Sunday, February 24, 2013


With my birthday approaching, it was time to get my new driver's license picture taken, so I drove up Ogontz Ave. (way up---it was further than I thought) to the PennDot office, handed my paperwork to the receptionist and got a ticket informing me I was now Customer Number A155 and would probably be waiting about twenty-five minutes.

There were fifty chairs in the waiting area by the picture-taking desks and there may have been six that did not have butts in them. I commandeered one (an empty chair, not a butt), and surveyed the landscape.

There were two camera stations. The one on the left was manned by a woman in a full Muslim niqab, and she was so tiny and she was covered by so much fabric that I wondered whether there actually was a woman in there somewhere rather than some animatronic device that simply moved the acres of clothing around and made human voice noises. Above her was an electronic screen informing the waiting public that she was now serving Number A137.

The station on the right was staffed by a large woman. She was so large, in fact, that my first thought about her was that, if any substantial portion of her was actual muscle mass, she would be in a position to challenge Michael Oher (to whom she bore a superficial likeness) for his position as left tackle on the Superbowl Champion Baltimore Ravens. It did not take long to realize, however, that the muscle mass was lacking. Most NFL left tackles are a lot like aircraft carriers but are much more nimble. She too resembled an aircraft carrier, but with none of the quickness.

As I arrived, her electronic message board indicated she was helping Number A136. However, she immediately arose, proceeded into the back room, and her message screen went blank. Oh, dear. Had she left the building? Had she gone home for the day? Were we now reduced to just one camera station staffed by six yards of worsted wool that might or might not have a little Muslim lady inside it?

I sat. I waited. Ten minutes later, the aircraft carrier returned, holding a roll of scotch tape, which took her another four minutes to open and insert in her dispenser. Mystery solved. Her message board then lit up and she continued her transaction with Customer Number A136.

The mini-Muslim was still working on Number 137. I had been in the house for fourteen minutes and I was still the eighteenth person in line. I began to suspect my wait might exceed twenty-five minutes.

The joint was devoid of architectural nuance and the decor was minimal. You would think there might be a photo of the Governor or a few pictures of waterfalls or mountaintops or another natural wonder found somewhere in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Nope. Nothing like that.

The only things on the walls were six large posters, identical, each proclaiming the house rules in a bold black capital-letter font I remember seeing a lot of in ”Triumph of the Will.”


Gambling was permitted, I suppose, though I didn't really see anything to bet on.

There was a white dropped ceiling made out of the same stuff they pour coffee into at WaWa. The walls were a uniform, washed-out pastel blue. The floor? Linoleum, of course--- the Muzak of floor coverings. I've been in nicer rooms. In fact, I've been interrogated by police in nicer rooms.

Several minutes passed. Then, almost simultaneously, both message boards flipped. The aircraft carrier was now serving A138 and the niqab was working on A139. Progress!

There were at least a hundred fifty people in the place seeking learners permits, driving tests, ID cards or (like me) driver's license pictures, and since we were not allowed to eat, drink, smoke or use our cellphones, well, that list pretty much exhausted the universe of killing-time-at-PennDot behavior any of us could imagine, so we all just sat quietly and waited for the universe to end. I didn't see anyone doing charcoal sketches of our little outpost and I didn't see anyone writing their memoirs. No one was folding origami paper into a swan and no one was doing yoga. No one was holding a book or newspaper---not one person out of a hundred fifty was reading. I had brought some Alexis de Tocqueville along for a laugh, but never cracked it.

I did allow myself to speculate briefly on what de Tocqueville would have made of this scene and decided he would have attributed it to the influence of lawyers on the American experiment. He liked American law and lawyers in a general way, but he also saw their downside. He would have recognized the PennDot-ization of America as one of the perils embedded in our founding.

A half hour had passed. It seemed likely I would soon be 15th in line, or even 14th, but my best guess was a total wait time of two and a half hours. I leaned over to the woman sitting next to me. “I'm ditching,” I said, “so if your number is above A155, you just moved up a slot.” She smiled ambiguously, which meant she either had moved up a slot or she thought I might be a psychopath.

Walking out the door, I glanced back. Today PennDot, tomorrow Obamacare, I thought. Five years from now, this is what doctor's offices will be like too.


Sunday, February 10, 2013


The Philadelphia International Cycling Championship was the biggest bike race in America, drawing tens of thousands of spectators, attracting the top cycling teams from around the world and generating an estimated $15 million in revenue for local businesses. It is no more, largely because Michael Nutter views the life of a city as something that must be handed down from the government. It is not the first event he has chased from Philadelphia and it won't be the last.

