Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The new Zune / iPod Battle

There have been some interesting developments in the digital music player market this week. First, Microsoft trumped Steve Jobs by announcing some updates to its Zune device and software. Then today, Apple announced the updates to the iPod and iTunes products.

Before we consider this week’s developments, let’s review the long and treacherous path of the Zune.

Back in November 2006, Microsoft released its first Digital Music Player, the Zune. Some who had grown tired of Apple’s dominance were excited to see what Microsoft had up its sleeve.

Along with the device, Microsoft also launched the Zune Marketplace, an online store offering 3 million tracks (compared to iTunes’ 6 million at the time) and a subscription model offering unlimited downloads for a fixed price of $14.99 per month. iTunes still does not offer subscription music.

The device was released, and mocked. It was a 30GB hard disk device that came in white, black and brown(?). The original Zune was based on the Toshiba Gigabeat device, and was not designed or built by Microsoft. It was also just a bit smaller and lighter than a brick.

The desktop software used to shop the Marketplace and sync the Zune was awful. It was dark, gloomy and buggy. The Zune didn’t have support for podcasts or audiobooks. And the Marketplace did not offer any video content, even though the Zune player was capable of playing videos.

The Zune’s tag line, “Welcome to the Social” was confusing, but indicated where Microsoft wanted to go with their music player. The original Zune included wireless networking capabilities that held promise for all kinds of exciting features. Unfortunately, the first Zune only used the wireless to send songs to other Zune devices. There were several problems with this. If you could find another person with a Zune (unlikely), the tracks were time-bombed and could only be listened to 3 times in 3 days.

The Zune also included an FM tuner, something that seemed somewhat worthless at the time. Even today, there is no iPod model that offers an on-board FM tuner.

Needless to say, the first Zune was a flop. The Apple fans enjoyed ridiculing Microsoft for their failure. It was obvious that the device and supporting software were quickly cobbled together and released before it was ready. In fact, some reports said that Microsoft’s Zune came together from idea to product in just 10 months. Many felt that Microsoft was losing too much money on Zune and would soon give up on the project.

Instead, Microsoft kept fighting. One year after the original Zune release, Microsoft released a new Zune. This device, designed and built from the ground up by Microsoft, was much thinner, featured touchpad navigation, and 80 GB of storage. Microsoft also released smaller, flash-based players of 4GB and 8GB. The desktop software was rebuilt from the ground up and was a vast improvement over the old software. The new software is bright, lively and very easy to use.

More importantly, Microsoft’s strategy of music sharing and collaboration began to take shape. The “Social” became a way for Zune users to share their music tastes with others. Zune users could place a “Zune Card” in their Facebook or MySpace page showing others what they’ve been listening to.

Also, Microsoft began offering video content on the Zune Marketplace, including NBC shows, which had disappeared from iTunes. The 2.0 version of the Zune finally introduced native podcast support.

Another six months later, Zune introduced the ability to “subscribe” to friends. My friend John has a Zune, and I can subscribe to John, which means I can see what he’s been listening to and, using my Zune Pass subscription, his favorite songs could be automatically downloaded to my Zune.

The wireless capability of the Zune device was finally put to good use in the 2.0 version of the hardware. The device can now sync to the PC wirelessly, without the need to dock the device.

With the new, thinner large capacity device and the flash-based device, Microsoft started making some inroads in the DMP market. Of course, Apple still dominates, but Microsoft is showing that the Zune is indeed a long term project for them.

Meanwhile, Apple made a big splash with its iPhone/iPod Touch devices. The Touch also includes wireless networking, and Apple put it to good use by allowing users to shop and buy songs from iTunes right on the device. But at as much as $500 for the 32GB version, the Touch was still overpriced for many folks.

Now, in the fall of 2008, the crossroads may finally be nearing. No, Zune isn’t anywhere close to the iPod in terms of market share, but in terms of features and capabilities, the Zune may be poised to surpass the iPod/iTunes dynasty.

