The greatest year of baseball ever … like ever

It will take a better statistician than me to make the case that the 2013 Boston Red Sox are the best, or second best, or whatever best team in the history of the club. I can’t speak to anything first-hand experience back to 1967, when I was nine years old and playing bad first-base in the Georgetown, Massachusetts rec department’s Farm League (pre-Little League) using an antique pancake mitt handed down from my grandfather, a relic I hated at the time but really wish I had today.  That Impossible Dream team will always be the most vivid. 1975 was frankly a blur. The 1986 Buckner team was the most evil in its wicked mental torments. The Curse-bursting 2004 team the most blessed. The 2007 the most capable. But this one….I don’t know, they just played wicked good and seemed to have fun and a showed lot of respect for the laundry.

Basking in the morning-after-glow of a great World Series game, everyone wants to roll over in bed,hug the lovable, bearded rascals and say, “I love you. Let’s do it again.” Sometime in the next few days the team will pile into the duck boats and parade around a happy city and Boston will have its moment finally after a baseball season that started fresh and raw and unknown in April and ended six months later the way the movies would have wanted it to.

Painting the house in April, on the ladder, WEEI kept me company on those chilly weekend afternoons with Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien calling the games in between Verizon Wireless and Shaw’s Supermarket Little Debbie Snack Cake ads. As I scraped and prepped I kept an ear tuned for that tell-tale rise in excitement in their voices and listened as a lot of new names made their debut .Would I have called it then? Would I have made the prediction they’d go all the way “from worst to first?” Of course not, I was thinking maybe they’d get the wildcard but not make it past Toronto or Detroit. I trusted the new manager, John Farrell, solely on the basis of his killer jaw-line and that calm Gary Cooper demeanor so calm and firmly assuring after the Howdy Doody persona of his ill-fated predecessor Bobby “Did You Know He Invented the Wrap?” Valentine.

Then the Brothers Tsarnaev did their heinous deeds.

Suddenly the Red Sox were carrying a lot more psychic weight than just trying to redeem themselves from the days of Chicken-and-Beer and their last place finish the year before. They came home from the road trip and one could feel the city latch onto them, beseeching them to make it okay, to bring back the calm rhythms of a sunny afternoon game in Fenway, to sing the songs and chant the chants they cheered and sang the year before and the year before that. The Red Sox couldn’t to carry the weight of the Marathon. They were happy to accept it and gracious in allowing Fenway to become the city’s church and place of mourning; but as John Lester said, the team didn’t have much to offer other than provide a diversion to get people’s minds off the mess.

Boston is a city of ghosts where nothing really changes, a place with a ring of road salt rime around the cuffs of its pants; a pissed-off, wind chapped, itchy skin, sleet smeared windshield, can-you-fucking-believe-they-closed-the-Hilltop? town that isn’t nearly as liberal as the rest of the country thinks it is, a college town that doesn’t love the students who infest it, a kind of ugly place that retreats into its clannish neighborhoods, scores an eight-ball of whizzer and looks down at the bandwagon yuppies in their pink hats who sing “Sweet Caroline” in the eighth inning.

That horrible song with no connection what-so-ever to Boston or baseball is never going away. When The Neil Himself showed up and sang the damn thing at the Post-Marathon mourning session I gave up my campaign to ban it and just thank edthe Baseball Gods that we don’t need to wave Surrender Towels like every other team’s fans seem to need to do along with ring cowbells and follow big LED jumbotron exhortations to Make. Some. Noise.  It is said that Red Sox fans are the tenth player on the roster. This sentimental, formerly cursed nation that cheers from Woonsocket to Millinocket (and who, after breaking the Curse in 2004 lugged team gear and flowers to the graves of their dearly departed so they could join in the celebration too) these fans like the loud, crazed drunk I once watched in a black and orange knit wool Bruins cap sitting behind the visitors bullpen who taunted J.D. Drew non-stop for collecting too much salary, and then who scornfully caught, barehanded, a Yankee homer whacked at him by the despised A-Rod and then hucked it back onto the field without a second thought or spilling a single drop of his $8.50 cup of ‘Gansett.

