored (which is why you root for low-scoring matches in your group).

But that probably won't happen, as we can expect England to beat Algeria and Slovenia to advance. So 5 gets us through.

And if we lose one?
Well, that makes it tough. If we lose to Slovenia, then they have 6 points and are through (because we could get no more than 4 and either Algeria or England would also be limited). If we beat Slovenia, then we enter the final day (when both matches are played simultaneously) with 4, England has 4, Slovenia has 3, and Algeria has 0.

Now it gets fun. We would only need a draw with Algeria (a draw between England and Slovenia puts England through with us, a win puts the winner through with us) ... but England would also need only a draw and could be playing accordingly. If Slovenia upset them and we lost to Algeria, it would be that tiebreaker thing again. In general, tiebreakers are bad, because it means you have to win by a certain number of goals to stay out of trouble, and you won't know for sure because it may change if the other match changes. (Yes, it worked for us in the 2009 Confederations Cup, but that took a lot of help.)

So who do we root for on Friday?
Besides someone who can help with grammar? (For whom do we root?) Root for the US and don't worry about England v Algeria ... rooting for a low score isn't bad, or a one-goal win for England (in case we do finish tied with them), but just let it happen. Again, if we win both matches, we advance.


Do we want this man testing Tim Howard? No.
To play the Germans?
Most likely, yes. England is still favored to win the group (check the updated stats on the right side of the page), so we'd likely face the winner of Group D if we advance, and if that's someone other than Germany, we'll all be shocked. (Also note that we are basically in a dead heat with Slovenia in terms of advancement probability. What does that mean? We need that win on Friday.)

What if we don't make it?
Then we spend the next four years hearing about how we suck in the World Cup because we don't care enough. The US has a couple of recent Cups where we fared pretty well and several where we pooped the bed. A top-16 side needs to advance to the knockout stage; nothing less should be acceptable.

So let's not talk about it. Beat Slovenia, move back into a tie for first, and put the tiebreakers to bed.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Quick thoughts from 0-4* World Cup debacle

*Yes, I know we drew 1-1, but watch the match again (if you dare) and tell me that 0-4 isn't a more likely result.

-- aaaaa cross cross cross the ball aaaaa cross the ball aaaaaa STOP ATTACKING IN ONE-SIXTH TO ONE-THIRD OF THE WIDTH OF THE PITCH! They let you use the WHOLE FIELD for a reason. Watch the English do it. Again. And again. And again.
-- A side known for counter-attacking should, perhaps, not be holding up the ball to allow an attack to build. ESPECIALLY NOT WHEN ALL THE ATTACKERS ARE NICELY CLUSTERED IN ONE AREA.
-- If you are on the back line or are a defensive midfielder, Tim Howard says to you "$(&*(& #(*&*& @!_ _@() &#) )# *#()$ )*)@#!" At least that's as close as I can get to transcribing it accurately. That man was incredible today.
-- I can't blame Dempsey for lobbing a halfhearted shot on net (the one that trickled in for the draw). He probably got tired of waiting for midfield support that never arrived.
-- Adding to the tactical errors, Bradley waited until beyond the last minute to make changes (as usual). No idea why Buddle came on instead of Gomez. After all, it was 1-1, and the US did have a couple of opportunities (although one or two were ruined when they refused to pass to the open Holden on the wing, you know the sub with fresh legs who could make a run). Gomez is more the instant offense type, isn't he?
-- I do understand the point of the "third" substitution (Gomez), basically, to stall at the end and ensure there would be no last-second goal, but it just adds to the oddity of Bradley's substitution patterns. In a match where at least five guys were playing so poorly, was there not one other guy you could put on the field? (Sadly, on the back line, no. What you see is about all you get, and this is the problem with having a guy like Bornstein on the roster: when someone else is struggling or has picked up an early card, you have no one to replace him.)

The US had one or two legitimate chances and missed them both (did anyone else think perhaps Altidore should have let the ball pass through to the open Dempsey, who would certainly have slotted it home?); if it weren't for an unbelievable break, this would have been an opening loss, one that could easily have kept the US out of the knockout round. That still may happen, too. I doubt 3 points will get you forward, and even 4 may be too few.

Of course, the US have no excuse to come away with fewer than 7. It is time to put up some numbers, to put home some goals, and to stop making Tim Howard cover everyone in the box. Algeria and Slovenia must be beaten, and the US side must pick up some momentum. Squeaking by the group stage and getting hammered in the knockout round will be a big step back from the side that were 45 minutes from winning the Confederations Cup.

