24 February 2011

Bricketology™ 2011: Abu Scooter's first women's cut

Yesterday was the guys' turn; today, I'm predicting the NCAA women's basketball bracket.  The process for the women is completely different from what's used to set up the men's bracket.   Here are the differences:
  1. The women's bracket has only 64 teams.  No one gets a bye, and there are no play-in games.
  2. Regions are named after their locations instead of compass directions: this year, Dallas, Dayton, Spokane and Philadelphia.
  3. The women's selection committee tends to just pick the best 64 teams, then assign their places in order of rank.  This year, for example, the top five teams are (and will probably remain) UConn, Stanford, Duke, Baylor and Tennessee.  Four of those teams will get the #1 seeds and be placed in the bracket; the one that's left will be placed next, as a #2 seed.  Texas A&M and Xavier, the probable sixth and seventh selections, will be placed after that.  And so it goes, down the the 64th best team.  On the men's side, it's chaos, once the first 16 or so teams are picked.
  4. Maximizing attendance remains a priority on the women's side, so if a qualifier can open at home, it does, regardless of seed.  For the same reason, no team will travel across the continent for the regional-level playoffs, if it can be avoided.  Contrast that with the process for the men's bracket, where home-court advantages are expressly prohibited.
 Some constraints apply on both sides of the gender line.
  1. There are 31 automatic bids, one for each conference. The Ivy League picks its representative based on regular-season play; everyone else uses a post-season tournament.
  2. When four or fewer teams are selected from any league, they are placed in different regions.  For 5-8 teams, it's one or two to a region.
  3. Conference rivals can meet before the regional final only if more than eight teams advance.  Non-conference matchups that have occurred during the regular season are also to be avoided.
 The only other thing to add is that, as with the men's bracket, I rely more heavily on RPI rankings than the selection committees will. I'm also pretty hostile to teams with losing conference records (buh-bye, Texas).  Here are the highlights of my women's bracket. If you're wondering about your favorite team, and I haven't mentioned it, just ask about it in the comments.
  • Top seeds: UConn (Philadelphia), Stanford (Spokane), Tennessee (Dayton), Baylor (Dallas).
  • Last four in: LSU, Purdue, Creighton, Arkansas-Little Rock.
  • First four out: Texas, South Carolina, Missouri State, Wisconsin.
  • Opening on their home floors: all the top seeds, plus (2) Duke, (3) Xavier, (3) Maryland, (7) Ohio State, (7) Penn State and (13) Gonzaga.
  • Opening close enough to home: (11) Louisiana Tech in Shreveport, (13) BYU in Salt Lake City.
  • First-round sites not getting local teams: Albuquerque, Auburn, Charlottesville and Wichita. New Mexicans love their hoops, especially in Albuquerque; and they'll probably have plenty of (2) Texas A&M Aggie fans helping fill The Pit. But I'm worried about the other three sites.
  • High seeds potentially facing outright road games: (2) UCLA at Ohio State; (2) Notre Dame at Penn State; (4) Oklahoma at Gonzaga. 

23 February 2011

Bricketology™ 2011: Abu Scooter's first men's cut

Forget the opening of pro baseball's training camps.  The real sign of spring is the annual proliferation of Internet posts from the U.S., all claiming to predict who will make the NCAA Division I basketball tournaments.

Like this one and the next.  Last year, I correctly named the entire 65-team men's field, but now that field has 68 teams.   I'm further upping the ante this year by taking on the women's 64-team bracket. My predictions rely heavily on RPI rankings, as posted (for free) over on realtimeRPI.com.  The men's bracket (posted here) is based on the numbers that site posted Monday; the women's (next time), from its Tuesday numbers.

El soporte masculino

The big news this year has been the dominance of the Big East.  Most bracketologists think ten teams will reach the field of 68, but I'm in the sizable minority that sees 11 squads through.1 That masks a more interesting trend, namely, a generalized shift of power eastward.  Big East success is coming largely at the expense of the ACC and the SEC.  Among the "mid-majors," the mojo has moved from the Missouri Valley (in the lower Midwest) to the Atlantic 10 and Colonial (two Eastern Seaboard leagues).  Between the mid-majors and the BCS groups, San Diego State and Brigham Young have spearheaded the rise of the Mountain West2.  The Pacific 10 and West Coast conferences have suffered as a result.

