Begging The Question

Friday, May 06, 2005

If the NBA Finals were between the Magic and Bullets, then you might be on to something with this conspiracy theory!
Mr. Longtime Reader writes in to opine on the latest goings-on with the NBA. Says LR:
I almost never pay attention to the NBA. I haven't followed it with any real interest since Bird and Magic retired. In the past ten years, I've probably seen the equivalent of a full game on television. I've never attended an NBA game in person, and have even passed up free tickets to a game when offered them once. Professional basketball is just incredibly uninteresting to me. However, the sport's participants never seem to tire of drama -- they could make a soap opera out of the NBA. One dramatic turn that caught my eye this week was the latest conspiracy theory.

Every year, it seems, fans and coaches and players make some insinuations that the league and the tv networks would prefer to have certain teams do well in the playoffs. The league always denies it, and I'm sure it would put on a brave face and do its best to market the playoffs no matter who was involved or left home. I'm just as sure that network executives care a great deal about who does well in the playoffs. Certain teams (or, given the way the NBA sells itself these days, certain individual players) mean high ratings and thus more money. However, wanting something to happen doesn't equal making it happen, or else my love life would exist be a lot different. I don't think the tv networks really rig things so that their favorites will succeed. If they indeed do attempt to fix the games, they do a remarkably poor job at it, given that neither the L.A. Lakers nor the New York Knicks made the playoffs this year for the first time in decades, and first-name-basis superstars Kobe and LeBron are both at home. I think that, by and large, this conpiracy theorizing is simply a matter of partisans looking for patterns to explain events: "It's not our inability to shoot free throws that doomed us; it was the Curse! Or the Commish! Or you not wearing your lucky shirt!" The other popular option is that the NBA has the kind of second-defense backup contingency plans that a nuclear power plant would be proud of: During the season it rigs things in favor of the likes of Kobe and LeBron, but once they don't make the playoffs the league rigs things in favor of its next favorites, and so on and so on until people start to see significance in which team wins the tipoff in the first game of the Finals ("It was rigged to go to Shaq so people wouldn't change the channel!!"). It's like no matter what happens, the NBA and the networks must have rigged it to be so. (The annual draft is often the subject of conspiracy theories too -- keep that in mind come June.)

Generally, I treat such histrionics with the same reaction I give to most wide-ranging and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories: disdain mingled with pity. For one thing, it's simply implausible that the league and the tv networks could issue these kinds of directives, communicate the news all over the country, have them applied (supposedly by complicit referees making subjective calls in favor of one team over another), and literally no one ever spilling the beans. Kiss-and-tell American just doesn't work that way.

But the latest edition of the conspiracy shuffle just might have something to it. In this year's version, Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy accused the referees of bias against one of his premier players, center Yao Ming. This kind of thing is usually chalked up to a coach working the refs in hopes of getting the "next" call. That is, the coach whines that the refs are too quick to whistle fouls on the player (or too slow to whistle them when committed on the player) as a way of urging the refs to even the score a little bit in the next game. Coaches say this kind of thing on the sidelines all the time, in varying degrees of anger. Working the refs is as much a part of the game as a catcher in baseball "framing" a pitch in the hopes of misleading an umpire to call it a strike. It's rare for the statement to be as public and explicit as Van Gundy's, but not unheard of.

What is unusual about Van Gundy's gripe is that he alleged that a current NBA official not working the playoffs told him that the league instructed the refs to keep a close eye on Yao. Translation: The fix is in! The league was not amused. Commissioner David Stern went ballistic, imposing a record fine (for a coach) of $100,000 on Van Gundy. (Fines aren't unusual when coaches or players or owners criticize officiating, but the amounts are usually smaller.) What's more, Stern promised that this isn't over. He vowed to continue investigating the matter once the Rockets' season is done. As of now, Van Gundy says he won't reveal the identity of his Deep Throat.

I find this fascinating (although not interesting enough to make me watch the games to see if there really is chicanery afoot). A respected coach accuses the league of having it in for a star player, and claims that an official clued him in -- how often does that happen?! If this is true, it's worse than the "Black Sox" scandal, and maybe as bad as Major League Baseball's collusion scheme in the 1980s (ctrl+F "collusion" to skip to that part). Players cheating is one thing, as bad as it is. But a league cheating? If something like that were proven, the NBA would have less credibility than professional wrestling. So it's no wonder that Stern decided to come down like Dean Wormer.

