30 great baseball names

Ever notice how baseball players have a knack for having weird and funny names? Here are 30 of them that are rattling around my brain-thing.

Boof Bonser
Coco Crisp
Shigetoshi Hasegawa
Cheslor Cuthbert
Hee-Seop Choi
Stubby Clapp
Milton Bradley
Old Hoss Radbourn
Rusty Kuntz
Tim Spooneybarger
Heathcliff Slocumb
Three Finger Brown
Chief Bender
Catfish Hunter
Heinie Meine
Chicken Wolf
Dick Pole
Al Alburquerque
Placido Polanco
Goose Gossage
Rocky Biddle
Oil Can Boyd
Pokey Reese
Snuffy Stirnweiss
Ugeth Urbina
Greg Legg
Mark Clark
Boog Powell
Quinton McCracken
Johnny Dickshot

Thoughts about space

The thing you don’t realize when you live in a city, or even the suburbs, or really anywhere, is how much space there is on this planet. Even though we have seven billion people, and trillions of other life forms, and 75% of the planet is water, and much of the land is uninhabitable, the earth is so big that it just doesn’t matter.

We could fit every human, standing side by side, into 17 square miles. It would be pretty tight, and there wouldn’t much room to stretch or do yoga, but we could make it work.

You see that square in southwest Kansas? That’s seventeen square miles.

17sqm

Humans, however, don’t live two dimensionally. We live three dimensionally! We can stack people on top of each other. In fact, it *only* takes a building that’s 1.2 billion cubic meters to do this. In theory, we could build this thing. If we made it as tall as the Empire State Building (443 meters) and made the height and length about 52,000 meters, every human could fit inside of it. We could build it on Manhattan. Let’s add a really big air conditioner, too. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t do this.

My point here is that there is a lot of space, and humans take up very little of it.

I was reminded of that on a drive out west last month. My friends and I drove from Denver to Vegas, with a stop in Zion National Park. First, we drove through the Rocky Mountains in Denver. I looked outside, and there was space:

col

Then we drove through Utah. More space.

utah

Then we arrived at Zion National park. I hiked to the top of a canyon, sat down, and thought about how much space there was.

zion

But as much space as we have on this planet, it doesn’t come close to how much space we have in our solar system. And you know what, our educational system doesn’t really do a good job of explaining that most of space is, well, space.

Here’s a typical map of our solar system that you might see at a school:

020545
Pluto is included because Pluto will always be a planet and this is the way I learned it.

Look, I understand why the map is drawn like this. There isn’t enough room to draw the solar system to scale, because if it was, it would be really big, and 99.9% of it would be black, and schools don’t have enough money to show a map ten miles long with a few tiny dots on it. NONETHELESS, I would like for that to happen.

Thankfully, we have the internet. Here is website that shows the solar system to scale, if the moon were only 1 pixel. Take a scroll through to get a sense of how much nothing there is in our solar system.

Thing is, the solar system is pretty small in the grand scheme of things. There are 100 billion more stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Look out a little farther, and you’ll see our sister, the Andromeda Galaxy*, which contains a trillion stars. Look out a little farther, and you’ll see hundreds of billions of other galaxies. Travel at light speed, and you’ll see it all in about 13.7 billion years.

*The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will collide in about 3.75 billion years. Should be fun!

We will never see most of the space in our universe, unless we become a Type IV civilization, which is probably not going to happen. See the gray blob below for an explanation of what this means.

Hello! Welcome to the gray blob. So, in 1964, Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev figured that civilizations can be categorized by the total amount of energy available to them. The Kardashev Scale, as it is called, now lists 7 levels of civilizations based on their power consumption, and implicitly on their technological advancement and extension.

TYPE 0: A civilization that harnesses the energy of its home planet, but not to its full potential just yet. This is where we are right now.

TYPE I: A civilization that is capable of harnessing the total energy of its home planet. We may get there in 100-200 years.

TYPE II: An interstellar civilization, capable of harnessing the total energy output of a star. This is the next stage in the evolution of a civilization, and presumes a level of technological development that allows for gigantic constructions (like Dyson structures) and utmost efficiency.

TYPE III: A galactic civilization, capable of inhabiting and harnessing the energy of an entire galaxy. Such a civilization would use planets like building blocks, being able to move planets from one solar system to other, merge solar systems, merge stars, absorb supernovae, and even create stars. The galaxy is their playground, and everything in it becomes a toy. It would be pretty cool.

TYPE IV: A universal civilization, capable of harnessing the energy of the whole universe. This civilization would be supergalactic, able to travel throughout the entire universe and consume the energy output of several, or all, galaxies. A Type IV civilization could also manipulate space-time and tinker with entropy, thus reaching immortality on a grand scale. This would be an indestructible and highly utopian civilization.

But we’re not done yet…

TYPE V: A multiverse culture, capable of harnessing the energy of multiple universes. It would span countless parallel universes, being able to manipulate the very structure of reality.

We’re STILL NOT DONE.

TYPE VI: Exists outside of time and space, and is capable of creating universes and multiverses, and destroying them just as easily. At this point, we are God.

When I look at the night sky on a clear night, and I think about space, I feel…something. You know what I mean? It’s like a bit of wonder and profound sadness at the same time. I kinda freak out. I ponder about our place in the universe, and whether we will ever understand the scope or complexity of it all. Spoiler alert: we won’t. And that’s fine. Then I go home and forget about it and eat some ice cream.

But I think it is important to think about these things. It is important not to ignore the universe. So I look at space – the open road, a national park, the night sky – and I just sit quietly, and I think, this is all frikkin weird and crazy.

And sometimes I just there and I don’t think about anything. To quote the Australian rocker Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit.

Top 10 baseball brawls

I would argue that baseball fights are the best sports fights. They are rare, the players aren’t obscured by helmets or pads, and you have a big ol’ field to play with. Most of the time, the benches empty, the pitchers run in from the bullpen, but punches aren’t thrown. But every now and then, you get a group of players/teams that really do hate each other, and we get to see a bunch of grown men fight each other without any sort of legal consequence. It is incredibly fun to watch.