On Monday, Microsoft officially announced its new Zune devices and software updates. Microsoft will offer a 120GB hard disk device, as well as a new blue 16GB flash device. The device itself is largely unchanged other than some cosmetic differences.

The big news on the Zune front is the software updates.

The wireless capability is now expanded to allow the device to connect to wireless hot spots, not just your home network for syncing purposes.

A few of the features that are differentiating the Zune include Buy from FM, and Buy from the Cloud.
Remember that Zune offers a subscription that allows for unlimited downloads for a flat monthly fee when you consider these features.

That FM tuner is finally going to get some good use. When listening to the FM tuner on your Zune (and connected to a Wi-Fi hot spot), you can simply click the Zune Pad to find and download whatever song you happen to be hearing on the radio. If you aren’t connected at the time, the song will be queued up so that you can download the song the next time you connect to the Zune Marketplace.

You will also be able to connect to the Zune Marketplace directly on the Zune device. You can browse the current top songs and albums, or search for a song, album or artist using the on-screen keypad. When you find a song you want, you can either download it directly to your Zune, or stream the song to listen to it without adding it to your collection.

These two features, combined with the Zune Pass subscription, make the Zune a powerful music finding device.

Zune 3.0 will also introduce even more features to allow for sharing of music with your friends. The Zune will feature Channels – playlists developed by the music editors at Zune tailored to your musical taste – as well as dynamic playlists that are generated and downloaded automatically based on your (or your friends’) listening habits.

All of these new features were announced by Microsoft on Monday in a simple press release. No big event or hype. The new software will be available for download on Sept. 16.

On Tuesday, Steve Jobs put on a grand event to announce the new features and hardware for iPod. For many, the announcement was a bit of a let down.

The rumored iTunes subscription was just that: a rumor. iTunes will now feature a “Genius” that can build dynamic playlists like the Zune. The iPod Nano’s new form is back to its old form, but will include accelerometers to automatically transition from portrait to landscape, as well as a “shake to shuffle” feature. There will be a new 120GB iPod Classic, and the Touch will be available at a lower price. Apple and NBC made up, and NBC shows will again be available on iTunes as well as Zune.

So Tuesday’s iPod announcements didn’t quite deliver the goods that some were hoping for.

While Apple is doing enough to stay on top of the market, could it be that Microsoft is doing enough to gain on the leader?

Monday, September 01, 2008

Bump, Set, Dance!

My daughter is a volleyball player.

She’s also a dancer and a cheerleader. She’s 12, so she’s just coming into her own, starting to become the woman that she will eventually be.

She’s tried a lot of things over the years. She’s played softball, but has given that up (she was hitting better than her brother), she tried basketball but didn’t like that (it didn’t help that she was on a pretty bad team. I mean, I know these youth sports are to have fun and learn the game and all, but you can only take losing for so long.)

She’s danced since she was in kindergarten, with the exception of one year when she tried gymnastics. Now when I watch her in practice and at her recitals, I think she’s one of the best dancers out there. (It could be just fatherly pride, but really… she’s great!)

But now volleyball’s her thing. She played on a rec team a few years ago, and they did okay. Then last year she played in a different league that was a little more competitive. After the season, her coach asked her to play on a competitive team this fall.

She’s small, so she doesn’t fly up to the net like Kerry Walsh. But she is quick and can bump and set accurately. This new team just started practice, and games will begin soon. It will be fun to watch her develop, and to see if perhaps volleyball will be the sport she latches onto throughout high school.

Of course, if she decides not to play sports, that’s fine too. She’s a great girl who does really well in her classes, seems to get along with everybody, and who is generally happy. I’m sure she’ll be successful no matter what she does.

But seeing her on the dance floor or volleyball court is so fun for me as a dad. She’s living a very active and well-rounded life, and I think she will be all the better for it.

At least, I hope so.

Are Those Things Real???

This weekend, our kids were at the lake with their cousins, so Denise and I had some time to ourselves. Besides trying to figure out what to do with ourselves (it’s amazing how unbusy a busy schedule becomes when the kids are gone), we decided to go visit the Bodies Revealed exhibit. The exhibit has been at Kansas City’s Union Station all summer, and this was our last chance to see it.