I’m just glad to have the chance watch it all with my sons and my mother and my sister and my brother-in-law and nephews.  Crowded around a television. Screaming and high-fiving. Drinking too much on a school night while layered in a #38 Schilling t-shirt with a Mike Lowell 2007 World Series MVP team jersey on over that, and a nasty smelly blue Red Sox hat speckled with bottom paint.

I doubt this fan will ever see a year of baseball like he saw in 2013 — a double-headed championship crown that started with the Cotuit Kettleers and ends with the Olde Towne Team triumphant.

And David Ortiz is getting a statue in front of Fenway. Just saying.

If I were the CIO of the US ….

Over the past twenty years I’ve been around enough web site launches, redesigns, platform swaps, RFPs, RFQs, consultants, vendors, third-party developers, project managers, stakeholder/steering committee meetings and total crashes and site failures to feel eminently qualified to say the smoking crater in the ground known as the Obamacare website was guaranteed to happen the day it was conceived.

IceDunk

And the fix is simple. Seriously. Pick up the phone. Call Werner Vogel at Amazon or Larry Page at Google — arguably the two best web infrastructure guys on the planet — and ask them to fix it. Privatize it.  Make it a marketing triumph for IBM or Oracle. Screw the GSA bidding process, screw the consultants, the parasitic systems integrators looking for $10 million engagements, and the whole federal procurement process that is designed to deliver broken, grey blobs that never work. There’s only one solution and that’s to go to the private sector and have a single company accustomed to zero-defects and a lot of uptime “nine’s” build it.

Some people are saying the government should have gone open source and used WordPress or Drupal to build this pig. Wrong.  Those are wonderful content management systems, but the problem isn’t the content and it’s not whether or not this thing was built with MySQL or Oracle or a left-handed monkey wrench — the problem lies deep beneath the timed-out sessions, 404 pages and error messages — it’s the underlying transaction processing engine that lies under the surface like the giant fungus on the Olympic Peninsula that is the world largest living organism. This isn’t about code, this isn’t about servers or bandwidth, Hadoop, PHP or whatever the technical problem is. It’s about a bureaucracy building the ultimate bureaucratic system.

Here’s how it works: healthcare.gov is just the visible manifestation of the visible portion of the whole platform, one that is supposed to steer consumers to an informed selection of a health plan offered by a distributed network of commercial health insurance companies.  The platform needs to talk to each insurer’s own web infrastructure and accommodate their rules and standards. That’s complex enough, but let’s assume some middle-ware solution to define a common data-interchange was put in place so the government site could handle all the private insurers systems. Check. But before the consumer can get to the insurers they need to register in order to browse.

And we have failure point number one. Any ecommerce operator knows registration is a total buzz killer to a shopper. Get the crap in the cart, and then, when the trigger is ready to be pulled, you roll out registration. Registration itself is database intensive. It means creating a record via a form of fields — last name, DOB, SSN, etc. — and then some form of confirmation via an email that is generated by the system and sent to the user to click on a validation link, etc..  We all know the drill. This is like asking all the fans of tonight’s World Series game at Fenway to stand outside on Landsdowne Street and Yawkey Way until 7:55 pm with first pitch at 8 pm. The gates open, but before each fan can pass through the turnstile they need to fill out a form, submit it, wait for a confirmation to appear on their phone, click that, and then the turnstile can turn. People start to panic. They hit submit a few times. They hear the Star Spangled Banner and they start to push, next thing you know people are being trampled like door busters at a Long Island Walmart at 12:01 am on Black Friday.

Some government dimwit(s) decided to make registration mandatory before browsing. Dumb. Register at the point of the transaction, not the window shopping. Most of the traffic wanted to see what the big deal was. Sure, some entered expecting to leave with a transaction successfully completed, but some just wanted to browse. So let them browse.

The reason it was decided to make users register first was determine their eligibility and show them the plans that fit their circumstances. This is where the website is more than a bunch of pretty screens and a Drupal CMS — this is the Octopus underneath it all that has to take the registration information, (probably the social security number) and run it through a ton of government databases. I have no idea which ones are being pinged, but let’s assume they range from the Social Security Administration to the IRS to Health and Human Services, maybe state social services, Immigration, Veterans ….the list goes on. Who cares? It had to happen and it wasn’t going to be easy. When the requirements were put together for the exchange, the main challenge was determining eligibility and segmenting the set of plans any consumer could see based on certain factors — e.g., oh, you live in Massachusetts, you’re already in an exchange set up by Mitt Romney, so you can go away. Goodbye.   One can assume — the government loving complexity because complexity fuels bureaucracies and bureaucracies exists to project the bureaucracy  — that the Obamacare website is being asked to route and receive a ton of distributed requests because one after another, as the requirements were gathered, a lot of hands went up and said, “Well, we need to include this of course.” And so the system started to sprout a lot of hair.

