The Push Towards An Electric Automobile Future

Just one year ago, the Mini E, Fisker Karma, Tesla Roadster, and Nissan Leaf were the four fully electric vehicles announced for the North American market at last year's New York International Auto Show (jn addition to a few scattered fleet vehicles, such as the Subaru R1). This year, I almost lost count. The electric cars confirmed for lease or for sale in North America within the next 12 months include (in addition to the four mentioned above):

BMW ActiveE (EV 1 series)

Mitsubishi iMiEV

Ford Focus EV

Smart Electric Drive

Toyota RAV4 EV (coming back after being discontinued during the previous generation)

There is disagreement among auto manufacturers as to how to achieve an all electric powertrain future. Hyundai wants to keep its prices low, so it is looking to maximize fuel efficiency from direct injection engines and next generation, ultra lubricated transmissions. Ford is charging ahead with EV, hoping to eventually launch an electric F150 and Mustang in the years ahead. They have even partnered with Microsoft to develop efficient, intelligent charging systems and software. Audi wants to get its customers on board with high milage diesel for a decade or so before the switch to all electric. And BMW has had to make the difficult but necessary decision to switch all of its mainstream cars to front wheel drive, and then to electric FWD.

I just hope auto manufacturers continue what they have restarted. They need to continue to develop and produce electric vehicles, because eventually, there won't be any more affordible gasoline. It's a tricky movement, because auto consumers would like to buy EV cars that have a range greater than 75 miles, but they don't want to spend more than $5,000 above the price of a similar, gasoline powered vehicle. Since that is currently impossible, we need to encourage both sides to hang in there, and push the engineering and price points to practical, affordable, sustainable levels.

Volkswagen Bulli Microbus To Enter Production In 2012

Volkswagen wowed the crowds with the Bulli concept, and now it will become a production car, probably going on sale in 18 months. It won't be electric, at least not at first. I think we can expect the Jetta's engines - a gasoline I4 and a turbo diesel I4 - to power this very cute homage to VWs air-cooled past. It will be built alongside the Jetta in VWs plant outside of Puebla, Mexico.

Family Friendly Rally Cars: The 2012 Ford Focus & 2012 Subaru Impreza Hatchbacks

Perhaps I should go easy on the third generation Ford Focus. It might not be as family friendly as the fourth generation Subaru Impreza. With its tiny back seat and swooping, mobile phone like center stack, it is the sporitiest Focus yet.

But I should back up a bit. What do I mean by "rally car?" There are a few requirements that separate a genteel, front wheel drive hatchback from one that shares its chassis with race cars. So here goes.

First of all, rally cars are based on road cars, not the other way around. Rally cars are a stroke of worldwide marketing genius. Take a car -a small hatchback that might be the first car of a young couple- strengthen the chassis, lighten the car, increase the power and ground clearance, and go racing in dangerous environments -on asphalt, gravel, and dirt. Under the contemporary rally car standards, there are minimal requirements for a car that can be converted into a rally racer. It must have a four cyllinder engine. It should weigh under 3,000 pounds before modification. Ideally, it should have a wide stance, with a low center of gravity. And also ideally, it should have rear wheels pushed as close to the corners as possible.

The car that successfully linked the sport of rally racing, manufacturers, and automobile marketing was the 1968 Ford Escort Mk I, which won what becme the WRC in 1970. It was a rear wheel drive car with a V6, but that would change as both the sport and the industry changed. Just 14 years later, the Escort driven worldwide would be front wheel drive, and would set a long standing record as the best selling car worldwide for several years. It would be accompanied by cars such as the Audi Quattro, Peugeot 200 series, Toyota Corolla and Celica, Subaru Impreza, Citroen models, and the Mitsubishi Lancer.

In 1998, the Escort was repaced by the Focus, and Ford kicked things into high gear. Customers had more choices of body styles and engines. But there was a catch. Like the Escort before it, there was an international version, and a slightly less agile and exciting North American version. A combination of customer demand and economic conditions prompted Ford to synchonize and globalize most of their products. Ford sent the US market a few international products over the years, notably the Freestyle crossover wagon. Ford fans will remember that some things would never be globalized, such as the muscle cars for the Australian market, the Falcon coupe and sedan. But Fors has been able to globalize its most popular products: the subcompact Fiesta, the compact Focus, the midsize Mondeo (Fusion), and soon, the C-Max minivan, and next generation Kuga (Escape). That's five global models under the "One Ford" banner.

Ford has not only embraced the economic practicality of global platform integration and manufacturing, but it has also embraced the reality of peak oil. If Ford keeps its promises, over half of its new cars sold will be fully electric in 20 years. A way off, but if that holds it will be a significant shift. And Ford is putting its money where its mouth is, with plans to offer EV versions of the Fiesta and Focus in North America over the next few months.

The electric Focus. Please make it available, Ford.

So the US has finally gotten the global model of the Focus 5-door hatchback. How is it? Well, without having driven it, I can report that the Focus is closer to the concept of a four door sports car than it has ever been before. With a tight, swooping cockpit, soft touch materials in the dash and center stack, layers of technology, and very firm, Volvo-like leather seats available, the Focus feels like a premium car from the driver's or passenger's position. Less so for the rear passengers. The back seat is smaller this time around for the Focus. A six foot passenger like me would be very cramped. Rear passenger room was sacrificed for style, as the roofline drops beautifully into an egg-like rear section, with speared tailights and an available rear spoiler. Audio system is by Sony. The user interface is what Ford brands as MyTouch. It includes the latest generation of Microsoft Sync, now with video playback support and the ability to stream Pandora internet radio. Everything is fed through an 8 inch touchscreen that supports Sync, bluetooth phone piggybacking, navigation, a driver's log, car information center, and all in-car entertainment. Instrument illumination appears to be LED, and a digital display climate control is available. Very nice all around.

Engine wise, gone is the very good aluminum block EcoTech engine, which generated 140 horses. In is a new 2.0 liter, direct injection engine generating 155 horses, which consumes less fuel per mile. And coming soon is a 1.6L EcoBoost turbocharged power plant, which will produce 200HP in a future, rally inspired ST model. I like the Japanese philospohy of a front wheel drive car not generating more than 170HP, but 200HP, if balanced and throttled correctly, might be a blast in the Focus ST.

Suspension is the expected MacPherson in the front and multilink in the rear, with a stiff stabilizer bar and firm springs. Much like my Hyundai Elantra Touring, the Focus has fuel saving electric power steering. But unlike my Touring, the Focus gets a six speed automatic, dual clutch transmission, making it even more fuel efficient. A Focus Platinum (the primium model right now), with all the electronics options, leather heated seats, sunroof, and the standard 2.0L engine and six speed automatic, should get about 24MPG in the city and 34MPG on the highway. If the customer drops an extra $2,000 for the SFE powertrain, then 38-40MPG on the highway is obtainable. But we should focus on the non SFE models (pun intended), since those are the models that will sell the most.

So comparing the new Focus to my 2009 Elantra Touring, I would say that it has no advantage in terms of steering and suspension. Both are identical and fun to throw into turns. But the Focus is lighter, has 17 more horses, and probably squeezes one or two extra miles per gallon. The Elantra beats the Focus for interior comfort, as it has a longer wheelbase, a smoother ride, and about double the amount of rear legroom. And the Elantra Touring qualifies as a rally car, since it has wheels pushed to the corners, and the turbodiesel verion has been driven in the Targa Tasmania rally down under the past two years.

If the Focus chassis is anything like its Peugeot and Citroen competitors, then it should be a thrilling ride. Hopefully, I can drive one soon and give a driving impressions review.


Now onto another four door sports car that might be in danger of losing that title, the fourth generation Subaru Impreza hatchback.