If you aren’t familiar with Bodies Revealed, it is an exhibit of real human bodies on display. They are “unclaimed” Chinese bodies that have been “plasticized” to preserve them. The display is meant to be an educational experience to learn about our bodies.

Of course, an exhibition like this is sure to attract controversy, and it (along with others like it) certainly have. A quick check of Wikipedia shows several references to those opposing the display. There is some question about where the bodies really came from. Some speculate that they may be the bodies of executed Chinese prisoners.

For us, we were more curious than anything. We’ve heard about it, thought it would be interested, and since we had nothing else to do, we decided to go.

The tickets were $24 each, not cheap by any means. We had to wait about an hour and a half before we could enter, as they try to control the crowds going into the display. Once we were finally allowed to enter, it wasn’t long before we were ready to leave.

It’s not that we found it offensive or morbid or disgusting. We were just… bored. The first room showed us a skeleton, muscles and some bones. Then we saw the spinal cord and the nervous system. We then got to see the lungs and heart. The next room taught us a little too much about the reproductive system. A “special” room was next with a sign that allowed us to skip it if we felt it was necessary. This room showed us how babies develop. There were several fetuses at various stages of life, as well as the body of a pregnant woman with her womb cut open so we could see the baby inside.

Sprinkled around the exhibit were bodies arranged in various poses. One was throwing a baseball, another swinging a bat. There were a few bodies that were sliced like a ham and encased in plastic.

We zipped through it in about a half hour. We came out just feeling a little, disappointed I think. The bodies just didn’t really look real. I’m not sure if I just don’t have enough compassion to feel bad for these people who are on display, or if I don’t have the morals to be offended by the idea of a company profiting on the public gawking a dead people. It was just… ho hum for us.

We certainly could have found something better to do with that $48.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Me and Bruce

I saw my first Bruce Springsteen concert Sunday night.

I’ve never really been a big fan of Springsteen. I’m 41, so I was in my prime music-taste-defining phase of my life when Springsteen was becoming popular – the late 70’s.

Over the years, I came to know the hits like everybody else. I know most of the words to “Born to Run,” if only through osmosis.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself re-evaluating my opinion on not just Springsteen, but several artists. I recall driving home from work one day, and “Badlands” came on the radio. It’s a song I was aware of, but I never really paid much attention to it or any other Springsteen song. This time however, the song caught my ear. From that one song, I started paying more attention to Springsteen’s music.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at the concert. After reading about this shows and talking with others, I figured it would go down like this: Bruce will come out, probably late, he will sing a bunch of songs I’ve never heard before, and I’ll walk away thinking that it was a great show.

My wife and I arrived with our friends at the Sprint Center around 6:00. We enjoyed a few beverages, a little food, and made our way to our seats. We were seated by 7:30 (the time printed on the ticket), and ready for the show.

I looked around and noticed that at least 1/3 of the arena was empty. Lots of folks were taking their time arriving. The minutes ticked away. 7:45, 8:00, 8:15. I wasn’t bothered by it. We enjoyed chatting with the folks around us. We took turns going out for bathroom/drink breaks and to buy t-shirts. Finally, at 8:50, the lights went down.

Springsteen emerged, walked up the microphone and announced, “Hello fine citizens of Kansas City!” He then launched into a song called “Ricky Wants a Man of her Own.” All of us looked around with a puzzled, “what is this song?” look on our faces. It didn’t matter. Everybody was just thrilled to see him. Later, we would learn that “Ricky” is a song that Bruce may have never played in public before.

Two hours later, Bruce must have been exhausted. He puts every ounce of his energy into these shows. He’d sung 21 songs, danced around the stage, mugged for the cameras, retrieved signs from the crowd and picked a few requests from them. Then he launched into “Badlands.” This was the capper for me. The song that brought me back to Springsteen after so many years.

