Friday, June 22, 2012

Are the Heat a dynasty?

I'm not in the habit of answering every stupid question that ESPN asks, because that would take all day, and frankly entire sites have been devoted to such things, but they are easier to run if you are, say, professional screenwriters and can afford to spend hours making fun of Joe Morganstupid sports people.

But this one caught my eye, mostly because it was simultaneously beyond the normal level of stupid and yet entirely representative of modern sports "reporting", which consists mostly of high-visibility sites breathlessly exclaiming that what you have just seen is the BEST EVAR and well-written, lower-traffic sites devouring that conclusion and spitting it out in well-fisked paragraphs. (OK, technically the paragraphs would be fisking, and the original article would be fisked.)

Besides, one of your dumber friends is either going to ask you if it's true, or he's going to tell you that it's true. (Given that women have been rudely excluded from many parts of sports, including fandom, over the last century or two, let's assume that as they catch up, they skip over the more obviously idiotic ideas.) So let's consider the question.

hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

OK, really, let's think about it. They're obviously not, but why not? Well, let's define what a dynasty is, and when I say "us" I mean "me". Write about it on your own blog if you disagree, or include it in your podcast or whatever.
  • Championships. It's cool that you make the playoffs 21 seasons in a row (always say "seasons" when referring to the NHL or that damn lockout will trip you up) or make the conference championship 6 straight years (and after what's happened to the Pistons, I can hardly believe this actually happened recently) or make the championship game 4 straight years (which we may never see again), but really, that's trivial stuff, the kind of thing you need to know in bars and nowhere else. We're talking last-team-standing stuff here. 
  • Consecutive titles. Not that it has to be an uninterrupted streak, but you do need to demonstrate that you can put the targets on your back on Opening Day, wear them the entire season, and still hoist the trophy at the end of the season. 
  • Lack of droughts. Sure, lots of great teams caught bad breaks, but we're not talking about just great teams here ... if you use that as motivation to come back and win the next season, that's fine. If you fall on your face again, you make your fans sound like Cowboys fans insisting that their team is just one player away from a Super Bowl run. Yeah, yeah, of course they are. (Hint: you need more than one player, and no, none of them are QBs.)
  • A period of dominance. Two in a row? You earned one and lucked into one. Three in a row? Yeah, that's harder to argue against. Four straight? Unless you're in a six-team league, that should end the discussion right there.
 So, here are the rules:
  1. A dynasty starts and ends with championships. Extending it for losing in the finals doesn't make sense, does it? Because I know you weren't trying to argue that your favorite team's run includes that season where they lost in the conference quarters because blah blah blah and if only and you should have seen them.
  2. A dynasty includes at least two consecutive titles. See above: if you can't defend your title, what kind of dynasty are you? Look, in the old days, dynasties were defined by rulers who fought off all challengers ... literally. The least you can do is be defending champs and actually defend once.
  3. A dynasty does not include two consecutive seasons without a title. You can slip up once, OK, but if that isn't motivation to come back and win the whole darn thing next season, then you're just like everyone else who blew a big chance and then gave up ever asking out any woman quite like ... wait, where was I? 
  4. A dynasty includes at least three titles. Consecutive or not, doesn't matter (as long as you obey the rules above), but you've got to win enough that people actually dislike talking about your chances to win again. You need to create an anti-bandwagon, teams that root against you just to see you lose. 
That's it. Too many rules and then it becomes some kind of drinking game, except it's kind of hard to play a drinking game when it takes a full season to resolve a turn. (But if you're simming seasons at home ...)

Got it? OK, let's look at some examples.