But what's the truth? ESPN's Bill Simmons (not talking about this incident specifically) has an idea: "I don't think the NBA fixes games, but they have one trick that they use for situations like this -- when they want a home team to win the game, they invariably assign the worst referees possible to that game for two reasons: Bad referees have a tendency to get swayed by the home crowd, and bad referees never have the stones to make a tough call on the road." His evidence is basically a season's worth of paying really close attention to the refs and their assignments. It's strong, but not compelling. It also depends on the assumption that the league sees these referees as "the worst possible" the same way Simmons does, and that they assign based on those assessments. My suspicion is that some sort of selection bias is at work, in that we tend to notice "bad calls" made by referees we don't like in situations where we feel our team is already being piled on (in this example, when they're the visiting team), and are less likely to see anything sinsiter in calls that go our way.

ESPN's Ric Bucher has another take: "Being familiar with the NBA referees' Web site, I have a sense of what led Van Gundy to make his remarks about Yao's being targeted. Video clips of infractions that the league believes are becoming prevalent are routinely put on the site, and officials are required to review them. The league goes to great pains to make the examples generic, using a neutral voiceover that describes the players as 'Offensive Player No. 1' or 'The Second Defender,' but there's no disguising the visual identities of the players in the clip. My guess is that clips of Yao Ming's slipping screens were used as examples of what the league wants its officials calling, and that's what the undisclosed referee shared with Van Gundy. Truth is, there's a great chance that seeing those clips could influence a referee to watch Yao, in particular, more closely. How could it not? But Van Gundy still went too far in suggesting the league's motive was to extend the series."

Well, that sounds eminently reasonable, although it leaves open the possibility that the league is specifically targeting a move made by one player when it decides what to instruct the refs on (again with the second-level fallback conspiracy). But even the knowledge that pointing out Yao's moves would likely have the effect of increasing the fouls called on Yao doesn't equal the intent to derail the Rockets' season. So it's one thing for Van Gundy to suggest that the league needs to be more careful about who it uses as exemplars. It's quite another to allege an evil motive without more than what Bucher suggests is likely happening. If Van Gundy has more evidence than this, he should present it. If not, he should drop it and go coach his team. But the league should also reveal whether this is in fact what's going on with its referee instruction. Doing so would go a long way towards defusing the situation. And conspiracies can't thrive in the sunshine.

Friday Spies©: Seis de Mayo edition
1. What is a food you have tried but will never eat again, and what don't you like about it?

Foie gras. I don't like the taste, I don't like the texture, I don't like the smell, and I don't like the cruel way it is produced. Besides, why do people consider a goose's body's waste filter a delicacy?

2. What are your five favorite possessions?

My North Face Mountain jacket.
My grandfather's badge.
My grandfather's shotgun.
A twenty-year old photo of my brothers and me.
A t-shirt from Joe Allen's BBQ in Abilene, Texas.

3. How do you deal with confrontation? Do you seek it out or do you avoid it? Are you more apt to be the confronter or the confronted?

I wouldn't say that I seek out confrontation. Generally, I am an easy-going person. However, even I have my limits. If I am involved in a confrontation, it is because I am confronting someone else. As Dalton once said, "Be nice until it's time to not be nice." Words to live by.

4. What will Michael Jackson be doing five years from now?

Bloated and insane, hiding in a remote jungle temple in Southeast Asia, he will still be fighting extradition. The horror, the horror.

5. What is the worst movie sequel ever made, what is the best sequel ever, and what movie should have had a sequel but didn't?

The worst sequel ever made? Tie between Rocky VI and Caddyshack II. Both are in the running for worst movie ever made. Runners up include the Star Trek sequel with the whales, the Jaws sequels, Men in Black II, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, Weekend at Bernie's II, Problem Child II, Home Alone 3, Rambo III, the StarWars prequels, Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, and every iteration of the Look Who's Talking or Police Academy sequels.

The best sequel ever made? Easy. The Godfather: Part II. Runners up include The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, T2, Aliens, Army of Darkness, and Toy Story 2.

A movie that needs a sequel? I would like to see a sequel to Ronin, with Robert De Niro and Jean Reno reprising their roles.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.
Look, I know they're not authentic Mexican bebidas, but margaritas are darn tasty and Cinco de Mayo is as good a reason as any to down a few. To aid you in celebrating the Mexican victory at Puebla, here are some delicious margarita recipes. Enjoy responsibly. And when I say that, I'm looking at you and you and you.