We had an all-time great baseball brawl over the weekend, when Rougned Odor punched Jose Bautista in the face. In honor of that, here are my 10 favorite baseball fights of all time:

10) Coco Crisp vs. James Shields, 2008

Shields goes for a massive punch, but Coco Crisp evades it because he is a ninja.

9) Nolan Ryan vs. Robin Ventura, 1993

Nolan Ryan was 46 years old, Robin Ventura was 26. The old man wins.

8) Kyle Farnsowrth vs. Paul Wilson

You don’t normally see a pitcher charge a batter, but Kyle Farnsworth is certifiably insane.

7) Michael Barrett vs. A.J. Pierzynski, 2006

Everyone hates A.J. Pierzynski. Barrett’s punch to the face spoke for all of us.

6) Padres vs. Braves, 1984

Look at the fan at the 1:18 mark. He jumps onto the top of the dugout and throws a beer can into the ruckus.

5) Rougned Odor vs. Jose Bautista, 2016

You never see a player land a punch like that! One more time:

lpah74cvcu88l6elyrty

4) Pedro vs. Gerald Williams, 2000

I love the way Gerald Williams walks down the first base line, glances at his wrist, looks at Pedro, glances at his wrist again, looks at Pedro again, glances at his wrist one more time, then decides to charge the mound.

3) A-Rod vs. Varitek, 2004

You can read A Rod’s lips, and he is clearly saying something not nice.

2) Armando Benitez vs. entire Yankees team, 1998

Benitez dares the entire Yankees team to fight him. They do.

1) Clemens vs. Manny vs. Pedro vs. Zimmer, 2003

2003 ALCS, in the heat of the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry. Not the most violent of fights, but given the context of the game, it’s my favorite. RIP Zim.

Tax policies of Clinton, Sanders, Trump, and Cruz

I recently watched the vlogbrothers videos that explained the tax policies of Clinton/Sanders and Trump/Cruz. They were really well made and informative and relatable and I wish the regular media would do stuff like this.

Tax policy is, of course, not everyone’s cup of tea, but presented the right way it can be somewhat interesting. So let’s spend today looking at the tax policies of the four remaining Presidential candidates.*

*I meant to post this before Ted Cruz dropped out.

OK, so to start: in 2015, the United States government spent $3.8 trillion dollars, divided up like so:

total_spending_pie,__2015_enacted

Now that you have that baseline, let’s look at everyone’s tax policies:

Ted Cruz

tPOyTmo

Cruz’s tax policy dramatically simplifies the American tax code, to the point where he would abolish the IRS.

Currently, we have seven tax brackets. If you filed as a single taxpayer in 2015, you paid:

10% on your first $9,225 earned
15% from $9,226 to $37,450
25% from $37,451 to $90,750
28% from $90,751 to $189,300
33% from $189,301 to $411,500
35% from $411,501 to $413,200
39.6% for $413,201 to ∞

This is, of course, minus any deductions – interest on a mortgage, charity donations, student loan interest, child care costs, or just the standard federal deduction (which anyone can take – in 2015, it was $6,300).

Cruz wants to a flat tax of 10%, with a $10,000 standard deduction. Let’s look at how that would effect millionaires:

Current Cruz
Income $1,000,000 $1,000,000
Standard Deduction $6,300 $10,000
Taxes Owed $349,874 $99,000
Tax Rate 35.0% 9.9%

They’d pay a lot less in taxes. How about someone who makes $250,000:

Current Cruz
Income $250,000 $250,000
Standard Deduction $6,300 $10,000
Taxes Owed $64,027 $24,000
Tax Rate 25.6% 9.6%

They, too, would pay a lot less in taxes. What about someone making the median US average of $52,000:

Current Cruz
Income $52,000 $52,000
Standard Deduction $6,300 $10,000
Taxes Owed $7,894 $4,200
Tax Rate 15.2% 8.1%

So everyone would pay less in taxes, but the wealthiest Americans would by far receive the biggest cuts.

Cruz would also eliminate many tax deductions except for mortgage interest and charitable donations. He would also eliminate all federal gift and estate taxes, and repeal all corporate and payroll taxes in favor of a 16% VAT (value added tax). This would be a tax on business revenues, minus their capital investments and the money they pay to other companies.

The problem with Cruz’s tax plan is that it would dramatically reduce the amount of federal revenue, by approximately $8.6 trillion over the next ten years. Cruz says that by eliminating the IRS and some other government programs, they can save maybe $500 billion over the next decade, but that’s still $8.1 trillion short. Even if you cease all military spending*, you’re still be $2 trillion short.

*Cruz, of course, wants to increase military spending.

Some economists argue that the shortfall would be partially offset by increased economic growth, but even the most optimistic models show a dramatic increase in the federal deficit, unless we also cut Medicare or Social Security. So, yeah, Cruz’s tax policy would be awful for a lot of people. And I’m not saying that because I’m a liberal hippy from New York. I’m saying that because MATH.

Donald Trump

trump

Trump wants to increase the standard deduction by more than Cruz – $25,000 for single filers and $50,000 for married couples filing jointly. He would then collapse the seven tax brackets into four, with the top rate being 25% on income over $432,000 per year. Trump would also eliminate federal gift and estate taxes and most deductions. But he would cut corporate tax rates instead of replacing them with a VAT.

Trump’s tax plan actually costs the federal government more than Cruz’s plan, which I didn’t think was possible. It’ll cost the government between $10 and $12 trillion over the next decade. Trump argues that his tax plan will be revenue neutral, but even the right-leaning Center for Federal Tax Policy wrote an op ed that was titled:

Donald Trump’s Tax Plan Will Not Be Revenue-Neutral Under Any Circumstances

(lol)

Trump could dissolve the military, and he’d still need to find $6 trillion to cut in order to make his policy revenue neutral.

I’d like to sit down with Trump (or Cruz) for an hour and go through some of the math in Microsoft Excel. I’d run some calculations and conclude by saying:  Look at the math, ya dingus. At that point, I imagine they would drop out of the race in shame.