Dynasties

  • Men's basketball: UCLA, 1964-75. Ten titles, twelve seasons, seven in a row, only missed out twice. (Clem Haskins and Texas Western, 1966 – you know that one – and Norm Sloan's 1974 NC State squad.) Quality of the dynasty is for another article entirely; here, I'm just listing ones that qualify.
  • Women's soccer: North Carolina, 1982-2000. Sixteen titles, nineteen seasons, nine in a row, and they actually missed the championship game twice. (Note that Wooden's Bruins also missed the title game both seasons above.) Again, not rating them, just pointing out that this is the kind of thing we're talking about. If you played UNC in women's soccer back then, you knew what you were getting. They still have a strong program today, but, like, sometimes, they don't even win their conference.
  • Baseball: New York Yankees, 1947-53. Six titles, seven seasons, five in a row. (You may have read about the 1948 Cleveland Indians, and you probably thought they were the 1954 Indians. The latter won 111 games; the former won the Series.)
  • Hockey: Edmonton Oilers, 1985-90. Five titles, seven seasons, only two in a row (twice). (Interestingly, the other two Finals involved Montreal and Calgary, with each team winning once.) Doesn't matter that Gretzky was gone in 1990 ... if anything, it enhances the Oilers' reputation. They got rid of the greatest player in hockey and still won a title.

Not dynasties

  • NBA: Miami Heat, 2006-12. Two titles, seven seasons. So? The Pistons won two straight titles after losing a seven-game series to an actual dynasty, and we know Detroit wasn't a dynasty, right? Those two Heat teams are barely even related. Get back on the court, LeBron, take your talents to the Finals a couple more times, bring back the trophy again, and then we can talk. Until then, go sit over there with Isiah and Hakeem.
  • Baseball: New York Yankees, any period from 1954 to the current day except 1996-2000. This is why Yankees fans enjoy shouting the number of titles they've won at you: it galls them that they can't win a World Series every year, and frankly, most of them can't imagine reliving 1963-76 or 1979-95, during which they won NONE. HA HA.
  • Men's basketball: Duke, any time period. It's great that Coach K has won four titles. It took him 20 seasons. I know the game is different, but you know what? That's how the game works. Not a dynasty. Too bad.
  • NFL: Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns, 1950-57. Yes, these two teams dominated the league, winning six of eight titles and taking 11 of 16 spots in the finals (the Rams made it three times, going 1-2 against Cleveland, and the Giants and Bears played in '56). Both teams won consecutive titles, but neither could wedge a third close enough to the other two to establish dominance.
  • NBA: Boston Celtics, Bird era. Yeah, they were always a contender, but they "only" won three titles, and never won back-to-back titles. (To this day, Bird probably obsesses over things like this in his spare time.)
Yeah, these rules draw some interesting lines, or exclude some teams you would include otherwise. Michael's Bulls? Two separate dynasties, 1991-93 and 1996-98. But in retrospect, that makes sense, right? He was gone in 1994 and only played part of 1995 ... the Bulls didn't scare anyone those years the way they did in the years around them. Bradshaw's Steelers? Back-to-back Super Bowls twice, but there were two seasons in between those, and they didn't even win the AFC either year. It's quite an accomplishment, but sorry, not a dynasty. 24 months with no title means 24 months of people worrying about other teams more than yours.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

So yeah, about this blogging thing ...

see, here's the deal. I tend to post about a) sports, b) video games, and c) other little things that come up. Not mentioned above is d) my personal life, just because, well, I'm not that kind of person. You may have noticed this about me. (It was worse in the past, if you can believe it. At least now I'm more likely to answer questions ... back in the day, I'd probably have dodged those too.)

Once the NFL season was over and I finished my recap, a) pretty much took a break, except maybe for the NCAA tournament. The thing is that I can also just post on Facebook, which is easier, and so a lot of the little things just go there. (Plus I suspect more people read my posts on Facebook, even if not many read them closely. It's certainly not a format that encourages long, in-depth commentary, which I do like to bring.) That pretty much covers c). b) has been much of the same-old same-old, except for the bit of time when I was playing Diablo III a lot, and when I was trying to get as much as I could out of Dead Island before it made me too mad to play any more. (Multiplayer is interesting, at least.)

So ... I really haven't posted at all for a few months. Not because anything was wrong: on the contrary, they've been three of the more impressive months of my life, not so much with respect to big changes, but as a fulcrum for big changes.