Like most such events, it was hatched not by bureaucrats but by dreamers---David Chauner, Jerry Casale and Jack Simes III, three biking enthusiasts with ties to the city. In 1985, the young men realized their vision on the streets of Philly for the first time, in a race won by Olympian Eric Heiden. Then in 2009, as Chauner told the Inquirer last week, the city's fees tripled. The race limped along for three more years, but the red ink finally spelled the end.

The Dad Vail Regatta began in 1934 and, after a hiatus for WWII, has been held on the Schuylkill since the 1950s. It faced a fate similar to the bike race in 2009 when the Nutter Administration decided it needed to more than double the city's fees. In November of that year, the Regatta announced it was moving to Rumson, New Jersey because it couldn't afford Philly any longer. Only after an intervention by Bob Brady was the regatta saved, at least temporarily.

Other events have not been so lucky. The Pennsylvania Barge Club (founded 1861) resides on Boathouse Row. Its “Philadelphia Frostbite Regatta,” however, is no longer run on the Schuylkill but on the Cooper River in Camden. The races were forced to leave in 2009 when the Nutter Administration boosted its demands on the organizers to $9000 per year.

And then, of course, there's Love Park, where Michael Nutter made his bones in Philly politics.

As the popularity of skateboarding exploded in the 1990s, big names in the sport began to tout the wonders of Love Park as a venue. Some of them with international reputations (Ricky Oyola, Josh Kalis, Anthony Pappalardo), were seen in the park and attracted crowds of spectators for their tricks. ESPN, which created the X-Games, took notice of the phenomenon and tried to make this city the home of the Games, signing a two-year deal to bring the event to South Philly.

This was too much for Councilman Nutter, however. He sponsored the bill to ban skateboarding in all public places and shepherded it through City Council, after which it became law with Mayor Street's signature. It had to be done, we were told, because skateboarding would cause a million dollars in damage to our parks every year. Sound a bit inflated? Or hysterical? It does to me too, and there was never any documentation offered for this estimate. But even if it were true, it would have been chump change compared to the estimated $40 million the X-Games would have brought in to local businesses.

What is particularly sad about the X-Games saga is that skateboarding developed in Love Park purely by accident. When Edmund Bacon first conceived of Love Park in 1932, he had no idea that sixty years later the design of the place would turn the park into a mecca for skateboarders around the world. Yet to a visionary like Bacon, that serendipitous result was the very thing to be cherished about a city. Accidents happen in urban spaces, wonderful accidents that bring people together in ways no one can anticipate. This was why, in 2002, the 92-year-old Bacon rode a skateboard in Love Park as a protest against the dreary legislation Councilman Nutter had pushed through.

I cite the “economic impact” figures for these events ($15 million for the bike race, $16 million for the Dad Vail, $40 million for the X-Games) for one reason---to make clear that Michael Nutter's hostility is NOT based on any rational economic criteria. If the bike race brings $15 million to Philadelphia businesses every year, that money (in hotel rooms, restaurant bills, souvenirs, hot dogs, transport, shopping, etc.) generates tax revenue for the city far in excess of the extra $200,000 or so the city tried to extract from the organizers. Beyond that, of course, one would hope that elected officials in Philadelphia would have a more general assumption that money coming into Philly businesses is a good thing, and that prosperity should be encouraged for its own sake. This is apparently not the case.

I don't know why Michael Nutter does this repeatedly to events beloved by city residents. I'm not his shrink. I can only conclude that, since he is hurting Philadelphians (and the city treasury) by his actions, his primary motive is to exert government control (at any cost), over the sometimes untidy life of the city. Unless the city government itself organizes these festivals and sports extravaganzas, Michael Nutter seems to view them as somehow illegitimate and unworthy of preservation. The Mayor was very much in charge of the Labor Day concert at the Art Museum (though he left most of the details to Jay-Z). No problem there, I guess. It is only the events that are produced organically from the citizenry that excite his ire and his desire to impose the heavy hand of government.

A different sort of city government would view events like the bike race and the Dad Vail and the Frostbite Regatta and Love Park skateboarding as civic assets, and manifestations of Philly's unique spirit. A different sort of mayor would understand he is merely a temporary caretaker whose job it is to nurture and support the dynamism that bubbles up from neighborhoods and entrepreneurs and community organizations. Instead, it seems that Michael Nutter, as both a councilman and now as a mayor, views the real treasures of the city as untidy little annoyances that must be regulated, taxed, or stamped out.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

CLICHE FILE: "At the end of the day..."