I would argue that the Impreza and BMW 3 series are the two greatest four door sports cars ever sold in the US (Audi A4, Mitsubishi Lancer, BMW 5 series, Porsche Panamera and Maserati Quadraporte fans will certainly disagree). Consider that the Impreza never became a midsize car. It did grow from subcompact to compact size, like the BMW 3 series. But the Impreza's basic formula never changed. It always was a lightweight, 4 or 5 door car with all wheel drive, independent suspension, a very low center of gravity, and a flat four (boxer) engine - not too dissimilar to what used to power early BMWs or Porsches.

From its introduction in 1992, the Impreza has been a contender on the rally circuits and the streets. It's a favorite of the tuner crowd in cities, as well as left of center folks in New England. It's a rare automobile that somehow took the place of the Saab 900 as the ultimate "Liberal's" car (perhaps the Forester is even more so). Driving an Impreza was and is an act of rebellion. It's a cult car. And it's a car that, again, like the BMW 3 series, has demonstrated the evolution and refinement of a successful automobile platform.

Here are some of the Impreza's greatest hits.

The 1992 US TV commercial staring a young, adorable Jeremy Davies:

A fully tuned, second generation Impreza WRX STi beating a Lamborghini in a European urban drag race:

The infamous crash of Alec Osenbach behind the wheel of a tuned, 350HP Impreza WRX at over 140MPH at the first annual Subifest in 2006. Amazingly, his injuries were minor:

US rally car driver Ken Block successfully jumps an Impreza rally car 170 feet.

Subaru introduces the third generation Impreza (2007-2012) with a jab at Volkswagen:

And the crowning stunt for the third generation Impreza, Travis Pastrana successfully jumps a rally spec car 269 feet in Long Beach, CA:

I like the third generation Impreza. I like the LED taillights and the four wheel wishbone suspension (unheard of in a car of that size and price). The STi Spec C is a triumph. I love the 2.5L boxer engine, the most successful engine in Subaru's history.

However, the enthusiasts and auto press was very clear about this Impreza - it's chassis had fallen behind to the Mitsubishi Lancer in terms of handling, character, and weight distribution. The stock Impreza 2.5i weighed in at 3,100 pounds. Also, the DVD navigation offered in the current car, from what I understand, is sub optimal. Subaru reliability and safety has never been better. But something had to change.

And so, Subaru, which ran the two previous Impreza generations for six years each, had to cut the third generation short in its fifth year of sales. Call it an intervention.

At the 2011 New York International Auto Show almost prcisely four years after the debut of the third generation Impreza, Subaru unveiled the fourth generation sedan and hatchback. The new car can be summed up in one phrase: do over. Instead of making the car bigger, Subaru only lengthened the wheelbase and added crucial rear seat legroom. Instead of modifying the venerable 2.5L boxer engine, Subaru has given the next Impreza the smaller, more fuel efficient 2.0L boxer already being used in the European Forester. And it is an all new platform, weighing 200 pounds lighter, at 2,900 pounds. If there's anything enthusiasts want more, it's a stock Impreza that weighs less than 3,000 pounds.

 

The first thing most Impreza fans will notice is the sub-A pillar on the front doors. This was added to increase visibility in turns and to lengthen the front doors. It's a feature we have seen on a few new cars lately, namely the Honda Fit, Honda Civic, and second and third generation Toyota Prius. When I see that triangle of glass, I immidatey think 'family car.' But now that I've had over a week to admire the new Impreza, it is actually growing on me. It helps the car look longer than it actually is. And the front fascia is one of the best Subaru has designed in a long time (the best since the Dr. Zapatnas facelift, I think).

From the rear, the new Impreza has a bit of a Toyota Matrix look [photo], with a big rear bumper piece that adds utility, and can also be swapped out for a different design in the future should Subaru desire it. The rear doors have a sub-C pillar that complement the front door design. The fender flares are muscular and modern. And the car combines nice angles and seams in an attractive egg-like shape. I'm liking this new design.

So while there won't be any driving reviews published for a while, we do know a few appealing aspects. It's lighter. It has a smaller boxer engine, that finally features a timing chain instead of a timing belt. It gets 30% better fuel economy, while retaining a wonderful part-time all wheel drive system. Tall adults can now fit into the back seat. And Subaru has partnered with Harmon Kardon to improve the audio system and (hopefully) factory navigation system. The guages are still trademark Impreza orange-red. And the car is winterized, as always, with wiper deicers, heated side mirrors, and heated seats, all of which should be standard on the 2.0i Premium model. And the price will be about $50 more. So this 5-door, with navigation, bluetooth, and satelitte radio, should come delivered around the $23K mark.

Subaru knows that it can't keep the Impreza a cult car forever. Subaru was the only auto brand in the USA besides Ford and Hyundai to see a record sales increase in 2010. The Impreza has to compete against the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus. I'll return to this car later with a review of whether or not it delivers the classic Impreza feel and fun factor to a potentially larger market. Subie owners really love their cars. Subaru wants millions more to join their club.

Hyundai Brings Another Global Car To The US

 

Hyundai America CEO, John Krafcik, deserves a ton of credit. He's leading the company in bringing a new generation of Hyundai vehicles to the US (some of which will be built in the US). They are more reliable, more fuel efficient, and more stylish than anything Hyundai has sold in the US before. And while econoboxes are not usually things to get excited about, each new Hyundai model introduced since January 2009 has outsold its class competition, especially the midsize Sonata sedan, and now the compact Elantra sedan. The Chevy Malibu, Chevy Cruze, and even the Toyota Corolla have been left in the dust.

And Krafcik is boldly playing with the house money. He has had to bring global models to the US as part of Hyundai's new strategy launched in 2007. But he has not shied away from including the very European looking hatchback and wagon versions of those cars. In 2001, Hyundai had two global cars in the US lineup. They were the Tiburon (called the Coupe worldwide) and the Elantra GT hatchback (whch looked a lot like a retro Saab 900 hatchback, had a very Saab-like dash, and was powered by Hyundai's first trustworthy engine, the iron block Beta II). Now it is 2011, and Hyundai has six global models sold in the USA: the Genesis Coupe, Elantra Touring (i30cw), Sonata (i40), Tuscon (i35x), and now the Veloster, and Accent (i20).

Sales are way up. Hyundai's reputation has been born again awesome. And the only other car company currently on a winning streak is Ford, which not coincidentally, is rolling out outstanding global models to all their markets. The days of Australia and Europe getting all the cool Fords is over.

And so the Hyundai Elantra Touring, the i30cw in all other contienents, has a direct relative alongside it in the North American Hyundai lineup, the all new Accent (known as the i20 worldwide). The Accent is a breakthrough in the subcompact class. It's the first subcompact with a GDI (gasoline direct injection) engine. It is also the first subcompact to include a six-speed transmission (and it's standard). Together, that translates into 30MPG in the city and 40MPG on the highway, for a estimated 33-34MPG combined on regular 87 octaine gasoline.

Unlike the Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta, which have crude torsion beam rear suspensions, the Accent has a small multilink rear suspension setup, like its big brother the Elantra Touring. That translates into a stickier and firmer ride. And the new Accent's 1.6GDI engine generates as much horsepower as the Elantra Touring's old Beta II engine - 138HP. So the Accent isn't underpowered at all. In fact it has more standard horsepower than all of its competitors, including the Chevy Sonic, Nissan Versa, Ford Fiesta, and Honda Fit. Only the Dodge Caliber has an option for a more powerful engine.

