Random amusements

Desmond Warzel’s unconventional short story adopts the format of a forum thread, were that forum devoted to time travel – the real thing, not the fictional. Warzel nails the tone brilliantly, from the clueless noobs to the exasperated mods. I only wish it went on longer.

Equally fun, but much harder for most people to experience, is the Bear Creek Saloon in the Montana wilderness. I’ve been there, twice, I think. The food and drink are adequate, the room engagingly antiqued, but none of that is why you go. Out back, the place has a dirt racetrack where it races piglets upon which you may wager. If you’re ever driving between Billings and Bozeman, it may be worth a detour.

Speaking of words that start with “ra” and end in “e” (“race” and “rate”, in case you were wondering), the Compare People application on Facebook lets friends – well, Facebook friends – rate each other in various skills and characteristics. It also sends out periodic e-mails to let you know how you rank. Here’s one I recently received:

Here is what your friends think about…

… your strengths:

best dancer
most dateable
most helpful

… your weaknesses:

most talkative

I’m talkative?

Annual opening-day retrospective

How did I do in predicting the pennant races last year?

NL East

Washington would have trouble winning a AAA championship. Last year, Florida’s rookies performed far beyond expectations. Are they that good or did they, on the whole, luck out? I don’t see Dan Uggla or Miguel Olivo repeating their performances, they still don’t have a center fielder, and the pitching is below average on average. I wouldn’t be surprised by an Atlanta pennant, but I think they have to rely on a few too many lucky breaks with the starting pitching and in LF, 2B, and 1B – and 3B if you count Chipper Jones’s health as lucky. The Phillies have the starting pitching, but still haven’t addressed the hole at third, and have an outfield with two journeymen. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Braves finish higher, but I do think the Phillies are the better team – but not quite good enough. It’s the Mets again, folks – a bit weak in starting pitching, but this team can rake.

The Mets lost the division with a collapse of historic proportion. Other than that, I was bang on. If the Mets had been able to get a bit more out of starter Pedro Martinez, they’d have held on.

NL Central

I picked the Cubs last year, and God help me, I’m doing it again this year, with no Dusty Baker in the way. I’d prefer a stronger middle infield, but the starting pitching blows great to middling, which is enough to set the pace in this division. Milwaukee is a team on the rise, and will rule this division in a year or three, but until they replace Graffanino, they won’t win the division. Sheets may be the best pitcher in the league and Capuano is good (Milwaukee plays in a bandbox, remember), but bottom of the Cubs’ rotation is better than the Brewers’ bottom three. The Cardinals continue to age, but rejuvenated their starting pitching with good talent. On the other hand, Chris Duncan is not going to do that ever again. I can’t see them winning over the rebuilt Cubs. Cincinnati? I can’t pick any team relying on Eric Milton, Adam Dunn, and a pack of singles hitters. David Ross is for real, though. Houston continues to try to prove it can win with a rotation of Oswalt, a decent #2, and three batting practice machines. If only Clemens would join earlier. Houston might surprise, but they’ll need Jason Jennings to pull a rabbit out of his hat. Coors wasn’t responsible for his inability to strike people out.

Milwaukee did replace Graffanino, with Ryan “the Hebrew Hammer” Braun, who played so well at third base that he’s a left fielder now, but the Cubs’ pitching brought them to first. Chris Duncan did better than I expected, but so what? Cincinnati players had some good seasons, much better than I predicted, and I’m perplexed that the team’s record was as bad as it was. The pitching wasn’t that terrible, considering the park. Regardless, I hit oracle level on this call as the Cubs pitchers led the way.