Purdue is an Indiana state school, but it might host the most popular team in Virginia.  As the Boilermakers surge to maybe a #2 seed, they boost the prospects of several bubble teams based in the Old Dominion, including Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth, Richmond, George Mason and, yes, Old Dominion.

This could be another year when the SEC manages to force a team into the field that doesn't belong.  Back in 2006, mid-major Missouri State missed the field despite earning an RPI of 20.  Why?  Because even though the entire SEC West sucked that year, the SEC tricked the Selection Committee into including Arkansas.  The Razorbacks confirmed The Worst Selection Ever by losing their first-round game by 30 points.  It could happen again this year, because a horrible Alabama team3 is the only SEC West side that's even close to the bubble.  Watch your back, Utah State (RPI 19)!  You, too, George Mason (RPI 20).

Okay, enough generalities.  Here are the highlights from my current projected men's bracket.
  • Top seeds: Ohio State (Southeast), Kansas (West), Duke (East), Texas (Southwest).
  • Play-ins (at Dayton): Montana-Texas Southern, Hampton-McNeese State, Florida State-Penn State, Colorado State-Marquette.
  • Last four in: Colorado State, Penn State, Marquette, Butler.
  • First four out: Valparaiso, WIchita State, Gonzaga, Virginia Tech.
  • Cute first-round matches: (2) San Diego State vs. Long Beach State at Tucson; (3) North Carolina vs. Coastal Carolina at Charlotte.
  • Neat second-round possibilities: (1) Ohio State vs (8) Cincinnati at Cleveland; (4) Kentucky vs. (5) Louisville at Denver; (3) Purdue vs. (6) Xavier at Chicago.
Next time: My first-ever bracketology attempt for the ladies' teams.

1 It's likely that the entire conference will see postseason action of some sort. That would be a first.
2 SDSU and BYU meet tonight Saturday, for what may be the top seed in the West Region.
3 Alabama is cheap-monster-movie awful, but that rumor that SyFy is carrying Crimson Tide home games live is completely false.

19 February 2011

Wisconsin protester WIN!

I'm having trouble figuring it out: are Scott Walker, Chris Christie, John Kasich and their Dominionist and teabagger confederates Republic-serial Hosni Mubarak wannabees, or are they Republic-serial Silvio Berlusconi wannabees? Walker tricks the firefighter and police unions into supporting his gubernatorial run, and then once in office, he tries to screw them along with the other civil servants. The firefighters didn't buy it:


14 February 2011

The autopista to Hell: Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock

Theocratic political officers to mind the military?   Check.

Religiously driven control of history and cultureCheck.

Oligarchs who expect the state to enforce their domination of labor?  Check.

Widening income disparities, leading to the return of widespread slavery?  Check.

Every link, save the last, points to something that Republicans, teabaggers, Dominionists and their corporate paymasters has done in the last four months, or is doing now.  The one last regards the 2012 budget released today by rightward-turning Barack Obama.  All point to actions that are paving the autopista to, at best, a constellation of Dickensian hellholes.

This toll road to the Twenty-Second Century led Canadian author Robert Charles Wilson to, among other things, a 2010 Hugo nomination for best speculative-fiction novel.  In Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America, humanity has barely survived the False Tribulation, a series of catastrophic effects triggered by climate change and resource depletion.  North America has fallen under the control of a United States that has replaced the Congress and Supreme Court with an Egyptian-style military and the Dominion, a powerful union of fundamentalist churches.  New York's Central Park has been transformed into a vast palace that houses the now-imperial President.

The novel itself follows the rise and fall of its titular character, the nephew of the current President.  It's an interesting story, narrated by Julian's best friend, a naïve young man from the tiny remnants of the American middle class.  Any similarities between it and Gore Vidal's Julian are intentional (as Wilson himself has openly admitted).  Both novels (Vidal's, much more explicitly) drew from the brief reign of Julian the Apostate (331-363), the last non-Christian emperor of Rome.  The real Julian, like Wilson's, tried to reform a failing, Christian-dominated empire.

But it's the setting of Julian Comstock that caught my fancy in the first place.  The oil has run out.  Most towns have had to be built from scratch, their predecessors reduced to mines for scavengers.  Only a few pre-collapse cities -- New York City, Montréal, Colorado Springs, Marseilles -- remain, all shadows of their former selves.  Where it even exists, electricity runs for only four hours each night (and that's an technical advance).  It's almost like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, a century after the missiles flew.

