31 October 2011

Alex Anthopoulos, Ninja*

Well, in 4 weeks today, I get on a plane for Berlin.  Amazing to think how close it is, and how much I need to get done in the interim.  So I decided to blog about some of the things I've learned from baseball, seeing as the World Series (and the baseball season) is now over -- Congrats to the St. Louis Cardinals and the former Blue Jays who play for them!

I play this baseball simulation game called Out of the Park Baseball (2012 edition).  This game allows you to simulate every aspect of being a general manager, from trading players, to signing them to contracts, to managing a complete minor league system, to setting lineups, etc.  Everything.  The game is really deep.  I play mostly in an online league, where there are 30 players, each one acts as the GM for a major league team.  The game starts in 2011, and proceeds forward until we finish playing.

In the ASBA (the American Simulation Baseball Association), I manage the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and we have gotten to the 2011 All-Star break (mid-July).  Normally, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the game sims ahead one week, and this weekend was a very eventful one, due to it's being the last "real time" weekend before we hit the trade deadline in this Friday's sim. 

This is kind of a long way of getting to the title of this blog entry.  In my general managing, I try to apply some of the principles that Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos uses.**  The one that was most at play in trade talks was to never dismiss an idea outright.  When another GM proposed a trade, I would think about it, no matter how preposterous it sounded.  I would find ways to make it work for both parties, and if we eventually decided not to make the trade, I gave my reasons for it, rather than just reject it out of hand.

This, is also the way of the ninja.  The ninja were paid assassins, saboteurs, and general stealth operators.  When they were hired for a contract, they would never reject it out of hand, and frequently (as legends have it), they would make what appeared to be impossible possible.  They examined a problem from as many different angles as they could in order to find a way to make things happen. 

This is what makes Alex Antholpoulos a ninja.  This idea - of being able to make the impossible possible - is a result of his ability to examine a problem from many different angles, to assemble information from every possible source, and to seize opportunity when it is presented.  This, combined with the stealth with which he operates, makes the Ninja. 

I present exhibit A:  The Vernon Wells Trade.

The biggest result of this trade was that it rid the Jays of Wells's $20+ million of payroll for 4 years, freeing up the Jays to sign Jose Bautista to a very reasonable $14 million a year contract extension.  From what I've read of the blogs and newspaper articles, the Angels were looking for a big bat, and had lost out on some of their free agent choices.  The desperate GM was under pressure to improve the team, and in sweeps A.A. with Vernon Wells.  The Jays took on the dead weight salary of Juan Rivera (released in June or July), and catcher Mike Napoli, who they traded to Texas for up-and-down relief pitcher Frank Francisco.

Why is this trade "ninja-like"?  Because everyone and their brother thought Vernon Wells's contract was un-moveable, and when news of the trade came, it was unbelievable at first.

Exhibit B: The Colby Rasmus trade.

From what I've read, A.A. has coveted CF Colby Rasmus for a few years.  He just had to wait for him to wear out his welcome with Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa to become available.  Then, rather than give up prospects that he considered key to the future, gave up reliever Jason Frasor and minor league starting pitcher Zach Stewart to the White Sox in order to get the key cog that St. Louis was asking for - Edwin Jackson.  Jackson was then flipped to St. Louis, along with Jays relievers Octavio Dotel, Mark Rzepczynski (I think I spelled that right... thanks, Polish ancestry!) and useless spare outfielder Cory Patterson.  The Jays got back Rasmus, and 3 bullpen arms that may or may not be useful down the road (one has already been released). 

What does this tell us about AA's ninja skills?  Well, by going to the White Sox to get a starting pitcher in Jackson, he was thinking outside the box, examining the problem from a different angle.  He asked himself, "If I don't have the players necessary to get Rasmus in my organization, who does?"  He identified Chicago, got what he needed to make it happen.  Ninja'ed.***

These aren't the only situations where AA picked opponents pockets (Yunel Escobar, anyone?), and I, for one, admire having someone running my favourite team who doesn't just want to be the smartest guy in the room, but could possibly be the smartest guy in the room.  And it's not just that he's smarter than everyone else.  He listens to people, he takes their opinions into consideration, he gathers as much information as possible, and when he strikes, it comes from out of the blue, leaving us all to wonder how the hell he did it.