P.S. England has still never beaten the US in World Cup play. Lolz!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The long and winding road, part 3

In which your humble author returns to a familiar road. Catch up if necessary with parts one and two.

Day 5, no driving


Sunday, the day in the past that marked our collective return to our homes (before we realized that spending most of the weekend on the road was no fun), the day that now represents the relaxing wrap-up after the locals have gone home. We clean up, put most things back in order, eat more food, watch the races, eat more food, and then eat.

No, really. One of the "problems" in the past was that apparently there were too many leftovers after the guests departed, so now we "have" to eat more food before we leave. (Of course, when they prepare extra food on Sunday, that makes our jobs more difficult. This time it was some kind of Thai dish. Very tasty.)

Now, you might think that there would be few things I'd enjoy more than watching a four-hour race, but you would be wrong for two reasons. One is that I really don't enjoy racing that much. I don't know why, it's just not my thing.

(warning: peeve alert.) The other is that for some reason, most networks (ABC in particular) seem to think that you only really want to watch about 30% of the race, so they show you a few laps, shrink the screen and mute the race to show you a commercial, go to a full-screen commercial, and then cut back to live action after they missed a crash or a key pass or something. They then repeat this process about 50 times.

Imagine watching a football game this way. How many times would you bother? Once or twice, maybe, and that would be it. Better yet, imagine watching soccer that way. (If you're old enough, you don't have to imagine. ESPN used to do that for World Cup matches until irate fans pointed out to them that you don't do it that way. This was back when ESPN thought it knew everything about sports. What's that? Oh, never mind.) It doesn't help that Tony George pretty much killed open-wheel racing several years ago, so the sport itself (even the race) doesn't have the allure it has 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.

So we sat through most of the race, then I drove my friend and his wife to the airport to drop her off (they had separate flights because, well, it's a long story and not mine to tell). We got back in time for the next race (second verse, same as the first) and resumed our places. (Mine was in front of my laptop, naturally. With the internet confusion cleared up, I was alternating between my baseball sim and various Facebook things, mostly Castle Age. Are you in my army yet?)

As the evening wore on, we switched from unexciting NASCAR to the wonders of DVR, watching the cult classic Superbad. (Yes, I know it's hardly old enough to earn "cult classic" status, but it's really the only type of praise it deserves. It's dumb but funny.) As an added bonus, we tried to match people at the party to characters in the movie. Well, okay, maybe just to Seth and Evan. But it worked.

"Seth" was easy to match, in part because he, too, was stumbling drunk. (In the old days, we basically had a race to drunk to see who won, and usually nobody did. Now, some don't drink at all, and most others don't get too drunk. The exceptions are usually locals who don't know any better. We may not drink heavily, but we can make sure you do.) He was also clumsily blunt with many, many thoughts ... it was rather entertaining to listen to him throw out compliments that weren't even left-handed.

The catch to that part of the story was that he had a 5:55 AM flight on Monday. There were several jokes about who would get him to the airport in time to catch his flight (surprisingly, while a taxi was mentioned frequently, it did not win) and even a couple of thoughts that perhaps he wouldn't even make it onto the flight. ("Seth" is a tall, heavy guy. He's also not necessarily the kind of guy who would be a low-key drunk at an airport. We wouldn't have been surprised if security had told him to take a seat for 4-6 hours.) Apparently, he made it ... my only concern was making it clear I wasn't going to be taking him. I had enough driving to do the next day, thank you very much.

Back to the hotel for the final night ...

Day 6: Richmond to Indy, about 615 miles


I get up, pack up my things, head out to the car (did I mention how much I love express checkout? there is nothing like avoiding the clueless people at the front desk; usually I mean the people checking out, but not always), and back to the house. I normally go home from the hotel, but this time I decided to max out time with my friends.

Everything was in order when I arrived. "Seth" had been successfully delivered to the airport, presumably made his flight, and we could focus on, well, not much of anything. TCM was showing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, a classic Spaghetti Western, so I stayed to watch that, and then after lunch (glad I stayed to eat some tasty grilled hot dogs rather than eating on the road), the rest of us travelers packed our cars and headed our separate ways (some to North Carolina, some to the western side of Virginia, and me to old familiar I-64).