We can expect the all new Accent to be a major sales hit for Hyundai. But I will be watching the hatchback version closely. With it's tall, European style taillights and tinyC pillars, I am curious to see if the hatch will catch on with American buyers. We know the Elantra Touring has become a sales hit in Canada. Will the Accent hatch also be popular with the Canucks only? Or will it continue to revive hatchbacks in the USA (like the Honda Fit and Volkswagen Golf have done).

Hyundai is doing today what Honda did in the US 40 years ago. It is winning new customers to the brand, and giving them the option of hatchbacks, a very un-American body style, until recently. Volkswagen, Subaru, and Honda have been consistant in offering hatchbacks in the USA over the last 35 years. Now Ford and Hyundai seem to be firmly on board (with BMW soon to follow). Perhaps the scales have been tipped. Perhaps with the price of gasoline never to dip below $3.00 again, Americans have finally embraced the practical, spacious, stylish hatchback. We will be watching the Accent 5-door closely. It should outsell the Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta, and might even help chase the Smart Car out of the US market.

The Case For The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

The American auto show season is drawing to a close. What began last fall in Los Angeles is now wrapping up in front of the biggest crowds in New York. And for the first time in years, there has been a dominant theme. In a nation that has the widest selection of new cars availale (except perhaps for Panama or Dubai, where one can import just about any car, it seems), the market appears to be ready for compact hatchbacks and electric vehicles to take the spotlight from unibody SUVs ("crossovers"). We thought the American market was ready for this shift to hatchbacks in the late 1970s, during the second OPEC oil crisis. But with peak oil on the horizon, and two dollar gallons of gasoline never to return, both manufacturers and consumers are embracing a more European / Japanese car market model by both necessity and choice.

Having said that, there is still a place for body-on-frame SUVs for those who need or want one. People still drive in the grand national parks out west. I plan to drive down sandy paths to hidden beaches in Vieques for the rest of my life. I suspect that one day, the vehicles that can traverse sand and boulders will be electric powered. But until then, big block V6 engines will have to do.

So with the retail price of gasoline now over $4.00 a gallon, what should the price of a new body-on-frame SUV be? Who in his right mind would drop $106,000 for a military officer transport, the Mercedes G Class? Yes, it is hand built in Austria, served as Pope John Paul II's "Popemobile," and has been virtually unchanged since its redesign in 1991. A toy for the rich, surely. But as Jay Z has proven, you can get almost the same look, a similar feel and superior off road capabilities in the $30,000 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. And now the Jeep Wrangler is better than ever. A body-colored hardtop gives the Wranger a boxier, more military look. The front windshield has been narrowed to a more Hummer shape. Jeep has listened to its customers. What used to be a highly unstable, unreliable vehicle, is now a beutifully boxy, sporty off roader that does exactly what the Land Rover Defender and Mercedes G can do at a fraction of the price.

In fact, considering that the Trail Rated versions have an automatic locking center differential, and the driver can disengage the sway bars for additional ground contact and articulation, the Trail Rated Wrangler is arguably the most capable off road passenger vehicle in the world.

If you're going to spend at least $2,400 in gasoline and $3,000 in insurance each year, why not get the superior product at the lower price? Most buyers don't take cost of onership into account. But consider this: in the UK, this vehicle, because it doesn't get a minimum of 30MPG on the highway, would be subject to an annual gas guzzler tax, in addition to the annual road tax. If it were a Land Rover or Mercedes, it would also be slapped with an annual luxury car tax. So if you really want a gas guzzler (or you actually need one), be thankful you live in a country that doesn't tax you annually to own one. Only in America. And Jeep is a great American original.

This year at the New York International Auto Show, Jeep unveiled the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Mojave Edition. Aside from the two exterior lizzard graphics and two interior lizzard stitching on the improved leather seats, I think it is the most beautiful Wrangler Unlimited yet.

Going to the 2011 New York International Auto Show!

Either someone at the Auto Show made a mistake, or I'm really a novice car blogger now. Either way, I'm now on a list of invited bloggers to the New York International Auto Show. I just got my red press pass to go along with a red Hyundai lanyard, to show off my Hyundai pride.

I will be blogging both press days of the NYIAS on Wednesday April 20th and Thursday April 21st.

Live blogging probably won't be possible, but I expect to have posts and pictures up at the end of each day.

The press days at the New York auto show are fun. Cars on the floor are usually left unlocked and unobstructed, including some of the pre-production models. I will be doing a rundown of what's new and exciting for each manufacturer. If I see a car worth getting excited about, I will do a 'hands on' review. Expect some feedback for the following cars released over the last 12 months:

  • The bigger, heavier, controversial Lotus models
  • The big new Ford Explorer
  • The European Ford Focus finally in the USA
  • Fifth generation Hyndai Elantra
  • Hyundai's new FWD sports coupe, the Veloster
  • Some more face time with the Nissan Juke
  • BMW X3, now made in the USA
  • BMW 5 Gran Turismo, my favorite new German sedan
  • Fourth generation Subaru Impreza sedan and hatchback

Is 2011 The Most Politically Turbulant Year Since 1991?

Worldwide, I mean.

I will argue to the end, that the 20th century started late and ended early. From the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991, the major map changes that defined the 20th century are easy to identify.

In additon to that, 1991 was one of those key years in which our world was transitioning to digital. From PBX phone systems, to the introduction of the GSM mobile phone standard, to the millions of peopkle that year who got their first email address and began to spend increasing amounts of time on the Internet.

1991 is still the most important year of my life. Think of the events. We didn't just have the end of the Soviet Union. We saw the first US-Iraq war (if you can call it a war). During the buildup to that war, US troops were temporarilly stationed in Saudi Arabia, which triggered Osama bin Laden to declare a personal war against both the US and the Saudi kingdom. Al Qaeda was founded less than two years later. The massacre of East Timorese civilians by Indonesian troops in the Santa Cruz Cemetery, marked the slow beginning of the end of Indonesian rule over the tiny, poor, predominantly Catholic island. A BBC camera crew captured the massacre. Had it occured just 15 years later, it would have had over a million views on You Tube. But back in 1991, it took word of mouth, emails, and the BBC World Service to get the news out and bring worldwide attention to East Timor.

We had cultural touchstones (or at least pop culture ones). The last album by The Pixies. The second album by Nirvana. Perhaps the greatest album by U2. The final excellent Star Trek film. The first $100 Million summer blockbuster, comlete with cutting edge CGI effects.

1991 was incredible. An orange and green Mazda with a comparitably small rotary engine won the 24 Hours of LeMans (the first and last Japanese-branded car to do so). CART, not NASCAR, was the most watched auto racing series in North America. Some Americans thought Zubaz pants were cool. America's GPS satellite network was already up in orbit. Satellite TV broadcasting and satellite radio were slowly being prepared for launch. And we were on the threshold of a mobile phone explosion and devices and prices began to shrink.

1991 had turmoil, death, but also promise. I can't say the same for 2011. The changes to our world's political map might change more than it ever has since 1991, with the fall of juntas in Egypt and Tunesia. It is still early in the year, but let's look at the subjects that are active right now.

As Newsweek editor in chief, Tina Brown, said back on March 17th, Barack Obama arguably has the worst inbox of any US president ever. What's in his inbox? Here's an incomplete list:

Civil war in the Ivory Coast

Civil unrest and a possible government overthrow in Syria

Crackdown on civil protests and the murder of civilians in Yemen

Crackdown on civil protests and the murder of civilians in once tranquil, Bahrain

A devistang earthquake and tsunami, followed by a subsequent slow metdown of spent fuel rods in northern Japan

A deteriorating state of affairs in Afghanistan, now in its 10th year of war and US occupation

A citizens uprising and overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt

A citizens uprising and overthrow of El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia

Sabre-rattling and threats to the region either from or supported by Iran

A deteriorating political and humanitarian situation in Haiti

The virtual destruction of Christchurch, New Zeland, by a devistating earthquake

War on unions in Wisconsin and other states, brought on by a mix of state budget deficits, lobbying by the Right, and the refusal of the GOP to raise taxes on the wealthy. This has motivated the previosuly silent Democratic base in the nation's heartland and Atlantic coast.

