Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Baseball spring training: Arizona ‘mancation’


The Phoenix area has become a Mecca for baseball fans thanks to Cactus League spring training for Major League Baseball.
Fifteen teams play in Arizona’s Cactus League, the same number as play in Florida’s Grapefruit League.
Most Cactus League teams play in the Phoenix metro area. The Valley of the Sun is the winter home to 13 baseball teams. Two other teams are based in Tucson to the south.
The top draw is the Chicago Cubs, thanks to hometown fans wanting to escape the harsh winters in Chi-town. Plus, the Cubs, loveable losers that they are, have a large nationwide fan base.
This year’s Cactus League schedule runs from March 3 through April 3.
My brother Bill and I watched the Cubs play the San Diego Padres split squad on Saturday March 27. The game was played at HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz., the Cubs’ home away from Wrigley Field.
It was an enjoyable game, despite a noisy group of drunken Padres fans and the fact that it ended in a 2-2 tie.
The official attendance was 13,462, a record for HoHoKam Park. But it may have been broken since. The three home games after ours were all reported sellouts, according to Bleed Cubbie Blue.
Cactus League baseball is obviously a boon to the local economy. But with rising ticket prices, outrageous rental car rates and pricey hotel rooms, you can’t help but feel fans are being taken advantage of.
Last year, Cactus League spring training attracted 1.57 million baseball fans and contributed an estimated $359 million to the Arizona economy.

Next: Exploring Phoenix

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Big Sandy Shoot: Arizona ‘mancation’



The Big Sandy Shoot is the largest machine gun shoot in the U.S.
Sponsored by MG Shooters, it’s held twice a year in the Arizona desert about three hours northwest of Phoenix.
I attended the first day of the March 26-28 shoot with my brother Bill. It’s held at the Big Sandy Range, located several miles outside of Wikieup, Ariz., a wayside of a couple shops, a BBQ restaurant and gas station oasis in the desert.
Competitive shooters and other gun enthusiasts camp out at the site for the weekend and reserve shooting spots on the hill overlooking the target range. But curious amateurs such as me can just show up and pay a $25 spectator fee and rent machine guns on site.
To get to the Big Sandy Range, you have to drive on dirt roads, up a steep rise or two and across a wash that is sometimes a creek. I’d recommend driving an SUV to the site just to be safe. We drove a Jeep Liberty through the creek and some thick patches of sand that cars might get stuck in. The range is located about four and a half miles off U.S. 93 northeast of Wikieup.
The folks from MG Shooters and event attendees were friendly and helpful. The people we met were quick to offer advice and answer questions we had. For instance, what’s a tracer? It’s a round of ammunition used for night shooting. The round contains phosphorous that creates a streak of light in the sky, allowing the shooter to see where their bullets go. We didn’t stay for the night shoot, but were told the tracer fire and flares create quite a light show.
We had a good time watching some of the expert marksmen show off their stuff, hitting metal targets like steel plates and oil drums in the distance. One group launched bowling balls from a cannon. Occasionally someone would fly a remote-controlled airplane across the range for the shooters to fire at. No one knocked it down while we were there.
My trigger finger was itching so I headed over to the MG Shooters gun rental booth.
I tried out the .50 caliber Browning machine gun ($4 per round) and the .30 caliber Browning (20 rounds for $25). It was a kick to shoot the guns, but my aim wasn’t so hot.
Then I tried my luck with the sub machine guns: the MPK Walther and the M16 (both $25 for a 20-round magazine). Of the two, I preferred the M16, with which I was surprisingly accurate. The weapon felt very comfortable in my hands and was a breeze to control.
MG Shooters had eight different sub machine guns to rent, including the AK 47 and Uzi.
I can now cross “shoot a machine gun” off my to-do list.
Overall, the Big Sandy Shoot was a blast. The next one is scheduled for October.

Next: Cactus League baseball


Arizona ‘mancation’: Part 1 – Desert drive and the Bagdad copper mine


I just got back from taking a “mancation” (man vacation) to Phoenix with my brother Bill.
Phoenix had two main things that interested me: baseball spring training and relatively close proximity to the twice-a-year Big Sandy Shoot – the largest machine gun shoot in the U.S.
Additional pluses for the Valley of the Sun included great weather (a nice break from the cold, rainy East Coast this time of year) and the wide open spaces of the American West.