This country put a man on the moon. Now it can’t build an online exchange?

Anyway, so Failure Point number two: too much bureaucracy and trying to hit too many external systems to qualify the consumer. Got it. That one was unavoidable but manageable and is by no means a trivial thing to solve.

Gauging from the squirming testimony before Congress and the finger pointing among the contractors that is going on, the biggest failure here was not Cool Hand Luke’s “failure to communicate” but a lack of leadership and a strong project management office.  One can imagine what the set of different stakeholders looked like on this project. You’ve got elected officials who can’t find their ass with both hands when it comes to voting on ordinary legislation, let alone technology development; professional government bureaucrats who guard their silos; a bunch of external contractors trying to salvage a 15% profit from their work, all screaming that the requirements are changing too much and the deadline is too aggressive while they offshore the coding to a “low cost operating center”….. This is why communists are shitty capitalists. You can’t get stuff done in a Soviet tractor factory.

Failure point number three: lack of governance. There was no “one throat to choke” on this. Otherwise we’d be seeing a single hapless victim being pilloried as the Obama administration throws a sacrifice to the angry gods. This project needed to be owned at the top, managed like an army on a campaign with a strong project management office, and that project management office should have been throwing warning flags all last summer. Rather than launch it when it was ready, it was launched under a political maelstrom of tin-foil hat Congressmen trying to defund the entire program, a President determined to hit deadlines instead of usability levels and the result was a classic case of too many cooks, not enough accountability, and political forces trumping logical best practices in project management.

Final point of failure:  complexity. Too many contractors, too many stakeholders, too many systems …. The President likes to dine with the CEOs of Silicon Valley. He rubs elbows with Gates and Schmidt and the rest of the gang. Hell, Bezos just bought the Post and is officially a heavy hitter in D.C. — pick up the phone, call one of them, say, “Name your price, just make it work.” And tah dah. Let Congress piss and moan that the RFP didn’t follow procurement guidelines. At least America would have a website that works instead of a national embarrassment alongside its Congress, it’s infrastructure, its banks, it’s college loans …. This thing was built by committee and nothing good ever was built by committee.

The fact that Congress is holding hearings to find the smoking gun in the smoking crater is risible. They need some serious infrastructure geeks to get up there and pull a Richard Feynman drolly demonstrating why space shuttles blow up when rubber O-rings are dipped in a glass of ice water. Not the good Congressman from North Dakota who can’t operate anything more complicated than his Blackberry.

 

Fox Island for sale.

I saw a piece in the Wall Street Journal that a private island is on the market in Osterville, the town to the east of Cotuit. Called “Fox Island” I had never heard of it before so I went digging. Based on the WSJ description of it having waterfront on North Bay and a dock in Dam Pond, I guess it is the gorgeous and wild neck of land at the eastern shore of the entrance to Prince’s Cove. Purchased for $400,000 in the 1970s the place is on the market for nearly $9 million, which I consider actually a bargain, but then again I’m not putting in an offer any time soon. I cruised by the spot earlier this week as I delivered the sailboat to the boat ramp at Prince’s Cove Marina. I’ve fished the beach there in the spring for monster striped bass which come up inside the estuary chasing the herring making their way into the Mills River herring run. It’s an awesome little gem of a spot with ospreys and blue herons. I never knew it had a name, but now I do.

foxisland

 

 

The Illustrated History of the Union Boat Club

You can’t buy it (which is a shame), but the Illustrated History of the Union Boat Club has been published. My copy arrived yesterday via the mail. This is a project I was honored to help draft in the late 1980s when I was fresh from publishing The Book of Rowing with Overlook Press and had just joined Boston’s Union Boat Club, the oldest rowing club in a city known for its rowing.