Instead of radiation, though, it's the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth that permeates this landscape.  The Dominion decides which churches are legal, and which are to be wiped from the face of the Earth.  It controls whatever science, knowledge and technology can be recovered from the ruins, destroying some of it and hiding the rest.  It dictates what books can be sold.  Through its vast school system, it teaches the masses that the Americans lived the ideal life in the early 19th Century.  Like any self-respecting evil empire, the Dominion trains its own military officers, who serve as ministers (and Saddam Hussein-style minders) in the two U.S. armies.

The Dominion doesn't control everything in 2175 America, but it doesn't have to.  As in the 19th Century it so idealizes, a small clique of oligarchs dominates the economy.  Some of them "escape" to mansions in places like Athabaska, a northern U.S. state carved out from present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan, where they live off the labors of indentured servants who languish in shanties that don't even protect them from the still-cold winters.  The tiny remnants of the American middle class consist of the handful of skilled workers who support their small towns.  They lead better lives, but like the servants, they live at the aristocrats' sufferance.  Every such town has a Dominion preacher, effectively trained in the Dominion capital at Colorado Springs to discourage whatever dissent might arise from this stunning inequality.

City life is little different.  The middle class is a bit larger, immigrants do the indentured servants' work, but the upper class still dominates.  The Dominion controls more covertly, but somehow doesn't mind the unregulated shops that sell "vaccines" and other threats to public health.  Nor does it have a problem when rich industrialists, farmers and ranchers alike have government troops sent in to quell labor unrest.

All this is described by Julian's lifelong friend, Adam Hazzard -- who doesn't always realize what he's doing.  Born into the tiny remnants of the American middle class, Adam sees much in his Athabaskan town, but it's not clear how much he understands.  He grew up along side both aristocrats like Julian and indentured servants, but only when he and Julian flee a military draft does he begin to comprehend what that meant.  Only his travels reveal to him the possibility that the Dominion might not be as pious or godly as he once believed.

I think of that lack of guile, and it reminds me of the Tea Party movement.  Its members tend to support all the things I cited at the top of this post, but I wonder how many of them have really thought their implications out, separately or as a while.  Go read Julian Comstock, and see the future our Dominionists have in store for us.

100! Yay!  The post count for The Ghost-Grey Cat has now reached 100.  One of my resolutions this year is to make the next 100 posts go quicker.  Effin' miaow!

07 February 2011

"Imported From Detroit"

Generally speaking, I'm happy to report that this year's Super Bowl ads weren't as violent as last years.  The worst exceptions came from Doritos, Pepsi Max and HomeAway (what's that?).  That level of viciousness isn't just for championship football games anymore, so I'll mention them again in a later post.

I won't offer further comment on either the Skechers ad with Kim Kardashian or the GoDaddy spots. With sexism on that level, why is either company still in business?  Oh, never mind; that question pretty much answers itself.  Professor Chaos has a good overview of the worst of Super Bowl 45, none of which involved either the Packers or the Steelers.  [The game wasn't the most exciting, but it was decently played.  Both teams belonged.]

Apart from Steeler coach Mike Tomlin's mystifying decision to green-light a 52-yard field goal attempt, the on-field action actually pleased me.  So, too, did some of the ads.  Coca-Cola followed a 2007 spoof of Grand Theft Auto with a hilarious parody of Warcraft and its MMORPG cousins.  Volkswagen had a funny bit about a kid trying hard to be Darth Vader (yeah, I was that kid once).

The ad that's going to stick with me for a while, though, is this one from Chrysler:

Whatever it intended, Chrysler didn't pitch cars; it pitched the city of Detroit.  So many bad things have happened there, it's become too easy for outsiders to imagine it as a Midwestern version of Kabul.  But there are its landmarks, not just standing, but as beautiful as ever.  [Especially the Diego Rivera murals.]  Marshall Mathers is hardly my favorite performer (or person), but for an ad that was about both Detroit and defiance, his presence fit well as anyone else's could.  It's one the most emotional commercials I've ever seen.

Update (10 February):  The standard-length form of the Mathers Chrysler spot is now making the rounds.  Along with the images and phrases the they found extraneous, the producers managed edit out most of the emotional power.  That was inevitable, I suppose.