The threat of the GOP in Washington to drastically cut the federal budget, and shut down the government in order to push the cuts through Congress.

It's Only Sports

In just a month, you can certainly put things in perspective. Actually, you can adjust your perspective in one day, but I think you know what I mean.

March 2009 was a really bad month for the US. The stock markets were bottoming out. The Tea Party was ‘founded,’ just weeks prior. And President Obama failed to learn that he had to be a much bolder, offensive leader in order to be successful.

He was going to get fair criticism from most beltway pundits, but he was never going to be fairly treated by the Right-wing media. Every business trip has been labeled a vacation. Every speech has been called either an exercise in ego, an abuse of power, or both. And even taking time during a weekday lunch break to fill out NCAA tournament brackets has been criticized as an abuse of government time.

Obama had to be educated enough to know that when you are a Democratic president, and therefore portrayed by the right wing media as illegitimate, you are not going to be granted the same leniency given to a Republican predecessor. George W. Bush took 977 leisure days (I won’t call them vacation days) while in office, while Barack Obama is being flamed for playing 60 rounds of golf in 26 months. A high number, yes. But keep in mind that Bush went to Camp David every weekend during the chaotic autumn of 2001, partly so he could watch college football games and chomp on pretzels with NSA Secretary Condoleezza Rice. No one accused national security being “off duty” on weekends.

But I meant this post to be about sports. The state of the world can go up as a separate post. And, well, this brings me back to where I started. March.

Yes, March 2009 was really bad. Our economy was on the edge of an abyss (and isn’t far from the edge still today). But here we are, two years later, and this March has been so eventful, I really am hard pressed to find another month so significant in world history since August 1991 – nearly 20 years. Or if not significant, then at least a period more eventful since that amazing summer of 1991.

More on that in the next post.

I was trying to get this post up in March. Working seven days a week, it was more difficult than I assumed. So while it is late, here is my random, eccentric summary of some of the sports happenings I witnessed in March.

New York Mets: Season of Doom

Need I say more? It’s going to be awful. I see a team with a weak offense, an almost non-existent bullpen, and in dire need of a complete financial takeover. New ownership and a new GM are sorely needed. And yet, I am scheduled to go to three games and counting this season.

The Mets are my local MLB team. I like them and their windy, trashy, pinball machine of a ballpark called Citi Field. They are a big market team. They will eventually mount another playoff run…if Atlanta and Philadelphia ever relinquish their dominance over the NL East. Oh, and that new ballpark in Miami is just 12 months away from opening. And the Marlins already have as many MLB championships as the Mets. Sigh.

Boston Red Sox: Impossible expectations

Tired of the Red Sox being called the best team in baseball? I am. They have incredible depth. They have so much depth, they had to send young players who are almost ready for the majors back to Pawtucket. They don’t just have a veteran situational lefty reliever, they have a new lefty, Andrew Miller, who could be an all star in waiting.

But Red Sox Nation needs to get back to its logical roots. Andrew Miller is not yet available, as much as he might be needed later this season. David Ortiz is having a great start, but he needs everyone else in the order to catch up. And the starting pitching, so far, has been far short of expectations. It has been 15 years since the Red Sox started the season 0-4, but that is what has happened as this long delayed blog post went up.

Newcastle United: Stuck in neutral

Discipline problems. Only one point in ten games. A predictable, yet worse than expected loss to Stoke City. The only thing holding Newcastle United together in March was positive team chemistry, consistent fan support, and faith that the team would notch the 1 or 2 wins needed to secure safety in the Prem. More on that in a future post.

ICC Cricket World Cup: Snapshot of the One Day International game

The ICC Cricket World Cup was a cracker this time around. News of the death of the 50 over game are premature, if not exaggerated. I love 50 overs per side. Cricket is a pastime. The ideal one day match should be eight hours, like a work shift, except it isn't work.

We saw England beat the West Indies by a narrow margin, with the hope of going all the way, only to be beaten down by semi finalists Sri Lanka. And in that West Indies match, the Windies had to use a batsman out of order because another batsman was in the “washroom” when his turn to bat came up. It’s a silly sport. I love it.

Dallas Mavericks: One player short of a championship?

Or two. It's a shame that the team with the best coach and defense in the NBA seems to be too broken to advance in the upcoming playoffs. I hope I am incorrect.

March Madness: What’s that?

Seriously, who manufactured this spectacle? Oh right, the NCAA and CBS, with CBS paying the NCAA billions of dollars to televise the tournament for decades, and fans paying billions of dollars into an underground betting economy. Somehow you are not a real man unless you have something called a bracket. Meanwhile, the NCAA, which apparently is a non profit organization, issues death penalties to teams (see U Mass, 1996) if one player accepts gifts from any source. No disputing the punishment. But what exactly does the NCAA do with the partially-disclosed billions it receives, besides not paying the athletes who draw television audiences? Is it silly to ask?

Of course, Europe has its own equivalent of the NCAA tournament. It is called the Football Association and the English Premier League. But since I am able to separate gambling in the UK from the beautiful game, I can appreciate the sport. What I can’t appreciate is a street game, played by college students, elevated to something it never deserved. The only people who truly care about college teams are college students. I can attest. That 1991 U Mass squad that made it to the NIT Final Four was brilliant. But would anyone seriously outside U Mass in the early 1990s remember that? Would Boston, a pro sports town, really care about college sports, aside from the occasional BC football game or the Beanpot? No.

While I am not one to put any faith into professional sports as a wholesome, socially necessary institution, I am never going to care about the cash flush NCAA, or it’s hypocrisy on gambling and gifts, while it receives billions in cash from the media, big universities, and who knows who else.

Predicting Newcastle's Remaining Matches

I feel like I know this year's edition of Newcastle well enough to make some conservative predictions. I also suffer from Geordie Optimism, so you'll understand if the projected results below are better than most paid pundits predict.

Here are my picks:

Saturday, February 26, Newcastle v Bolton: W 3-1

Saturday, March 5, Newcastle v Everton: D 1-1

Saturday, March 19, Stoke v Newcastle: W 0-2

Saturday, April 2, Newcastle v Wolverhampton: W 1-0 

Saturday, April 9, Aston Villa v Newcastle: L 3-1

Saturday, April 16, Newcastle v Man Utd: L 1-3

Saturday, April 23, Blackpool v Newcastle: L 2-0

Saturday, April 30, Liverpool v Newcastle: L 4-2

Saturday, May 7, Newcastle v Birmingham: W 2-1

Saturday, May 14, Chelsea v Newcastle: D 2-2

Sunday, May 22, Newcastle v West Brom: W 3-1

Projected record February 26 - May 22: 5 wins, 4 losses, 2 draws

Projected goal differential: -2 (projected) + 4 (current) =

Projected season points: 17 (projected) + 35 (current) = 52 points for the season

Projected league finish: 10th

Newcastle Notch 35 Points

February 15, 2011: Birmingham City 0 - Newcastle United 2.

In a midweek fixture, Newcastle took a giant step towards safety as they dominated Birmingham City on their opponent's home ground at St. Andrews.

In their first victory since their consecutive shutouts aginst Wigan and West Ham in early January, Newcastle put on an equally dominating performance on a difficult ground where only two other teams have won this season. Notably, it was a perfect game for Newcastle's men on the left - Jose-Enrique on defense and Jonás Gutiérrez in the midfield.