(An occasional series on expressions we need to stop using immediately.)

At the end of the day,
  • gets dark.

  • watch Jeopardy.

  • put on your comfortable shoes.

  • ...God has placed “night.”

  • is best to make a comprehensive list of everything that might possibly go wrong the next day, and then, after each item, provide a list of possible countermeasures and the equipment or supplies needed in order to implement those countermeasures---then log on to Amazon and order those supplies and that equipment.

  • ...they're just waking up in Japan.

  • may be wise to choose a “designated driver.”

  • ...your wife may want to know what you have been doing when you were supposed to be at work.

  • ...if the first thing you do when you get home at night is make yourself a 16-ounce martini, some people will think you might have an “issue.”

  • need to remove those floppy, colorful, bootlike things on your feet and leave them in the breezeway for a while. I love you, Darling, but they reek.

  • ...I like to pop in my copy of “Remains of the Day.” It's not the sort of thing you want to watch first thing in the morning.

  •'s a good time to check on your supply of supplemental oxygen because you never know when you will be asked to ascend elevations in excess of 20,000 feet.

  • ...they just start up another damn day.


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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

HARBAUGH'S FOLLY AND HOLDING FOR FREE; Observations on the 2013 Superbowl

Two thoughts about the Superbowl (the “Har-bowl”) just concluded:

First, 49er's coach Jim Harbaugh made a fundamental game-playing error in the second half.

I know that football coaches, unlike other types of coaches, are rarely game-players. They don't play backgammon or chess or poker or Risk or other types of strategy games. They have more in common with military generals in that their primary task is to manage, and control, and inspire a bunch of young men and get them to achieve certain group goals. It's a very difficult job, especially considering the psyche of the modern pro, and anyone who can keep fifty immature, imperfectly-educated, testosterone-fueled, filthy rich world-class athletes with no manners on something like “the same page” has no time to learn how best to play games and make the correct strategic decisions at crucial moments. I understand that.

But why can't they hire somebody to do it? Why won't they hire some numbers geek to tell the Jim Harbaughs of the world when to punt, when to kick a field goal and (above all) when to try a two-point conversion? These are not “football decisions” like whether to blitz on a particular play or whether to replace your left tackle because he can't walk anymore, and they don't depend on how a particular coach “feels” at that moment. They are objective, numbers-based determinations to be made about what should be done in a specific situation in the game of football. And since they are objective, there is one correct course of action. And Jim Harbaugh, like many coaches, has no idea what that correct course of action might be. In fact, it is unlikely Harbaugh is even aware there is a correct course of action.

So why won't the 49ers hire somebody to tell him?

With 14:49 left in the 3rd quarter, the Ravens led 28 – 6. Jim Harbaugh was down by 22 points. What, at this point, were the 49er's chances, and what could they hope to accomplish? How could they possibly get back in this game, and win it?

The obvious answer, the starting point, is obvious: score three touchdowns and four extra points. That's the 22; that ties it up. Then you have to shut down the Ravens as well. This had to be what Harbaugh was thinking and hoping and planning for. And in fact, the almost-successful 22-point comeback was the entire story of the second half, up until the last couple of minutes.

And as luck would have it, 14:49 in the third quarter was the moment the San Francisco fortunes turned around. Seven minutes later, they scored their first touchdown of the game and presented Jim Harbaugh with a critical game-playing decision. Assuming their dreams would come true and they would score the three touchdowns they needed, how should they approach the question of the four extra points? When do they go for two?

There is one right answer to this question.

For the analysis that follows, for simplicity's sake, we will assume the chance of kicking a single extra point is 100% and the probability of success for a two-point conversion is 50%. The real probabilities, from years of NFL data, are very close to those numbers. A missed kick on an extra point is extremely rare, and NFL teams succeed on two-point tries almost exactly half the time.

Since the 49ers actually scored the three touchdowns they needed, we got to see Jim Harbaugh's decision on the critical strategic question of when to go for two. (A field goal by each side at the beginning of the fourth quarter did not change the 22-point comeback equation.) He chose to take single points after the first and second touchdowns and try for two only after the third touchdown. Since the chance of making a single two-point conversion is 50%, this meant that Harbaugh's strategy had only a 50% chance to tie the game even if his 49ers succeeded in scoring the three touchdowns and holding the Ravens. This was not the optimal strategy.