Four years ago, an ongoing battle with my boss' boss left me without a job. In the long run, it was definitely a good thing - just like in Highlander, there can be only one, and you normally don't have to get too deep into office politics to figure out which of you it will be - but at the time, it was CHANGE. (I'd worked there 15 years.) They were good to me to the end and gave me a nice cushion, which helped get me to my second job.

Three years ago, my second job ended abruptly. (Thank you, recession.) I suppose I'm partly to blame for not demonstrating to the right people what I brought to the table, but then again, a number of coworkers did realize it (and were not happy about the company eliminating my position), so maybe this was just another variation on Company 1. If the wrong people decide you're not necessary, you may never win that battle. Anyway, they were also good to me, but the economy had changed, and so I went into contracting in lieu of permanent work.

Last year, work was kind of light ... but while I was in the middle of a one-month contract, my good recruiter called me up to let me know she had a possible full-time position for me. It was at a company not too far from where I live, maybe 20 minutes away, less than half the time it took to get to the contract company. We talked about the position and decided to come in at a figure that was the salaried equivalent of the hourly contracts I had with them. The person I was interviewing with was actually someone I'd worked with before. It was, in short, a great opportunity.

During that process, the company with which I was contracting let me know that they had a contract opportunity themselves at another company (weird, I know – just think of two middlemen instead of one), a long-term deal, six months or so. I said yeah, I'd be interested, but here's the thing: I'm interviewing for a full-time position, and if they make an offer, I'm going to accept. (They were, in fact, comfortable with the number we gave them.) The contract company seemed a bit surprised – I don't think they'd had someone say that to them before. In my mind, it was only fair. As a contractor, I'd rather take less money and have a better business relationship, so this was no different. They asked if there was anything they could do to match, but the thing was, it was a contract position vs. a full-time position, and the contract position was roughly in the same place, about 45 minutes away. You can't really offer time to someone.

So they said they wanted to put me up for it anyway, and we'd see what happened. I said OK. It turned out that the end client liked me, but for some reason, they wanted to know by the end of the week ... even though the contract was to start March 1, they needed to know the last full week in February. Of course the full-time company hadn't decided yet, so I had to turn down the contract position, and you know what happens next ... the full-time company hires the other person. (Apparently he had experience with a type of certification specific to that industry, something that I didn't have and couldn't have obtained, and thus nothing I had any control over.)

That was pretty much the low point of my contracting career. I'd lost out on a couple of other nice opportunities, but missing both of these was a pretty big blow, and with nothing lined up when the one-month contract ended, I was beginning to envy the cats for making a $35 bag of food (I buy the large bags) last a couple of months.

BUT. In March, the contract company gets in touch with the recruiter that placed me there and says hey, the end client couldn't find anyone, are you still interested? (This isn't really a surprise. There are few experienced programmers in this area with the skills I have, and few companies that use the tools I know, so it doesn't take long to get through the "list" for either group.) I say yes. So I start in early April as a contractor. The rate is lower than my normal contract rate, but hey, it's a long-term deal, and I wasn't really in a position to bargain. (My recruiter – not the good one, but pretty good themselves – did give me a significant raise above my rate for the one-month contract.)

I settle in to a routine, a welcome change from the last two years. Instead of short weeks and constant sales pitches (hate hate hate), it was 40-hour weeks and low pressure. I would say "casual", but that gives the wrong impression. Basically, my boss cared that we met our deadlines and communicated well. He was not the type to do a head count at 8 AM and 5 PM (you know the type). So I'd come in, knock out some code, and go home.

At the same time, I became aware that I needed a long-term financial plan, especially if short-term work would become the norm again. So I worked up an Excel worksheet with rows for expenses and columns for paychecks (kinda; I got paid weekly, but I divided the expenses into first-half and second-half of each month, probably from Company 2 where we were paid semi-monthly), and plotted out, as best I could, what was coming, what I was making (at least through September), and what I could afford to pay off. Apparently they call this thing a "budge-it". I made this budge-it fairly aggressive, cutting back a lot in some areas (bye-bye satellite) but being a little lenient in others (entertainment). Still, there were limits, because of the money I was making and the debt I had, so the initial plan was to basically tread water and take slow steps toward recovery.

