March Blah-ness

The NCAA Tournament has started.  For the first time in many, many years, I didn’t even fill out a bracket.  Just could not get into it this year.  Is this the inevitable consequence of your team(s) being irrelevant in March multiple consecutive years?  As my son would say, ‘probably.’

There’s also a lot of other stuff going on – soccer season starting up for the kids, school events one after the other, lots of house and yard work…  So many excuses.  If the Fighting Illini were in – as a projected seed or even a marginal lower tier team, I’d be plotting their upsets and inevitable second weekend appearance, scouring the matchups, figuring out who will advance.  Instead, Illinois fans are treated to the third arrest of a player within about three weeks.  Not good, Coach, not good at all…

So I guess it’s time to root, root, root for the underdog, look for some hardworking teams to upset the blue bloods, and scout for coaches on the upswing.  Games will still be on.  We’ll still watch the second weekend and the Final Four closely.  Maybe next year.

This is Halloween

pumpkinsthis is Halloween…  And not a normal Halloween here in Beemsville, though opinions on ‘normal’ will vary.  In between the end of the soccer season, battling flu-like symptoms across multiple fronts, and our school’s upcoming auction/fundraising event, Halloween creeps in through the shadows.  Still we managed to summon the ghosts to the front yard, and we stepped it up in the Jack-o-Lantern category.  Nephew Jake exhibiting his artistic talents in the carving arena upon request of the kids.

As customary, the kids have three(!) separate costumes to wear at various events:  a friend’s birthday party (see below), the Halloween party at school (yes, we still do that at our school), and Trick-or-Treating (weather permitting).  It’s a different philosophy from my childhood, when Mom spent hours and hours on a costume and you wore it to everything to reward her efforts.

The theme for the grown-ups took a villainous turn this year, in part inspired by recent vacations.  The wife and I assumed our guises:  Captain Hook and Queen Maleficent (from Sleeping Beauty).  Other friends had similar ideas, as documented on social networking.  The wife created our two costumes from scraps of previous costumes, trips to the re-sale shop, and her own ingenuity.  I tried to talk her into ordering the creepy contact lenses, but we couldn’t rationalize the expense.    Still, who could complain?

We also extend a shout-out to our friends, the Romans, who pulled out the stops on this year’s Halloween party.  Note:  you will have to click through to the blog site to view the photo gallery slide show below.

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Hex-bound and Down

Great crowd, solid performance

The US National team needed some last minute heroics last Friday night to beat Antigua & Barbuda 2-1.  That, along with a number of head-scratcher choices by Coach Juergen Klinsmann had us nervous going into the final game of this round of World Cup Qualifying against Guatemala.

Then Juergen didn’t call up any additional players – despite a number of injuries and suspensions.  But we had a very solid outing against Guatemala in Kansas City, winning 3-1, moving the team into the Hexagonal – the final round of qualifying for Brazil 14.

The two best players on the field – Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, put their stamp on the game and helped control the tempo (but only after giving up a sloppy first goal to longtime villain, Carlos Ruiz).  Eddie Johnson continued his return-of-the-GAM routine;  Graham Zusi and Herculez Gomez hustled, combined well, and moved without the ball.  Cherundolo and Parkhurst were solid on the outside.  Danny Williams made a real case to be the starting defensive midfielder moving forward.

The USA played the high pressure and possession style Klinsmann has been talking about for over a year and looked impressive doing it.  Except for the centerback pairing of Cameron and Bocanegra…  So we’re left wondering – are we progressing into a team that can play possession?  Has this new emphasis hurt the old bunker-and-counter game?  Who will feature in the upcoming January MLS and Scandinavian training camp and friendlies (Camp Strudel)?  What will the depth chart look like when the Hex begins next March?

In that vein, we submit a list of stuff. Twenty items for Juergen to consider and work on over the next five months… Continue reading

Books: Use of Weapons

In Brief:  Iain Banks’ Use of Weapons comes highly recommended as well-constructed intelligent Space Opera.  The story centers on Cheradenine Zakalwe, a foremost covert agent working on behalf of a vast (mostly benevolent) intergalactic body known as the Culture.