As a life-long Blue Jay fan (after all, I was born the same year the Jays started playing), even though the team may be a ways from contending, it's nice to know that the Jays have a GM who has a plan, is sticking to it, and knows how to get things done without alienating people.^ 

We can all learn a little bit from Alex Anthopoulos, Ninja.

* I'm not the first to call him a ninja.  I'm just explaining the metaphor.

** This is my interpretation of his actions.  Obviously I have no idea if he actually uses this principle consciously.

*** For the record, I'm not sold on Rasmus yet.  I love the way he plays center field, but in interviews he seems like big, dumb ol' country boy, who may never figure out the hitting side of things, leaving fans, teammates, and team management exasperated about not using the massive talent he has.  Contrast him with Jose Bautista who figured it out (later than most) to become the most feared hitter in the AL, as well as a smart baserunner and fielder. 

^ Do you think the Cardinals will hesitate to deal with Anthopolous again?  They won the World Series with contributions from the players that they got in the trade.  Win/Win trades make everyone happy, and make other teams likely to deal with you again.

24 October 2011

The Academic Sidetrack

Being a PhD student who hopes to someday get a university teaching job, I find myself being pulled in two directions at once. 

Of course, my main concern is to actually finish my PhD dissertation.  This is, of course, important, because these days, with so many freshly minted PhDs out on the job market, prospective employers have an easy time eliminating much of a large applicant pool by saying, "Let's look at the people with PhDs first."  So, in general, just finishing will have the potential to bump up your attractiveness as a candidate for a job.

There is, however, the saying in academia, "Publish or Perish."  Meaning that one must publish to make one's self attractive both in the job market, and on the Tenure Track.  Getting something published (in a refereed publication, of course) is a very time consuming task.

So I'm always somewhat torn as to whether I should be writing the dissertation, or trying to submit proposals to get stuff published, or to present stuff at conferences. 

Right now, I'm even more torn.  After just finishing and submitting a proposal to publish some of my work, I'm now turning to the always fun process of applying for post-doctoral fellowships and teaching jobs.  Those other PhD people out there know just what this is like, and with the prospect of double-digit applications due within the next 6 weeks, it's somewhat intimidating and taxing of my organizational skills.

This is what I call "The Academic Sidetrack."  The non-dissertational work that I'm doing over the next few weeks is very necessary, and (potentially) ultimately beneficial to my career, but unfortunately distracting me from what should be my number one priority. 

So, I take a deep breath, examine the (hypothetical) mountain of deadlines and teaching statements and cover letters and personal philosophies of study and ......

.... and away I go.

18 October 2011

To have your mind blown

Years ago, I worked in the music section of an Indigo bookstore (if you're American, think Barnes and Noble).  While the corporate structure was somewhat annoying, it was an amazing place to discover new music and new artists.

There were 3 or 4 of us who generally staffed the section and one of the biggest perks was that we could choose the music that was heard in the store.  Frequently, this had commercial implications, as we were only allowed to play CDs that we had multiple copies of.  However, what it did was make us scour the shelves for interesting things that either a) we had multiple copies of, or b) that we really dug and would order multiple copies of.

Back in those days, a music store actually had music in the store (rather than DVDs and video games) and Indigo had a pretty good selection of stuff that was pretty obscure.  This was my first introduction to the mind-blowing Susheela Raman.

A British singer of Indian descent, she combines south Indian music with popular styles.  Her first two albums (which we had in the store at that time) just blew my mind with the fusion of styles and her powerful voice singing in the microtonal ornamentation style.  Using tabla drums instead of drum set for the most part, some of what she did stuck with me as I began down the road of the creation of own musical fusion.

This blog entry comes from "rediscovering" her, through suggesting her music to a friend, and then learning of her latest album, Vel.  (Click the link to go to the site for the album.)

I felt that Raman had gotten away from the things that really interested me in her first two albums (Salt Rain and Love Trap) on her third offering, Music for Crocodiles.  My feeling was that her sound had become more mainstream, as if she was trying too hard to find a larger audience.  The fact that she recorded a song in French (she appears to perform a lot in France, and has released albums on French record labels), as well as more songs in English than in Tamil.  The melody lines on Music for Crocodiles seemed to be very typical of contemporary popular music, and lacked the original and unique sound of her previous work, and served as an uninspired vehicle for her unique voice and singing skills.