David Thorndike, Charlie Clapp, Cap Kane and countless UBC members contributed to the effort which took a herculean effort over a decade and half to be born. I wrote the first draft of the manuscript, picking through the club’s archives, interviewing the most venerable members, and identifying the big gaps in the historical record which needed to be filled in before the project was ready for the printer. I confess to fading out of the picture for a while, but the project was revived and finally pushed over the deadline this past year, emerging as a gorgeous “coffee table” book printed privately for the membership.

Which is a shame, as I’d stack this tome against any book in the rowing history pantheon. The photography is gorgeous, the historical archive priceless.

The project was pushed by David Thorndike in the 80s as the 150th anniversary of the club approached and its first history, published at the turn of the previous century was in desperate need of an update. The club has a unique place in the history of American rowing, coming as it did in antebellum Boston at a time when Harvard and Yale were only just beginning their rivalry on the water, now the oldest intercollegiate competition in the country. The early logs are a humorous and plucky look at sporting life before spinning classes, Crossfit and paleo diets. When men obsessed more about their uniforms than actual exercise, when rowing consisted of leisurely rows up and down the tidal Charles River and through the islands of Boston Harbor, never really racing, just touring around in the novel pursuit of leisure time.

The role of the UBC in the history of American and international rowing is deep and storied. Basically emerging as an alumni club for Harvard rowers, it sent championship crews to the Henley Royal Regatta, counted nearly a dozen Olympians among its alumni, and sits, socially, at the center of Brahmin Boston, its clubhouse standing at the foot of Beacon Hill near the Hatch concert Shell. A tour of the boathouse and clubhouse is a trip back in time to the 19th century, the walls and floors permeated with the sweat of generations after generations of politicians, lawyers, bankers, surgeons and eccentric characters from another era. The club has seen its share of challenges. The state dammed up the Charles and filled in the Embankment cutting it off from the river. The club went coed in the late 80s after years of being a men’s club. Rowing faded in popularity in the 60s and 70s as the sport went into a general decline, but today the place flourishes, alongside the sport, anchoring down the competitive rowing scene on the Charles, sending crews up river to do their best.

I Guano Kill Em All

There’s this bird called the cormorant, also known as the “shag”, which has been a part of the local wildlife for the last decade or more, arriving from the south and taking up residence along with the gulls, terns and ospreys. They are big black birds with long necks and cape-like wings they hold open to let the breeze dry them off. They feed on the bottom on mussels and crabs, popping to the surface to shake their heads and paddle along until spooked, at which point they windmill and run over the surface until they achieve escape velocity and can get airborne.

I want them all dead.

Cormorants exist to shit on my boat. I have strung up old CDs on strings like the rearview mirror of a teenager’s first car to scare them away. I have spent a hundred dollars on bird spikes for the spreaders on my mast. I have festooned my boom with old plastic grocery bags until the poor boat looks like a tree on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens.

But they shit and they continue to shit. And then they shit some more. They deposit prodigious amounts of fish-imbued filth all over the decks, the wheel, the cleats, lines, seats, dodger, windows, spars, winches and lifelines, coating the boat with a thick coat of white guano mixed with undigested mollusks, pebbles, and some sort of toxic waste that is impossible to remove. Flies love the stuff and the whole affair is just an invitation to salmonella, shigella, giardia, diarrhea, MRSA and whatever other flesh-eating bacteria you care to contract.

Yesterday was pull-the-boat day, so Sunday I put-putted out in the motorboat with my son to get things ready for the pulling of the mast at Town Dock. My buddy Tom K. was standing on the shore and bore the bad news. “Good luck with the guano” he said. Sure, I knew they had found a little gap in the bird spikes on the lower starboard spreader and one had managed to spackle the dodger with a blast of ass vomit, but that was okay, I saw that mess the weekend before as I returned triumphant with a bucket o’tautog, but like an idiot I didn’t clean it up. Leaving it there was tantamount to declaring the Bald Eagle was now a designated cormorant port-a-potti and they took advantage of the invitation. It’s a matter of dwindling opportunities, sort of like musical toilets where as the days go by the music stops and they take away another boat to poop on. Stay in past Columbus Day and the ratio of bird butts to available boat toilets get worse and worse until the last boat standing is a heaping, stinking mess of avian fertilizer.