It was a near perfect game. Jose-Enrique led the back four in their defense. Jonas crossed the ball to Peter Lovenkrands in the second minute for the first goal. And he crossed the ball to the other starting striker, Leon Best, for the second goal early in the second half. Best's goal was a wonderful, textbook header. Birmingham had very little in response. Newcastle took Birmingham and their supporters out of the game, while Steve Harper earned himself a clean sheet with a few excellent saves.

What more could a Geordie fan want, given the circumstances? Newcastle needed to stabilize following two difficult games at the start of February. They wrestled a point in Blackburn, and then soundly defeated Birmingham. The Birmingham match was their 'game in hand' to catch-up with the rest of the league (with 27 matches played), and can close February with a win against Bolton for a grand total of eight points for the month.

The match against Bolton on Saturday, February 26th is a big test of Newcastle's stability and competitiveness. The match will be at St. James' Park. Bolton is currently playing a notch above Newcastle, having recently defeated Everton and Fulham. And just one point separates the two teams in the league table. Newcastle have a great opportunity to take 8th place in the league, with matches against Stoke and Wolverhampton still in the list of upcoming fixtures. Not to get too drunk on Geordie optimism, but a Newcastle win, combined with a Sunderland loss or draw, would result in a temporay jump to 7th place in the table. This is a big weekend, lads.

Now on the awesome Newcastle United blogs, to see what they had to say:

Black & White & Read All Over: "We're now unbeaten at St Andrews in seven visits in all competitions and have closed the gap on 5under1and to just two points [sic]. More importantly, though, we've given ourselves eight points worth of breathing space over 18th-placed Wigan."

View From The Shite Seats: "With United looking solid at the back and effective if not spectacular going forward, and with Europe now closer than the relegation zone, dare United start to think about a spectacular season instead of a steady one?"

Newcastle United Premiership History Crash Course (Two Week Edition)

Newcastle knew that the first two games in February would be very difficult. They would face a resurgent Fulham on the road, and title contenders, Arsenal, at home. With 30 points at the start of February, Newcastle were within 10 points of the projected safety zone. My prediction at the start if season was that 36 points should be enough. That translates into 10 wins and 6 draws.

However, the delegation battle this season is very tight. Not only does it put into question the Premier League's reputation as the world's fastest and most dominant league (thanks to all around dismal defending in La Liga, its reputation is still safe, I think), but it threatens to increase the necessary points total to secure safety. Several of my fellow supporters now believe that 40 points will be the minimum. I myself have chosen 39, meaning Newcastle must win at least two more games, and grind it out for three draws I. the remaining 15 matches. So no need to beat a dead horse. Newcastle is going to be just fine.

But of course unexpected events and unexpected results are going to keep the Geordie supporters on edge, and the first thirteen days of February did just that. First, there was the forgetable loss at Fulham on February 2nd. Everyone seemed to see that defeat coming. However (and perhaps fortunately) only a few people actually watched the match. It was not broadcast in North America, and migh not have even been brodcast nationally in the UK.

And that's probably a good thing. Geordie supporters had no desire to see former Newcastle midfielder (and former Irish international), Damien Duff, score the game's only goal. It would have been frustrating and painful to watch. First, it would serve as a reminder how the magpies used to have world class midfielders. Guys like Robert Lee, Kieron Dyer, Damien Duff, James Milner, Nolberto Solano, Emre, and Nolberto Solano, kept the team afloat for over 15 years. Second (the painful part), Newcastle lost veteran striker Shola Ameobi to a fractured jaw or cheekbone just 13 minutes into the game. So they lost the striker who had been assigned to replace Andy Carroll in the starting 11. And while I know it is fashionable to ridicule Shola, he is now Newcastle's leading striker this season with four goals in 21 Premier League appaearances. He's also pre paid, so you could say his services have been 'free' this season.

I used to consider Peter Lovenkrands world class, but this has been a season to forget for him with only two goals to his name. Jonas is quality, but he is nowhere near the bar set by Dyer years ago. Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton are also good, and are the elder midfielders at age 28. There is promise in keeping Cheick Tiote, Hatem Ben Arfa, and Dan Gosling. They are the team's best hope for the next tandem of attacking midfielders.

Newcastle's woes this season havey mainly been offensive, due to an inability of veteran midfielders to effectively deliver the ball into the box (except Kevin Nolan, who does charge ahead and score often). As I have suggested before, the team would be wise to sell James Perch and Allan Smith. And the summer simply cannot end without another quality midfielder signing. Newcastle are far from ready for a European cup run, but that's what they should be preparing for under Alan Pardew. Otherwise, why was Chris Hughton sacked?

Here's what the Newcastle blogs had to say about the defeat at Fulham:

Blog On The Tyne: "It was a night to forget for Newcastle, who lost Shola Ameobi to a suspected fractured cheekbone just 13 minutes in, less than 48 hours after selling Andy Carroll to Liverpool."

Black & White & Read All Over: "What is apparent is that Pardew needs to earn his money now by getting the team to pull together again - and quickly."


Newcastle returned home to St. James' to host Arsenal on February 5th. By now, all Newcastle fans know what happened. For the first time in the history of the reorganized English Premiership (1993-), a team conceeded four consecutive goals and came back to draw level at the final whistle.

The game was extraordinary. The Newcastle collapse in the opening minutes was swift and shocking. They conceeded four goals in under 27 minutes. Their comeback in the second half was both improbable and difficult to appreciate or even comprehend as it unfolded. It was sublime, but only half of Newcastle's four goals were the result of pure offensive effort. Newcastle made history, but they needed help from the ref, their opponents, and old fashioned luck.

The stunnng second half demanded another viewing and some expert analysis. For that, I only had to watch Bobby McMahon on the February 8th edition of the Fox Soccer Report. He was able to fully explain the catalyst (or culprit) of the entire Newcastle comeback. His name is Tomáš Rosický.

[At this point in my post, I have to state that Tomáš Rosický should not be used to represent the Czech people or even the Czech national team, which he captains. I like the Czech national team. His performance should not reflect poorly on them. But it is obvious that Mr. Rosický is now severely damaged goods after his disasterous performance against Newcastle.]

Bobby McMahon called Rosický the, "substitute from hell." And minutes later said that Rosický's performance was "probably the worst display that any substitute has ever put on in the Premier League." Rosický was involved in two of Newcaslte's comeback goals, and could have been involved in a third, had the linesman judged that he was closer to the line than Leon Best (which replays show he was).

The Newcastle comeback began in the 50th minute, when Abou Diaby grabbed Joey Barton by the neck and threw him down in an altercation that followed a rough, yet legal tackle by the Newcatle bad boy. An extra shove to Newcastle captian Kevin Nolan sealed Diaby's fate. It was all Newcastle after that. Danny Simpson got a wicked shot on goal in the 56th minute. Arsenal keeper Laurent Koscielny's unusual tackle of Leon Best in the 68th minute led to the first Newcastle goal - a penalty by Joey Barton.

Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, then made the fateful decision to take Andrey Arshavin out, and replace him with Tomáš Rosický.

Fire, meet gasoline.

In the 73rd minute, Mike Williamson received the ball from a corner, and shot on target. In the 74th minute, Barton made a wonderful pass to Best in the area, only to be called offside. Best blsted the ball into the net, but the whistle had blown. However, replays show that Rosický was playing Best onside. Rosický, seemingly playing in a fog, unaware of his position, opened the door wide open to the Newcastle attack. The goal should have been allowed. However, just one minute later, Leon Best put the ball away for a brilliant goal, through the legs of running defenders. Nile Ranger narrowly missed just one minute later.

Are you following so far? Seven minutes, three shots, two goals. What does this fire need? Yep. Cue the Czech national.

