Wine From Outer Space

Wine From Outer Space is intoxicating, unearthly and surprising. It's also where I write about whatever I choose, and that's nice.

25 October 2005

Skullface Visits the Ballpark

I'm sometimes given to absurdist tendencies, so I'd like to share with you some thoughts I had the other night while watching the World Series. There's not a great deal that the Chicago fans can do in terms of dressing up to support their team, and for the matter the Astros fans are equally unlucky. In other words, neither team has a readily identifiable symbol or mascot that fans can emulate--and thereby support their team--through dress or costumery.

Packers fans have wedges of cheese atop their heads, Vikings fans wear helmets of nordic design, and Raiders fans simply seem to drape themselves in silver and black and go berserk. White Sox fans really have no aesthetic peg upon which to hang their hopes and support. Watching the people in the crowd at Game 2 in Chicago, I saw a fairly uncreative collection of various White Sox tributes in the form of lame costumes, color coordination and face paint.

I tried to think of a costume that one could wear to preserve some aspect of the team's identity, yet stand out enough to catch the eye of the network camera as it swept the stands, while still making those in your immediate vicinity upset and uncomfortable.

Then it came to me: an oversized, leering skull. I more or less gave up on looking for some team-specific theme in my costume, though it is black and white, maintaining the White Sox identity through its color scheme. A huge skull, and therefore garish and slightly shocking, will certainly attract attention. Yet it's not entirely out of order because we're so close to Halloween. I see it being made of something like neoprene and some sort of rigid understructure so as to maintain its shape.

A few bells and whistles are required, to make it that much more appealing. A friend of mine in college had this annoying little toy called "The Pocket Dad." It was a little battery-operated squawk box with a series of buttons which, when pushed, would play a recorded Dad-like line, such as "I'll give you something to cry about!" So, similar to Pocket Dad, Skullface would come equipped with a bank of sound bites such as "Kneel before the dark gods," "I weep blood for the fallen warriors of Odin," or simply "Brraaahhgggghhhhh!!!!" The recordings would be of an almost painfully loud volume, and possess a hollow, speaking-from-the-grave like quality.

Another Skullface feature is an internal rig that would vomit blood at the user's discretion. Fake blood is another option. The vomit apparatus should have three settings: (1) a slow and viscous gurgling drool; (2) a wide-area fine spray; (3) a concentrated and forecful projectile jet. Bleeding eyesockets is another possibility, so as to add some visual element to the "I weep blood..." line. Multimedia!

Ideally, the Skullface costume would come equipped with a high-powered flamethrower. When a big run is scored or at other critical and dramatic junctures in the game, the user could point the flamethrower skyward and let fly with a 30-foot jet of flame to underscore their appreciation of the team's performance.

This way, rather than the network camera panning the crowd and looking for simps with signs that incorporate the letters "FOX" into some sort of rah-rah message, or looking for people who've used the black-and-white theme to dress themselves up as zebras, dalmations, or newspapers, producers can simply direct the lens at the shrieking, blood-vomitting Skullface with the flamethrower. As recognizable as the gore and pyrotechnics is the 20- to 40-foot diameter of empty seats around Skullface--not even the beer or hot dog guy will come close.

15 October 2005

Minnesota Vikings: Das Boot

And I thought 1998 was a bad year.

So before the season began, before pre-season even, sports writers were picking the Vikings to take their division, and believed them to be real conteders for their conference. Moss was out, Culpepper was the clear leader, a revamped defense could only bring things to a higher level, and the new owner Wilf was energetic, engaging and not the tightfisted miser that McCombs was. The team had new life, a new direction, and there was talk of finally moving out of the Metrodome and into better facilities.

Then the season started.

The Vikings look hopeless. Culpepper only posted a lower quaterback rating when he sat on the bench his first year. The offensive line allows so many sacks you'd think they were all bagging your groceries at Safeway (or Rainbow if you live in the Twin Cities). Turnovers and interceptions and a host of penalties per game have turned a team that could be dangerous on offense into a unit that's as threatening as curdled milk. There is no running game whatsoever, and the retooled defense is ineffective. Head coach Mike Tice knew he was in a tough spot at the beginning of the year when he was nailed for scalping SuperBowl tickets. Now his team is 1-3 and during their bye week, 17 players were named in some sort of sex boat scandal.

Newly acquired from the Redskins, cornerback Fred Smoot hired two boats for a cruise around Lake Minnetonka. Investigators are currently looking into whether players or others who were guests on the boats participated in illegal activity.

