Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Rest in Peace

NEW YORK—Shortly after 9:30 p.m EDT on Monday, July 19th, Dell computer White Lightning was officially pronounced dead from owner decommissioning. Lightning, a Dell Dimension XPS T550 purchased for around $3,200 in July 1999, was just days away from what would have been its eleventh birthday.

During White Lightning's 10-year tenure, Bill Clinton was impeached, MySpace blew up, the Red Sox won the World Series, and owner Ken Devine got a girlfriend.

Devine maintains that Lightning had a great run, but he's alone in that sentiment. Every other person who has come into contact with the mainstay machine insists that it was a painstakingly slow death over the course of a decade where computer technology advanced by several leaps and bounds. In fact, family members attest that Devine's stubborn refusal to even consider replacing the sluggish dinosaur bordered on cruelty—more so, perhaps, to himself.

Yet critics agree that the 550 MHz has-been had a short stint of glory in its first year of existence, when 16-megabyte video cards ruled the personal-computing frontier, and 20 gigs of hard-drive space was much more than anyone would ever need.

Yes—people really lived like this.

No one's sure how, but White Lightning managed to run on the Windows 98 Second Edition operating system all the way until late 2006, when a freak system-file deletion wouldn't allow Devine to re-enter Windows. A tech-savvy co-worker came to the rescue and bypassed Lightning's hard drive by adding a second one running Windows XP—an operating system already half a decade old.

Devine enjoyed the much-more-stable XP, but had his first realization that Lighting was behind the times when he received an iPod for Christmas in 2007. The portable music device was a fraction of the size of his computer, but at 80 gigs, had the storage capacity of four times more than his once-super computer.

After months of contemplation, Devine reluctantly decided on Monday that it was time to replace White Lightning with Black Thunder, a far-superior Dell machine configured by a pair of former co-workers who felt sympathy for Devine's situation. The duo was compelled to end the years of neglect after learning of Devine's surprising contentment with his long-running personal-computing history. Oddly enough, the speedy PC now adored by Devine sat in his closet for the past 15 months, just waiting for its chance.

"I just felt like it was time," said Devine on retiring his old friend. "Whitey was taking longer naps, and he just sort of gave up when I tried to watch videos on YouTube. I only saw a new frame like once every 15 seconds."

Devine revealed that the key to preserving such an antiquated computing device was a steady diet of program management and maintenance, particularly with nightly shutdowns.

But more than anything, an unprecedented level of patience.

"The good news is now I don't have to put my clothes away or make a sandwich while my computer is booting up," he said. "But I think this whole experience built a lot of character, both for me and White."

"I wouldn't change a thing," he added.

Lightning is survived by PC siblings Blue Bronco and Black Stealth, the latter of which has been in a coma for the past several months. Brother Red Bull passed away quietly in 2007.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Why Soccer Still Sucks

Four years after writing about the issues I have with soccer, I have to say I've enjoyed watching the latest World Cup, and my interest in the game—with its finesse, chess-match strategy, and surprising level of physicality—has increased.

But the more I try to appreciate the sport, the more it frustrates me. Soccer's still got some issues to work out, particularly with unfairness...

#1: Ghana's a Goner

The latest exhibit: Ghana falling in penalty kicks to Uruguay on Friday. I really have a problem with the intentional handball by defender Luis Suarez to prevent Uruguay’s instant death in the final minutes of extra time.

Would I have a problem if Ghana forward Asamoah Gyan had converted on the ensuing penalty shot to clinch the contest (which he should have)? Not with the outcome, no.

Do I blame Suarez for reacting in a manner that would deny a game-winning goal? Not at all. It was a natural act of last resort and self-preservation.

The problem I have is with the rulebook, namely the black-and-white nature of the handball infraction. There's a big difference between an unintentional handball at midfield and a deliberate handball at the goal line to prevent the ball from going into the net. The fact that the handball rule does not distinguish between these two situations that carry very different implications is a serious flaw, because it allows for cheating.

And that's what happened Friday—Uruguay cheated. Okay, technically they didn't "cheat" within the laws of the game, but it was cheating at its core. From a legal perspective, you could say the handball was a smart move because it was the only option to stay alive. But if the rule was truly fair, this option shouldn't have existed at all—the goal should have been awarded instantly on account of goaltending (one thing basketball does get right). I'm astonished by the lack of challenge and outrage with this rule, especially from Ghana. But writer John Leicester is with me:
"Suarez knew what he was doing. He took a calculated risk... He knew that the punishment for handling would be a penalty for Ghana. But that had to be better for Uruguay than losing to a last-gasp goal."
In a small measure of consolation, Suarez will sit out the semifinal match against the Netherlands, but will return for the finals if Uruguay advances. FIFA found Suarez guilty of "denying the opposite team a clear goal-scoring opportunity."

