Tuesday, March 25, 2014

2014 MLB Predictions, Part 2: National League

Carlos Gomez and the Brewers are everyone's favorite sleeper pick. Consider me a believer.
Most predictions for the National League have been a little bit bland as there is virtually zero deviation from the expectation that the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Nationals will win their divisions. As much I'll be rooting for some unpredictable chaos to throw those sure-thing predictions into disarray, I can't help but pick those three to be atop their divisions myself.

I do think the NL East will shape up differently than most are expecting, though.

(Win projections via Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system.)

NL West
1. Dodgers
PECOTA: 98 wins
My take: Under

The PECOTA system is known for being ultra-conservative, I don't remember ever seeing it pop out a win estimate this sky high. Taking the under here only means I don't think the Dodgers will be a 98-win juggernaut and the best team in baseball. They'll still be pretty damn good, though. You can try to nitpick their weaknesses (second base is nebulous, there's no real center fielder, the bottom of the rotation is troublesome, the manager is clueless strategy-wise), but the fact is: this team is going to be very good. Not 100-wins good, but certainly in the mix with the Nationals and Cardinals for top team in the NL.

2. Giants
PECOTA: 87 wins
My take: Over (Wild Card pick)

The Giants have transformed over the years from a team reliant on pitching & defense into an offense-oriented squad while its pitching lags behind. The run prevention is still bolstered by a strong defense and lefty Madison Bumgarner has established himself as an ace, but their once-dominant bullpen has a new tendency for hemorrhaging baserunners, Ryan Vogelsong's magic pixie dust has completely worn off (5.73 ERA last year, currently getting crushed in Spring Training) and, much to fans' dismay, Tim Lincecum just isn't the same Freak anymore. A full season from nifty pickup Tim Hudson and expected bounceback from Matt Cain will help on the mound and the offense is certainly deep enough to carry this team, leading me to believe this new version of the Giants is still plenty good enough to contend and possibly knock off the favored Dodgers.

Friday, March 21, 2014

2014 MLB Predictions, Part 1: American League

Tampa Bay's ace David Price will lead my World Series pick.

The new baseball season is suddenly upon us. Things are slated to begin a bit earlier than usual this year as the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will play the opening games of the regular season this weekend on the other side of the planet in Australia. Following that, Spring Training will awkwardly continue for another week before the rest of the teams kick off their season.

Here in Austin, I'll spend the next week or so hastily packing up to move into a new apartment with my girlfriend. Should be an exciting, hectic, and memorable time which will be almost immediately followed by a two-week trip to the Iberian Peninsula.

All of which is to say: I don't quite have the time to write as thorough an MLB preview as I had been doing for the previous 4 years. So I'll keep things as brief as I can this time around.

As always, I will use the season projections provided by Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system as a baseline and determine whether I think each team will finish above or below that baseline. These predictions are not all that serious, I wouldn't bet on most of them (the last four years my success rate is below 40% with plenty of embarrassing misses) since the 162-game season provides immense opportunity for variance, injuries, sudden breakouts or collapses, and every other kind of unforeseen event. But I'm a certified baseball addict with opinions about everything and what better place to share them than here?

Without further ado, here are my predictions for the 2014 baseball season.

Starting with the American League...

Thursday, February 27, 2014

On the Allure of Reading

Ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff out there that you want to read but haven't gotten to yet? A perfectly dorky question, isn't it? But as a voracious reader I'm occasionally plagued by an anxiety that I can't consume the things I want to read quite quickly enough.

This then raises the question: why does one read? For pleasure, entertainment, edification, stimulation?

Is reading really the best (or even most efficient) way to achieve those desired results?

It's usually around this time of year with the approach of spring when my dormant passion for baseball starts to reawaken and I begin consuming as much baseball literature as I possibly can. Some of it is for information---to catch up on news, rosters, promising players, breakout teams, etc---but what I derive from the obsessive consumption of baseball writing is usually pleasure. Good writing is pleasurable to read no matter what the subject but when it's on baseball, it's especially delicious. This is why Roger Angell remains one of my all-time favorite writers.

The rearrival of baseball and its collection of great writing only interrupts an already ever-growing stack of reading material, though. As I write this, I've got 4 unread copies of New Scientist magazine resting on my table, their headlines calling out to me. I originally subscribed to the weekly magazine to keep my reading balanced (I tend to jump headlong into obsessions, if you haven't noticed) and keep up with the cutting edge of 21st century science. At first, I would read every page of each magazine but as other text would take up my weekly reading time, the magazines kept arriving and just piling up. It's gotten to the point now where I simply flip through and identify intriguing articles, read 'em, and discard the magazine for the next one.