However it appears that she has since shed her record label, and become more adventurous again with her newest album.

On a quick listen, the more funky South Indian rhythms (including tabla) and more interesting microtonal ornamentation are more present on Vel than on Music for Crocodiles.  There is also much more heavy electric guitar as well as electronics, and more of a throbbing, driving rhythmic bent to a lot of the songs on the album from Music for Crocodiles, which seemed (to me at least) to be an attempt to remake herself as more of a coffee-house type singer/songwriter.

Vel, to me, sounds like a place where Raman is more comfortable, using her powerful voice to punctuate and float on top of a darker, heavier, thicker ambient atmosphere. 

If it is true that she is now self-producing and self-releasing (like so many artists are doing today), I highly recommend that you click the link, and buy her music (available on iTunes).

17 October 2011

On Occasion, Fortune Smiles

So much in this world is random.  Take fame for instance.  For every famous actor, musician, artist, author, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of equally talented individuals who toil in obscurity. 

What makes those who become famous rise to the top?  Are they any more talented than those who are not famous?  I believe that it is a number of factors that all coincide in the right person at the right time in the right place that lead to fame and success in the entertainment industry. 

Some might call it fate, others happenstance, but nonetheless, a series of seemingly random events need to occur for someone to be discovered, packaged, and promoted in order to "hit it big."

For most musicians who work in non-popular genres (classical music, jazz, world music, etc.), "hitting it big" occurs on a much smaller scale.

What I'm trying to say, is that as a klezmer/world-music-fusion artist, success is relative. 

So . . . what brought on this line of thinking? 

Back in August, I got an email through my band's website (www.klezfactor.com) from the TV production company (Insight Productions) that was putting together the biographical segments for Canada's Walk of Fame induction ceremony.  Veronica Tennant,* the producer of the bio segment to honour author Mordecai Richler's** induction, had heard some of KlezFactor's music on the CBC Radio 3 website and decided that it fit what she was looking for.  The TV producers wanted to know if I would give them the rights to use chunks of a bunch of songs from both of our albums to accompany the video segment. 

As a big fan Richler's writing, my only answer was yes.  Later, I found out that the esteemed Canadian actor Christopher Plummer*** was narrating the segment.  All this will be televised next Sunday (October 23) at 8PM on the Global Television Network in Canada (no, it's not all around the world... that's just the name of the network). 

The result of this is that my music is going to be heard on a national television broadcast (with probable re-broadcasts at some point), reaching infinitely more people that it ever has before. 

It is a huge honour and validation to be associated with this project.  First, to be associated with an author like Richler, whose work I have enjoyed for years, is extremely flattering (although, thinking about it, I can see some similar themes in the approach to Jewish identity between his writing and my music, but that's for another blog).  Second, to have Christopher Plummer's voice over my music is goosebump inducing (although I have yet to see/hear the segment).  And third, it's pretty fucking awesome to have my songs heard on national television.

So far, the widest television exposure I've had was an episode of Kenny vs. Spenny^ where they didn't want to have to pay for rights, so we just played some "traditional" klezmer music.  In the case of Canada's Walk of Fame, it was all above board, with a nice, mainstream cheque to go along with it. 

It's funny.  When people want to you to do something for free, they tell you that it will be great exposure. When it's actually something that IS great exposure, they pay you for it. 

However, I have no illusions that this "exposure" will lead to anything, besides a nice entry on my CV.  The nature of reality is that our music will be heard and absorbed as part of the presentation, and then relegated to a memory.  Perhaps it will influence and become part of the sense memory that people have about Richler and take that away from their watching of show, but at most, we'll have a credit at the end of the show (which will roll by too fast for anyone to actually see).

Don't get me wrong, I'm very proud of the work that I have done with KlezFactor (and plan to do more . . . keep reading over the coming months).  And I'm also very proud that our music was discovered randomly.  I'm very proud that Veronica Tennant, when scouting for music, reacted so strongly to what she heard of KlezFactor on CBC Radio 3. 