Desert drive

The spring Big Sandy Shoot was held Friday March 26 through Sunday March 28 outside of Wikieup, Ariz., about a three-hour drive northwest of Phoenix.
We drove up Friday morning in our rented Jeep Liberty SUV. The drive along U.S. 93 is beautiful. The terrain includes vast stretches of Sonoran desert with saguaro cactus in the lower elevations and Joshua trees in the higher regions. The spring desert was blooming with wild flowers and cactus flowers in yellow, purple, blue and red. Along the highway are magnificent buttes of giant boulders and majestic mountains.
Once outside of the Phoenix metro area, we drove through the little towns of Wittmann and Morristown; Wickenberg, an Old West town known for its ranches; Nothing, aptly named since there’s nothing there but a roadside shack selling pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven; and ultimately Wikieup, which features a large modern Shell gas station, an Indian jewelry shop and the Eat at Joe’s BBQ.
Before the Big Sandy Shoot, we took a detour off U.S. 93 to visit Bagdad, Ariz.

Bagdad copper mine

Bagdad is one of two company towns in Arizona. It’s owned by the mining company Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. The town was built to serve the Bagdad copper mine, a large open-pit mining operation that employs 1,200 people. The town has a population of 2,500.
Gigantic 300-ton trucks built by Caterpillar Inc. work the mine 24 hours a day. Each Caterpillar 793 can carry its own weight in ore, said Ramon Parra Jr., our tour guide and a retired mine worker. The mine has 25 such trucks each costing $3.5 million. But that fleet’s small compared with other mine operations, including Freeport-McMoRan’s mine in Morenci, Ariz.
The Bagdad mine produces an average of more than 160 million pounds of copper each year.
Ore from the Bagdad mine is crushed and pulverized to the consistency of flour. The metals are removed with chemicals. It takes 1 ton (2,000 pounds) of ore at the mine to get 6 pounds of copper. The Bagdad mine also yields smaller amounts of gold. A third mineral obtained from the mine is molybdenum, or moly, which is used to improve the physical properties of steel.
An electronic billboard at the mine displays the current price of copper and other minerals as well as the Freeport-McMoRan stock for employees. Many workers are shareholders in Freeport, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol FCX.
Freeport-McMoRan produces 250-pound sheets of copper on site that are trucked out for further processing and to make products like copper wire to transmit electricity. The sheets are 99.99% pure.
Most of the copper produced at the Bagdad mine is destined for China, which is rapidly building up a modern infrastructure.
Miners had to remove 1,000 feet of overburden (worthless rock) to get to the rich copper seams. They’ve since dug another 1,000 feet down. The company estimates that it could dig another 2,000 feet deeper to extract copper ore. That would put the floor of the open pit mine at sea level. The mine could have 100 years of productive use left, Parra said.
From an overlook, the giant trucks look like Tonka toys as they slowly drive in and out of the mine. The sides of the mine look like stairs. Each of these stairs or “benches” is 50 feet deep.
Freeport-McMoRan started offering free tours of the mine to interested people to show environmentalists how they were managing the land. A large area of the property is a dump for tailings, what’s left at the tail end of mineral extraction. These materials contain sulfuric acid and other chemicals harmful to living things. But Freeport-McMoRan says it goes to great lengths to recycle its chemicals and waste water and keep them contained. It later makes the land suitable for life again by adding a surface layer of “organics.”
“This is reality. This isn’t the Garden of Eden,” Parra said. “It’s messy, I agree. But somebody’s got to do it.”
Cities wouldn’t be able to power homes and businesses without the copper it mines, he says.
Next: The Big Sandy Shoot

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hot Chicks at Art Openings: Name says it all

I love blogs built around a simple premise.
Take the blog Hot Chicks at Art Openings. It features photos of attractive women attending art exhibitions and shows. That’s it.
Or check out Sad Guys on Trading Floors. It posts photos taken on the floors of financial exchanges. The author adds humorous comments to each photo.
Another blog, People of Walmart, goes the same route with photos of bizarre shoppers at Wal-Mart stores. It adds funny captions to pictures of oddly dressed customers and other “creatures” roaming the aisles at the nation’s biggest retailer.
And finally, My Parents Were Awesome, runs old photos of people’s parents when they were young and cool and before they had kids.