The interstate was just as I remembered it, and I settled in for the drive I'd done a few times in the past ... although this time, the stop-every-hour trick made it much more bearable. My GPS didn't catch on to the US-35 trick because, well, the DVD is old and doesn't know about the construction in West Virginia, but it figured things out soon enough.

Unfortunately, I didn't get quite the weather I wanted. There was a bit of rain as I was traveling west, so I had to turn on the defroster at times, and that knocked quite a bit off my mileage. (I got 55.7 mpg on the Altoona-to-Boston leg and 55.0 on the Boston-to-Richmond leg. Yep. Take that, BP.) Fortunately, a semi led me through the two-lane section in WV, and once we were on the divided-highway part that goes through southeast Ohio, everything was fine.

I got home pretty late – very late, in fact, about 3 AM, mostly because of my unwillingness to leave – but it wasn't a big deal. After all, the cats were well-fed, the house was still without AC, and I didn't have to get up for work the next day.

Even as a consultant, I knew to take the next day off. Sure, I can drive 2500 miles in six days, but I need some time to catch up afterward. A man's got to know his limitations.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Expansion? Soon, my friends ...

If you've been following any of the talk about possible conference expansion (mostly as it applies to football, but of course it would affect all sports), then you know that something's going to happen for sure, but no one really knows what it is yet. ESPN has some posts about what may be coming:

The Big 12 commissioner says that no one's going to leave.
Nice try, my man, but no one believes that. You've let Texas dictate the direction of the conference for years, and now that the non-Texas schools are tired of it, you want to pretend none of this is happening. Have fun sticking your head in the sand. (The irony is that not even Texas is doing well enough compared to, say, Big Ten schools, which is why they may bolt as well.)

So just to make sure, the Big 12 told Nebraska and Missouri that they have to decide whether or not they're staying, or else. Of course I haven't read what exactly the "or else" part of it is, probably because there isn't any. Both schools probably said "yeah, whatever" and continued to plan their future as part of the Big 16.

But why stop at two? The Pac-10 looked at the Big 12 and said "om nom nom". As many as six schools might be welcomed ... initially Colorado was a sure bet, but the Pac-10 might invite a few Texas schools and both Oklahoma schools as well. The only thing that sounds fishy about this is that the Pac-10, like the Big 10, has a sound academic reputation, and a few schools on that wish list do not. Surely they could do better than the whole group?

(side note: is the ESPN "city" thing dumb or what? It would be decent if they simply gave you a way to see all the sports about a certain city in one spot, but instead I guess they're trying to show how they can cover each "important" city one at a time. Whatever. It's just the same coverage they've always had, but rebranded to look better than it really is. ESPN = MSM.)

Next, the Big Ten said hey, if you're trying to force Nebraska and Missouri to leave, we can deal with that. They may be more than happy to move up the expansion timeline if the Big 12 commissioner is in such a hurry to dismantle his conference. (Remember that the Big 10 votes yes or no on applications for admission. Yes, they typically contact the conference first and then the school to make sure there's no embarrassment, but it isn't as simple as saying "We'll take those two schools over there.") Presumably that would speed up the process of including the other schools as well (to fill out to 14 or 16).

So, if you've been keeping track of the Big 12 schools that have been rumored to join another conference, then you know there are basically four left: Baylor (may or may not be invited to the Pac-10, depending on what the Texas legislature wants and can influence), Iowa State (who would love to go anywhere and likely won't be asked at all), Kansas, and Kansas State. The Kansas chancellor is aware of this too, and even though she was too busy to attend the recent Big 12 meetings (she was in Europe because ... because ... I don't know), she didn't hesitate to beg Nebraska and Missouri not to go. Please don't leave us here, it's hot and dry and nobody will dance with us. Hey, I hear the Mountain West is expanding, though. Maybe you can back into that conference.

Or maybe they're not. They're not going to invite Boise State to join yet because ... again, I don't know. Because if they wait long enough, all the big conferences can make decisions and then they can pick up the pieces? Hell, what if the Pac-10 invites Boise State? Look, if you're a second-tier school and a second-tier conference, then you make it work, you don't wait for something better to come along, because in this landscape, that "better" thing is going to kick over your bike and steal your girl.