After all, that's why we do it.  All of us non-mainstream musicians toiling in obscurity make our music hoping to elicit as strong reactions in others as we get from ourselves.  For us, that's success.  The knowledge that others "get" our music. 

I'm about to experience the biggest "success" of my professional career, and almost no one except for my family, friends and you, dear readers, will know about it.  So while, on occasion, fortune smiles, it's more of a private, only-for-yourself kind of smile.  Like Mona Lisa's.  And that's not so bad, is it?


* for more on her, click here.
** for more on him, click here.
*** for more on him, click here.
^ Kenny vs. Spenny ran for about 5 years on a variety of networks and was syndicated internationally.  It was very much a niche tv show about two guys who had a (usually gross) contest each week.  Our episode was "Who is the better Jew?"  The show was made in what could be considered a guerilla style - very cheap, very fast and very off the cuff. 

9 October 2011

Happy Birthday, Multiculturalism!

As columnist Haroon Siddiqui points out in today's Toronto Star, yesterday was the 40th anniversary of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau's announcement of the policy of multiculturalism.

Siddiqui notes that the "failures" of multiculturalism in Europe stem from the European policies being dependent on political whim.  Here, multiculturalism is firmly ingrained into Canada's constitution, both in the 1982 Charter of Rights and the 1988 Multiculturalism Act, which reads that "multiculturalism is a fundamental characteristic of the Canadian heritage and identity and that it provides an invaluable resource in the shaping of Canada’s future." 

Canada's legislative commitment to encouraging a place for a multiplicity of cultures to live together is profound in a world where people's commitment to the proliferation and security of "their own kind" resonates strongly.*  Siddiqui traces this multicultural bent to the 1867 British North America Act which recognized the rights of "aboriginal peoples, English-speaking Protestants and French-speaking Catholics on the basis of race, language and religion."  These historically protected rights of minorities** have made Canada one of the most culturally rich places to live.***

As someone who is moving to Germany (one of the countries whose leader pronounced multiculturalism "dead"), I feel that the multicultural nature of Canada, and particularly, Toronto is something that I'm going to miss.  Even now, sitting in a Starbucks in a strongly Jewish neighbourhood in the northern suburbs of Toronto, I have seen and sat amongst Jewish people, black people, brown (south Asian) people, East Asian people (the neighbourhood also has a large Filipino population), and non-Jewish white people.  Riding the subway is another experience altogether, where one can hear upwards of 5 languages in a single subway car. 

Last summer, travelling through Europe, I felt uncomfortable in many of the homogenous European countries, particularly in Poland, Slovenia, and Croatia.  In Slovenia, I actually witnessed people giving a couple of African men dirty looks just for walking down the street.  In parts of Italy, the only black people you would see were Africans selling knock-off handbags on street corners.  It was only when I was in London that I felt more at home and comfortable with the vast array of humanity present. 

So what does all of this mean?  Genetically, the concept of ethnicity has already been disproven.  There is no such thing as "race," as all physical differences between people are merely adaptations to various living conditions around the world.  Therefore, since there is no such thing as race, one should feel just as at home in an ethnically diverse city like Toronto, or New York, or London, as in a much more homogenous one like Cracow, or Ljubljana. 

However similar our DNA is, sociologically, there are differences, with like gravitating to like.  As I've told young umpires as an instructor and evaluator, "Perception is Reality."  If we perceive differences between ethnicities, and thus act upon them, the reality is that there are differences.

That said, one of the things in moving to a new place is to experience a different culture.  Having lived in the United States for a couple of years (at a particularly volatile point in recent history, right around 9/11), I've experienced how two cultures (even as similar as Canada's and the US's) can be subtly different.^ Thus, I'm looking forward to experiencing the differences in German approaches to multiculturalism.

Anyways, to sum up this somewhat rambling blog, I'll just say, Happy Birthday, Canadian Multiculturalism!  Makes me proud to call Canada home.


* I just finished reading Niall Ferguson's compelling The War of the World, which is a fascinating look at the factors leading to World War II, and the decline of the world empires active at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Ferguson cites ethnic nationalism, specifically the desire to "liberate" a country's ethnic peoples living as minorities in neighbouring nation-states, and to homogenize the country's population, as one of the leading causes to much of the armed conflict around the world since the end of WWI.