From Maria's New Mexican Kitchen in Santa Fe, New Mexico (as detailed in The Foods of Santa Fe) here is my absolute favorite margarita:

1 lime wedge
kosher salt
1 1/4 ounces Jose Cuervo Silver tequila
3/4 ounce Bols triple sec
1 1/2 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice

Rub the rim of the glass with the lime wedge, Dip the glass into a saucer of kosher salt to coat the edge. Pour the tequila, triple sec, and lime juice into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake for about 5 seconds. Pour into the glass and consume immediately. Serves 1 (or so says the book). I usually triple the recipe.

If you are into margaritas made with premium tequila, this is a nice variation:

1 lime wedge
kosher salt
1 1/4 ounces El Tesoro 100 percent Blue Agave Plata tequila
3/4 ounce Cointreau
1 1/2 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice.

Same directions as above. Just a more expensive version. Frankly, when I have something as nice as El Tesoro 100 percent Blue Agave Plata I prefer it straight.

For folks who like a frozen margarita, Chevy's makes a pretty good one:

1 lime wedge
kosher salt
1 1/2 cups of crushed ice
4 ounces sweet-and-sour mix (1 1/4 cups freshly squeezed lime juice, 2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, and 2/3 cup of sugar. Put the ingredients in a blender and blend until the sugar dissolves.)
1 1/4 ounces tequila
1/2 ounce triple sec
1 thin lime slice for garnish

Salt the rim of a mug. Combine the ice, sweet-and-sour mix, tequila, and triple sec in a blender. Blend until slushy and well mixed. Pour into the mug and garnish with the thin slice of lime.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Meat, meat, meat. I like meat.
Last week I was talking to a friend on the phone and this friend happened to mention that she was munching on a tri-tip sandwich. Her innocent little comment inspired me to pick up a pair of tri-tip roasts this past weekend. I was actually home at a decent hour last night (7 p.m.) and had enough time and daylight to fire up the grill. I am glad I did. A tri-tip sandwich is hard to beat.

The tri-tip roast is a cut of meat from the bottom sirloin. It is triangular in shape, hence the name. There is one tri-tip roast per side of beef. They run between 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pounds and the meat has a very beefy taste and texture. You should be able to find tri-tip in your local market, but if not, you can substitute a thick-cut top sirloin.

The Santa Maria-style tri-tip is considered northern California barbeque. The main difference being that tri-tip is cooked over direct medium-high heat and for only about 30-40 minutes, while true barbeque is cooked for a long time at a low temperature over indirect heat. The tri-tip is so good that I won't quibble with the Californians over the proper use of the word "barbeque."

I won't get into the whole history of Santa Maria-style tri tip, but for more details you can go to the California BBQ Association's website or just go straight to the source: the Santa Maria Valley Visitor Information website which has a whole section devoted to Santa Maria-style barbeque. I did not have access to the internet last night, so I used a recipe from Weber's Big Book of Grilling (for another, fancier take on tri-tip, you can try this recipe from Weber's website).

Preparing this dish is simple. Rinse the tri-tip under cold water and pat it dry with paper towels. Then, mix together a rub consisting of:

2 parts granulated garlic (not garlic powder or garlic salt)
1 part kosher salt
1 part freshly ground black pepper
1/2 part celery seed
1/4 part cayenne (use less if you don't like your food spicy)

Work the rub into the meat with your fingers, coating the entire surface of the meat. Cover the roast and let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, start your fire. If you are using charcoal, the meat can go on the grill as soon as the fire is ready. Once your coals are nice and hot, arrange them so that one side of the grill is medium or medium hot and the other side is cooler. Sear the roast over the direct heat, uncovered, for about 10 minutes (turning once halfway after 5 minutes). Watch for flare ups. You want a nice crust on the meat, but you don't want it charred. After searing the meat, move it to the cooler side of the grill, cover, and cook for about 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, check the internal temperature of the meat. At the thickest part of the roast the internal temperature should register about 135 degrees F. I would recommend pulling the meat off of the grill at this point. Let the meat rest on your cutting board for about 10 minutes, tented loosely with a piece of aluminum foil. The internal temperature will rise another 8 to 10 degrees while the meat is resting. This will produce a lovely piece of meat with a bright pink center, well-done edges, and a delicious (and spicy) crust. If you cannot deal with a pink center, you can cook the meat another 10 minutes or so, until the thermometer registers around 140-145 degrees F, but the meat will not be as juicy or tender this way.