A ball sails towards Williamson in the box in the 82nd minute. He has no chance of getting it. But Rosický puts up his arms in Williamson's face like a poor NFL cornerback. It was nothing, except it looked like something. So a penalty is given to Newcastle, which Joey Barton finishes.

Now Newcastle need to tie the game. They have gone too far to be stopped now. And despite all the help they received from the referee and Tomáš Rosický, they still needed a beautiful, immaculate goal to seal the deal.

And it came from the left foot of Cheick Tiote in the 87th minute. He's right footed, but showed lighting fast judgement and conrol by striking the ball with the foot he had available. The ball was defelected back to him by, you guessed it, Rosický, following a shot by a Newcastle teammate. Tiote did not hesitate. As soon as the ball came to him he rocketed it into the lower left corner of the net from about 20 yards out. It was an immaculate strike, but it wasn't a laser beam. It curved beautifully downward and to the left, out of the reach of the Arsenal keeper, Wojciech Szczesny. You could watch it again and again and conclude that it has to be a top ten Premiership goal when this season is over.

And you would think, at the 91st minute, that Kevin Nolan's final shot would go into the lower right corner. But it missed wide by about two feet. And that's how it would end. Newcastle 4, Arsenal 4.

On to the trusty Newcastle blogs:

Blog On The Tyne: "At 4-0 down you have to say Newcastle were as woeful as any team to grace the sacred black and white jerseys. But by full time they looked like one of the best teams ever to be scribbled on a team sheet. Indeed, Arsenal didn't know what had hit them by the end and Newcastle left the field disappointed not to WIN the game."

View From The Shite Seats: "The worst 45 minutes I have ever seen from a Newcastle side was followed 15 minutes later by the most spirited and driven 45 minutes that I have ever seen from any team."

Black & White & Read All Over: "So, of the six contentious decisions that the Gunners felt went against them, in only two instances do they have any cause for complaint. And it's worth remembering that we were also on the wrong end of a poor decision, Best having a goal disallowed despite being played well onside by Tomas Rosicky."


And then, just one week later, Newcastle settled down and delivered a solid defensive performance, led by Jose-Enrique, and earned a vital point in Blackburn.

It was mainly a boring game, but Newcastle needed to re-establish stability. Goalkeeper Steve Harper needed a clean sheet. And Jose-Enrique needed to continue his stellar season. The former Under-21 Spanish international might even be considred for the Spanish national team at age 25. And he has tentatively expressed an interest to remain at Newcastle after his contract expires in June.

The game was a frustrating one, offensively, with just two serious chances for Newcastle - a narrow miss and a shot off the bar. I do not share the temporary gloom and doom demonstrated by the blogs (linked below), but I do agree that the lack of goal scoring is due to a suboptimal midfield. Newcastle have five strikers. They need better balls delivered to them to score goals.

It was important for Newcastle to stabilize their path to safety. One point brought their season total to 32. Last season, that would be just two points shy of safety. The players seem to understnd that they cannot allow setbacks and distractions sink their season. Newcastle have endured bigger setbacks and shocks than any of the other teams on the relegation bubble. There may be unhappy players. They have a lot of work to do on offense. But Newcastle have it together heading into the final quarter of the season. And if they have to do it one point at a time, then so be it, as long as they avoid a losing streak.

Here's the final word from the Newcastle blogs:

View From The Shite Seats: "To score goals at this level is not easy, but to try and do so with a five-man strike force which cost a grand total of £1m (all of that on Leon [Best]) is stupidity of the highest order."

Blog On The Tyne: "Newcastle United fans filed out of Ewood Park knowing they could be celebrating much more than just a single point and you could not forgive them for thinking if the Magpies had a natural born predator in front of goal then this game would have been won."

Black & White & Read All Over: "An ultimately frustrating afternoon in the North West saw Newcastle return from Ewood Park with one point added to the total, but left with a nagging sense that it could have been more."

Closure For One Bush Scandal

By closure, I only mean a final report. No fines. No prosecutions. Just a very good report from an agency that was itself politicized and arguably corrupted during the Bush 43 administration.

When this little blog was very young, the blatant violations of the Hatch Act by the General Services Administration (GSA) was summarized by a few entertaining posts (hey, the vidoes are still up!).

The GOP political strategy meetings that took place at the GSA during Lauita Doan's leadership were enough to attract an investigtion by Henry Waxman's Oversight Committee and the Office of Special Counsel. Over four years since the agency began its investigation, we finally have a report. And the report provides new information and details I don't think anyone had mentioned publically before.

As some pundits and liberal political junkies may remember, the White House political office (offically known as the Office of Political Affairs), headed by Karl Rove, mobilized government agencies to support Republican midterm congressional campaigns in 2006. It must have made sense at the time. The GOP was expected to lose seats in the House, and probably lose their majority (which they did). This administration was usually very blatent in breaking the law, so this tactic seems to fit the pattern.

Although I am sure there were plenty of young people willing and able to work for GOP campaigns in 2006, Karl Rove saw the value in the political experience of many Federal employees who came to Washington in the wake of George W. Bush's election in 2000. After all, many of them had worked on GOP campaigns in order to be considered for Federal positions in the first place. Also, they must have been assuming that by 2009, most of them would be out of a job, since the President's approval rating tanked after Katrina and all indications were that a Democrat would become the next president.

In an act of arrogance and brazen disregard for Federal law, Karl Rove's team mobilized Federal employees accross 20 agencies with political presentations, requests for campaign volunteers (and in some cases, demands), all in Federal buildings, during business hours - a broad, open violation of the Hatch Act.

The report is intentionally late, designed to protect those who violated the law. It's also safe to assume that several administrations have violated the Hatch Act over the decades. But what we have leanred, thanks to this report, is the extraordinary scale and scope of the offenses by the Bush 43 administration. The offenses were done in the open, under florescent lights, in conference rooms, and in plain sight of of government's Human Resources - the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The OPM must have seen that Federal employees were bring granted paid leave of abscences so that they would work on domed 2006 House campaigns. That's using Federal payroll funds to subsidize and support one party's Congressional campaigns. Hell, the OPM was probably one of the agencies corrupted by these Hatch Act violations.

So really the Bushies had their cake and ate it too. They had job security from 2001 until 2006, and were freely allowed to waste taxpayer money and violate the law. Then, after their 2006 midterm defeats, most of them returned to their desks for the final, quiet, two year stretch.

The full report from the OSC is here (.pdf file).

West Ham And Newcastle Fail To Capitalize

West Ham and Newcastle United both had frustrating ends to their January schedule. Both had chances to put the game away in the first half. Both conceded goals in second half injury time, denying them the full three points of victory.

Everton 2 - West Ham 2

West Ham especially needed the points. Stuck at the bottom of the Premiership table, West Ham are in dire need of a three game win streak to save their season. They need momentum. But the fear is that their undefeated streak in late December and early January might have been all the momentum they are going to get this season.

West Ham did have a very promising start in their game against Everton. American midfielder Jonathan Spector scored the opening goal with a well controlled strike of a sweet rebound of the Everton keeper. He absolutely had to score that goal, and he came through, notching his first ever goal in the English Premiership (he scored two goals in League Cup action in November).

And that's how the game would go into halftime, with West Ham in control, up one-nil. Everton eventually won back control and equalized in the second half with a blast from Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. But then the game became very memorable for the wrong reasons (at least for West Ham).

The Hammers regained the lead with an impressive strike from Frederic Piquionne. However, he was swiftly shown a red card for excessive celebration. In less than a minute, the Hammers went from estactic joy to feelings of dread and hopelessness. And so, in injury time, Everton attackers weaved around the tired West Ham defenders, with the final turn and shot performed by the afroed Moroccan-Belgian, Marouane Fellaini, who shot the ball into a low corner to secure the draw. Fellaini gave Newcastle bruises and headaches early in the season, and he broke the Hammers' hearts on Sunday.