NL West

This is becoming my favourite division in baseball. The Rockies are the Rockies. Helton is now Sean Casey, masked by the park. Coors is no place for a side-armer, so expect Kim to do nothing. The team still has no pitching. I love to watch the Giants lose, maybe because I get the Bay Area feed of DirecTV and the homerism sickens me. I’ll be doing a lot of loving this summer. Last year’s acquisition of Matt Morris is followed up with Zito this year. Way to go! Last place for the Giants. The Dodger starters are a strength. I like the team, but Luis Gonzalez was not the answer to any question that needed asking. Nor was Juan Pierre. Matt Kemp and Brady Clark should start. I predict the Dodger season goes down the tube with injuries. The D-backs and the Padres will battle for the crown. Both teams have a ton of ability at the plate. The Padres in particular are solid 2 to 9 in the field and plate. What blows me away are the Padres pitchers. Peavy, Young, and Hensley are all potential all-stars. Then there’s Maddux and Wells, who still contribute. Wow. Padres take the division and go to the World Series.

The team has pitching. Despite Matt Holliday, the Rockies’ offense was average overall. Pitching took this team to the World Series. Who’da thunk? The Padres lost because the Giles brothers stunk and Clay Hensley made me look like a fool. Maddux couldn’t pick up all the slack as he turned in a merely average performance.

The D’backs and Padres did battle at the top, but it wasn’t the hitting that did it. The D’backs were a below average hitting team once the park is taken into account. Both teams had stupendous bullpens, but Brandon Webb could have been MVP. I pretty much called the Dodgers (Way to get Juan Pierre in there for 668 ABs!) and the free-falling Giants, who have, at least, above average starting pitching.

AL East

Another year, another Yankee/Red Sox showdown. The Sox have improved everywhere they could. This is one solid team – but so are the Yankees. I think that at the start of the season, the Sox have the best team in the division. The Yanks are weak at 1B (DOUG MIENTKIEWICZ????!!???) and a little weak on the bench and a notch below the Sox in starting pitching. Last year I was burned by underestimating the Yankees’ ability to shop for repairs. I’ll pick them, but I still think Boston is better. The Blue Jays are good, but Vernon Wells will take a step down and as much as I adore the Big Hurt, he’s a big-hurt risk. The Jays’ pitching is not a selling point, either. What’s Royce Clayton doing in uniform? The Jays will be lucky to get ten homers from the middle infield. The Orioles are OK – no real weakness, but fewer strengths. It’s a losing team. Time to sell. The Devil Rays are fun. Not good, but fun. Small steps….

I hate this division. Can I call this a win? The Yankees didn’t go shopping, but stayed with 33-year-old Johnny Damon after awarding him that $52-million contract. Oops – but there’s only two years to go. Mike Mussina and Kei Igawa were worse, but the Yanks didn’t buy any pitching, either. Meanwhile, the Red Sox had the best pitching in baseball, and good hitting to go with it. The Jays had a nice season on the backs of their starting pitching, but Vernon Wells was Johnny Damon. The Orioles took my advice, once the season ended. And weren’t the Devil Rays fun?

AL Central

The Tigers spent the season in the limelight before fading and taking the wild card. Too many things went right last year. It won’t happen again. The Tigers are not a bad team, they’re just not good enough. The White Sox are leaking talent and not filling the holes. Podsednik is not an asset. Neither is Buehrle. Uribe needs to hit 30 homers to add value. Again, this team’s just not good enough. Cleveland or Minnesota. Minnesota or Cleveland. Nope. It’s the Royals’ division to lose. April Fool’s! Cleveland and Minnesota are both very good. Either can win the division. I’m going with Minnesota on the edge in defense and pitching depth.

I shoulda gone with Cleveland, eh? The Twins gave 500+ plate appearances to Nick Punto. Their best hitter? Johan Santana, with an OPS of 1089. Cleveland tried to keep pace by running Josh Barfield out there, but the other hitters compensated to produce an overall average offense. Cleveland’s pitching took first, not the bats.

AL West

This one isn’t close. The Angels might be the only team over .500 in the division. Oakland might threaten if they get the good Esteban Loaiza and the less-recent versions of Crosby and Chavez. Still, they have more pitching than the Rangers, which is a pity because that’s another team that can sock.

Ding! Another winner. The Angels weren’t that good a team, but look who they played. The Rangers didn’t sock as hard as maybe could have. The Harden, Chavez, and Crosby injuries took Oakland down a peg, but otherwise the team didn’t perform too poorly. I’m still trying to figure out how Seattle finished seven games above .500.