** I won't get into the opression and indignities that Canadian governments have inflicted on Canada's First Nations peoples ("native americans").

*** Although this is more true for the big cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver than rural Canada.

^ Even Americans are surprised that things are subtly, yet significantly different in Canada.... as Homer Simpson once called Canada "America Junior."

5 October 2011

Why I Hate People

Finally, after many years of debating the long and short of it, I have come to the conclusion that yes, I really do hate people.  As the title of this blog indicates, this will be the illustration of the reasons that have led me to finally to come down on the "yes" side of this question.*

So, I'm gonna get all philosophical on yo' ass.  Not with the bookish philosophy of Kant and Socrates and those fellows.  I don't have the time or inclination to read all that. I'm gonna philosophize with Mike's Philosophy of Life(TM).

Today, while at the office** I had two run-ins that illustrated to me that people are by their nature self-centered and singular in thought.  The first "incident" wasn't actually an incident, but just my being aurally assaulted by a woman's baby that kept emitting loud screeches that were distracting me from my work.  Unfortunately, today I had left my iPod at home, thus was unable to drown out the piercing, banshee-like shrieks uttered by such a tiny child.

No.  I don't necessarily hate children.  In this case, the offender was the mom, who was oblivious to the effect that her screeching baby had on the people assembled in a public place.  The mom was totally focused on herself, her baby and her friend.  The constant irritation that her baby was causing actually made me get up and leave "the office" prematurely.

This fateful timing of my leaving led me to the next encounter with another self-centered human being.  While coming up to the double doors exiting Starbucks (double doors that swing outward, yes, that does matter to this story), I noticed an elderly woman with a walker approaching the double doors with her caregiver/assistant.  I waited, allowing the woman to enter, but when she did, she proceeded to insult my lack of manners.

Now, I understand the frustrations of the elderly.  Living with my 92-year-old grandfather, I know about the feelings of isolation for a senior citizen when most of their friends and family have already passed away, or are no longer capable of visiting.  I understand the feeling of helplessness when a once strong, independent, and healthy individual needs to rely on others for some of the most basic of needs. 

I also understand how the desire to keep living and surviving can make one's focus entirely on their own self.  We call this being "set-in-your-ways" to be polite, but it also closes one's mind off from how others may be thinking.

The old lady's comments made me realize not that she's a mean old bitch.***  It made me realize that she was incapable of interpreting my actions any differently than how she saw them.  In my mind, stepping back and waiting for her to enter was the polite thing to do.  Had I tried to open the doors for her (remember, they swing outwards), I would have hit her walker with the doors.  Her caregiver was still behind her, leaving her no choice to open the door for herself.

Her response was one of knowing that she was right and I was just another rude youngster who is signalling the coming of the apocalypse or some shit like that.  This showed me that the problem was not the lack of politeness in the world, but the lack of an ability to think beyond one's self and one's own state of mind.

By not seeing the effect that her child was having on the patrons of Starbucks, the woman with the baby was being self- (and baby-) centered.  By not being able to see that (at least in my mind) I was acting in deference to her, the old lady was being self-centered.

The notion of being self-centered is as old as humanity.  One must protect themselves, their kin, their village, their nation, etc., in that order.^  Even Jewish theology states that one may break the laws of the Torah to save their life.  However, in day to day life, being able to see the world from others' points of view is a valuable aid.

As an umpire, I learned very quickly, that when a coach was arguing a play, it wasn't necessarily that he was arguing the FACTS.  He was arguing the point of view.  I learned that the way I saw a play wasn't necessarily right or wrong, but it was my point of view.  As an official in sports, one must call their own point of view, rather than be influenced by that of either team.  This is why officials are encouraged to not change calls, especially in response to questioning from either team.  Officials are useless if they do not call the game with an independent point of view.

It is my experience in the "heat of battle" on the ball diamond getting yelled at and having to make a call on every play that allows me to see that there are other points of view that are equally valid to the people who experience them.  In fact, they are so convinced of their point of view that they are compelled to vociferously defend them to their teams.  Fundamentalists of all religions, political orientations and ethnicities are also particularly good examples of this.