Maybe I don't have the pro atlete mentality, but if your team is expected to accomplish great things and you are falling embarassingly short of that anticipation, it seems likely that you would (1) do whatever is necessary to improve your performance and the performance of your team and (2) keep a low profile. I'm not certain what a team that's 1-3 is celbrating anyway, unless they've all been instructed to take a huge messy dive so as to erode any interest in keeping the team in Minnesota and moving them to another market.

Needless to say that the team's crappy results on the field and their outrageous behavior off the field has probably derailed any sort of commitment in building a new stadium. Wilf had generated enough interest from community, civic government and business leaders to proceed with an estimated $625 million sports etnertainment complex in Anoka. A team that's 1-3 with no discernable leadership on the field or on the sidelines that's now embroiled in a sex scandal is not likely to receive such a boon now.

I'll wait and see what the investigators turn up. Some of the Vikings are apparently acting like members of the Dallas Cowboys circa 1992, though they're not putting up the stats that the Boys did. One semi-positive thing I can say is that the NFC North is a litterbox of broken and ruined teams, so the Vikings still have a chance to win their division. Any success they may have, though, is overshadowed by acting in such a classless, low-rent way as this boat ride behavior suggests.

I feel that pretty soon I'll be saying "Go Chiefs!" in the years to come...

Katrina's Aftermath: Political Fallout & H5N1

Government response to the devastated areas after hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf was lackluster to say the least. Michael Brown, then-head of FEMA's effort in the area, admitted in a television interview that he was unaware of the New Orleans residents at the Convention Center. Brown and others in state and federal government claimed that they had no idea the damage would be as bad as it was. It was at this point that those in government responsible for the extension of aid and assistance to those affected by Katrina clearly had no access to television or radio broadcasts.

Two days before the hurricane made landfall, meteorologists and news commentators were predicting the extreme severity of the storm, the probable collapse of the levee system and pumps in New Orleans, and recognized the need to pre-position relief supplies such as bottled water, food and clothing. It took several days for any sort of federal response to reach the area, unless you count President Bush flying over the devastated landscape in Air Force One, shaking his head and mumbling something about the situation being "bad."

The length of time it took for federal aid to arrive was appalling; people and political pundits were confused and upset at this delay, so Bush dispatched Vice President Cheney to the Gulf states. Cheney was at home when his red telephone, which sits beneath a glass dome, lit up. Cheney knew the drill--the President was calling, and the news was not good. Approaching a sculpted bust of Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, he raised the chin of the infamous Marquis to reveal a secret button. A hidden door in Cheney's private study swung open, and the Vice President was off to conduct one of the most important public relations campaigngs in his storied career. Later, while Cheney was being interviewed in the ravaged aftermath of Katrina, a passerby off camera hollered "Fuck you, Mr. Vice President!" It was now evident that this situation demanded President Bush's involvement; this situation called for multiple photo opportunities.

Hugging residents and informing them of the nearest Red Cross aid station, the President was on the scene in New Orleans and Gulfport. Flanked by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, Bush deemed the efforts up to that point to be unacceptable. His appearance with state and local officials, however, gave the sense that the various levels of government were finally working together to put the situation right, some five days after the hurricane had passed.

In the meantime, head of FEMA's effort in the Gulf, Michael Brown, was told by Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff that Brown's effectiveness would be better realized if Brown were to leave the field and head back to the FEMA offices. The reasoning was simple: the U.S. was still in the midst of hurricane season, and Brown should be helping to deal with events that have not yet come to pass, rather than spearhead the greatest domestic relief effort in American history. Two days later Brown resigned his position under increasing criticism by and scrutiny from the media. Apparently Brown's curriculum vitae was padded in places relating to his potential and experience with disaster management, and parts were completely exorcised that had nothing to do with his new position at FEMA (most notably his ten years of work with an equestrian organization). Bush, shrewd operator that he is, appointed one of his assistants to conduct an internal investigation of "what went right and what went wrong" in the response to Katrina. The U.S. Congress held their own hearings (though they were boycotted by most Democrats), and it was there that Brown provided his explanation for the bungling of the relief operation: it was Lousiana's fault, and when Brown had said he didn't know that people were stranded at the Convention Center, he'd really meant to say that he did know. He was tired, you see.