Newcastle 1 - Tottenham Hotspur 1

What is it with Newcastle? Are they underachievers? Why must they learn one of the most fundamental lessons of football in two consecutive weeks? If you can keep your opposition scoreless through 80 minutes, then you have to bring in fresh legs and tell your lads to double their efforts for the final 15 minutes. You don't sit back. You are supposed to step up and finish the game strong.

 

The curly haired Argentine defender, Fabricio Coloccini, celebrated his 29th birthday by scoring his second precious goal of the season (and second in this league). He chested the ball down while in the box and just hammered it home at the 60 minute mark. Newcastle had this game in the bag.

But then a long, legal pass to Aaron Lennon stunned the Mags. Two defenders, Fabricio Coloccini and Danny Simpson failed to slide, poke, or otherwise deny Lennon his shot. There was nothing keeper Steve Harper could do as the ball rolled into the bottom left corner. It wasn't Harper's fault. His back four, who had been excellent all day, simply failed to tap or block the ball in their opponent's final attack. Perhaps if they had fought for the ball, rather than appeal for off sides, their team would have 32 points instead of 30.

I'm being harsh. But someone has to yell at these Lads. They are better than this. True, they could so easily be stuck at the bottom with West Ham. But they have shown that they can place themselves in the top half of the table (this draw actually lifted them to seventh place!). You would think that with a tight relegation battle occuring just beneath them, Newcastle would work hard to stay above the fray.

Andy Carroll was not available in this game. But they didn't need Andy Carroll in this game. They had plenty of chances to score the necessary second goal. All Shola Ameobi and Leon Best could do is miss, again and again. And even then, substitute strikers Peter Lovenkrands and Nile Ranger nearly put it away in the final 10 minutes.

I realize, as a Newcastle supporter, that I should feel fortunate that this team has depth, a good defense, five strikers, and amazingly, only eight or so more points to earn to guarantee another season in the greatest professional football league on the planet. Newcastle is still recovering from a giant blow to their prestige and finances. However, I also have that passionate Geordie optimism, that expects to win a game if the Mags are in the lead with 10 minutes remaining. Newcastle are in a title drought, of course. But surely they are a big enough team to prevent disasterous endings to games like the ones they've had these last two weeks? There's a Geordie fan in me who still sometimes treats this team like it is 1996, when it could beat anyone.

Paul over at Black & White & Read All Over is correct. It isn't a question of talent or drive. It is a lack of fitness compared to more stable squads that have not suffered the setback of relegation. That might also explain the more numerous injuries this season compared to last.

Okay, on to the quality Newcastle United Blogs.

Black & White & Read All Over (same post by Paul): "The fact that we were even in a position to rue the points dropped is credit to the team, who struggled to get hold of the ball thanks to Spurs' slicker passing, but who looked the more threatening in front of goal, with Leon Best, Peter Lovenkrands and Nile Ranger all guilty at points of failing to score when gilt-edged opportunities came their way."

View From The Shite Seats: "Somfor the Geordies it’s four points dropped from winning positions in a week, but it is also another good point against a high flying side and another closer to safety."

Blog on the Tyne (Lee Ryder): "Newcastle's service has been so poor out wide this season they have had to re-invent Joey Barton as a right winger."

Fair And Square

There isn't much for me to say about last Sunday's big games involving the New England Patriots and Newcastle United. Both teams were beaten, fair and square.

The Patriots, in particular, were soundly dominated by the Jets. It was shameful. It was inexcusable. But the Patriots are a resilient team. They have the right leadership. They have the right quarterback and coach. And they have some juicy draft picks to make or trade this spring. They will reload and make yet another run for the elusive fourth Super Bowl victory.

Meanwhile, Newcastle United very nearly defeated Sunderland in the Stadium of Light. But Steve Harper had his potentially historic clean sheet ruined in the 94th minute of stoppage time. It was a heartbreaking draw. But the Mags have no choice but to move on to a more challenging stretch of their schedule and do what they can to earn those final six or nine points required for safety.

The Day White America Went Mad (Again)

June 30th, 2009, Georgetown, Delaware, at the CHEER community center.

Take it away, madwoman:

If anyone ever tells you that both the Right and Left have irrational, violent hate speech on the same scale and with the same media exposure, simply use this video as the first example in a long list of evidence against the Right. The most vile, radical media figure on the Left is probably Bill Maher...for making jokes about Dick Chaney's health. The Right has an arena full of crazies. And no, 'crazies' is not hate speech if we have video evidence such as this. 'Teabagger' isn't a hateful word, either. Neither is my favorite, 'wingnut.'

If someone, anyone, knows of a blogger, talk show host, activist, leader, or celebrity on the Left who has been more politically incorrect than Bill Maher, please leave his or her name in the comments. It isn't Cecile Richards. It isn't Glenn Greenwald. It isn't Bill Moyer. It isn't David Corn (for calling Bush 43 a "liar"). And no, it isn't Arianna Huffington, either. Cindy Sheehan? Are you kidding me?

Who are the popular extremists on the Left? David Letterman? Jon Stewart? Sean Penn? George Clooney? Van Jones? Michael Moore? Whoopi Goldberg?

Who on the Left deserves to be compared to the likes of Pamela Geller, Ann Coulter, Dennis Miller (who used to be on the Left, so he would have counted if this was 1996), Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michele Bachmann, Sharron Angle, Ann Althouse, Erick Erickson, Glenn Reynolds, and Jonah Goldberg, and dozens of others?

Who?

State Of The Toon, January 2011

Newcastle United are in the middle of only their second win streak of the season. It is a win streak that could put them over the top to meet their season points goal to secure safety in the English Premiership. All they have to do is win two more games, and they should be guaranteed 38 points come early May. In fact, they're currently on track to earn 48 points, which last season would have earned them 11th place in the table.

I think it would be a tremendous accomplishment if Newcastle could finish in 10th place. But this is no time to be greedy or unrealistic.

It's January. The transfer window is open. And so it is time to buy new talent and start thinking about who to re-sign come June.

The first necessary signing is complete. Newcastle needed to lock-in their newest midfield acquisition, Hatem Ben Arfa, who was acquired on loan from French side, Olympique de Marseille. He should fully recover from his horrific leg injury, which he suffered in early October. And at age 23, he should be retained by the club so he can play his prime years on Tyneside. I think he can be a starter, as he has already shown his fearlessness and ability to score. He's the kind of player you want as part of your winning foundation, just like Jonás Gutiérrez , José Enrique, and Andy Carroll.

Ideally, there should be two more signings - a defender and a midfielder. Newcastle have a full roster already. But if I were the manager, I would want to take the opportunity to acquire younger, faster talent for a European cup run in 2013. That is, if the budget allowed (and we know the transfer budget is slim).

There's a rumor floating around that Newcastle are interested in buying 28 year-old Uraguayan international defender, Mauricio Vitorino, who currently plays professionally in Chile.

But the confirmed news concerns acquiring a young midfielder. Newcastle are currently in talks with Birmingham City to purchase 25 year-old Sebastian Larsson, who in my mind, would permanently replace James Perch as a substitute right midfielder.

As for players who should leave, James Perch is a given. Alan Smith is probably another. At £60,000 Pounds per week. Smith is too expensive to keep on the sidelines, and he has been displaced by Hatem Ben Arfa and Cheik Tioté in the midfield. With Smith's original club, Leeds, comtemplating a buy offer, Newcastle might soon have a practical way to liquidate an underperforming player.