Pros:  Zakalwe is a truly memorable character – the spy/agent who does the dirty work, always a step from the edge, always in reach of redemption.  Banks writes well and explores the big ideas of a faster-than-light society mostly concerned with helping the less advanced branches of humanity.

Cons:  Banks’ choice of a somewhat obtuse narrative structure certainly helps produce a big pay-off at the end, but it could have been done more smoothly.

Review:  Imagine and advanced post-human society, employing faster-than-light travel, advanced artificial intelligence, and the kind of hyper bio-engineering that extends the life cycle into centuries.  Known as the Culture, this society espouses the acceptance of non-human alien life, embraces computer intelligence lifeforms as fully “human” citizens, and rejects the aggressive notion of property/resource acquisition.  Warfare, then is certainly to be avoided.  Helping less developed human and alien cultures advance to a similar elevated state is a goal.

But the Culture has learned that too much interference leads to even worse conflict and strife.  You can’t, for example, provide advanced nano-technology to a pre-industrial society.  Yet other advanced inter-stellar groups do precisely this – to curry favor, enlist allies, and acquire resources.  So in spite of their best design the Culture must employ agents to counteract their less-advanced rivals and try to steer the ship towards the light. Continue reading

Mend it like Beckman

A week ago Tim Beckman became the 23rd Fighting Illini head football coach.  He takes over for the Zooker, so in that respect we applaud the move.  It’s not that we disliked the Zooker, it’s just that 6-6 was about all we were going to get.

So it’s Beckman – an Ohio guy most recently responsible for turning around Toledo in the MAC.  Beckman:  a high energy guy with the requisite football resume, that includes stops on staffs with Jim Tressel and Urbban Meyer.  He’s a coach we assumed would have been on the shortlist from the beginning, and if you couldn’t get Chris Petersen away  from Boise State (and Illinois certainly could not) he’s solid.  At Toledo he was a strong recruiter and his teams scored a lot of points.  He fits the mold of the up-and-coming MAC coach ready for a Big 10 move.

We are officially on board with the give-Beckman-a-chance mantra espoused by many Illini fans.  Why?  Well, it’s a change at the top nearly everyone felt was needed, and getting negative from the outset serves no purpose.  The new coach got a five-year contract, which means he gets at least four to show his stuff.  Fortunately for him, the bar is not that high at Illinois.  Just start to move up the conference pecking order, finish above .500, and start to establish some consistency.  Get some recruits.  Compete with the traditional heavyweights once in awhile.  Start something. Continue reading

Pentagram: Big Win Over Bulldogs

Illinois’ 82-75 win over Gonzaga yesterday could be one of those signposts for the season.  The Illini played tough and they played well in beating a good opponent at home.  For one day, at least, they looked like the team we hope they can be.  Looking around the country, it would appear Illinois has the talent to play with just about anyone at home.  And just like Coach Weber hoped when bringing in guys like Maniscalco, Egwu, and Abrams, they play hard and as a team.  Of course you can’t look around the country without seeing A-list talent from the state on other teams (Connecticut, Kentucky, Ohio State, Stanford) – the guys we couldn’t get in orange and blue for whatever reason – but maybe that’s the next step in this process.

After the game, Weber told the press he and the coaching staff believed the team could have this kind of a start and play this well.  Gonzaga Coach Mark Few complimented Bruce’s mastery of the motion offense.  The Assembly Hall was loud again.  A couple more wins like this one, and the momentum lost the past few years could start to pick up again.  With all the great high school players in the state’s junior class, this kind of solid team play couldn’t come at a better time.

Five points in the pentagram…

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Watching the Tube

No, not the inter-tubes, but the original boob-tube, as the Fall TV schedule begins.  One aspect of the programming that’s been apparent for years:  sci-fi is so mainstream these days, it’s hard to separate it from the rest.  In fact find me an angsty teen drama that doesn’t have a ghost, vampire, or paranormal twist…  Please.