Basically, what prompted the budge-it was that a few months back, I didn't get an e-bill from one of my credit card companies, and then I didn't notice that I didn't get one. They sent me a notice that I had a late payment, so I went online and paid it through my bank (because when money is tight, you do not give a creditor your checking information), but they punished me anyway: slashed my credit line and jacked up my interest rate. (And, I believe, that change prompted another issuer to slash my credit line, to which I said, FUCK YOU.) Thus the budge-it not only matched spending to income, but also tracked expenses so I'd know if this happened again. 

It didn't take long to make a name for myself at Company 4. The project began to expand, and soon it went from 6 months to 6-9 months to 6-12 months. People began to reassure me that there would be work for me there even after this project ended, although it was just planning and not fact at that point (the fiscal year hadn't rolled over, so budgets weren't set yet). So now I could extend my plan a little bit, if only in pencil (kids, that's what we used in the old days to write when we weren't sure if we'd have to make changes ... uh, write, like on paper ... uh ... never mind), at least until July.

So the fiscal year rolled over, and the budgets were set, and yes, they were planning to keep me around, well, indefinitely. You might say that keeping a contractor around indefinitely is penny-wise and pound-foolish, and I would say absolutely, but hey, don't let them know, OK? (It's usually a political thing. Hiring someone means an increase in specific costs on a department's budget. Hiring a contractor means an increase in cost on a project that doesn't belong to any one department.) And so I added categories to my budge-it as I remembered them, but stayed in water-treading mode. Eventually I'd put in enough hours that the recruiting company could offer me health insurance ... still no paid vacations, though.

And then the company that placed me there said hey, want to be a full-time employee? Now the catch was that the tools they use are not the tools I know, so there'd have to be a transition plan, but we'd work that out once my placement ended. (Surprisingly, the recruiter did not discuss salary with them. What? Dudes, that's what your job is. I tell you my range, you work it out with them.) So I decide to do it. My initial salary is roughly the same, but at least now I have vacation time. (And an HSA, which means money set aside for expenses, very nice. And portable. And it doesn't expire.)

But it was kind of weird. Not as weird as working through two companies for a third, but still weird, because I worked for Company 3, but I was always on site at Company 4. (There are benefits to this arrangement: I got to take advantage of birthday cake and such at both places.) And, of course, the longer I stayed at Company 4, the longer it would be before I would transition to Company 3 tools. I was reading up on my own, but that's not the same as practical uses for the tools.

At this point, Company 4 had dropped some hints that they'd be interested in hiring me, but there was no chance that would happen. (See political footnote above.) Still, the contract was going to be extended every chance they got, which was nice, but also raised the question above: can I really keep up on two sets of skills when I only use one? And can I do it when neither company is actually paying me to learn? (Company 4 did pay for on-site training, and Company 3 was paying for training materials, but that's not the same as learning on the clock, you know?)

So I'd changed employers once, but I was still a contractor. And then this February, my boss says hey, would you be interested in a full-time position if we can work it out with Company 3?

It turns out that someone was leaving the team, so instead of hiring an additional person, it would be filling an existing position, and there were no problems with that. I said sure. We discussed it in detail. I already knew what the work would be like – exactly what I'd been doing already – but the benefits would be nicer, because it was a bigger company, and I'd be working for the company where I spent my time. (Actually, the benefits are much nicer.)

Of course, you know how these contracts go ... there's a no-steal clause in them. However, if you have enough business experience, you learn that contracts are starting points, not ending points, and quickly, Company 3 said sure, you can talk numbers with him. (Imagine that I'm a defender at Portsmouth, but they don't need someone with my ability right now, so Wigan approaches them for a full-season loan. I play at Wigan that year. At the end of the season, Wigan would like to purchase my contract, so they discuss a transfer with Portsmouth. They work out the fee, and now I talk contract with Wigan.) Details will be hidden to protect the involved parties, but I was able to get a substantial raise ... significantly more than I was making at Company 3, and in fact, more even than I'd made at Companies 1 or 2.

