Thursday, September 29, 2005

29 September 2005: Repeat

This blog suffers a little from seasonal repeats. Just like turning on BBC1 at Christmas and seeing Mary Poppins or Zulu, arrive at this blog in late September/early October and you'll find me talking about the Atlanta Braves.

For those who don't follow baseball, it's quite a remarkable story: the Atlanta Braves were, for a long time in the 1980s, a load of old rubbish. In 1990, they finished bottom of their division with the worst record in the whole of baseball. Then in 1991, with the same management staff of Bobby Cox, John Schuerholz and Leo Mazzone, they added a couple of young players and suddenly began winning games. Young pitchers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz had break-out years, Glavine winning the Cy Young 'pitcher of the year' award, and the Braves won their division. They then went all the way to the World Series, losing narrowly to the Minnesota Twins in the final inning of the final game.

The following year, with much the same team, nobody expected them to win their division again. The Dodgers and the Giants were much too good, surely. Not a bit of it: the Braves won quite comfortably, leading from the front, and suddenly people began to take serious notice. Again a close World Series loss meant a sad end to the post-season, but the pattern was set. The Braves were a team who won their division.

And so here we are, fifteen years later, and the Braves have won their division every year since. Fourteen in a row (the 1994 season was shortened by a strike and never finished), and while most of the players have changed (only Smoltz remains of the original '91 miracle team), the Holy Trinity of Cox, Schuerholz and Mazzone remain in charge, bringing through a seemingly endless stream of young players who come in, do supremely well and lead the Braves to yet another division title. This years crop of rookie wonder-kids include catcher Brian McCann, infielders Wilson Betemit and Pete Orr, outfielders Kelly Johnson and Ryan Langerhans, pitchers Kyle Davies and Blaine Boyer. Oh, and right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who played only half the season but ranks third in the Majors in outfield assists, and for a long time was hitting over .400, feats that earned him a solo-slot on the front cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.

So, on Tuesday night, the Phillies lost and the Braves beat the Rockies, thus confirming the fourteenth title in a row. And here's where it gets weird. Next week, the post-season playoffs begin between the various division winners, and the Braves will do a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation into the most useless team of non-hitting, weak-pitching baseball players you'll have seen since watching the first half of movies like The Natural, Bull Durham and Major League. Yup, just like last year, it'll be Tumbleweed Week.

The Braves used to enjoy post-season. They'd fight through the NLCS and get to the World Series, usually losing a close encounter (1991, 92, 96) or, once, winning it (1995). Since losing to the Yankees in a series of blown opportunities in that '96 series though, there's been something of a shift. They've only made the world series once in eight tries since then, and even then (1999) they lost in four straight games to the Yankees. In the last few years, they haven't even made it to the NLCS, losing in the division series, often to the wildcard team. And in these games, they seem to just roll over and die, blown away like tumbleweed in a light desert breeze. They win their division every year, but the fact is this: they have not won a World Series game since 1996. That's almost a decade ago.

I know, I know, this is a good team, it's full of youth and hunger, the players know how to battle and know how to win in tough circumstances. Andruw Jones leads the league in home runs and RBIs. John Smoltz and Tim Hudson are two of the best pitchers in baseball right now, both headed for the Hall of Fame. But then you look at how the playoffs are lining up, and you realise the Braves will probably be playing a five-game series against the Houston Astros next week, who will send Pettite, Oswalt and Roger Clemens to the mound to pitch for them, and suddenly you remember losing to them at the same time last year, and the mountain grows in your mind.

I hope it's different, and maybe it will be. But the pattern is set: Braves win their division, then turn into lollygaggers. Right now, we don't need Andruw Jones or Tim Hudson or Jeff Francoeur.

What we need is Francisco Cabrera. And maybe a bat named 'Wonderboy'.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

27 September 2005: DuncMcRae

What do washing machine sales, backpacking holidays in New Zealand and a list of non-denominational churches in Iowa have in common? Me, apparently.

Yesterday, while searching for some very old Pasoti pages to prove a point, I ended up Googling myself, or more specifically my online 'DuncMcRae' persona, and was surprised by what came up. Top of the list was a recent syndication of this blog to LiveJournal, followed by the to-be-expected hits of This AKTing Lark and good ol', which I've barely updated since going round the world in 2002/03. But then the weirdness begins.