06 February 2011

Super Bowl XLV: Can anyone in the Metroplex actually sing? Or mix?

I don't care for "The Star Spangled Banner" as a a song; but was it really necessary to butcher it as thoroughly as Christina Aguilera did in Cowboys Stadium tonight? Or was she just part of some al-Qaeda Westboro Baptist terrorist plot to annoy Americans?

As for the halftime show, I'd much rather have witnessed a wardrobe malfunction than the sound-mixing malfunctions that marred the Black-Eyed Peas' performance.  That level of incompetence would have sunk musical ensembles that I like.

Super Bowl XLV: Let's play!

A year ago, I had a good idea who would win the Super Bowl, but was too lazy to post my prediction until an hour before kickoff.  This year, I really had a hard time figuring it out.  The Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers are two resilient teams, blessed with skilled quarterbacks, stifling defenses and rich championship traditions.  I'm certainly not alone in my skittishness; as of this writing, the spread is still only 3.5 points in favor of the Packers.

I think the key is resilience.  Both sides have been wildly inconsistent, not just from game to game, but from one quarter to the next.  I've seen more detailed tactical analysis of the contestants than is good for me -- most of which managed to miss the fact that the winner will be the team that can string together four good quarters of football.  The Packers have done that better than the Steelers, so they'll win tonight.

It may not even be close:  Green Bay 30-13 Pittsburgh.

01 February 2011

Some reflections on John Barry (1933-2011)

In almost a hundred posts on this blog, I've somehow managed to avoid any mention of one of my passions, the movie soundtrack.   A good score can make a bad movie tolerable; and, as John Williams demonstrated in The Empire Strikes Back, it can make a good movie one of its decade's best.  If it weren't for Sam Spence's scores for NFL Films and its weekly highlight shows in the 1970s, I would probably have never developed any taste at all for music.

Superior scores are probably the best reason either Out of Africa (1985) or Dances with Wolves (1990) won an Oscar for Best Picture.  Without the lush John Barry scores that also graced 11 James Bond movies and numerous other works over 40 years, Wolves might have still won on novelty1; but the execrable Africa would have had no chance.  Barry's passing yesterday at age 77 brought to mind a couple of personal memories.

The theme from Born Free, which won John Barry his first two Oscars in 1966 (for both theme and overall score), might actually be my first memory, period.  Kids gravitated towards the theme song, which finished twelfth on the 1966 Billboard Top 100.  Even as a toddler, I couldn't get enough of it; and that only intensified once I became old enough to adore and admire the kitties lions in the movie itself.  As I turned five years old, I kept wondering when it would next show up on TV.  Several years would pass before I realized it, but Born Free's soundtrack was the first one I enjoyed for its own sake.  (Barry's Bond scores to that point soon followed.)

His last Oscar came for the Dances with Wolves score, a cassette copy of which I owned a little over thirteen years ago.  Along with almost all my other worldly possessions, that little tape was in the car I was driving to California.  Day three of that moving trip stretched from the desolation of central Wyoming to the desolation of northern Nevada.  Outside the environs of Salt Lake City and Reno, my listening choices on the radio were minimal.  Whenever I encountered mountains, especially in Nevada, those choices dropped to nothing, not even classical-music NPR stations.

From Carlin, Nevada, Interstate 80 climbs into the last such dead zone, which includes the Emigrant Pass, a dual tunnel and, finally, the Twin Summits.  At the western end of the zone, the road curves gently into one last hill.

As it happened that day in late January, I popped that Dances with Wolves cassette into my car's tape player.  The first two cuts played as I crossed the dead zone.  Then, at the top of the last hill, this played:

I could see the Interstate dropping into yet another vast, desolate plain, marred with the low ridges that define that part of Nevada.  As the short prelude of low strings played on my stereo, the haze of the Summits made the ridges in the background appear as one.  At exactly the moment the high strings cued in, the single ridge began splitting into its components, each ridge seeming to split from its neighbors.  The timing between the music inside my car and the developing scenery outside was so exquisite, it made me believe in a higher power.

Somewhere far above, with John Barry as spokesman, God was welcoming me to the West.

Or not.  The date was 22 January 1998.  When NPR came back into listening range several minutes later, the first thing I heard was President Bill Clinton -- swearing to the nation that he "did not have sex with that woman."

1.  Sioux civilians good, U.S. Army bad? Gasp!