Photo: One of the attractive ladies from Hot Chicks at Art Openings

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series on Tech-media-tainment’s favorite Web sites.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

McDonald’s ‘Give Me Back That Filet-O-Fish’ TV commercial spawns novelty gag gift

I wonder sometimes what workers in Chinese factories cranking out cheap plastic toys for American consumers must think of us.
Take, for instance, Frankie the Fish, an animatronic signing fish based on a popular McDonald’s TV commercial. Just like in the commercial, the mechanized plastic fish signs a techno ditty about wanting a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich. It features the refrain “Give me back that Filet-O-Fish” over a simple beat and music. (See the original commercial from last year on YouTube as well as this year’s follow-up ad.)
Frankie the Fish (see above photo) was being sold my local Walgreen’s store for $19.99. It’s produced by Gemmy Industries Corp. of Coppell, Texas, and manufactured in China. Gemmy describes itself as “a groundbreaker in the fields of novelties and animation.”
Gemmy is behind the Big Mouth Billy Bass that inspired the Filet-O-Fish commercial, as well as Pete the Repeat Parrot. Plus, it was the originator of Airblown Inflatables, those inflatable holiday lawn decorations you see around Halloween and Christmas.
I’m sure Gemmy will keep Chinese factory workers employed and befuddled for years to come.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Affluent America’s Hurricane Katrina

The windstorm that struck the East Coast on March 13 doesn’t have a name, but it certainly hit the Gold Coast of Connecticut hard.
The southwestern portion of Fairfield County, Conn., includes some of the nation’s wealthiest towns, including Greenwich, Stamford and New Canaan. The nor’easter that slammed New Jersey, New York and Connecticut knocked down thousands of trees, blocked roads, cut off power to hundreds of thousands, flooded some areas and killed at least six people.
In my neighborhood of New Canaan, Conn., we lost power from Saturday night March 13 until Tuesday night March 16. We spent three nights in three different hotels as far away as an hour north.
Like many people here, we had to dump the contents of two refrigerators into the garbage when the food spoiled. It was a forced vacation that easily cost us $1,000 in unplanned expenses, most notably hotel rooms for my family and our nanny.
While nowhere near the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Gold Coast storm has raised similar complaints about how officials responded.
Connecticut agencies are looking into whether the state’s two largest utilities – Connecticut Light & Power and the United Illuminating Company – waited too long to act and sent out too few workers to restore electricity. Union workers at CL&P allege the company delayed sending help to save on overtime costs.
It was a frustrating experience to live through. We couldn’t stay at our house because the water and sewer systems need electricity to operate and without heat it became bitterly cold indoors.
Outside the New Canaan Post Office today, supporters of controversial political figure Lyndon LaRouche were protesting President Obama and calling for his impeachment. Their complaints centered on Obama’s unpopular plan to overhaul government health care. But I half-expected them to blame Obama for the poor response to the Gold Coast storm by saying, “Barack Obama doesn’t care about rich white people.”

See stories in the Stamford Advocate, the New York Times, Westport News, and NBC New York.

Photo: Fallen tree on power lines in Norwalk, Conn., after March 13, 2010, storm.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

East Coast rainstorm needs a name

The fierce rainstorm that knocked down trees and power lines and flooded roads and neighborhoods on the East Coast this weekend was certainly one for the record books.
Our neighborhood in New Canaan, Conn., lost power Saturday night and we’re on our second night of a hotel vacation.
At its worst point, more than 60% of homes in the New Canaan area had no electricity.
Connecticut Light & Power reported that more than 120,000 customers were without power. (See stories in the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Hour and StamfordPlus.com)
Power in our neighborhood likely won’t be back on until Tuesday, three days after going out.
The CL&P website lists the top 10 storms it has dealt with by the number of customers who lost power. No. 10 is a wind and rainstorm from November 1995 that knocked out power for 167,000 CL&P customers, so this one might not make the cut by that standard.
What’s interesting to me is that a lot of those storms had names and not just hurricanes and tropical storms. I’m talking about Ice Storm Felix and Snowstorm Carl.
I think this storm deserves a name too. Given the ferocious winds, maybe we should name it after a blowhard politician.

Photos:
Top: Downed trees and power lines in Norwalk, Conn.