Look for the 2008 prognostications to come within a week. I’m money in the bank, baby – though this is for entertainment purposes only.

Beat reporting

Here’s some advice on becoming a beat reporter from Mitch Wagner, tech journalist and fellow member of the Internet Press Guild.

I was a beat tech reporter for 12 years, and a beat reporter on community newspapers for four years before then. I changed beats a lot. Changing beats a lot is great because it makes you a generalist. You need to be a generalist to survive in tech journalism, because technologies become obsolete fast, and dominant companies become unimportant dinosaurs in a few years.

You also need to *specialize* to survive in journalism, but there’s really no contradiction here. Your specialization is technology, and you should strive to become as much of a generalist within that field as possible.

So congratulations! You just started your first day as a beat reporter! You don’t have anybody to show you the ropes, because your predecessor was fired summarily after an unfortunate incident involving the publisher’s niece which nobody’s willing to talk about. Nobody on the publication knows anything about this new beat – including you – but you’re now expected to be an expert! Here’s how to get yourself up to speed.

1) Write a lot. That’s about 90% of it right there. Keep interviewing people for stories, write a lot of stories, and that’ll get you up to speed. When you are doing interviews for your stories, keep asking questions about anything you don’t understand.

1a) If you’re talking to marketing people, they probably don’t understand the issues either, but they’ll pretend you do. If someone keeps talking and talking and you *still* don’t understand what they’re saying, it’s probably because they don’t know what they’re talking about but are pretending they do. Try to talk to product managers instead of marketing managers.

2) Get yourself on every press release distribution list within your specialty that you can. Contact MediaMap and Barrons to let them know your beat. Sign up for PRNewswire and BusinessWire to receive press releases on your beat. This will be a great source of stories at first. You’ll quickly outgrow it, but you can – and should – just write e-mail filters to shunt the press releases off into a folder somewhere and check that folder once or twice a day.

2a) It’s easier to write filters to whitelist good e-mail, and let everything that’s not on the whitelist go into a folder that you check once or twice a day.

2b) You are signing up to receive a ton of spam forever. Alas, that can’t be helped.

3) Learn who the competition is, and read them religiously. Your editors can tell you who the competition to the publication is – read them. Read CNET, InformationWeek, Computerworld, and eWeek. Read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal technology sections. Let Google tell you which are the niche publications in your beat area – type in the name of the technology and beat you cover and see what floats to the surface in blogs and publications. Occasionally ask your sources which publications they read and which conferences to attend. Which brings us to:

4) Get out of the office and meet people face-to-face. I live in San Diego, which is not Silicon Valley or New York but it ain’t Bismarck, North Dakota, neither. I get out for a few days every couple of months to conferences and to meet people who happen to be local. It’s great for developing sources and getting new story ideas, but it’s also exhausting. I’m a freaking Internet hermit, it’s a beautiful Saturday today and I’m still sitting here at my desk on the damn internets. But it’s necessary to get out and meet face-to-face.

5) Here in the 21st Century, it’s also necessary to be on the internets. Participate in discussion on blogs and forums and mailing lists in your beat area. Get on LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter. It’s a form of networking – just like getting out of the office.

6) Several people on this group have suggested off-the-record background conversations with analysts and vendors to discover what are the big issues. I’m not a big fan of that. To the best of your ability, every conversation should be on the record. You’re not serving your readers if you can’t put it in print.

6a) Casual conversations at conferences – over lunch or drinks – are in sort of a gray area between on the record and off the record. When I hear something juicy during a casual conversation, I run it by the source to see if it’s ok to print it. I’m not asking permission when I do this, but I am listening to what they have to say in response. Possible responses: “Yeah, sure, go ahead and print it,” or “I don’t remember saying that. Did I really say it? Why on Earth did I say a stupid thing like that? They must have put something in my coffee.”

7) See tip #1. Write a lot.

That’s all I can think of for now.