Hillary Clinton

ClintonShruggiegif

Clinton’s tax plan is simple: KEEP EVERYTHING THE SAME.

There is one slight exception: she wants to add a higher tax rate (43.6%) for any individual that makes over $5 million.

Bernie Sanders

bernie

Under Sanders’s tax plan, everyone pays an additional 2.2% tax, which goes towards paying for a single-payer healthcare system. He also adds some additional brackets:

12.2% on your first $18,000 earned
17.2% from $18,001 to $75,000
27.2% from $75,001 to $150,000
30.2% from $150,001 to $230,000
35.2% from $230,001 to $250,000
39.2% from $250,001 to $500,000
45.2% from $500,001 to $2,000,000
50.2% from $2,000,001 to $10,000,000
54.2% from $10,000,001 to ∞

Sanders’s tax plan is considerably higher. Also – one thing he does that neither Cruz, Trump, nor Clinton do is increase the payroll tax by 6.2% to further fund his single payer healthcare system and two years of free education (the payroll tax normally includes stuff like Social Security (12.6%, 6.2% of which is paid by you and the other half paid by your employer) and Medicare (2.9% below $250,000, 3.8% above), which is automatically deducted from each paycheck).

Additionally – Sanders would re-introduce the Social Security tax at $250,000 (right now, you do not pay Social Security tax on any income over $118,000). So under his plan, you do not have to pay Social Security tax between $118,000 and $250,000, but you do have to start paying it again after $250,000.

The taxes are ridiculous – if you make more than $5 million, you’ll be taxed at 70.4%* (with payroll taxes), plus all of the required state and local taxes. Even if you make $50,000, you’ll be taxed at 32.5%.**

*54.2% + 6.2% Social Security tax + 6.2% single payer healthcare tax + 3.8% Medicare tax

**17.2% + 6.2% Social Security tax + 6.2% single payer healthcare tax + 2.9% Medicare tax

Sanders would also add his 2.2% tax increase to capital gains, and he would tax all capital gains above $250,000 as normal income.

Of course, Sanders’s increased taxes are partially offset by lower healthcare premiums. So the idea is that while your taxes go up, the average person would pay less money per year in healthcare costs.

**

In summary, Cruz and Trump want to significantly lower taxes, which will make your paycheck bigger but will leave the federal government vastly under-funded. Clinton wants to continue the same tax policies as Obama. Sanders wants to add new taxes, especially for those with high incomes, that will pay for a single payer healthcare system and free education. Got it? Good. Tax policy is exciting.

If MLB was like the Premier League

You probably know about the incredible story of Leicester City, who just won the English Premier League at 5,000-to-1 odds, by far the most improbable sports championship of all time.

I’ve been thinking about the Premier League quite a bit lately, not just because of Leicester, but because I really like the rules. Teams are awarded three points for a win, one point for a draw, and zero points for a loss. There are no playoffs. The team with the most points at the end of the season wins. That’s it. And every year, the bottom three teams get relegated to a different league (and three new teams are added).

I like the Premier League rules because playoffs (especially in baseball) are a crapshoot. The baseball playoffs go against the very essence of the game, which is about building a deep team that can survive over the course of 162 games. In baseball, sometimes you have to lose the battle to win the war. Sometimes you have to skip a start. Weird stuff happens, but because of the sample size, the best teams tend to rise to the top by September.

And then you get to the playoffs. The game is totally different. Weird stuff happens, and then you have to go home. It makes the sport incredibly exciting, and I don’t hate the new system by any means, but it does sort of invalidate everything you’ve done for six months.

Anyway, I decided to go back twenty years and see what the baseball standings would look like each year if they used Premier League rules. This involved too many spreadsheets and hours on Baseball Reference. Yes, I’m insane.

The scoring: 3 points for a 9 inning (regulation) win, 1 point for extra innings, 0 points for a 9 inning (regulation) loss.

Welcome, everyone, to the hypothetical Premier League Baseball Championships. Here we go!

1996

1. Cleveland Indians – 294 pts
2. Atlanta Braves – 284 pts
3. New York Yankees – 274 pts

The Indians (and the city of Cleveland) win their first championship since 1948. This 1996 team was awesome – they scored 952 runs and hit .293 AS A TEAM. Their lineup was deadly. Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Albert Belle, and Julio Franco, to name a few.

1997

1. Atlanta Braves – 293 pts
2. Baltimore Orioles – 280 pts
3. New York Yankees – 279 pts

After finishing second a year earlier, the ’97 Braves win the championship thanks in large part to great years from Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and randomly, Denny Neagle.

1998

1. New York Yankees – 326 pts
2. Atlanta Braves – 318 pts
3. Houston Astros – 298 pts

In real life, the Yankees won 114 games in 1998, eight more than anyone else, so this one is a lot closer than I would have thought. The ’98 Braves weren’t too bad themselves – they won 106 games – but they won 104 of them in regulation (the Yankees won 105). This will be the only championship the Yankees will win in the 1990s or early 2000s.

1999

1. Arizona Diamondbacks – 288 pts
2 (tie) Cleveland Indians – 284 pts
2 (tie) New York Mets – 284 pts

The second-year Diamondbacks come out of nowhere to win it all! But things are tight in the last week of the season. With two games to play, the Diamondbacks trail the Indians by two points. The DBacks win Games 161 and 162, and Cleveland loses both, so Randy Johnson gets his first and only ring. Schilling misses out.

2000

1. Atlanta Braves – 284 pts
2. San Francisco Giants – 282 pts
3. St. Louis Cardinals – 277 pts

This is the best ending to a season ever, something people still talk about to this day.

On the last day of the season, the Giants – looking to win their first championship since 1954 – are ahead of the Braves by one point. The Braves won’t go quietly, and they beat the Marlins 18-0 to temporarily take a two point lead.  The Giants can still win if they beat the Rockies. But remember, this was 2000, at Coors Field, so the game was guaranteed to be bonkers and feature approximately eleventy trillion runs.