Unfortunately, the world is the way it is because these people fail to see the validity of other points of view.  World views that don't allow the points of view of others lead us down the wrong paths to war, injustice, discrimination, and just general rudeness.

As the world becomes more crowded, and in particular as we become more publicly introverted (with iphones, ipads, ipods, igenes, irates) our ability to consider the people around us continues to erode.  

Being self-centered isn't good or bad.  It is how we are wired.  This is why I hate people.


* The question being, "Do I really, truly, actually hate people?"

** For a PhD student, the "office" is actually Starbucks (or some facsmile thereof).  In my case, it's one of the 2 Starbuckses within walk/cycle distance from home.

*** Although she may be.  I don't know her well enough to make that judgement.

^ See Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities for notions of how the "nation" is an imagined construct.

4 October 2011

Dinosaurs Rule! (but not on TV)

So last night, I played a "wallpaper" gig* with Jaro (the guitarist in KlezFactor) in the dinosaur section of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), which made me think of a new TV show out this fall, I think on the Fox network, called Terra Nova.  Having been rewatching the awesomeness that is Battlestar Galactica (BSG), I would like to call some attention to why Terra Nova is mediocre television at best.

In case you care, SPOILER ALERT!

So the premise behind Terra Nova (TN) is that in the year 2149, Earth is becoming uninhabitable for us humans.  Fortunately, scientists discovered a rift that opens up to Earth, but 85 million years ago.  They decide to send colonists back on a one way trip to populate their new colony of "Terra Nova." 

Interesting concept.  Steven Spielberg is on board as one of the 15,000,000 executive producers (ok, there are only about 11).  The series has endured production delays, cost overruns, and apparently, the special effects had to be redone after they looked bad the first time.

So what have I learned from watching the first 2 episodes? 

1: This show will never be good.
2: That's probably about it.

Reasons "Terra Nova" will never be good:

1: Whoever is making the creative decisions has no balls.  One of the amazing things about Battlestar Galactica was that Ronald D. Moore and David Eick (see.... only 2 executive producers) were fearless when it came to totally changing the paradigm of the show.  Whether it was flash-forwarding 1 year later, or killing off significant characters, or dealing with controversial issues (always important for good sci-fi), Moore and Eick didn't shy away from potentially alienating viewers.  Terra Nova seems to want to keep everyone happy, and thus, no one is.**

2: The characters are 1-dimensional peons who curry no empathy from viewers.  In the 2 episodes I've seen, the storylines don't take the characters on any journeys of the emotional or spiritual kind.  They're kind of action figures that are moved around to where they're needed.  You go here and protect the people from the dinosaurs.  You're the doctor, so you fix the wounds.  BSG was almost entirely character driven.  While it's too early to tell on TN, in BSG, the characters went on life changing journeys throughout the course of the show.  When someone close to them died, they felt it and were haunted by it.  When a character went through a traumatic experience, they were changed by it.  Who the characters were at the end of the show was different than when they started.

3: The special effects still suck.  The 2-hr pilot had dinosaurs that looked bad, and moved choppily. Jurassic Park was 17 years ago, and they got it right.  WTF?  In the 2nd episode.  There were no dinosaurs.  Instead they had little bird-like reptiles.  Is that because someone said that their dinosaurs looked stupid?  And while I acknowledge that spaceships (in BSG) are probably WAY easier to do effectively, the effects on Galactica were always amazing.  From Ron Moore's podcasts, it appears that the effects team was actively invested in the show and contributing beginning in the pre-visualization phase. They would deliver extra shots (for no additional cost), and fill every frame with interesting material.  From what I can tell on TN, there's a dinosaur (or bird-like reptile thing) but nothing like the level of interest or complexity that you got from BSG.  I still haven't noticed everything the effects crew put into their shots after having watched each episode several times.  

So yeah.  That's pretty much all I care to write about that.  I won't be watching the show again any time soon, and I miss Battlestar.  Thank god for the DVDs.

* A "wallpaper gig" is one in which the musicians are contracted to provide what is essentially "sonic wallpaper" or background music. 

** At least no one intelligent is.