So really, all we know is that the Big 12 is really scared (with good reason), the Pac-10 and Big 10 are getting ready to eat, and the Big East is out of the spotlight, at least until the Big 13 needs to pick up a few more schools. Let's get this over with, I can't wait for a season of lame-duck football as Big 12 announcers try to explain how much "history" is being lost ...

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The continuing story of Madden and terrible programming

So, after a season where a) Seattle punted from my 20 &ndash yes, my 20, and yes, it was a touchback – and b) on a field-goal attempt in a later game, an opponent's linemen stood like a fool two yards from the kick, looking at the kicker, and somehow managed to catch the kick in one hand (yes, I tackled him easily, but that's the dumbest "blocked" kick I've ever seen), the Lions went 9-7 and made the playoffs.

In the first round against Atlanta, this happened in the first half:

1. Jerious Norwood catches a pass on 3rd and 7 or so, heading toward the sidelines. He steps on the sideline at the 27, a yard short of the first down, and is tackled at the 45, in part because I can't believe the play is still going. Yes, I'd play to the whistle except I turn the volume down because I can't stand any of the commentary or stadium noise. So naturally I challenge the play, because it's obvious. Of course during the review, you can see he clearly steps out of bounds. Ruling: play stands. I lose a timeout and they end up scoring a touchdown on the drive.)

2. On the ensuing drive, we get to the 16 with 0:27 on the clock and no timeouts. I hit Bryant Johnson in the end zone for a touchdown, probably 4 yards deep. His entire body and the ball are clearly in the end zone. There is no question about this at all. As we line up for the PAT, they stop us. Booth review.

So I figure they're looking at the catch, but no, he's clearly got the ball and it never touches the ground. Of course, without the sound, I can't tell what they're actually challenging, which turns out to be the spot of the ball. (Cue WTF sound effect.) Aaaaaaaand ... play reversed. The ball is down at the 1, first and goal. With the clock running. And no timeouts. Fortunately, I have time to call a play and run it, and we score, but seriously, that almost broke my bullshit meter. I would almost have considered restarting the game after that, but the replay probably would have been worse.

Good thing we have "Pro-Tak" tackling. What the Madden series really needed was more people jumping on a tackle. God forbid they actually fix the obvious bugs. Next year will be more of the same: flash and glitter, a couple of possibly useful features, hopefully a fixed online franchise mode, and a pile of bugs that have been in the game for years.

Nice work if you can get it. (The irony, of course, is that it's not nice at all. Not only do most people not appreciate what the devs have to do, EA is notorious for overworking its people even moreso than the average development company.)

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The long and winding road, part 2

When last we left our hero, he was venturing across the land, braving holiday traffic and ancient subway systems to visit friends and relatives. Our story continues ...

Day 3: Boston to Richmond, about 650 miles


This was the big one. (Check the map again. This is the long squiggle on the east side of the "triangle" representing this voyage.) I knew there could be a number of complications, not the least of which was holiday traffic on roads with which I'm not familiar (I've been to Richmond, just not from the northeast), and the lack of cold drinks and protein bars in the car could be a problem, but there was nothing to do but stick it out.

I kept to the same pattern, stopping about every hour, except for the first two hours. Connecticut has lots of exits but no rest areas along I-84 (I prefer rest areas for quick stops because they're right off the highway and don't have additional customers like fast food places and gas stations do), so a couple of hours in, I noticed my attention was wandering a bit. (In fact, that was the worst it turned out to be on the whole trip.) A stop in New York took care of the attention problem, and I patiently retraced my steps to I-81, then headed away from the old route and toward new territory (and new states: I'd never been to Maryland before).

In the past, taking I-64 was nice, except for two stretches: the West Virginia Turnpike, where I-77 meets it, and the stretch in Virginia where I-81 (yep, the one I'm on) meets it. In both cases, traffic picked up as the interstates merged and dropped off abruptly as soon as they parted. Of course, this time I'd be on the busy part, or so I thought.

My GPS had other ideas. After six or seven hours of begging me to take the coastal route, it finally conceded that perhaps I had the right idea. However, as I crossed into Virginia, it suggested that maybe I shouldn't head back to I-64 (going southwest), but instead should try US-17 to I-95 to Richmond.

I thought about it for a while. Points in favor of US-17: it was more direct and was probably still a major highway, and if there was still traffic, I'd be closer to Richmond. Points in favor of I-64: it's an interstate, so there wouldn't be any stoplights, and it might not be that much longer. I took the US highway. Sure enough, there were a couple of stoplights that really slowed me down (probably added 15 minutes to the trip), but overall it wasn't bad, and once I was on I-95, everything was fine.