A few are understandable. I'm DuncMcRae on Pasoti, so there are some Plymouth Argyle pages, and Judith Owen's website needed an email address (which they published!) so I gave them my spam-happy account details. But then it gets very weird.

The legendary photograph of Gareth bravely eating grilled cow saliva gland in Buenos Aires is quoted by several posters on, whatever that may be, in some kind of competition to discover disgusting things eaten in Argentina. have a section on Kelvin MacKenzie and seem to have treated the Spinners story as a factual report, which surprises me since the story details the ongoing power struggle for the British government between Bill Gates and the Teletubbies.

Most wonderful, though, is the (possibly soon-to-be-vanishing) 'Washing Machine' search page at The website sadly no longer exists, but Google's cache of the page clearly reveals that my round-the-world diary site is the fourth best place to look for cheap washing machines online. Fourth? Yes, sadly my e-commerce washing machine enterprise is being beaten by Kelkoo UK and a couple of Scottish cottage-letting agencies.

Try the same trick on MSN or Yahoo and you don't get anything as interesting, although for some reason they both link my name with a call-girl page from Kaitaia (New Zealand), which I didn't click on to find out more! Given that the most fun I had in Kaitaia was watching Premiership football live at 4am on Sunday mornings, I'm not sure where they got that from. Maybe the Wayfarer Motel had a lot more going on than I knew about?

Either way, it just goes to show that Google remains ahead of the competition. Any search engine that can use me to link Argentinean cow saliva glands, Plymouth Argyle and online washing machine sales is worth its place as my default search engine.

Now, didn't I have some work to do?

Friday, September 23, 2005

23 September 2005: Pulis

Plymouth Argyle have appointed Tony Pulis as their next manager.

The fans on Pasoti are evenly split on the appointment, which frankly has been the worst-kept secret in football for the past week. The problem is this: Pulis makes his money by creating teams that are tall at the back, hoof the ball as far up the field as they can and hope someone can get on the end of it. If they can't, his team will aim for a nil-nil draw. Historically, his teams have had a lot of nil-nil draws.

More worrying is this article written by Bristol City fans when Pulis was appointed manager of Stoke. Pulis, formerly City manager as well as Bournemouth and Pompey (before 'Arry got hold of them), not only plays the worst kind of football with the sole aim of finishing no higher than 16th in the league every year, but he also seems to foster bad relationships with the club, the board and the fans wherever he goes. City fans warned Stoke supporters to "prepare yourselves for bizarre signings, even more bizarre press conferences with comments bearing no relationship to the evidence played out before you, and a manager-led backlash against you when it all goes wrong."

But most worrying for me is that it seems Argyle have just stepped back exactly fifteen years and six months to the spring of 1990, when the manager was sacked and after a short, unsuccessful caretaker stint by John Gregory (whatever happened to him?), the board appointed one David Kemp as manager. Over the coming weeks he managed to sell, release or alienate all the talented footballers at the club (he was the one who released Tynan, remember, not to mention Summerfield, Stuart et al) and bring in players of non-league ability such as Mark Fiore, Andy Clement, Adam King, Mark Quamina, oh my goodness the list is endless and is frequently published on Pasoti. Kemp's ambition (if you could call it that) was to stay up by playing 'hoof it as far and as high as you can' football, usually in the vague direction of non-entity players such as Robbie 'The Elbow' Turner, Paul Robinson and Morrys Scott. The fans left in their droves, the results went downhill fast, and after a successful (ie we didn't go down) 1990/91 campaign, it went further wrong in 91/92 and Kemp was rightly sacked after managing just one away win in eight months. Shilton/McGovern came in, brought good football and good results, but it was too little too late. Kemp had already done the damage, and Argyle went down. Thanks to him and Dan Macauley, it took twelve years before Argyle got back to again play in the division now known as 'The Championship'.

My point? Pulis' appointment seems to mirror Kemp's in many, many ways and while he may keep Argyle up, I see no more ambition than that from Pulis or the board from now until the day we die. And it's sad to say that on the day he's appointed, and I hope I'm wrong. I really do.