And while we don’t spend as much time watching these days, there are a number of sci-fi flavored TV shows we’re looking forward to or will at least give a chance.  Some returning, some new.  The will go on the DVR, and some will make our cut while others won’t be able to command our short attention span.  Here they are:

Continue reading

Scrutinizing the USSF


Recent efforts and circumstances involving the US Soccer Federation (responsible for the National Teams, development/promotion of the sport, representation in FIFA, and other duties) have become a sore spot for many soccer devotees in this country.  And there are more and more of us every year.

Questions abound, criticism flows freely, on topic large and small. We will attempt to summarize and analyze some of these – in order of relative importance.  One theme at the heart of many questions/criticism goes back to cold hard cash – how much does the USSF have, and what are its priorities for raising and spending money?  Some of that information is likely available if we were to scour the tubes for it, but perhaps that’s another blog post.

  • Qatar 2022 – What are the chances?  If you listened carefully to USSF President Sunil Gulati recently, you heard a man dancing a careful geopolitcal verbal jig.  Yes, he voted for Sepp Blatter instead of abstaining (like England and some others) amidst a flurry of corruption charges.  Why?  Because it was politically smart to do so.  Bin Hamman, the other guy in the FIFA Presidential race had been suspended from running against Blatter for attempting to bribe our Caribbean friends (with the help of suspended CONCACAF strongman, Jack Warner).  It is widely assumed that Bin Hamman, head of the Qatari Federation employed the same corrupt tactics to buy votes for the 2022 hosting rights.  But nothing has yet been proven,and FIFA has a way of sweeping unpleasantness away.  Are Gulati and American FIFA Executive Committee Rep Chuck Blazer shrewdly biding their time and building up cache?  Everyone knows the US could host a hugely successful World Cup, and would be next in line if Qatar were found  culpable.  And if you ask anyone outside an Arab country, they would much rather come to America for the  World’s Greatest Sporting event in eleven years (and probably some of your wealthier Arabs would also agree – anonymously)
  • What more can the USSF  do?  What should they have done?  Can the USSF bring pressure and enormous conglomerates like McDonalds, Visa, Coca-Cola, and Anheuser Busch In Bev – huge FIFA sponsors one and all?  Could that possibly help?  Can Gulati and Blazer, shrewdly falling in line with Sepp Blatter again, forge the alliances necessary to force a revote or reallocation if the Qataris prove guilty.  Could such an alliance at least help insure a decent investigation?  What about the whole bid process last year?  If you thought Bin Hamman and his cronies were out there buying votes, why not hire an investigative/intel/security outfit to follow them, document their activities, so you’re ready to provide evidence?  Did the USSF not anticipate this?  Did they have  the money for such an endeavor? Continue reading

Books: The Darkness That Comes Before

In Brief: R. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness That Comes Before, Book 1 in The Prince of Nothing series, an unconventional yet familiar cast of characters clash and plot amidst a coming apocalypse.

Pros: Rich, dense, world-building, with interesting multi-faceted characters, thought provoking spiritual and religious dilemmas, and compelling mysteries.

Cons: Dedication to non-traditional naming conventions and place-names makes tracking the details harder than necessary.  Frank portrayal of the lot of pre-industrial women as explored through two main characters will anger some.

Review: TDTCB comes highly recommend by readers and admirers of the kind of dense, complex epic fantasy by writers such as George R. R. Martin and Steven Erikson.  Call it Big Boy World Building, because these kind of writers don’t pause to see if you’re paying attention and can absorb all the connotations.  Nor do they appear bothered by gruesome and troubling situations or subjects.

The narrative follows a handful of key players from across a vast ancient land as a Holy War/Crusade breaks out in the cradle of spiritual power, Shimeh.  Portents abound; ancient beings begin to stir.  If the arch-plot seems familiar, Bakker’s cast of characters and approach to this material are anything but. Continue reading