To serve the tri-tip, slice the meat on a bias and across the grain in 1/4-inch strips. Traditional Santa Maria tri-tip is served with a tossed salad, piquinto beans and salsa (recipe available from the Santa Maria Valley website), macaroni & cheese, and toasted french bread and sweet butter. When I'm making a tri-tip sandwich, I serve it with baguettes (buttered and toasted over the coals while the meat rests), sliced avocados, grilled red onions, and fresh salsa. The traditional meal is more complicated than what I want on a Tuesday night. Besides, I'm not a Californian, so strict adherence to the official menu is not that important to me.

So, that's my (abbreviated) take on grilled tri-tip sandwiches. The great thing about tri-tip is that it's simple to prepare, it takes very little time to cook, and it's delicious. To whet your appetite, here are some pictures from last night (click to enlarge):

hot off the grill


the juices developed this red-orange color because of the cayenne in the rub

Get in my belly!

I am still working on the post explaining the difference between Mexican and Tex-Mex. I had hoped to have it completed in time to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but I don't think that's going to happen. Instead, I'll post some margarita recipes tomorrow and try to get the Mex-Mex/Tex-Mex post up by the weekend. Work and other obligations have conspired to severely restrict the time I can devote to blogging.

Coalition for Darfur: The Plot Thickens
[A weekly post produced by the authors of the Coalition for Darfur blog]

The United States has played a leading role in attempts to deal with the crisis in Darfur by donating hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, providing logistical and financial support to the AU mission, and pushing for various resolutions and sanctions in the UN Security Council. In September, the Bush administration even took the unprecedented step of labeling the situation "genocide."

But now it appears as if the Bush administration is intentionally lessening its pressure on Sudan.

On a recent visit to Sudan, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick backed away from the earlier genocide designation and offered an oddly low estimate of the death toll in Darfur. Shortly thereafter, the State Department released a fact sheet claiming that an estimated "63-146,000 'excess' deaths can be attributed to violence, disease, and malnutrition because of the conflict;" a figure that is less than half the commonly accepted estimate. Noted Sudan expert Eric Reeves wrote of the State Department's estimate "This is not epidemiology: this is propaganda" and claimed that it called into question "not only the motives of those who have compiled it, but the moral and intellectual integrity of those ... who would cite it."

And last week, Mark Leon Goldberg reported that the administration was working to kill the Darfur Accountability Act.

On the same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that Sudan had become an key source of intelligence information for the CIA and that Sudan's intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Salah Abdallah Gosh, a man widely thought to be responsible for directing military attacks against civilians in Darfur, had been brought to Washington for a meeting with intelligence officials aboard a CIA jet.

The LA Times report revealed that Sudan had provided valuable information regarding al Qaeda's operations, captured and handed over Islamic extremists operating in Sudan, and even detained militants moving through Sudan on their way to join forces with Iraqi insurgents.

There is no doubt that Sudan feels it deserves to be rewarded for this assistance and it remains to be seen what, if anything, the Bush administration intends to offer in return.

These new revelations raise complex questions about our priorities as a nation and serious questions about the future of Darfur. But what must not be ignored in this debate over realpolitik is that millions of people are still in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Thus, we ask you to join the Coalition for Darfur as we seek to raise money for organizations providing life saving assistance to the people of Darfur.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

He is just in his own world when he hears that song.
A "longtime reader" of BTQ was moved to song recently by a post from Prof. Berman in which the good professor riffs Booker-style on the Talking Heads' Once in a Lifetime. Let me preface this by saying that the brilliant verse which follows is (1) about the vagaries of appealing a conviction in the post-Booker world and (2) from the hand of another. I think it's gold, but I had nothing to do with writing it. Set to the tune of The Eagles' classic, here is Desperado (Milbarge style):
Why you appealin' your sentence?
All of your brilliance, it won't help you now.
You got a long time,
But the judge had her reasons.
These things you're appealin'
Can hurt you somehow.