I accepted, we made it official, and I now had a third employer in 12 months, all from doing the same work in the same office with the same people. BUT. Now, instead of treading water, I could do some damage, and unlike the mes of previous years, this me was doing damage to his debt instead of his finances. I redid the budge-it (at this point, it was current year + 1, six months at a time) to account for the increase in income, giving myself a little more to spend but a lot more to pay off, and I went to work. (Also as a bonus, I may get to work from home more often. Each day at home is 50 miles not on the car, which is roughly 1 gallon of gas – that's right, suckers, read that and weep, unless you have a Prius, in which case whatever. It's also 90-110 minutes not in the car.)

So yeah, sometimes it's hard. Soup for lunch is kind of boring. (Sure is cheap, though.) It would be nice to get the AC fixed. (You get accustomed to it. Don't worry, cats deal with hot weather much better than dogs. If I had a dog, I'd have had to get it fixed last year.) (No, really, it's OK. We didn't have AC at my mom's until high school, I think, and even then it wasn't central air, but a window unit. None of the dorms I lived in at Purdue had AC, and neither did my first apartment. It comes back to you in a hurry.)

But hey ... I paid off my car loan one month early, mostly because in addition to all this paying-off stuff, I also built up enough of a reserve that if something weird happens to a check, I'm fine. (It's still kind of weird seeing how much I net each month.) I set a goal to pay off the shitty credit card this year, and that'll happen next month. (I still haven't decided when to close the account. I'll probably wait a bit just in case. I couldn't care less about my credit score – that's just a big scam anyway – but I do want an emergency credit line if I need one.) The other card that cut my credit line will be paid off in December or January. My goal was to pay off $7500 of my debt this year; I should have that done by October. And on top of that, I had enough left over to buy myself a Kinect and a tablet.

The remaining credit cards are a bit bigger, so it'll take me longer to pay them off, but I have one planned to be done in 2014 and the other in 2015. At the same time, I'm putting more toward the principal on my mortgage, hoping to get it low enough to get the PMI removed so I can use that money toward other things. Obviously there'll be big expenses at some point - I've been blessed with good car health, so that'll run out eventually, and of course the AC - but once the main credit cards are dropping, I can handle those easily. If I end up getting raises or promotions, those will just get me to my goals faster. I didn't add those to the budget because this is more like bad-case planning (not worst-case). It's always easier to deal with more money than with less.

So. For the first time in forever, I'm actually cleaning things up. Yeah, sometimes it's tough, keeping track of basically everything, and that's, I think, why my weight hasn't really changed in six months, even though I'm within sight of the most I've ever weighed, ever. There's a limit to the amount of self-control people have. Right now, my weight is less of a danger to me than my finances are. Besides, it's kind of like living in a sauna for three months. JOKE. It's fine, really. I've been a Lions fan for 40 years, a little heat isn't going to bother me much ... although it's interesting how hot my feet get. (This is related to two problems: poor circulation, which normally manifests itself as cold feet/hands in winter, and poor sweat mechanisms. Nice if you're riding a bike - I don't wear gloves because my hands don't sweat - but not so nice in a warm environment.) Anyway, I can't really describe what it's like to be making positive changes in an area where, frankly, I've sucked pretty much my whole life. I've got a long way to go, but compared to where I've been, I think some people might not recognize me. (You should have heard ems when I told her I had a budge-it.)

See? It's much more interesting to wait than for me to post little bits at a time, plus it's not like I'm going to post all of this on Facebook. (That's the advantage of the wall-of-text blogging style. Most people won't get this far down.) And trust: if it was something really interesting, like dating, you'd already know about this. I mean, that's really what Facebook's for, right?
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