It reminds me of the islands off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean that were so coated in bird shit that fortunes were made mining the stuff and shipping it back to the world as fertilizer. Guano was big bucks. But not my guano. No, my guano is my cross to bear.

So I get the boat into the town dock and start calling around for a power washer in the belief that I can use the dock’s faucet and some high pressure blasting to tidy things up before the kibbutzers and bored amateur wharfingers of Cotuit can point out the obvious and tell me it looks like birds have taken a massive dump (why are all dumps “massive?) on my yacht. I tie up. Test the faucet. Dry. The powers-that-be in the Town of Barnstable evidently believe the world stops on Columbus Day and have disconnected the pipes for the winter. Another boat arrives, also frosted with a nice layer, the owner asks me “Is the water on?” Nope. The term “shit out of luck” is invoked and I tie the end of a poo-covered jib sheet to the handle of a bucket and start hauling five gallons of sea water aboard every thirty seconds to try to soften it up and sluice it over the side.

The first helpful rocket scientist arrives with a cock-a-poo or a labra-dump on a leash and says, “Hey, someone got hit hard.” Ha ha. Very funny. Really? No fooling? You think? Scrub, scrub, scrub. Flies going up my nose. Backsplash in my mouth. The other boat owner has rubber gloves on. Not me. I just start rolling in the stuff and compose my obituary: he died a coprolagniac.

Six hours later and the sails are off, the turnbuckles on the rigging are loose, the neutral stop-switch in the throttle is fixed and the engine is running but the boat is still smeared with stalagmites of cormorant. I have been told to use lime remover, Comet, warm soapy water, screw-it-let-the-rain-wash-it-off, and to-hell-with-it–just-shrink-wrap the whole mess and pretend it didn’t happen. Being a nice day the dock was busy with spandexed cyclists, panting joggers, shoulder season tourists, local wise guys and friends and neighbors. Every single one of them expressed some rueful condolences over my messy boat.

Only one said anything that made any sense. I salute him.

“Next time put out mousetraps. All it takes is one and they get the word and won’t come back and if you’re lucky, you might see one trying to shake a trap off it’s claw.”

Thank you. I shall have my revenge.

Tautogology

When I was a kid I saw some fishermen bring a mess of tautog (Tautoga onitis) into the Town Dock and lay them out on the planks for a hose-off. I’d never seen a fish like it before, and was really fascinated by the horrid red tumor-ish looking thing on their white underbellies. They are known as “blackfish,” “oysterfish” and the “poor-man’s lobster.” Yesterday I caught and ate my first one ever.

Tautog is a word from the Narragansett tribe, originally “tautatog”  and first noted by Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, in his 1648 lexicon of the Narragansett language. They are members of the wrasse family and are remarkable looking fish, with thick rubbery lips and snaggle-toothed mouths with blunt teeth for crushing and grinding shellfish and crustaceans, their preferred diet. They spawn inshore in the spring and move off a bit to rocks and wrecks during the summer, migrating to deeper water over the winter. The fish are renowned for being one of the better eating fish in New England, especially in fish chowders, and are said to be tricky to catch given their penchant for diving back into the rocks when hooked up.

With the fall fishing season being measured in weeks if not days, I feel a strange longing to get on the water as much as possible these autumn weekends and put my time in before I put the boats away and settle into another winter of my discontent. So yesterday, on a brisk Columbus Day weekend Sunday, I called around the local bait and tackles looking for crabs — the preferred fall bait of the tautog — found some in Falmouth, and off I went for two quarts of green crabs, some six ounce bank sinkers and four pre-tied rigs.

My son and I took the skiff out through Seapuit and the Osterville Cut and immediately questioned the wisdom of pounding through the three-foot seas to the best tautog spot in the area, a ledge of rocks a mile or so off of Centerville. I could only run the boat at slow ahead while trying to dodge the spray and I could feel the negative vibes radiating off of my passenger as one wave after another soaked us down, rendered my sunglasses useless, and foretold an expedition that would probably redefine “fool’s errand.” But we had $10 worth of crabs to use and I was determined not to throw away good bait just because of a healthy northeasterly breeze pushing a chop into our face. Real men fish when they can, not when it’s nice.