The Giants get off to a good start with two runs in the first inning. Curiously, they decide to sit Barry Bonds (and most of their regular starters). But starting pitcher Joe Nathan – yes, Joe Nathan – struggles in the bottom half of the first and allows two runs of his own. The game goes back and forth until the Giants take an 8-7 lead in the eighth.

And then we get to the bottom of the ninth. Giants fans are praying for this to end without incident. Braves fans are praying for a blown save. The Giants, oddly, call on Alan Embree to close out the championship. He walks some guy named Terry Shumpert. He hits Todd Helton. He allows a game-tying single to Dante Bichette.* Out of options, the Giants turn to – who else? – Bronswell Patrick, who serves up a game-winning sacrifice fly to Edgard Clemente. These are names of real baseball players.

*Technically, by our rules, the Giants season was over as soon as Bichette tied the game.

The Giants lose. The Braves win the championship by two points. Chaos in Atlanta.

2001

1. Seattle Mariners – 334 pts
2. Oakland Athletics – 299 pts
3. St. Louis Cardinals – 282 pts

The Mariners completely dominate and have this thing locked up in July.

2002

1. Oakland Athletics – 305 pts
2. New York Yankees – 304 pts
3. Atlanta Braves – 297 pts

Billy Beane famously said:

My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.

But it does work using the Premier League rules! The 2002 A’s win it all by one measly point.

The Yankees and A’s trade places all season long, but Oakland is propelled to new heights after they win (and sometimes draw) twenty consecutive games. The Yankees try to make a run for it at the end of the season, and they win their last four games. But Oakland does too.

2003

1. Atlanta Braves – 299 pts
2. New York Yankees – 297 pts
3. San Francisco Giants – 285 pts

Another close one. The Yankees are ahead by one point with five games to play. They can’t hold onto the lead. Braves win.

2004

1. St. Louis Cardinals – 301 pts
2. New York Yankees – 297 pts
3. Boston Red Sox – 288 pts

The Red Sox have to wait for another year to break the curse. We don’t get to see the ALCS comeback, and no one remembers Dave Roberts or the bloody sock, and I for one am happy about all of that.

2005

1. St. Louis Cardinals – 293 pts
2. Chicago White Sox – 283 pts
3. New York Yankees – 281 pts

Ugh, the Cardinals win again.

2006

1. Detroit Tigers – 285 pts
2. New York Yankees – 280 pts
3. New York Mets – 278 pts

Tigers! Only three years after setting an American League record with 119 losses (which, in this universe, means they’d be relegated to the minors), they manage to make their way back into the league in 2005 and win it all one year later. They are the Leicester City of 2006.

(God, I hated this Tigers team. The Yankees were really good in 2006, but the Tigers took them out in the ALDS thanks to stupid Kenny Rogers and stupid Magglio Ordonez and stupid Placido Polanco)

2007

1. Boston Red Sox – 289 pts
2. New York Yankees – 283 pts
3. Cleveland Indians – 274 pts

Finally, after 89 long years, the Boston Red Sox break the curse. It wasn’t easy – the Yankees were on their tail the whole year. But a 6-3 finish gives the Red Sox the championship.

2008

1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – 299 pts
2 (tie) Chicago Cubs – 277 pts
2 (tie) Tampa Bay Rays – 277 pts

I totally forgot about this team, but the Angels win it in a landslide. The 2008 Angels weren’t that dominant, but they outperformed their Pythagorean win expectancy by twelve.

2009

1. New York Yankees – 298 pts
2. Boston Red Sox – 283 pts
3. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – 281 pts

The Yankees win their first championship in 11 years!

2010

1. New York Yankees – 278 pts
2. Philadelphia Phillies – 275 pts
3. Tampa Bay Rays – 273 pts

The Yankees win their first championship in 1 year!

They come very close to blowing it, though. The standings on September 6th: Yankees 253, Phillies 218. The Phillies finish strong and cut it to three but can’t overtake the Yanks.

2011

1. Philadelphia Phillies – 298 pts
2. New York Yankees – 295 pts
3. Texas Rangers – 285 pts

Lol, except they do one year later.

I’m sorry to say that, without knowing it, the Yankees absolutely blow it in the last week of the season. They have a five point lead with four games to play, but finish 0-2-2. The Phillies finish 3-0-1. Ugh.

By the way, the 2011 Phillies were good. This was the only year the Halladay/Lee/Hamels trio actually did something.

2012

1. Cincinnati Reds – 284 pts
2. New York Yankees – 276 pts
3. Washington Nationals – 275 pts

Wait, what? The Cincinnati Reds win it all in 2012? I had to double check my math, but yes, that is indeed correct.

Reds fans aren’t exactly sure how this happened, and we aren’t either. Good years from Joey Votto and Johnny Cueto, I guess.

2013

1. St. Louis Cardinals – 285 pts
2 (tie) Oakland Athletics – 280 pts
2 (tie) Detroit Tigers – 280 pts

Oh no, not the Cardinals again. They re-kindle their early 2000s magic to win their third championship in ten years. The post-Moneyball A’s make a nice run for it, but unfortunately, Billy Bean’s shit doesn’t work this year.

2014

1. Los Angeles Dodgers – 282 pts
2 (tie) Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – 281 pts
2 (tie) Washington Nationals – 281 pts

This is the closest race in years – three teams finish within a point of each other.

The Angels brutally collapse in the last week. With three games to play, they’re up by five points. The only way they can lose is if they finish 0-3, and either Washington or Los Angeles finish 3-0. And that’s exactly what happens. The Angels get swept by the Mariners on the final weekend and finish with 281 points. The Dodgers sweep the Rockies, including a gutsy start by Zack Greinke on the final day of the season. They finish with 282 points and the championship, their first since 1988.

2015

1. St. Louis Cardinals – 292 pts
2. Pittsburgh Pirates – 279 pts
3. Los Angeles Dodgers – 272 pts

The Cardinals win their second championship in three years thanks to some awesome pitching – their 134 ERA+ is one of the highest marks ever.

**

A few things caught my eye about all of this nonsense.