The signing of either Vitorino or Larsson would bring in healthy talent at a reasonable cost. Toon fans should keep an eye on the news and hope for at least one more signing before the transfer window closes on January 31st.

Movie Review: Blue Valentine (2010)

A great concept. Two excellent performances. Outstanding, even clever editing. A movie that could have taken its place with selected works by Robert Altman, Igmar Bergman, and John Cassevetes. But Blue Valentine fails spectacularly due to a weak plot, a weak character, and what appears to be artistic indecision. Simply put, Blue Valentine doesn't seem to know if it wants to be a European film, or an American film. Furthermore, it doesn't seem to want the audience to get attached to the characters, or have feelings about their relationship.

The fact that I have much to say about Blue Valentine is a testament to how many good elements are in the film. As I will explain, the editing is first rate. The acting is world class. Ryan Gosling, in particular, almost makes us love him with his charm and his old school, hipster, 20th century values.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is what I told my partner as we walked out of AMC Empire 25. I said the movie shows Americans for what they really are: depressed, bummed out people. I know Americans have a reputation for being eternally positive and giddy. Americans love candy. Americans love amusements. Americans and Japanese play more video games and consume more movies that any other people. And back in the 90s, I was once told that Americans are easy to spot in Europe (especially northern Europe). They are the poorly dressed people who are always smiling. But Blue Valentine gives us a far more realistic view of typical American adults: most of them are unable or don't know how to enjoy life.

If Blue Valentine were a commentary on just how depressed Americans are today, then perhaps it would be a great movie. But the film does not make that argument. The film fails to achieve its goal, which was to make the audience like both the relationship being portrayed, and the partners in that relationship. This was supposed to be the story of boy pursues girl, boy and girl fall in love, and then, after a series of sad turning points, boy and girl fall out of love and split. Instead, this movie handicaps itself by having the girl never fall in love with the boy. How the hell is the audience supposed to get behind that?

Seriously, this was supposed to be a hankie movie? The audience was supposed to be saddened by the relationship's disintegration? Allow me to spoil the whole thing and count the ways this movie betrays the audience and gives them something that falls far short of the buzz and expectations that were set when the movie premiered at Sundance nearly one year ago.

*** Spoliers below!  But you shouldn't mind in this case. You'd know what this movie is about if you read a single review. ***

1. Dean (wonderfully played by Ryan Gosling) is a really nice working class stiff. Despite being shown the awful man he has become early in the film, we go back about five years to learn that when he was in his mid 20s, he was pretty darn cool. We see him join a moving company, and help an elderly man, Walter, move to a nursing home somewhere near the Poconos. Rather than simply dump Walter's boxes and drive off, Dean takes an extra hour to unpack and decorate Walter's room. It is the greatest part of the movie. Dean is creative, funny, and an all around good guy. His future wife, Cindy (the perpetually sad looking but underrated Michelle Williams), is also at the nursing home. In an edit that should inspire every film student alive, we see them make eye contact for the first time, and Dean begins his pursuit of Cindy. So to recap: Dean, a boy living in New York, decides to pursue Cindy, a college girl in rual Pennsylvania. And Cindy never sees the great thing that Dean did for Walter.

2. While Dean is chasing his seemingly impossible dream, we follow Cindy, and learn that while she was attending college in eastern Pennsylvania, she had a rash, aggressive, jock boyfriend, Bobby (Mike Vogel). An afternoon quickie in a dorm room leads to an unplanned pregnancy for Cindy. But by the time she learns that she is pregnant, she has already dumped Bobby (angered by the unprotected sex, it seems), and has opened up to Dean. The center of the film is the most charming. In a true cinéma vérité moment, shot with a handheld HD camera, through unclean panes of glass, we see Dean serenade Cindy with a 4-string ukulele and a song that Ryan Gosling wrote for the movie. Awesome, right? This movie is so wonderfully edited that the center of the movie is the warmest, most realistic moment between these two characters. The audience is going to fall in love with them, right?

3. Wrong. Cindy has no plans to tell Dean that she is pregnant. She prefers to wait for him to discover it. But in another awesome moment, Dean forces Cindy to reveal her condition while walking on the Manhattan Bridge. Cindy considers aborting her fetus, which was fathered by the violent asshole Bobby. She decides to get a D&C at a small town clinic. She goes so far as to be in the procedure room, legs spread, with a speculum up to her cervix, and a creepy looking male doctor injecting her with anesthetic (without a needle extender, I might add...talk about intimate service). However, Cindy lets the discomfort get the better of her, and she asks the doctor to stop the procedure. In an unrealistic motion, Cindy jumps up (isn't there a speculum in her?) and runs out to the waiting room for Dean to take her back to her dorm. On the bleak bus ride back to campus, Dean professes his love for Cindy. The feeling is never reciprocated.

4. Well, the rest, as they say, is history. Cindy decides to marry Dean, under the false pretence that marriage will bring stability and happiness in her life. Wrong. Dean shows incredible maturity, as he raises Cindy's daughter to become a beautiful little girl with promise. But Cindy's marriage and having a child at such a young age destroys her dream to become a doctor. She instead works at a rural Pennsylvania hospital as either a nurse or physician assistant (a PA in PA, I like to think). She grows to resent Dean for his carefree attitude, his untapped creativity, and his brief run as the better, more attentive parent. But a lack of love from Cindy drives Dean down a self destructive path to alcoholism. Dean transforms from the cool kid in Brooklyn to an asshole in aviators.

A Villiage Voice critic read the film as misogynist, arguing that the film portrays Cindy as the cause of Dean's negative transformation. But my read of the movie is that Cindy was unfortunately her own worst enemy. She shouldn't have kept the pregnancy (although the film wisely respects her choice). She shouldn't have married Dean. She should have been more honest with herself and acknowledged that she was never in love with Dean. I never blame the victim, but if Cindy had been more in touch with what she really wanted, this tragedy would not have happened. If Cindy had put herself first, there would be no movie.

Which brings us back to how this story is common in the real world. Too many men and women marry for the wrong reasons. Too many people don't prepare themselves for aging. Too many people simply stop living (or never start). Were we supposed to root for this doomed marriage to continue? We were presented with a 30 year old couple already living like depressed 50 year olds. How common is this couple in the real world? Far too common, I'm afraid.

The United States has this old reputation of being the optimistic, hopeful nation. We saved the world from fascism and imperial aggression in 1945. Heck, we saved South Korea from a communist takeover in 1953. We won the space race, as if that counts for anything. We built the Internet, and that does count. Our standard of living rose steadily between 1946 and 1973. And then it slowly went to hell.

But we clung to our glorious past in the years following 1973. We still had a healthy club culture in the 1970s, cocaine and all. We had a much needed, at times fun, sexual revolution. We had a long overdue political and economic empowerment of women. In pop culture, we had a fun 1950s revival in the 1970s, and a 1960s Motown revival in the 1980s. Movies by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas provided us with the guilty pleasures of the 30s, 40s and 50s in contemporary blockbuster packaging. And we even elected a president who tried hard to stay young, wore stylish chocolate brown suits, and offered jellybeans to visitors - all while denying or exacerbating the economic and international crises of the time (which continue today, of course).

We've gone from jellybeans to Xanax. I can point to Blue Valentine as evidence of our nation's current psyche, but I cannot recommend it as a great film because it fails to get the audience on Dean and Cindy's side. Rooting for Dean and Cindy is frankly a waste of time.

So if you want a similarly shot film that will make you love the protagonists, go back to 2007s Once. Or if you want to see a better disintegration of a marriage, then why not watch Igmar Bergman's miniseries Scenes From A Marriage (1973) or several Woody Allen movies, a couple of Robert Altman films, or several John Cassevettes films, including Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), or Opening Night (1977).