Don't you draw the 'leventh Circuit, boy,
If your error is a plain one.
You know the Ninth out west is always your best bet.
Now some judges are the harsh ones,
And some judges are humane ones,
So you roll the dice and take what you can get...

Desperado, oh you ain't gettin' no younger.
Your pain and your hunger, oh you can't sue for that.
And freedom, oh freedom, well that's just some people talkin',
'Cause no court will let you bring collat'ral attacks.

Don't your feet get cold like that Georgia bride,
Is your claim a facial one, or as-applied?
You got a right but got no remedy.
Apprendi, Booker, Blakely, Jones...
Ain't it funny how almost none of them goes free...

Desperado, why don't you come to your senses,
Acquiesce to your sentence, and don't take remand.
It may be tougher, when there's no Guideline above you,
Better have that ex post facto brief close by at hand.

What's all the hubbub, bub?
Robert McNamara (no, not that one, this one) passed along a meme, set out thusly:
Behold, the Caesar's Bath meme! List five things that people in your circle of friends or peer group are wild about, but you can't really understand the fuss over. To use the words of Caesar (from History of the World Part I), "Nice. Nice. Not thrilling . . . but nice."
My five?

1. Major League Baseball - with steroids or without. It just doesn't do it for me. It's just so much fluff.

2. Sushi and sashimi. Seriously? I don't see how you can like it. In fact, I'm not yet convinced that anyone actually does like the stuff. I suspect that many people think they are supposed to like it, or that they are somehow more enlightened that the rest of us because they appreciate the smell, taste and texture of raw fish. Well, bully for you.

3. Closer. Get real. People talk like that? On stage, maybe. In real life, no way. Despicable characters, contrived plots. In a city of 10 million people these four can't find someone else to be with? Ugh. Its one saving grace was the Damien Rice soundtrack.

4. South Park. It's funny enough, I suppose. I've never really felt compelled to watch it, and except for the Chewbacca defense I've never really felt like I missed anything.

5. The law. I would rather watch Closer while eating a big plate of sushi than talk about the law in my free time. It's a fine topic for work, of course, but I just cannot muster the energy to sit down at the bar, loosen my tie, order a beer and delve into a discussion about the filibuster rule, the Supreme Court or the latest screwball opinion from the Ninth Circuit. Nothing ruins my away-from-work time like talking about the law.

Monday, May 02, 2005

A hoax or a new Lifetime Network reality series?
So, another Monday. Another week begins. Another week where my email inbox is filled to capacity with gems like this one from a "long time reader" of BTQ. What part of sabbatical does he not understand?
Worst Title Pun Ever: Bride of the Prankees

I was following the story of the missing/runaway bride-to-be pretty closely. I have a friend who runs in that area a lot, and I'm glad there aren't any jogger-snatchers there. And I'm glad Tom Smith was wrong on this one (although not on the self-defense tips). So it's good that she's safe and now her fiance can decide if he still wants to marry her and then it's time for the tv movies.

But is that the end of it? Some people are saying that the Bride should be charged with something, like filing a false police report, or that she should have to reimburse the police for the cost of the search. I'm not sure that's the best idea. The last thing I'd want is for a family in a similar situation to hesitate to call the cops because they were worried about having to pay for the search.

Others, of course, will weigh the incentives a different way: they say we should punish "hoaxes" like this to dissuade others from doing the same thing. I don't know how great the risk is of that. The reason these stories are newsworthy is because they happen so infrequently already. The people who perpetrate hoaxes are usually at the end of their mental rope. It's easy to discount pre-wedding jitters when it leads to a panic like this, but clearly this woman has some issues. On the other end of the scale, there's someone like Susan Smith, who at first blamed her kids' deaths on a black carjacker. My guess is that the kind of person who is loopy enough to get to that point isn't thinking clearly enough to worry about having to pay for some search dogs.

Look, I'm not saying there's nothing wrong with greyhounding off to Vegas when it's reasonably foreseeable it will launch a massive search. I don't think a community service obligation is uncalled for. Perhaps even a criminal charge that the judge can "take under advisement" if she stays out of trouble. But I don't see a need to punish this woman too harshly.

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    The views presented here are personal and in no way reflect the view of my employer. In addition, while legal issues are discussed here from time to time, what you read at BTQ is not legal advice. I am a lawyer, but I am not your lawyer. If you need legal advice, then go see another lawyer.

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