That's a nice way of putting it.

In a just world, the Ghanaians would be the ones preparing for the Netherlands on Tuesday. It didn't matter what happened on their penalty shot—the game should have already been over.

For more evidence that the handball rule enables cheating, look no further than Suarez himself, who instantly celebrated from the sidelines when Gyan booted his penalty shot off the crossbar. Much worse, he openly expressed zero contrition with his decision, claiming the punishment of being ejected from a World Cup game is "complicated."

"The way in which I was sent off—truth is, it was worth it," he said. "I think I made the best save of the World Cup."

#2: No Instant Replay

The USA, England, Mexico, and Portugal were all victims of poor officiating. If there was instant replay, who would be playing Tuesday and Wednesday? The 2014 World Cup has to get the officiating system right. With the level of international outrage that only soccer can present, I'm hopeful.

#3: Low Scoring

Out of all the games I've watched this World Cup, the one thing that continually irks me is the lack of scoring opportunities. This is the biggest thing holding the sport back; the main reason why most of us play soccer when we're young but only catch it once every four years.

It's an accepted truth that you tend to like things you grew up with, the only things you knew. Thus, many non-American "football" fans have no problem with low-scoring matches because they didn't grow up with the NFL, NBA, or NHL, where scoring is frequent and gratification instant. The disparity in the popularity of the game outside the United States can be explained by cultural expectations.

But as I've watched these matches, I've thought about ways to balance the sport and improve the game so that it's less restrictive and more interesting to watch. Here are a few suggestions that will never be adopted, but whose implications are interesting nonetheless:
  1. No offsides
  2. . Is there any justification to leave offsides in the game other than the fact that it's always been there? Like hockey's riddance of the two-line pass, eliminating offsides would be the easiest way to improve the game without fundamentally changing it. As in hockey, forwards would actually be rewarded for slipping behind their defenders. Scoring opportunities would increase, saves would be made, and overall interest would heighten. Offsides could even be redefined to be when a player advances into the penalty area before the ball has entered it (again, similar to hockey, the sport it most resembles).

  3. Fewer players
  4. . Reducing each side from 10 players to eight would be a pretty radical change, but I can't help but get excited about the passing and shooting lanes that would open up, and the faster pace of the game overall. One of the main reasons shots are so low in soccer is simply because there are too many players that clog up the area in front of the goal.

  5. Penalty-kick distance
  6. . Everyone knows that relying on penalty kicks has never been a great way to determine the winner of a match. So why not keep the kicks but move the shot placement back to the top of the penalty area? You know, to give goalies a higher probability of stopping the shots than Stevie Wonder.

    And while we're speaking of overtime, why is there no sudden death in the extra-time period (the opposite problem the NFL has)? Isn't the point of overtime to fairly determine a victor in a timely fashion?

    Here's what it's like in the current system: Two teams battle to a tie over the course of 90-plus minutes. One scores a huge go-ahead goal in the extra session, but not so fast—the game isn't over. They've got to continue on in the hopes of not allowing their opponent to tie the score again for the remainder of the 30 minutes. Apparently, people love seeing penalty kicks.
If you're a purist against these rules, consider these stats through July 1st from novelist Richard Greener:
  • The Group winners in the 2010 World Cup (Uruguay, Argentina, United States, Germany, Netherlands, Paraguay, Brazil and Spain) averaged 656 touches per game, with only 6.3 shots on goal in a 90-minute contest.
  • Argentina, the most aggressive offensive team, attempted a shot on goal 1.28% of the time it touched the ball. They've averaged 2.3 goals per game.
  • The worst teams, Honduras and New Zealand, averaged only 1 shot on goal per game. Honduras played their entire schedule of games without making a single goal.

In the absence of alterations to the game, I have to agree with Greener's prediction that American interest in soccer will remain largely unchanged in the years to come, unfortunately:
"Here, unlike other places, we look for sustained action and the ever-present opportunity to put points on the board. Finding neither in soccer, interest in the United States will remain limited to events like the World Cup, with fan interest created by the marketing of false patriotism for a few weeks every four years."

Guess I'm not alone after all: Why Soccer Sucks: The Antidote To World Cup Idiocy.