New Orleans will come back, slowly and in sections. Life-as-usual is already evident in the Big Easy, as seen on the news recently with the beating of an unarmed senior citizen by four New Orleans police officers. One police officer also shoved a member of the press against a car and screamed in his face. This is the same police force in which some 200 of its officers abandoned their posts after Katrina, and some were being investigated on charges of looting.

Bush has vowed that any number of ongoing investigations and hearings into the Katrina response will yield helpful information about how and how not to react to a crisis. We already know the phrase "timing is everything," so the various levels of government ought not wait for nearly a week before reacting. We're also familiar with the phrase "location, location, location" from the world of real estate--so we ought to recognize that building a city below sea level, along the coast and next to a huge lake, and protected only with an antiquated levee system, cannot be considered to be prudent urban planning. Furthermore, aid should be sent to those who need it; semi trucks full of ice and water either sat idle in other states or were sent everywhere but the location it was needed. A now-famous story of the ice trucks tells of how they were finally dispatched after days of waiting--their ultimate destination was New Orleans. The trucks went from Wisconsin to Alabama to Georgia to Maryland, and there they stayed. The cost to taxpayers of this little sight-seeing tour was approximately $9,000. The trucking company was not lost--they were following FEMA's instructions. FEMA, by the way, stands for Federal Emergency Management if you couldn't guess.

Now a new threat of a crisis looms in the form of H5N1, a new strain of avian flu. Health experts have suggested that this new strain of flu, though mostly confined to birds, could mutate, infect humans and cause a global pandemic. Scenarios of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed some 50 million people worldwide, have been provided by the scientific and medical communities to aid in some sort of response. The United States, seemingly oblivious to the history of World War I as well as the failed disaster response of a few weeks ago, admittedly has no sort of plan in place to handle a health crisis of this potential.

Political commentator Bill O'Reilly is a hateful shill for the conservative right--he would be a person that I would love to hate, if I were to accord him any sort of importance or gravitas in the world of media--but he did say something in the days after Katrina that resonate: "You can't rely on the government; you can only rely on yourself." Citizens are doing just that by stocking up on Tamiflu, an anti-viral that helps to alleviate symptoms of influenza. There is nothing to suggest that Tamiflu will do anything to combat a human mutation of H5N1, but, as with whistling in the dark, having Tamiflu in your medicine cabinet will probably make one feel more at ease. An effective immunization can only be engineered once the actual infectious strain is known. Making the antivirus--making enough of it for some 250 million Americans--and distributing it around the country will be a challenge indeed, and will take at least six weeks.

I'm currently reading Gina Kolata's book Flu, about the 1918 pandemic. It looks at other outbreaks and crises of sickness and disease throughout history, and I was surprised to learn about the bizarre and apparently bungled approach government and medical science took toward the Swine Flu in 1976. I was three years old at the time and immunized against it, but at such a tender age was not aware of the consternation and controversy surrounding both the flu strain and the immunization effort. The book revisits questions raised at the time of the Swine Flu, such as "Does this strain warrant a national immunization project?" Certain medical advisors to President Ford said yes, or at least noted that if even a 1 in 100 chance of the strain turning into a pandemic similar to the 1918 flu exists, it would be politically foolhardy for the President not to endorse an immunization campaign.

In light of the reaction to Katrina, I'm not overwhelmed with confidence that much will or can be done with some sort of pandemic. Creating an antivirus is all well and good, but I'm not sure that six weeks is enough of a window of opportunity; half the nation could be infected and dying in that time. Experts from the WHO, CDC and NIH agree that we will face another global pandemic--it's inevitable. Experts from the Army Corps of Engineers, among others, knew that New Orleans levees would buckle and pumps fail under the force of a hurricane rated Category 4 or higher. Engineers knew that levees are more of a stop-gap measure than a solution, especially for a metropolis. City planners knew that New Orleans, built in a geographical bowl, on the coast, bounded by water and in a frequent path of hurricane activity, would eventually face its demise. Nothing was done to prevent the inevitable, and in the fervor of reconstruction I wonder whether the very recent and catastrophic events will give pause to those who wish to keep the locations of refineries and chemical plants where they currently stand (or recently stood).

"You can't rely on the government; you can only rely on yourself." These might be sage words if your concern is vacating a certain area for fear of flood, fire or tornado. If the threat is a pandemic, however, then the only way to help yourself, short of becoming a molecular biologist with your own laboratory and pharmaceutical factory, is to press your elected officials to do better than they've done in the past. As we've seen, both political short- and long-term memory have no room for anything of history.