I'm doing largely the same with my subscription to the James Joyce Quarterly, eating up the most enticing portions and discarding the rest. After all, these are now competing with the new Baseball Prospectus annual, a phonebook-sized study of every team and player in the major leagues jam-packed with quality writing and info, as well as the newest Hardball Times Baseball Annual and I haven't even begun to dig into a multitude of other books I've been acquiring because I'm too busy trying to finish up writing a long and thorough walkthrough/review of John Bishop's enlightening but dense analysis of Finnegans Wake (you can read the first three parts at my Wake blog, the fourth and final part is forthcoming).

With all of this going on, I can't help but think of Marshall McLuhan's ideas in The Gutenberg Galaxy, how typography changes sensory ratios and captures (traps?) one in a world of linearity and rote order.

Having to spend 8 hours a day in an office away from all the stuff I want (need) to read certainly doesn't help my desire to progress through myriad published texts. Then again, my daily foray into the world of numbers as an accountant is often interrupted by perusing the internet for good stuff to read (this time of year, almost entirely baseball-related and oh my gosh there is plenty*) and once again entering the world of text, of reading.

And once in a while, I skim through my growing Amazon wishlist of all the books I look forward to reading; Pynchon, Tom Robbins, Vonnegut, Timothy Leary's biographies, Stanislav Grof's books, baseball books (of course), Finnegans Wake studies, and everything in between. Then I get anxious and impatient that the book-eating factory is not churning fast enough.

Occasionally I escape all of this to type sentences of my own.

And I can't help but wonder what it's all for. So much of my waking hours spent scanning miles and miles of text, absorbing information. How much of it sticks? How much of it provides a fleeting mental high? How much of it truly edifies me? Perhaps most importantly (and maybe this underlies the whole obsession), how much of it makes me a better writer?

Because, beyond entertainment and educational value, that's really what this comes down to. I'm fastidious about what I choose to read and how closely I read it because I want to be able to write like these people do. And I want my writing to contain interesting and voluminous information. I want people to be bookmarking my writing and spending their mental energies on it, deriving some pleasure or inspiration or knowledge from it.

And if I can just put aside all of the miles and miles of enticing text once in a while, I can work on creating some more of my own.

*The world of great internet baseball writing has been expanding for years now without sacrificing much in quality. It's hard to keep up with it all but I usually try to read all of these: Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, Hardball Talk, Jonah Keri at Grantland, Baseball Primer, Rob Neyer (recently relocated to FoxSports), the many solid writers at SB Nation, the Joe Sheehan Newsletter (subscription only) and... yeah there's a lot of baseball writing on the internet. But these voices really stand out for me.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Brain Pickings spotlights an Alan Watts classic

I could probably piggyback a Brain Pickings post at least once a week or so. It's surely one of the finest blogs on the internet and a must-read if you aren't already into it.

Today there is a nice lengthy post on one of my favorite books, Alan Watts' classic The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. There haven't been many books in my life that I've found to be so consistently rich and rewarding that I've been compelled to actually carry them around on my person for weeks at a time. I can think of just two: Watts' The Book and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature and Selected Essays. (Any reader of this blog knows how much I love Ulysses and Finnegans Wake but both are weighty, encyclopedic tomes dense with obscurity. Not ideal for carrying around in your pocket.)

Watts is undoubtedly one of the all-time great Western scholars on Eastern philosophy and this brilliant little book is essentially a philosophical lecture on the Hindu Vedanta perspective of the universe and man's place in it, explained in the most basic terms that a child could understand. It also serves as a nice summation of Watts' work as whole. There is a great collection of over thirty Alan Watts audio lectures on iTunes that I purchased a while back and I find myself coming back to these lectures over and over again for their soothing eloquence, humor, and Watts' unique combination of scholarship and wisdom. It's safe to say The Book is a distillation of his philosophy into a very compact, accessible format.

Definitely go check out the Brain Pickings breakdown and here's a snippet from Watts:

We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”
This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Falling Down the Kubrick Rabbit Hole

Since first hearing about the documentary Room 237 about a year and a half ago, I've become increasingly interested in the artform of Stanley Kubrick and the internet's rich array of exploration into his work. At this point, it's become a minor obsession of mine.

Much like James Joyce, Kubrick was an artist capable of building layer upon layer of meaning and reference into his work. His movies amount to moving-picture puzzles that invite the viewer to dive into them and try to uncode their messages according to their own perspective. When asked to explain the meaning of any of his movies, Kubrick was always deceptively vague and wouldn't offer much, preferring to let the films stand for themselves as works of art to be interpreted. Asked about the symbolic meanings contained in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick once said:
"They are the areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer. In this sense, the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it. If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates, however inchoately, his mythological and religious yearnings and impulses, then it has succeeded."
Personally, I haven't really gotten much enjoyment out of any of Kubrick's movies, haven't even seen any of them more than once. They strike me as too dark. Although I do recall that upon seeing A Clockwork Orange for the first time, knowing virtually nothing about it or its director, I declared to my friends that whoever made this movie is an absolute genius.