Bottom:
CL&P outage map from Sunday afternoon. New Canaan, Conn., is one of the dark blue sections in the southwest corner of the state.
CL&P historic storm response chart



Friday, March 12, 2010

Clips: Another journalist anachronism

This year I finally went all digital when it comes to saving my published articles.
I’ve been clipping my stories from newspapers for nearly 30 years. I’ve got boxes of “clips” – that’s what old-time print journalists call their saved articles. My clips go back to my days at the Daily Illini, the college newspaper at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
For decades, when journalists applied for jobs, they’d provide their clips as samples of their work. Articles now can be e-mailed as attachments or sent as weblinks.
I suppose the word clips is going to end up in the dustbin of outmoded journalism terms like “slug” and “spike.”
Since the start of the year, I’ve been saving PDFs of my work. PDF stands for portable document format, a standard developed by Adobe Systems. As I’ve stated previously, you can’t trust weblinks to work one month to the next. So I’m hoping the PDF format will stand the test of time.

Photo: One of my recent articles from IBD.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Best recent online video: Funny or Die’s presidential reunion with who’s who of comics

Funny or Die hit a home run recently with its “Presidential Reunion” video. It featured an all-star cast of “Saturday Night Live” veterans playing Presidents Ford through Obama.
Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch blog had a good write-up on the project.
The behind-the-scenes video showing director Ron Howard and cast is also a treat.

10 online videos worth watching:

Funny or Die’s Presidential Reunion (FunnyorDie.com)

Behind the scenes of Funny or Die's Presidential Reunion (FunnyorDie.com)

Jon Stewart investigates the Chatroulette trend (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart)

How will the end of print journalism affect old loons who hoard newspapers? (Onion News Network)

Winter Olympics in 60 Seconds (CollegeHumor)

Biathlon as envisioned by 13 Eme Rue, the French action and suspense channel (Vimeo)

Tiger Woods is deeply sorry for his long hard staff (Playboy.com)

Edward the Hamster from BBC Radio (Vimeo)

Tim Burton’s Secret Formula (CollegeHumor)

Kristen Bell and Christian Bale star in “Kristianne Baille,” a faux trailer (EW Popwatch)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sandra Bullock: A class act

It’s hard not to like Sandra Bullock, this year’s Oscar winner for best actress for “The Blind Side.”
She comes off as a down-to-earth, girl next door. She’s been in good movies and bad, but takes it in stride. She’s got a great attitude and sense of humor.
Her decision to show up at the Razzies on Saturday to accept an award for worst actress in “All About Steve” was brilliant. She took control of the event, handing out DVDs of the movie to attendees and asking them to reconsider.
“This is the deal we are going to make,” she said, according to EW. “You promise to watch the movie and really consider whether it was really and truly the worst performance. If you are willing to watch it, I will come back next year and give back the Razzie.”
The Razzies should take Bullock up on her offer and reconsider the decision to name Bullock as worst actress.
Let’s face it: the Razzies don’t have a lot of credibility anyway. Their main objective is to zing the biggest celebrities they can for bad Hollywood movies (some worse than others). They make up categories willy-nilly and seem to have it in for certain actors year after year.
Bullock’s competition for worst actress of 2009 included: Beyonce, “Obsessed”; Miley Cyrus, “Hannah Montana: The Movie”; Megan Fox, “Jennifer’s Body” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”; and Sarah Jessica Parker, “ Did You Hear About the Morgans?”
Certainly any of those other women deserve the award more.

Photo of Sandra Bullock at the 2010 Academy Awards (Reuters)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Deadliest animal on the planet: The mosquito

When asked to name the most deadly animal on the planet, most people would say great white shark or lion. But the creature responsible for the most death and suffering worldwide is the mosquito.
The pesky blood-sucking insect doesn’t get the respect it deserves as a cold-blooded killer, because it quietly passes on deadly diseases like malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever. It won’t rip you to shreds like a grizzly bear or tiger. But it is no less deadly.
Mosquito-borne illnesses kill more than 1 million people worldwide every year, according to the United Nations and other sources.
But it’s a passive killer. The mosquito doesn’t mean to kill its host. It just happens.
That’s why people find deaths by megafauna much more interesting. The deaths are swift, violent and often unpredictable. It’s like the stuff of childhood nightmares – the wolf that suddenly attacks or the sea creature from the deep rising up.
For the same reason, people are fascinated with serial killers. You can be going about your daily life when – Bam! – a stranger grabs you and you’re a goner. Scary stuff.

Why no website focused on animal attacks?