Oh, and did I mention who has been appointed as Pulis' assistant?

Yup, that's right. It's David Kemp.

God have mercy on our souls.

Monday, September 19, 2005

19 September 2005: Moon

NASA have announced they're going back to the moon.

Why? Did they leave the oven on or something?

Postscript: busy times mean fewer blogs, but updates include the news that the Cathedral event was well received, I'm now an uncle for the second time (congratulations to Chris, Ali, Matt and new baby boy Jamie) and I'm engaged. Blogs have been taking second stage, and I apologise.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

13 September 2005: Ashes

England won the Ashes. (In case you somehow managed to miss the blanket coverage in the UK news.)

So despite the busyness of life generally, the downtime of the Citeseer server specifically, the impending fuel crisis in the UK (I'd better be able to get to the Cathedral on Thursday) and the fact that it's the middle of September, the cricket took centre stage yesterday as it has done increasingly over the summer. The fact is this: cricket doesn't get any better than this, or any bigger than this. This is it.

The momentum has grown through the summer, from the defeat in the first match right through England's close victories and almost-victories to yesterday's thank-goodness-Warne-dropped-that-catch moment, which would have seen the series probably go the other way. The nation is captured, perhaps more so than when England won the Rugby World Cup a couple of years ago: this happened here, in England, against the number one team in the world, and it was the first time we've beaten them in a series for eighteen years. And the sad thing is, that's it.

In many ways it's a shame. Football takes over - Champions League tonight - and there's no more cricket (apart from a few county games) until the winter tours of Pakistan and India, and next summer's series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Not quite the same. And what's worse is that those games will only be on Sky's subscription-based stations. The eight-million-plus audience of yesterday will be reduced to a little over one million next summer, and the interest will wane, just as it has done with boxing and rugby league over the years. Yesterday was not only the last day of the greatest series I've ever known, it was the last day of cricket on normal TV in the UK. No more Richie Benaud, no more leaving for three minutes to show some minor horse race, no more having to finish at six o'clock so they can show The Simpsons. No more cricket, except for the highlights on Five, presumably with Jonny Gould and John Barnes providing commentary?

It's a shame, and I mean that - it's shameful - that the cricket authorities have opted for money over exposure, without realising that you need exposure to bring the next generation of fans to the game. Without TV coverage, I'd never have followed the disastrous Ashes series of 1989 and thence every tour since. Test Match Special is good, but you need the pictures. Unless something is done, this will be the end of cricket in this country, at least as a major sport. Short-term gain outweighs long-term health, say the ECB. What does that say to today's young fans?

Yesterday was a climax, and after every climax there is a coming-down. I just fear for how far English cricket will fall from this great, perhaps final, height.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

6 September 2005: Sacked

Bobby Williamson is no longer Plymouth Argyle manager.

Bizarrely, the media don't seem to have picked it up yet. The Argyle board issued the Press Release at 9.30pm, it's now 11.10 and the BBC website and Sky Sports News seem unaware that Bobby has won the Sack Race in this year's Championship. Still, they'll catch up.

Can't say I'm too saddened by this. It's sad that it didn't work out for Bobby, and it's sad that he wasn't able to keep up his early promise, seeing the team to victory in the third tier of English football a couple of years ago, and a good start to last season. It all went wrong from there very quickly and Argyle only stayed up by three points last year. This year has been worse by all accounts: although the defeats haven't been heavy, they've been comprehensive, and suddenly the selling of players like Graham Coughlan and David Friio seem quite short-sighted given the way the previously successful team had been built around that solid backbone through the formation.

Wise heads on Pasoti note that Jocky Scott taking temporary charge may not be for the best: those who attend reserve games and training sessions report Jocky, until now the team coach, is nothing short of abusive towards the players. Some believe he, rather than Bobby, has been the problem. But the timing of the announcement (late at night, a long time after the last game) perhaps implies an imminent appointment. Tony Pulis, John Gregory, Peter Reid and even Paul Sturrock are the names being banded around. We'll see what develops over the next few hours and, perhaps, days.

Frankly, as long as it's not David Kemp I think we'll be fine.