After twenty minutes of slow going I saw the surf crashing over the exposed pile of snaggle-toothed rocks — a bad sight that made me happy to have a VHF radio aboard should something catastrophic happen — and made a slow approach, looking for the best way to anchor in the building seas without crunching the lower unit of the outboard on the pile of glacial till. My son made ready with the anchor, I motored upwind to one side of the reef, told him to let it drop, and waited until it dug in and the boat pointed up into the wind.  We were too close on the first set as only  five feet lay between us and catastrophe. So I went back into gear, took the tension off the anchor line and had him pick it back up for another set about twenty feet off. The advice on fishing tautog was simple: find the obstruction and get close as the fish lurk right around the rocks picking off barnacles and crabs. Setting the baits too far away is useless because the tautog won’t venture very far from their shelter.

With the anchor set and no signs of dragging to our doom like the wreck of the Hesperus, I was confident enough to turn off the engine and make ready with the rods. We were using old fiberglas trolling rods owned by my grandfather — wooden handles, yellow and blue thread around the guides, with old Penn conventional reels filled with 50 lb. test monofilament. I tied on the rigs, clipped on the weights, and, seeing that the boat was pitching way too much to safely play with hooks, took a safe seat, opened up the chinese-food paper quart container, and took out the first victim — a little green crab.

Fishing with bait is a bit violent. Guaranteed to get an “eww” out of the audience, and working with crabs is a bit sadistic. I ripped off the claws and legs until I had a half-dollar sized circle of crab body. In goes the hook, one on top and another below in a classic hi-lo bottom rig

I slung-cast both sets of bait right beside the ledge, handed one rod to my son and kept one for myself.

The boat kept pitching and rolling like crazy. An open 18-foot skiff, in mid October on Nantucket Sound without a single other boat around to offer rescue should the worst occur and Cousin Pete out of town for the weekend and thus unable to answer any panicked cell phone calls to come out in his boat and save us (and I didn’t renew my BoatUS tow policy this summer).  But we had life jackets and a radio so I wasn’t too concerned, just vigilant as we were on the verge of pushing our luck as the white caps built and the wind blew harder off the land in the direction of Hyannisport and the Kennedy Compound.

“Whoa.” My son went from skeptical to interested. I turned and saw his short rod bent double.

“Caught in the rocks?” I asked skeptically.

“Hell no. This is a fish.”

The rod bounced the way they do when there are fish on the other end as he reeled, fighting the submerged surprise. I got ready to assist. Bracing myself against the rolling of the boat as the anchor line creaked and rubbed in the chock. And then, from the green depths, was a black shape. I leaned over, guided the line through my hand to the leader, and swung the catch inboard.

It was a tautog. A black, slippery, pugnacious tautog with the big red “vent”, its exaggerated anal opening all red and protruding due to the crushed shells that pass through it, sort of the fish equivalent of a diet of crushed glass and razor blades mixed with hemorrhoids and fissures. I got a hold of the very cool looking fish, let it calm down, grabbed the fishing pliers and worked the hook out, laid the fish along the ruler on the edge of the cooler seat, and finding it well over the 16″ minimum, tossed it in the bucket for dinner.

Then it was my turn. I landed a little one, about a foot long, and gave it the obligatory good luck kiss on the head and sent it back to grow up.

Thirty minutes, fifty unlucky crabs, and the bucket was loaded with the limit of six squirming fish (three each). I tossed the remaining crabs over the side to fend for themselves or appease the hungry Tautog God, then broke out two beers and a pair of chicken sandwiches slapped together from Saturday night’s leftovers. All was well with the world.  It doesn’t get much better for a guy than to catch fish with his eldest son on a sunny day (and then watch the Red Sox snatch an epic victory from the Tigers later than same day).

The “fun” part began when we got home. I banged a nail into a plank to keep the fish from sliding around while I filleted them and got very up close and intimate with my food. Which is how it should be. The tautogs’ stomachs were filled with crabs and shells (CSI Cotuit, Dave Churbuck fish coroner). I stripped out the guts and gills and set aside the heads and racks to make a fond de poisson (fish stock). While that bubbled away we hit the grocery story and bought the fixings for a Bahamian fish chowder. It was good. The tautog went to their maker in a very good and spicy stew and will see further duty tonight in Baja-styled fried fish tacos.