Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From the same volcano as Hunter Thompson

The Present Is Well Out of Hand - by artist Ralph Steadman

What's missing today is Hunter Thompson's voice. His searing wit and cutting edge writing was always a calming influence that told me there was an adult in the room. Without his countenance, we are in over our heads.

Below is a slightly revised piece I wrote following his death:

On February 20, 2005 (has it been that long already?) journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson, who unleashed the concept of "gonzo journalism" in books like "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," is alleged to have fatally shot himself in the head at his Woody Creek home near Aspen, Colorado.

I’m still thinking Hunter would have wanted a better exit. Despite the problems he was having with his health, he was still a dramatist who would have wanted a better ending. 

Most scribes have penned their versions of HST’s demise.  I did not know him. I moved in a different circle in Aspen, a town of 3,500 during the summer and 35,000 during the winter. He was the almost-Sheriff of Pitkin County. I was a newly hired journalist out of the University of Colorado in Boulder hired by the city council, more or less. The conservative citizens funded Aspen Today, a weekly to go up against Thompson's backers, who ran The Aspen Times

In 1970, I was a callow, timid newspaperman. My first job was to sell advertising. My second job was to write articles  and take photos to counter Hunter Thompson’s influence after his well-publicized run for Sheriff of Pitkin County earlier that summer. 

I also delivered the newspaper, and did what was necessary to project Aspen as tourist Mecca with a heart of gold.

I knew Aspen because our family vacationed each summer at nearby Glenwood Springs Resort, on the shore of the Roaring Fork and also the final resting place of Doc Holiday. 

Aspen in those pre-Hunter Thompson, days, was a sleepy modest town where if you were the father of a teen-aged girl you wouldn’t worry that she would come back from vacation with anything worse than a sunburn. The folk hero of the day was Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., the poster boy in town, who sang wholesome folk songs to fresh-faced kids around the campfire. 

Occasionally, a third rate-lounge singer from Vegas would come to town and croon show tunes for summer tourists in a circus tent pitched near the gazebo in a glade made into a park. 

European tourists showed up with tennis rackets, wearing fur on the hottest days. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band backed up Steve Martin who played banjo in a pub. A touring band called the Eagles would play for beer in a small labyrinthine den. The only famous writer in Aspen at the time was Leon Uris (Exodus), who became a friend and taught me how to ski.

Guys arrived in old pickup trucks with their Husky mixed breed in the back barking. Some girls drove from Boston on their way to Berkeley in a VW van full of weed.  Later, I was to marry one of them at Ashcroft, near Aspen.

Many were transplanted and came to Aspen just to hang out selling real estate in the summer and ski lift passes in the winter. Most people never settled. They just carried their lives in boxes for all the places they would be moving to. 

The town was made up of the rootless, restless and in-betweens. For those who wintered and summered it was a status thing to actually own ZG license plates because you knew you were at the right moment in history.

By 1970, the town was split down the middle between the “greedheads” and the “hippies”. There was little middle ground in a town of misplaced characters who watched local politics like most regular people watched sports.

The Aspen Times, our rival community paper, had supported Hunter Thompson and other left-leaning candidates who very nearly pitched the land-owning, right-leaning merchants out on their lederhosen. This was well described in Thompson's The Great Shark Hunt.

The Times ran smart social commentaries and pithy political diatribes about class war in Aspen. What we wrote about was hard to determine because the ink ran so badly it was hard to tell where we stood on issues. Compared to the Times we looked like the poor country cousins who rode into town on a melon truck. Our paper was supported by the greedheads, and privately we called our paper the Aspen Toady

I read the Times to find out what was really going on in town. This meant being in touch with what Hunter Thompson was doing or saying. As the Roaring Fork Valley’s most celebrated politician, he made the news, he didn't write about it. Back then, few of us imagined he’d become the writer he did or that his books would become treasured totems for us.

By 1972, Hunter Thompson had left local politics for the national campaign trails and Rolling Stone, which would make him famous. Occasionally he would come back to Aspen, which I think, was his Muse, an unrelenting and ambitious god who gave him the privilege of remaking journalism in his own image. Here, he was living the script we wished we had written for ourselves. In Aspen, his life was sprawling, epic, tormented and comprised much of what eluded the rest of us.

Jack Kerouac, from a previous generation, said we’d run out of road in America in the 50s, but HST would take us the extra mile in the 70s. He defied the bright and shining lie of the American mythology. Hunter Thompson would ride that comet further into the darkness of the next several decades. 

By 2005 we were minted and coined as dross and far removed from Aspen. Hunter had become a truculent man at Owl Farm, luckless Hunter S. Thompson, who, at the end of his life, succeeded in becoming a cartoon but failed at becoming a brand.