One, there were only three years where the hypothetical Premier League championship winner matched the actual World Series winner – 1998 (Yankees), 2007 (Red Sox), and 2009 (Yankees).

Two, how about the Cardinals! What a dynasty. With their championship in 2015, they would have won four out of twelve.

Three, the Yankees were runners-up seven times.

Four, the 2010 Yankees should have won the World Series in real life. They probably do if they trade for Cliff Lee. That was a good team.

Five, the Giants are doing some voo-doo. They weren’t in the top three in 2010, 2012, or 2014, despite winning the real World Series all of those years.

Six, pick up sticks.

Seven, I’m tired. This was hard to do. Thanks for reading.

dare to be pointless

A few weeks ago, I made a vlog. I filmed myself walking around and making dinner. It was fun and pointless. Someone asked me why I did that, and I didn’t have a good answer. I settled on, uh just because.

Every now and then, I interview people on this here blog. They are incredibly interesting (for me), but it takes a long time to set up the call, think of questions, record it, and transcribe. Sometimes I get asked why I go through all the trouble. And the answer I usually give is, uh I don’t know, just because.

The other night, I was walking down the street. I decided that walking was boring, so I skipped. I skipped for a good thirty seconds, and it was awesome. Why did I do that? I don’t know.

The theme here, if you couldn’t already tell, is that I like to do pointless stuff. And I think we should all dare to be a little more pointless.

Not everything we do or create needs to have a purpose, or an end-game, or a massive audience. We can just do stuff for the sake of … doing stuff.

Take blogging – I’ve seen a lot of friends, a lot of writers, a lot of people start a blog. And the vast, vast majority of them do not last more than a few months. This is, I think, due to one of three reasons:

  1. People have something building up in them that they want to say. So they spend a week writing, like, five posts a day. And then they get everything out there and they have nothing left.
  2. Other things come up and it just falls by the wayside.
  3. No one reads their stuff, so what’s the point?

When you start a creative project, you want attention. That’s just human nature. And when you put your heart and soul into something, and you start to realize that no one cares, then it’s very difficult to press on.

But here’s the thing – pointlessness shouldn’t be a deterrent, or a criticism. As long as you enjoy doing something, and you’re not committing a crime, then you should embrace pointlessness.

And sometimes, pointlessness turns into something really amazing. Like smart phones. I remember explaining smart phones to my parents:

So, like, you can download all of these apps, and you can browse the internet, and check your email.

And they were like: But you still have your laptop, so what’s the point?

And then I remember explaining Twitter to my parents:

It’s, uh, this thing where you write Tweets, but they have to be 140 characters or less, and you can follow other people who also write Tweets.

And they were like: That sounds stupid, what’s the point? 

And then I remember explaining Uber to my parents:

You can order a cab on your phone and it gets paid automatically.

And they were like: But we have regular cabs, so what’s the point?

Basically, any time I explain something to my parents and they think it’s pointless, I immediately invest ALL OF MY MONEY into it.

I imagine similar things were said about radio (what’s the point, we have live theater) or cars (there’s no need, we have horses), or written word (this is stupid, we can pass on our stories orally!)

Luckily, there are people out there who first embraced the pointlessness of something, and shared it with the world.

But yeah, most of the pointless stuff we do doesn’t turn into something that changes the world. And that’s OK. I think we all need to be pointless a little more. That’s really the whole point of this blog. Which is to say, there’s no point. As the tagline says, I write about stuff. Why did I write about James K Polk that one time? BECAUSE HE IS A VASTLY UNDERRATED PRESIDENT. And also because I just wanted to. I don’t have an end-game. I don’t expect James Polk’s ancestors to phone me up and personally thank me (though I would love it if they did). I don’t expect millions of people to read my crap and shower me with compliments. That’s not what I’m looking for. I’m just looking to enjoy my time the best way I can. I like creating stuff.

If we stop asking why, maybe we can do a lot more things.

Jeff Fleishman

Every now and then, I will Google myself, just to make sure everything’s OK in case IMPORTANT PEOPLE need to Google me. And whenever I google my name, I tend to check out the other Jeffrey Fleishman’s. What are my fellow brethren doing with their lives? As it turns out, there are quite a few of us. One is a writer. One owns his own business. One plays the french horn. One drives a truck. One is a rabbi.

Today’s guest is one of those Jeffrey Fleishman’s. He is an award winning author and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. A longtime foreign correspondent, he covered the Iraq War and served as bureau chief in Cairo and Berlin. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in feature writing, and he was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. He is also the author of two novels.

You can follow Jeffrey on Twitter here, and read through his archives here.

Jeffrey Fleishman, papa, welcome to the blog.

Jeff, I’m going to start by asking: what are your overall thoughts on the name Jeff Fleishman?

Well, I’ve had it since birth, and I’ve gotten used to it.  It seems strange, but I’ve always felt like a Jeff Fleishman. I never felt like I needed to replace my first name. I don’t have any identity issues with it. I suppose that’s probably healthy.

I don’t know if the Jeff and the Fleishman actually go together. It’s an interesting combination, a cultural coming-together.

How often do you Google yourself?

Not much, only if I’m looking for a news story that I can’t find in a file somewhere. Are there a lot of us out there?

There are a few of us. One drives a truck. One owns his own business.

Interesting.

Did you have any name-related nicknames growing up? Mine were Fleish, The Oleo Kid, Jeffe, and Beef.

Yeah, people called me Fleish sometimes. I’m sure the same is true for you, but I also got a lot of mispronounciations like ‘Fleeshman.’ And lot of people would write the I before the E, or put a C in it, or add an extra N at the end.

OK, let’s get serious. You were a war correspondent in Iraq. In a recent column, you wrote: 

During the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, I was traveling with my fixer on territory held by Al Qaeda-linked militants. American bombs rumbled down from the sky as hundreds of villagers fled their homes in a caravan of cars, trucks and tractors. Moments after we interviewed a few of them, a suicide bomber exploded and bodies were scattered amid flame and smoke.

Whoa. How did you become a war correspondent?