But it's the world of Kubrick analysis and interpretation I've found to be endlessly fascinating, much the way my fascination with Joyce's work began long before I'd read any of his books. The medium of film seems much more ripe for such deep analysis, though. Great as Finnegans Wake or Ulysses are, there's only so much you can squeeze into a sentence or paragraph, whereas a master filmmaker can insert a staggering amount of material into one shot and this is exactly what Kubrick---a true visual artist who was a renowned photographer prior to getting into film---specializes in.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Indigenous Arts of Moondog

I don't know how it took me all this time before I finally discovered Moondog. But, thanks to the glory of the internet, once I tasted a few drops of his music it wasn't long before the floodgates opened.

Moondog was a blind composer, street musician, and poet who spent decades plying his craft on the streets of New York City in the mid-20th century, busking and selling his music and poetry. Known as "The Viking of 6th Avenue", the eccentric blind bearded artist always wore full Viking regalia
New York Times image
(clothes which he made himself), spear included.

The blind man's sound is spellbinding, intoxicating, invigorating, enchanting---often a Native American-influenced thumping drum pattern forms the spine of his symphonic melodies with their whistling flutes, moaning horns, or lilting violins. Together with the indigenous tribal thump, his music is known for incorporating the sounds of the world, whether it's animals (frogs croaking, birds squawking), the crashing ocean waves, a boat's foghorn, or the grumbling of car engines. It's all combined together into a unique jazz-classical hybrid occasionally punctuated by readings of his short, playful poetry.

Mostly self-trained as a musician, he was adept with many instruments and even invented a few of his own. During his years busking in New York he eventually connected with some major composers of the era who helped get him to record studio albums and even conduct major orchestras. Despite reaching the heights of conducting symphonies in Carnegie Hall he remained devoted to the streets, regularly donning his hand-made Viking garb, rain or shine, to stand out and play for pedestrians.

Surely the most fascinating character I've come across in a while, his story sounds mythical and his sound is mystical. He even has a timeless look to him, his face could be the face of Da Vinci or Aristotle.

Thankfully there appears to be a documentary about him slated to be released this year.

A few of my favorite Moondog sound clips will follow. The first one should be strikingly familiar.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Catching Up and Looking Forward

Happy New Year!

I must apologize for yet another extended absence (more than 2 months without any posts here) as my life continues to undergo major changes. It's been nearly six months since I met my girlfriend (under highly serendipitous circumstances) and things continue to grow more exciting as we get to know each other more. I also recently gave in and decided to convert from part-time to full-time work after almost 3 years of working about 20 hours per week, during which time I was content to be just barely making it financially.

I was juggling two different part-time jobs for a while with the workload inching ever closer toward full-time so it finally made sense to ditch the sillyness of having two part-time positions and stick with one full-time job. The transition has gone pretty smoothly thus far but it will definitely be a challenge to keep up with all the reading and writing I plan to do while staying physically and socially active with half of my week's waking hours devoted to an office job. I'm taking solace and inspiration in the fact that there are writers out there who not only have full-time jobs and write prolifically on the side but who also have families to take care of, too. For now, I've got just one mouth to feed and should have plenty of mental energy to devote to my intellectual pursuits each week.

On that note, another reason for the slim presence on my two blogs lately is that I've spent an absurd amount of time working on one very large piece. I've wanted to write a very thorough summary review of Joyce's Book of the Dark by John Bishop for many years now because it is without a doubt the largest and most enlightening study of Finnegans Wake there is and I've always been disappointed at how little discussion there is about it on the internet. Bishop's book unpacks so many interesting ideas in such a thorough manner, you'd have thought someplace out in the far reaches of the interweb universe there'd be some intensive talk about it. But I haven't found much at all. Even the book's Amazon page only has 6 reviews, one of them a misguided and confused 1-star.

It was actually from Bishop's book that I got the title for my blog devoted to Finnegans Wake (pg. 169: "Finnegans, wake!, you have nothing to lose but your chains"), highlighting the imperative angle of Joyce's title, urging all the sleeping Finnegans to wake up! and take off their shackles of mental and spiritual slumber. A main part of my intention with starting that blog was to write reviews for the many fascinating studies of the Wake that are out there and certainly none come close to matching the originality and depth of Bishop's book.

So as soon as I finished up with reading the Wake last December, I jumped right into Bishop's book for the first time and devoured it within a few weeks. Then I started composing a review and realized... I needed to read it again. This second reading took many months as I was thoroughly parsing this heavy scholarly (yet entertaining and readable) text to take notes and distill its vastness into a sharp summary.

Almost a year later, I'm still not quite finished with the process but I've completed enough of it to start putting up the Bishop review/summary in pieces. PART 1 is up at my other blog now, I hope you'll go read it. [Just posted PART 2, two more to come soon.]

In the meantime, I'll be chipping away at the remainder of the review and trying to build up some writing momentum so as to keep both blogs alive and healthy throughout 2014.
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