Today, workers in Aspen are bused into town like apartheid workers or third-class Irish in steerage. The town has been divided into dozens of gated “green zones” separating the super-rich from the under-class. 

The former grocery store is a fur coat shop. Pitkin County is one of the ten richest counties in America, safe harbor for ultra-right greedheads and presidential candidates who make Richard Nixon look like the day manager of  a small town bank.

The worst possible fear Hunter S. Thompson could have devised for “Fat City” in 1970 had become manifest in 2005. 

More than once Hunter must have looked out from the Owl Farm toward the horizon where George W. Bush led the country into ruin.  I imagined him shouting his last words, were something like “We are utterly fucked!”

Sunday, November 18, 2012


Take a look at my favorite things. They were locked away in storage and another blog. Now I'm letting them loose so they can frolic.

They have one thing in common. They've have stood the test of time and still make me smile.

Chill in a Porche GT3

For sure I'd want to take this car out for a spin on the weekends. The rest of the time I'd buy parts and polish the car.

 Dance With Pit Bull and His Ladies

This is one concert I want to see simply because it would attract so many more Latinas, who always make me laugh.

 Chill With A Carnival Band at Ipanema in Rio
Imagine being packed in a street crowd of 30,000 people. Nothing but smiles and laughter.

 Think About An Italian Dream Car 
Ah yes, I'd tell state secrets just to listen to this woman talk about ..anything.

Watch A Swimwear Show With Disturbing Fashion Flaws
 Wow! Words fail.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Three Reasons Why Math Is The New Sexy

"Excuse me, ma'am? The, uh, card appears to be upside- oh never mind."

There is an eerie familiarity to the way recruiters are haunting junior high schools these days. Where once they were looking for a quarter-back, a defensive lineman, a .400 hitter or a quick-footed striker, they are now looking for a budding genius with probability curves and a killer algorithm. 

Math has been around for a while, but now there's a twist. Math is the new sexy.

Here’s why:

3. Moneyball
Bill James, a part-time statistician wrote a newsletter that figured out on-base percentages for future baseball players. He eventually sold it to the Boston Red Sox,who paid him a lot of money for his ideas. Two years later the Boston Redsox won back to back World Series, some of it based on James’ algorithms. 

This new science was also pioneered in 2002 by Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s. He had a different problem to solve. He needed James’ ideas to help the Oakland A’s transform from a have-not small market baseball club into a profitable small market club. 

This year, the Oakland A’s didn’t win the Series but they won the most games with the fewest dollars. Along the way the A's won their division and nearly won their conference championship. Read my earlier post on the A's Moneyball.

2. Soccernomics
The owners of the Boston Red Sox MLB club recently bought Liverpool of the English Premier League. Liverpool is expected to delve into the world of  Soccernomics, a ground-breaking book written by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. Billed the Moneyball of soccer the authors document scores of ways soccer can be improved by using an array of mathematics. 

Striker Luis Suarez leads Liverpool 
Soccernomics has hardly been embraced by Europe’s tradition-bound clubs. For starters, it has unmasked the mythology of the game through numbers. 

The first test case for soccernomics may be Liverpool, a team that is supposed to compete for prized players in the transfer market. However, soccernomics has proven with numbers that the transfer market is deeply flawed, expensive and clubs often derive little value for buying and selling teams alike.  

In a best-case scenario Liverpool could move up a notch or two in the table in coming years, while making a modest profit. At the very least Liverpool will no doubt avoid mistakes that can bury a club with debt for decades.(See my post on MU UTDSoccer fans in the future will be treated to a future where  mathematicians are courted more heavily than the latest Brazilian striker. 

1. Nate Silver
“This election was about pot, gay marriage and math.” -- Bill Maher commenting on the 2012 Presidential Election

A pre-election poster that proved correct.

Voters and pundits have watched the polls for the past six months leading up to the US presidential election night. The pundits were all wrong. The pollster were uniformly off the mark, except for one newcomer, a mathematician who was 99.9% correct when he predicted Barak Obama would win..  

Nate Silver is part of a new generation of economists and mathematicians who has joined the ranks of A-list celebrities. Formerly a reclusive no-name numbers guy, Silver will jump to the head of the line at the best parties. 

Most voters didn’t know his name until the day after the election. His numbers were widely criticized leading up to the final days of the election, especially by the GOP and their far-right allies. Now, Mr.Silver can claim the high moral ground by making high-priced pundits irrelevant. Most of whom will be looking for jobs as weather forecasters.

Just 12 years ago Silver was an economics student who wrote an abstract on baseball statistics of players of the future. He sold the algorithms then went to work in politics. Today, Mr. Silver is looking at million dollar book contracts from publishers who want him to tell all about his political math. He is directly in the spotlight in a game that has the most money of all -- politics