I always wanted to write since I was really small. And my dad was in the navy, and he would go away for a long time, so I was always curious about what the world was like. As I got older, I really got the travel bug. Back then, newspapers were big and fat and rich, so I joined newspapers with the intention of going overseas and becoming a foreign correspondent. And that often rolled into war reporting.

What do you remember about 2003?

It was very early in the war – the scene you described was during the invasion. Actually, before the war started, I was based in Berlin. In late December 2002, I went into Iran with the intention of crossing the mountains into Iraq to wait for when war came, or when it didn’t. I crossed there on New Year’s Day. And then I was basically living in the mountains in Northern Iraq in a town called Sulaymaniyah. Then the war came, and I started doing reporting in the north.

Your fixer once said to you, “Let me see your passport. I want to see what escape looks like.” I imagine that sticks with you.

Not only is it an escape, but it’s an escape to this place that they had heard about for so long. In that area, America means so many different things to people – it could be blonde girls in California, or New York City – so there’s just this huge mysticism around America. A lot of people attach human rights to it, and they think America is the good force in the world. I think that still exists to some extent, but it’s been modified over time.

You’re in Iraq, or Afghanistan, in the trenches of war. You see death and destruction and utter chaos. The world is literally burning around you. How do you even attempt to deal with that?

For me, when you’re in situations like that, a sort of primal instinct kicks in. It’s about survival. All of the senses are heightened – smell, sight, everything. When you’re war reporting, you don’t always have time to stop and write because everything is in flux all the time. But you train yourself to take it in, and then when you get to a place where it’s relatively calm, you adjust.

Once you’re there, I think war reporting on the ground is easier because the drama is right in front of you. You don’t have to dress it up, you don’t have to reach for it. The challenge is to parse it and keep it simple and not over-dramatize it.

What is the most intense scene you’ve witnessed?

Iraq in the early days was bad. You had waves of suicide bombers, you had the insurgency, then you had Al Qaeda, and kidnappers, just a whirl of violence. Explosions constantly. It was always a tense time going into Iraq. Libya was crazy too because you had a bunch of people who were just running around and looting and firing big Kalashnikov’s and 50 caliber rifles and trucks – it was like farcical and dangerous at the same time.

But probably the most intense thing I did was in the mid-90s. We accompanied Buddhist monks and nuns over the Himalayas into Nepal and then into India. They were escaping Chinese soldiers. We spent a good portion of the trek crossing the mountains and getting up to these really high altitudes, while trying to dodge Chinese soldiers. It wasn’t war, but between the environment and the harsh conditions – and also the beauty – it was magical and spooky.

I don’t want to come across as insensitive here, but you’ve seen some shit. Have you ever had symptoms of PTSD?

Some of the people I worked with had mild cases of PTSD. Thankfully, I don’t sense anything welling up inside of me. But it’s interesting you ask that, because I’m just finishing up my third novel, and it’s about an Iraqi veteran who did four or five tours, and he’s coping with something called ‘moral injury.’ It’s this thing where the ethical and moral boundaries of your inner gyroscope have been screwed up. You don’t really have trauma, or flashbacks, but you can’t get over what you did or saw. It’s more of a psychological and emotional term, as opposed to the standard post-traumatic stress.

Oof. Ok. Can you tell me a funny or happy story from your travels?

No matter how weird things got, there were always intense moments that would turn into laughter. When you’re in those situations, and then things loosen up, the humor comes pretty quickly. Your body wants to change. Your mind wants a new landscape.

One of the funnier stories: Pope John Paul II was holding a mass in Beirut. My fixer (translator) and I stood to watch as his signature white car approached. We pushed through the crowd toward the car. The Pope passed us, and then my fixer turned to me and yelled: The pope has run over my foot.

One time I was interviewing some guy, and he was talking passionately in another language that I didn’t understand, with words and adjectives flying all over the place. And then I asked my translator what he said, and he looked at me and said: War is bad.

Your first book was called Promised Virgins: A Novel of Jihad. An Amazon reviewer called it an ‘iffy’ title, which I would agree with. It’s about a journalist in Kosovo who hears about a mysterious bearded foreigner, bearing weapons and money and preaching Holy War. Heavy stuff. Why did you decide to write about this?

I wrote the book after the Kosovo War while I was covering the Iraq War. As much freedom as you have in narrative newspaper writing, there were still some things you couldn’t get to. The novel gave me the freedom to express different things that I couldn’t do in journalism.

I had originally titled it Promised Virgins. It wasn’t a novel of Jihad. And then there was some debate in the publishing house about it. They said if it was just Promised Virgins, it might sound like the Virgin Suicides, and they wanted to make a distinction. And the other thing was that Jihad means war, but it also means personal struggle.

Every week or so, you write a column in the LA Times. In the last two months, you’ve written about a bunch of wide-ranging topics: Hollywood’s threat to boycott production in Georgia over proposed anti-gay legislation, Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, an anti-NRA film, and the Sunnylands retreat of late billionaire Walter H. Annenberg. How do you choose your stories?

I try to pick the stories based on my interests. Now that I’m doing more arts and cultural stuff, I try to write about things that still matter to society at large. I did a story about prescription drug abuse, one about the legalization of marijuana, plus all of the one’s you mentioned. Right now I’m working on a piece about anger in America, and how art is or is not speaking to that. So I try to do pieces that speak to what’s going on in society, through art.

**Five rapid fire questions**

Three of your biggest influences in writing: Ernest Hemingway, my first publisher Charlie Ryan, and a professor I had in college who really encouraged me to go for it and not think about boundaries.

In a sentence or two, what do you think of today’s political climate: It’s like a circus wrapped inside a car accident that fell down a cliff.

4 of your favorite movies of all time: Citizen Kane, The Godfather Part I and II, Embrace of the Serpent

6 of your favorite bands/artists of all time: The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Stan Getz, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Thelonious Monk

Best place you’ve ever visited? Worst? Best: Rome. Just beautiful. Every day walking around was wonderful. Worst: Any war zone when the water and the power go out.