Addendum: 11.19 and Sky Sports News have a two line report with a few seconds footage of Bobby shouting on a touchline somewhere. AFTER the report from the Chester - Grimsby game in the basement division. Great stuff.

6 September 2005: Resolution

A number of correspondents (two is a number, right?) ask what happened about Bulldog.

All very strange, as it happens. After the final call to their various support desks, who as usual promised the problem would be resolved and I'd receive a phone call within forty-eight hours, I gave them three days rather than the standard two before deciding enough was enough. However, due to younger sister's wedding in Devon, I didn't have time to call and cancel that Friday morning before jumping in the car with Gloria and Martyn and heading off down to the cream country. Do it after the weekend, I thought.

So I was surprised when Rob called later that day with a message saying "I assume you called BT because our phone is now working properly." I hadn't called BT. Bulldog had fixed it. Without calling me, of course, but they had fixed it. Or the faeries had got into the exchange and fixed it, which frankly seems just as likely.

So what to do? My desire is to leave Bulldog because of their poor service, but we'd have the hassle of returning to BT and paying signing-on fees to join Force9 or whoever for broadband, which would be the same price as we're paying Bulldog. We still have cheap Bulldog for another few months before we start paying the full price (albeit reduced because we can't get over 1.2Mbps on the broadband), so we'll leave it until Christmas and then see. Meantime they seem as reliable as Pipex (which is to say: not very, but certainly no worse) and, swallowing pride, we're staying with them. At least until they screw up again.

Last week we got the most apologetic grovelling letter I've ever seen on letter-head paper, as Bulldog promised they'd make things better in the coming months at least five times in as many paragraphs. Sweet of them, but I'd have preferred one saying "sorry for screwing you around and lying to you on at least five occasions, we'll give you another month for free."

Maybe I should call them...

Thursday, September 01, 2005

1 September 2005: Back

Back to the desk today, back to applying algorithms by Messrs Kleinberg and Chen to the Citeseer metadata, back to big fat data transformations, web services and the other myriad little parts that there currently are to my PhD research. Also back to the gym, in early training for what hopefully will be a half-decent stab at the London Marathon, back to the steady diet of Z88.3 and KFOG on the internet radio, back to routine. And you know what? I love it.

Martyn and Rob have both moaned about going back to work over the last couple of weeks, but I'm thoroughly enjoying it, far more than I thought I would when I began almost two years ago. The research isn't quite what I thought I'd be doing but it suits me well, and I'm enjoying the teaching far more than I ever thought I could. (Perhaps it's because it gives me the opportunity to prove I know more than my students, although even that isn't always the case.) Gloria begins work today too, at the school up the road, meaning we get to see each other far more often, although I'm at a loss as to what to do with my lunchtimes given there'll be no webcam chats any more. As I write, the sun shines outside and the temperature will be a pleasant 22 or 23 for the next few days. Things are going well, and life seems good.

I say 'seems' because it's hard to get past the news from elsewhere in the world. New Orleans seemed on Monday to have survived the worst of Katrina's wrath due to said hurricane deciding to slow down and turn right instead of smacking into the heart of the French Quarter. Now, though, it's starting looking like something from Bangladesh or Mozambique: hundreds, maybe thousands dead; water and sewage mingling poison in the streets and pipes; mass-scale looting and evacuations. You know something's very wrong when they start evacuating people after the event.

Beyond that, over a thousand dead in the stampede in Iraq caused by suicide bomb rumours. No bomb, but proof that rumours can be even more deadly. And in case everyone had forgotten, there's a famine in Niger that rivals anything seen in our lifetimes, and the World Food Programme is way short of its relief target, having received almost no new donations in the last two weeks, according to Reuters. With the focus of the media currently shifted to Louisiana, it's hard not to fear for the residents of Niger.

And that's the problem when things seem to be going to well at home. We think and pray for those suffering, and I do think that's of value. We give to appeals for the tsunamis and the famines not just to clear our conscience, but because it does make a difference. But life goes on here, just as there, and routine is simply how we go on living our lives. And if we're happy, all the better.

It's just sometimes hard to know what to feel, and what to feel guilty about feeling.