In this situation, down 22 points, when a coach needs one two-point conversion to go with his three touchdowns, he must go for it at the first opportunity, after the first touchdown. If he makes it, he need only kick single points after the next two scores. But even if he fails, he has an additional chance. He can still get his four extra points with two-point conversions on both the second and third touchdowns, and that possibility would have provided an additional 12½% chance of success. By pursuing his optimal strategy and going for two on his first touchdown, Harbaugh would have given himself a 62½% probability of scoring 22 points on the three touchdowns. By waiting until the third touchdown to try for two, however, he limited himself to only a 50% chance of tying the game. And he gained exactly nothing by doing this. His failure to understand the situation (or his failure to have somebody on the sidelines capable of making the right decision for him) simply cost the 49ers that 12½% chance.

This is not to say the 49ers would have tied the game even if Harbaugh had done the right thing, of course. And even if the 49ers had tied up the game with ten minutes left (when the third touchdown was scored), there was no guarantee they would ultimately win it. But that cannot excuse Harbaugh's decision. This was a fairly simple math and logic problem, and he got it wrong in the most important game of the year and possibly the biggest game of his career. There is no logically-defensible reason for what he did.

Elsewhere, I have written about the 15-point deficit in pro football, and why it is best for the trailing team to go for two on the first touchdown in its comeback. The reason is that 15 points is not “two scores.” It's either two scores or three scores and you won't know which it is until you try the two-point conversion. Since it is essential for the trailing team to know whether the 15 points is two scores or three scores, the team should go for two as soon as it can. If it fails in the attempt and trails by 9, it will at least know that it has failed and will have to score twice more to overcome the 9-point deficit. There is really no reason to wait.

If a team is trailing by 15 points, however, and waits until its second touchdown to go for two, it does not actually reduce its chances of tying the game. A team down by 15 needs one two-point conversion and their probability of getting that two-point conversion is the same whether they try it after the first or the second touchdown. This is not true when the gap is 22 points (or 29 or 36 or 43), however. What Jim Harbaugh did significantly reduced the 49er's chances of tying (and ultimately winning) the Superbowl.


On the Ravens' intentional safety at the end of the game, the ball was snapped with twelve seconds left. The punter then ran around a bit before stepping out of the end zone with four ticks on the clock. It should have been easy to run out the clock on this play and the Ravens failed to do so.

The Ravens had ten blockers. The 49ers had, at most, ten guys rushing the punter. All the Ravens have to do on this play is assign a player to each rusher and have him wrap his arms around the guy until the clock expires. If necessary or desirable, each Raven could simply pick one guy, tackle him and sit on him. There would be flags all over the field, but (as Hillary would put it), what difference does it make? The penalty for offensive holding in this situation is to award the defense a safety.

In effect, on an intentional safety, there is no penalty for holding.


Friday, February 1, 2013


As you are probably aware (because I've told you twenty times), I know nothing about pro football. Its infield fly rule has always confused me and at times I forget how the knight moves. What I do know is that yards per pass is strongly correlated with football success, especially in the playoffs and the Superbowl. It is for this reason that I now predict the 49ers will win the Superbowl by a comfortable margin.

The numbers are not close, and the numbers are all I got. Offensively, San Francisco is a full yard better than Baltimore (6.6 to 5.6). Defensively, they are a full yard better as well (4.4 to 5.4). In addition, the 49ers outscored their opponents by 4 ½ points more than Baltimore outscored its opponents. These are huge differences. In my world, where numbers matter, San Francisco rolls to victory in one of those 42 – 13 Superbowls that were so common twenty years ago.

Of course, in my world, where numbers matter, Mitt Romney was elected president on November 6. More to the point, I cannot measure the effect of a magical end-of-season Ray Lewis playoff mojo, and there can be no doubt that a magical end-of-season Ray Lewis playoff mojo (hereafter, “MEOSRLPM”) is at work in the current cycle. If numbers were everything, Baltimore would not have beaten Denver. Baltimore would not have beaten New England either. Yet here they are in New Orleans getting ready to play the 49ers for all the cheese.

I'm still taking the 49ers minus the points, but I am reevaluating my stance on Ray Lewis. The Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways, and maybe these last two Ravens victories, both as a touchdown-plus underdog, contain a message. Maybe it's time for me to forgive and forget. Maybe it's time to stop asking Ray what happened to that white suit he was wearing the night those guys got stabbed. Maybe it's time to buy Michael Vick a puppy. And maybe, finally, O.J. should get his Heisman Trophy back.