And, finally, there is a chapter in Freakonomics called A Roshanda by Any Other Name. It poses the questions: What kind of signal does your name send to the world? Does your name correlate with economic status and education? Sometimes I wonder how much of my life, and your life, would be different if we weren’t Jeff Fleishman. If your name was, I don’t know, Marvin Rump, do you think your life be any different?

It could be. I think when you are given a name, you are given an identity by someone else, but is that really who you are? And if you’re not that, who would you be? You become subsumed by your name so much, and disentangling yourself from it and imagining yourself as someone else is … odd.

You’re Jeff Fleishman, and I’m Jeff Fleishman, born at different times and on different trajectories, but we’re still true to the lives and the names that were given to us, right? So yeah, if we were both Marvin Rump, I wonder what kind of conversation we would be having. It’s an interesting question. I imagine there would be some shade of difference.

I wouldn’t have interviewed you if your name was Marvin Rump. I don’t think anyone would.

That’s absolutely right.

25

Yankees

There’s a great rabbinical motto that says you start each day with a note in each pocket. One note says, “The world was created for you today,” and the other note says, “I’m a speck of dust in a meaningless universe.” 

Some days, I feel like a speck of dust in a meaningless universe. Well, I guess I am a speck of dust in a meaningless universe. We all are. The volume of a human is 0.07 m3. The volume of the universe is 4×1080 m3. The universe is really big, and we are really small, and I try to remember that when I kvetch over my clothes not matching. Though in fairness, it is very difficult to match clothes when you are colorblind.

Our lives are meaningless, but they matter to us, and to our friends, and to our family, and I think that’s enough. The sun might explode in a few billion years, but you can’t sit in your house all day and raise your arms and yell What’s the Point? You gotta do stuff. You gotta feel stuff.

I can’t shake the feeling that time moves more quickly when we’re older. And yeah, approximately ten shmagillion people have said that before me, and many more shmagillion people will say that after me, but there has to be something to it. Summer vacations were two months but felt like an eternity. A week off from school was the best thing ever. Now I sneeze, and I cook some dinner, and suddenly it’s the fourth of July.

Maybe you notice this too, the way time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin into the future. First it’s a few days, then a few weeks, and then the seasons and years and decades start to blend together. Then your life flashes before your eyes, and you’re dead.

Still, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks for overcoming the inevitable passage of time, which I’ve outlined in the gray blob below:

JEFF’S TIPS AND TRICKS FOR OVERCOMING THE INEVITABLE PASSAGE OF TIME

  1. go jogging. twenty minutes feels like twenty years. your body will hate you, then you will stop, and then your brain will release endorphins and you will feel good.
  2. travel the world. sit on planes. listen to safety demonstrations. deal with the tsa. wait in line at border control.
  3. sit in traffic.
  4. hang out on broken down subway cars, preferably in the Canarsie tube between Brooklyn and Manhattan.
  5. make friends with people who are perpetually late. agree to meet at a particular time, then wait for them, often and with gusto.
  6. invent a super-fast mode of transportation and travel near the speed of light. gravitational time dilation will take care of the rest.

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows – which, by the way, is the greatest name for a dictionary, I mean who would even argue? – calls this Zenosyne, the sense that time keeps going faster as you get older. And if you’re wondering: is there really a dictionary out there that categorizes our innately human sorrows into little tiny word packages, the answer is YES. And they’re great. Here are some others:

Alazia: The Fear That You’re No Longer Able to Change

Avenoir: The Desire To See Memories In Advance

Sonder: The Realization That Everyone Has A Story

Onism: The Awareness of How Little of the World You’ll Experience

Koinophobia: The Fear that You’ve Lived an Ordinary Life

So yeah, Zenosyne. We should consider the idea that what we feel as little kids, or teenagers, makes perfect sense. Your first break-up might be the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Or maybe it’s your dog dying. Or a failed algebra test. Things will surely get better, but at that moment the bad thing has suddenly become such an important part of your story. It has warped your identity. It’s no wonder we feel so intensely when we’re young. It’s no wonder we get jaded when we’re older.

And then if you’re really lucky, you start to view the bad stuff and the failures as good things. Maybe they were stepping stones. To quote Louis CK, I’m glad for every single thing I didn’t get.

I don’t know. I’m rambling. I turn 25 today, which is great because I can finally RENT A CAR!!!! … though technically I’ve been able to rent a car for four years, but now I can rent a car WITHOUT PAYING ANY ADDITIONAL FEES. WOOOOOO.

Soon I’ll be 26, then 27, then 31, then 42, then 57, then 84, and the years will move even faster than they do now. Yes, I’ve got a long way to go. But eventually, those days will start slippin away as I drift around the bend.

Life is short. And life is long. But not in that order.

My favorite unsolved mystery

3-26-db-cooper

A few weeks ago I started listening to the podcast Mystery Show. I don’t normally listen to podcasts – I listened to Serial last year, and that’s it – but I saw a tweet about it, and I was about to get on a seven hour plane ride, so I gave it a try.

Mystery Show is hosted by the excellent Starlee Kine, whose work has been featured on This American Life and other public radio affiliates. The premise of the show: talk to friends, find an unsolved mystery from their lives, and solve it. We all have at least one unsolved mystery floating around.*

*Mine: Whatever happened to Mr. Kaiser, one of my fourth grade teachers who left one day and never came back?

The one, and only, caveat: the mystery can’t be solved by using the internet. And so you get episodes like these:

Episode 1: 10 years ago, Laura became a member at a video store, rented a video, and attempted to return said video the next day, only to discover the store was completely gone. Where did the store go?

Episode 2: Andrea is a writer who no one reads. Then one day she sees a picture of Britney Spears holding her book. How did Britney get a copy of my book?

Episode 3: A young boy finds a belt buckle on the side of the street. Whose belt buckle is this?

Episode 4: Starlee and her friend get stopped at a red light. The license plate next to them says ‘I love 9 11.’ What type of person has a license plate that says I love 9 11?

Episode 5: How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal? No one agrees.