Finally hit the hotel at 8:15 or so, about 13 hours after I left. (I stay at the same one every time, the Holiday Inn Express on Mayland. It's just off I-64, so very convenient there, but about a 40-minute drive to my friends' house. There really isn't much that's closer.) Hooked up the laptop, updated my status and gave an approximate arrival time, cleaned up, and headed out. (I left the laptop: didn't feel like tearing it down three times today.)

Made it out to the house at a decent hour. Managed to avoid being parked in – their driveway is fairly long and has spots to the side for additional parking, because people tend to come and go at these things. On Friday, I'm typically one of the view who does leave, so I need to be at the back if possible.

Usually we pitch in around the house, inside and out, partly to thank the couple for hosting every year and partly because we like to help. This time, though, all the hard labor was done. (Oh darn.) All I could do was sit and eat, and eat I did. Friday, it was "just" meatballs, white chicken chili (I think), and some kind of coconut-mango cake that was pretty good. Caught up with the regulars who made it, hung out for a while, and headed back to the hotel around 1 or so.

As a side note, have you ever noticed how short the "king-sized" beds in hotel rooms seem to be? I'm not at all a tall person (5'8½", the last time someone measured me: I took the extra half-inch and kept it), and yet I've never found a bed in which I could comfortably sleep longways. Maybe it's because they use suction to make the beds, I don't know, but I always feel like I have to sleep at an angle to be under the covers. (There's a joke here about being single, I'll let you make it.)

Day 4, no driving


Well, by "no" I mean "to the hotel and back", but frankly, when you've crossed 11 state lines in 3 days, a little 40-minute drive doesn't even count.

Slept in until 10 or so, hit Castle Age, and then back to the house for the real party. (In the old days – aside from the fact I wouldn't have been driving because I stayed at the house – this would have meant hitting the keg. Now it means parking my butt in a chair in the air conditioning and staying away from drunk people.) Hanging out, playing Out of the Park Baseball because the internet connection isn't working (well, it was, but the secondary router wasn't, and I didn't feel like interrupting the hosts to get the key to the primary router), drinking this excellent licorice-mint tea, and waiting for the food to finish.

The hosts are very, very, very good cooks (did I mention that already?), as are some of the guests, so we always eat very well, and this time we had a challenge: clear out space in the chest freezer so they could fit the half cow they'd ordered. (Yeah, a half. Not a quarter.) Hmm, sausage: Greek sausage was very good, and I think there were kielbasa as well. (They make their own sausage, and no, you don't want to know how it's made.) French fries. A deep-fried turkey injected with some kind of habanero sauce. (They also like things spicy and grow many different kinds of peppers. Strong peppers. Like the kind that you have to wear gloves to handle, and even if you do, getting some oil on your skin may mean a trip to the basement to find laundry detergent. Don't know what I mean? Imagine the burn you felt on your tongue the last time you ate something really, really spicy. Now imagine that on your hands.) Pulled pork. Curry. Some more veggie stuff I didn't eat. Hamburgers. Hot dogs. Deep-fried brisket. (I know, it sounds weird, but it was good too.) Cake. Cookies. Brownies. S'mores by the bonfire.


The fire. That's my job. (I'm not saying I'm a pyromaniac. They are. I don't actually stand in the fire, you know, just close to it.) They have a nice fire circle behind the house, and when the weather is right (as opposed to when it's so dry you can't have a fire), we build a big fire. Big. Not this time, because we didn't have the attention for it, and the NHL was unkind enough to put on a game right around dusk, but it was enough to burn some fun things and make lots of marshmallows. (The swirled marshmallows are interesting, if you've not tried them before.) The other pyro and I made a little assembly line: we'd load up marshmallow sticks for the kids, they'd cook them and come back to us, we'd set up little plates, put the marshmallows on the plates with whatever they wanted (S'mores or plain), and load up the next sticks for the next kids. (About seven kids in all. We can handle it. We're former food service professionals.) At least half of the S'mores were actually eaten and not dropped on the ground, so that was a success.