As I’ve previously mentioned, a website devoted to deadly animal attacks probably would be well read. If there is one, I can’t find it.
One blog on the subject – Animal Attack Files – is no longer active. It ran from July 1997 through June 2008. No reason was given on the site for why posts stopped after an 11-year run.
The site covered people killed and injured by animal attacks. It aggregated news stories, photos and weblinks.
I’d prefer a website that also included a map showing where attacks occurred and a scoreboard (for lack of a better word) to tally animal attacks.
I’d like to know year to year how many deaths are attributed to mountain lions, bears, sharks, and other beasts.

Six notable recent fatal animal attacks:

Family dog kills 4-year-old girl near Astoria, Oregon (Feb. 28, 2010)

Orca kills trainer during show at SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. (Feb. 24, 2010)

Sharks kill a kite-boarder in the ocean near Stuart, Fla. (Feb. 3, 2010)

Siberian tiger kills its 66-year-old owner in its pen in Canada’s Ontario province (Jan. 10, 2010)

A U.S. woman and her infant daughter are killed by an elephant during a guided walk in the East African country of Kenya (Jan. 6, 2010)

Two coyotes kill a promising young musician hiking alone in a national park in eastern Canada (Oct. 28, 2009)

Photos: Anopheles albimanus mosquito (top); and a polar bear at the Berlin Zoo attacks a woman who climbed into its habitat in April 2009 (bottom)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Unanswered questions about Twitter’s progress

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone put out his first e-mail newsletter of the year on Wednesday, trumpeting the progress his microblogging service is making.
But it was short on useful statistics and metrics.
Stone notes that in the last year registered Twitter accounts have grown more than 1,500%. But he doesn’t state how many accounts there are.
Online analytics company RJMetrics estimated in January that Twitter ended 2009 with just over 75 million user accounts.
However, a large percentage of Twitter accounts are inactive. About 40% of accounts have never sent a single tweet.
Only about 17% of registered Twitter accounts sent a tweet in December, an all-time low, RJMetrics reports.
A number of independent researchers have pointed out that Twitter’s growth stalled around mid-2009.
In the company’s blog, Twitter analytics lead Kevin Weil says the service is seeing 50 million tweets per day. He claims that “tweets from accounts identified as spam have been removed,” but what about the rest of the spam that’s on Twitter?
Also, what percentage of those tweets are “retweets”? My use of retweets has jumped significantly since Twitter made retweeting as simple has clicking a button.
Studies have shown that most tweets on Twitter are coming from a small percentage of very active users. That makes Twitter sound like a niche, rather than mainstream, service.
The nagging issue of Twitter’s ability to make money off its service appears to have been quieted by the company’s recent partnerships with Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. Twitter has licensed its full feed of all public tweets to the big three web portals. Twitter describes this as its “fire hose” of data.
But other questions about Twitter's business remain.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Comedy Central pulling ‘Daily Show’, Colbert from Hulu; Embedded videos to go dead

One month after NBC yanked all the comedy videos from Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” run off its websites, Comedy Central is pulling its most popular content from Hulu.com.
Viacom’s decision to delete its Comedy Central programs “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” from Hulu will create a lot of dead links for websites using embedded videos. (See reports by EW and Gizmodo.)
That includes my video website, One Stop Video.
I started One Stop Video in March 2009 as an experiment in video aggregation. The idea was to curate some of the best videos from around the Web, including Atom.com, Break.com, CollegeHumor, FunnyorDie, Hulu, Vimeo and YouTube.
That one-year experiment comes to an end today.
I had hoped that the embedded videos I posted would stay active for the foreseeable future. But that was not to be.
In addition to Hulu and NBC.com deleting videos, I’ve seen videos discontinued because of copyright concerns.
It’s a waste of time to build a library of fun and informative videos if those videos aren’t going to be there to be enjoyed.
Speaking of copyright issues, a good article by Techdirt today calls out the overzealous copyright police at YouTube for silencing a video by law professor Lawrence Lessig. His video used a snippet of a Warner Music song to demonstrate a point about fair use. Apparently Warner and/or YouTube thought it wasn’t fair use and silenced it.
I’ve seen this many times on YouTube.
Consider the video in the screenshot below. A remix artist made a mashup of Disney Tinkerbell videos and the Gwen Stefani song “Sweet Escape.” The record label objected and had the music pulled.
Or how about the video below it? It was a short clip from “Saturday Night Live” on YouTube that NBC ordered deleted. Hence the dead link.
As I’ve said many times before, nothing’s permanent on the Internet.


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