Episode 6: Jonathan has lunch in a cafeteria, where he notices a Welcome Back, Kotter lunch box with a scene he does not remember from the show.

I was thoroughly fascinated with every episode. I highly recommend giving Mystery Show a listen.

**

But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about. I’m here to talk about my favorite unsolved mystery, the mystery of DB Cooper. Maybe you’ve heard this story, maybe you haven’t, but I find myself thinking about this every few weeks because it’s one of the craziest things that’s ever happened on Planet Earth.

On November 21, 1971, an unidentified man hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft in the airspace between Portland and Seattle. He demanded $200,000 and a parachute. His demands were met, he jumped out of the plane with the parachute, and no one knows what happened to him, despite an extensive manhunt and FBI investigation. It remains the only unsolved air piracy case in American aviation history.

Got it? Good. Let us travel down the rabbit hole…

**

This all started on Thanksgiving Eve, when a man carrying a black case purchased a one-way ticket at Portland International Airport. He identified himself as Dan Cooper. He wore a black lightweight raincoat, loafers, a dark suit, a neatly pressed white collared shirt, and a black necktie. He boarded the plane, lit a cigarette, and ordered a bourbon and soda. A classic 1971 move.

Shortly after takeoff, Cooper passed a note to one of the flight attendants. She assumed the note contained a lonely businessman’s phone number, so she dropped it unopened into her purse. Cooper leaned toward her and quietly said, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

Startled, the attendant opened the note. It read:

I have a bomb in my briefcase. I will use it if necessary. I want you to sit next to me. You are being hijacked.

The attendant did as requested, then asked to see the bomb. Cooper cracked open his briefcase long enough for her to glimpse eight red cylinders attached to wires coated with red insulation, and a large cylindrical battery. After closing the briefcase, Cooper dictated his demands:

$200,000 in American currency, four parachutes, and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle to refuel the aircraft upon arrival.

The attendant conveyed Cooper’s instructions to the cockpit. When she returned, Cooper was wearing dark sunglasses.

After receiving word of the situation, the pilot contacted Seattle-Tacoma Airport traffic control, which then informed local and federal authorities. The other passengers were informed that their arrival in Seattle would be delayed because of a “minor mechanical difficulty.”

On the ground, the airline’s president authorized the $200,000 payment and ordered all employees to cooperate fully with Cooper. The aircraft circled Seattle for two hours so that the police and FBI had time to assemble the parachutes and ransom money. The FBI also took a microfilm photograph of each of the 10,000 20-dollar bills.

Meanwhile, Cooper spoke calmly and ordered a second bourbon and soda. He paid for the drink and insisted the attendant keep the change.

Cooper was informed that his demands had been met. The plane landed fifteen minutes later. Cooper instructed the captain to taxi the jet to an isolated, brightly lit section of the tarmac and extinguish lights in the cabin to deter police snipers. One of the airline’s operation managers then delivered the cash-filled knapsack and parachutes. Once the delivery was completed, Cooper permitted all passengers and flight attendants to leave the plane.

While the plane was being refueled, Cooper outlined his flight plan to the cockpit crew: a southeast course toward Mexico City at the minimum airspeed possible without stalling the aircraft – about 120mph at a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet. He further specified that the landing gear remain deployed in the takeoff/landing position, the wing flaps be lowered 15 degrees, and the cabin remain unpressurized.

Back in the air they went. 10,000 feet, 120 mph. Cooper tied the parachute around his waist, opened the plane’s aft door, and jumped, knapsack in hand. No one knows what happened to him.

**

The FBI got to work right away. They were able to recover 66 unidentified latent fingerprints aboard the aircraft, along with Cooper’s black necktie. They interviewed eyewitnesses in Portland and Seattle and all those who had personally interacted with Cooper. A series of composite sketches was developed.

Local police and FBI agents began to question possible suspects. One of them was a man named DB Cooper, contacted by Portland police on the off-chance that the hijacker had used his real name. His involvement was quickly ruled out, but an inexperienced wire service reporter confused the eliminated suspect’s name with the pseudonym used by the hijacker. The mistake was picked up and repeated by other media sources, and that’s where we get the name DB Cooper.

The FBI attempted a ground-level search in the suspected area where Cooper could have landed, but there were too many variables – wind speed, how long he remained in free fall before pulling his rip cord, and whether he in fact survived the jump at all. They tried to re-create the jump using the same aircraft in the same flight configuration, by pushing a 200-point sled out of the open airstair. This led search teams to a landing zone near Mount St. Helens. Agents and deputies went door-to-door, patrol boats ran across the surrounding lakes, but no trace of Cooper was found.

It was the most extensive search operation in US history.

**

In early 1972, the US Attorney General released the serial numbers of the ransom money to the general public. A year later, with the ransom money still missing, The Oregon Journal republished the serial numbers and offered $1,000 to the first person to turn in a ransom bill to the newspaper or any FBI field office. No matches were found

**

In 1980, an eight year old boy was vacationing with his family on the Columbia River, about nine miles downstream from Vancouver, Washington. The boy uncovered three packets of the ransom cash, significantly disintegrated but still bundled in rubber bands. FBI agents confirmed that the money was indeed a portion of the ransom.

The discovery ultimately raised more questions than it answered. There were ten bills missing from one packet. There was no logical reason why the three packets would have remained together after separating from the rest of the money. Some believe that the money had been buried by a wild animal. Some thought that Cooper, knowing he could never spend the money, buried it there. No one knows. To date, none of the 9,710 remaining bills has turned up anywhere in the world.

**

Since 1971, the FBI has processed over a thousand “serious suspects,” but they have almost all been ruled out. The agency maintains an active case file, which has grown to more than 60 volumes, and continues to solicit creative ideas from the public. “Maybe a hydrologist can use the latest technology to trace the ransom money found in 1980 to where Cooper landed upstream,” suggested Special Agent Larry Carr, leader of the investigation team since 2006. “Or maybe someone just remembers that odd uncle.”

**

*Sources: Mostly Wikipedia and my own innate psychosis