Back inside to watch Game 1 of the Finals ... there was one drunk Flyers fan there (yes, I know it's redundant, but who's telling this story anyway?) who thought it was a "low-scoring" game. Look, we just saw a lacrosse game (NCAA semifinals) end 12-8. That's low-scoring. 3-2 after 1 is not a low-scoring hockey game. Anyway, the Blackhawks win, the remaining outsiders clear out, the regulars filter inside, and we have our ritual viewing of EuroTrip. (Scotty doesn't know.)

We move cars around just right so that the drunk people can stay and I can leave (this is harder than you think when you only have a gravel driveway and some vague spots to one side that may or may not be big enough for a car). I head back to the hotel for a good night's rest, looking forward to another day of vacation before I have to leave.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The long and winding road

So. Last week was Memorial Day, which means the first of my two semi-annual trips to Virginia to visit friends from college and beyond. (Some of us have been friends for almost 25 years. Ponder that.) However, it was also Harvard's commencement ceremonies, and because my brother was graduating on the Dean's List, I thought perhaps I should go and see him.

Unfortunately, it took me a while to figure out that these two events were not in separate months or even weeks, but rather in the same week. Inconvenient with respect to flying, to say the least. I dislike the TSA immensely and will do just about anything to avoid them, so I'm not inclined to fly if there are other means of travel. (I enjoy flying itself, just not what they've done to it.) And a three-legged trip is harder to pull off than a two-legged trip, especially if a) the first leg is really important and b) it's in an expensive city. So I could try to arrive a day early and pay for two days in a hotel, or I could try to arrive on time and risk the airlines completely screwing me over. Right.

So it was by car instead. No, it wasn't all at once. Don't be silly.

Now, I'd never been to Boston as an adult, so I needed Google to help me find the first two legs of the trip ... Richmond to Fishers I knew all too well. (Actually, Google came up with a shortcut for that one. US-35 is pretty good except for the remaining two-lane stretch in WV that they are slowly improving. It beats hell out of the AA in Kentucky, the road that ate my car.)

Google said sure, want to drive it all at once? How about I-70 to I-71 to I-80, then I-81, I-84, and I-90? There was no place halfway between here and Boston on I-80 to stay. So I said no, let's take I-70 instead. I guess Altoona will do.

For the Boston-to-Richmond leg, of course it pointed out that I-95 runs, well, from Boston to Richmond. I pointed out that it would be Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and if it thought I was driving to the coast from Boston and then through New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, it was nuts. I just grabbed all of that route and dragged it back inland, retracing my steps to Wilkes-Barre and then heading south on I-81 to I-64. (My GPS later convinced me to take I-81 to Winchester and then head over on US-17 to I-95.)

Day 1: Fishers to Altoona, about 450 miles


Very uneventful. I left around 11, I think, realizing there was no hurry. I had 8-9 hours ahead of me and didn't need to arrive early in the evening. I actually forgot I wasn't passing through Pittsburgh; if I had, it probably would have been right around rush hour. I stopped about once an hour at rest areas to keep my alertness up, and I made my way through some of the food and juice I brought, picking up soft drinks on the way. By the way, there was one rest area in Ohio (boo) along I-70 that had a novel idea: restrooms and vending machines in a single, air-conditioned building. Yes, you may be thinking that this is common sense, but look next time you drive. How many times do you see the vending machines in a completely separate area? How many rest areas are still the old kind with open doors?

I got to the hotel and was pleasantly surprised to find a refrigerator with two free bottles of water and snacks (granola bar and popcorn). Bottled water on a trip? Outstanding!

Logged on (wired connection, no big deal though), posted an update, ran through Castle Age stuff, showered, went to bed. (Travel tip: shower in the evening when you have more time and have hours of road on you. Not recommended for those traveling with a significant other with a sensitive nose.)

Day 2: Altoona to Boston, about 470 miles


All new territory to me. Got up at 6, cleaned up, packed, hit the road by 7. (My brother's graduation would be over, but I wanted to hit the get-together as early as possible.) Again, traffic wasn't bad, although there was a lot of semi-construction in Pennsylvania. You know, the kind where they have signs and stuff up but aren't doing anything? Got through the toll booths just fine (although I nearly picked up an EZ-Pass at an oasis on the Massachusetts Turnpike, I think).

Traffic wasn't bad until I cleared the toll booths leaving I-90 for I-95 ... apparently everyone is going south today, which means everyone is getting into one lane to head south on I-95. Immediately after a toll plaza. With traffic merging from both directions from I-90. not fun. All that for about a 500-yard drive on I-95 to the first exit. A zig, a zag, and I was at my hotel.

Good news: it's walking distance from Riverside Station. (Literally next door.) That is why I picked it: no sane person drives in Boston. Also ... yeah, nothing else.

Bad news: the hotel sucks. "Parking" is simply a semi-covered lot in the back of the hotel with narrow lanes for exiting and entering. It was designed poorly, that's for sure. $7 a night, too. Again, sucks. The desk chair couldn't be raised, there was no refrigerator (which meant no cold juice on the drive to Richmond), the shower (no bathtub) had a fancy glass door without a good seal, which meant water got on the floor easily, and the AC was crap. I turned it down to 68 and by morning, the room was at 74. woo. It was tolerable, though, considering I needed it for about one waking hour and six sleeping ones.

Unpacked, updated status, changed clothes (expecting a cool night, I was wearing jeans and a hat), and headed to the station. There were three machines that allegedly allowed you to purchase Charlie Cards or Tickets for the T. I say "allegedly" because one of the T people was there to show people how to use them, but with very little success, and I don't mean because he couldn't explain it or because the people couldn't follow directions. I eventually made my way to the front, slipped up to a machine while the T man was helping someone else, put $10 (5 rides – always buy more than you need) on a ticket, and headed up to the platform. (Bonus: Riverside is the end of the Green D line, so I couldn't get on the wrong way. lol.)

The T, by the way, is the oldest subway system in the US, and you'll know this as soon as you ride it. It's still getting me around without using my car, so I was happy enough. Got off at Park Street to transfer to the Red Line, eventually found my platform, and waited for the next train.

As I waited, two separate people stopped to ask me questions about the T. One wanted to know at which end of station X the escalator was (some stations apparently only have an escalator at one end), and the other wanted to know if the train was heading to Cambridge. I couldn't answer either question, and in fact, someone else had to answer the second one while I was puzzling it over. I mean, I've ridden the T once in my life, and that was to get to this station. I'm wearing a Portland State Vikings hat and a Michigan Hockey T-shirt. What gives the impression that I know what I'm doing? (Neither, obviously. I simply wasn't sending the leave-me-alone vibe that most veteran train riders seem to have.)

I get on the train, get off at Porter Square, and head for the exits. I get past the initial crowd and head up the stairs, slowly at first, then two at a time. Woo! It's a workout! I'm passing people consistently as I go up flight after flight of stairs, until finally I triumphantly reach the top and turn to my left ... to see another flight of stairs. Oops.

I walk toward my brother's apartment, and I discover another reason not to drive in Boston. There are no street signs. (Almost none, anyway.) Either you know where you're going or you don't need to get there. I remember the car wash that's opposite his street, climb the hill to his building (of course there's a hill), buzz the door, and wait for his dad to come down to open the door. I can tell it's him because of his walk. (He's my ex-stepdad, my mom's second husband, so I know him well.) Of course he's not used to apartment living, so he doesn't realize he can buzz me in, which is why I have to wait for him, and why I'm surprised he comes down the stairs.

Up we go to the third floor (naturally, more stairs), where I meet my mom (sigh), my uncle, my graduating brother and his fianceé, another brother, my not-sister, my brother's uncle, and my ex-stepdad's wife. (Not-sister because my graduating brother is actually a half-brother, the not-sister is his half-sister, and we share no parents.)

We hang out, eat chips and guacamole and BBQ and cornbread and cake and pie, discuss Tolkien and Galileo thermometers and suddenly cool weather (thankfully, the heat wave broke once I got to the apartment) and why my mom is still crazy.

My brother finally calls it a night around 9:30, which is great because it means I get back to the hotel at a somewhat decent hour. My mom and my uncle drove, so they head to their car, and the rest of us go back to the T. My California brother leaves first, then I hit my stop and go back to the Green Line the other direction, encountering the same problems with platforms. Once again, we wait for the T.

This time, it's interesting. A train arrives with D Line: Riverside on it, but it's not on the right platform. We all look at each other. Is this right? Shouldn't it be on 6, not 5? We get on anyway, and it turns out to be the right train. (It actually works out because all Green Line trains go through the same few stations in town; they branch out after that, so we could start on the "wrong" platform and still use the right track.) Back to the hotel, sign on, off to sleep in the heat. boo.
There was an error in this gadget