He played it with all his heart, and allowed the crowd to convince him to extend the song with a sing-along. After the song, Bruce and the band took their bows and left the stage. About three minutes later (the shortest pre-encore break I’ve ever seen), they re-emerged for an unforgettable encore.

Seven more songs came. First, the ballad “Fourth of July (Sandy),” which allowed everybody to catch their breath. They were rocked back to their feet with “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” Suddenly, the house lights went up for “Born to Run” and “Rosalita.”

The crowd was about to explode. The lights went back down, and Bruce kept going. Next came his Irish-influenced “American Land” followed by “Dancing in the Dark.”

Just when we thought he was through, Bruce grabbed another guitar and launched into CCR’s “Rockin’ All Over the World.”

Finally, the band took their final bows and headed back stage.

It was after midnight when we left the arena.

It was a great night. Springsteen really does know how to put on a show. Even at nearly 60, he has more energy and is in much better shape than I, nearly 20 years his junior.

I’m not sure I’ll become one of those die-heard Springsteen fans, but I am glad that I had the opportunity to experience this concert. The E Street Band may never play together again. But I saw them.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Youth Sports

My son’s a baseball player.

He’s entering high school now, and he still has the passion and desire to play baseball. He started playing ball when he was 4, so he’s been playing baseball for 11 years. He’s not very big or strong, but he is fast and he has good hands and a strong arm. And he has a love for the game.

I didn’t play baseball growing up. In fact, I never really played any sports. I’m not sure why. I guess I wasn’t really exposed to sports early on, so I never developed that competitive drive that so many athletes seem to possess.

I remember trying basketball once. I guess it was for some YMCA league or something. I don’t know if I ever played any games. All I can remember from basketball is the one time that a pass was thrown to me while I wasn’t looking. I turned my head just in time for the ball to smack me right in the face. I never played basketball again.

When I was older – maybe 12 or 13 – I played a season of baseball. We were called Medallion Auto Sound. Our uniforms were sort of a powder blue / gray color with red pinstripes. Awful.

I played right field. I remember standing out there hoping that they don’t hit a ball my way. One time, I was standing out there, and I remember a car accident catching my attention. I was standing in right field looking over in the parking lot as these folks argued over whose fault the wreck was when a ball was hit out my way. I remember being perturbed that this stupid batter would disrupt my argument watching like that.

When I hit, I typically would just stand there hoping for a walk. Yeah, I was that kind of player. I did walk one time, and the pitcher threw over to first. I got back to the base safely, but when I got up off the ground, I took my hand off the base and the first baseman tagged me out. Fortunately, the umpire felt sorry for me and let me stay at first. Needless to say, this wasn’t a very competitive baseball league.

We won one game that season. It was a forfeit.

As I got older, I started wondering why I never played sports. I was a fairly athletic kid. Skinny, quick. In high school, I decided I should at least try something. I told the basketball coach that I wanted to try out for basketball. He looked me up and down and asked if I’d ever played basketball before. “Um, well, yeah, kinda, well, no, not really.” He just said “Okay” and walked away. I never tried out.

I went out for track. That’s a good sport. Nobody gets cut from track. I remember running a relay during a meet one afternoon. I had the baton and I was running as fast as I could. As I approached my partner, I reached as far as I could to hand the baton to him. I reached too far, however, and I took a tumble to the blacktop track surface. I landed on my elbow and my hip, scraping the skin off. I laid for a while trying to figure out what had just happened, when the coach finally looked down at me and said, “You better get up, they’re coming back around.”

I was at least 16, because I remember pulling myself up off the track, walking slowly to my car, and driving home.

I never played any sport again.

So, as a father, I definitely wanted my children to participate in sports. As an adult, I see sports a big part of my life that I missed out on. I regret not putting more effort into sports as a kid, and I wanted my kids to have that experience.

My son tried soccer first, but hated it (thankfully). He played tee-ball when he was four, and never looked back. It’s been fun.

We’ve watched him play for many different teams and coaches. He’s played just about every position on the field. He’s gone through slumps. He’s hit homeruns. He’s struck out way too many times. But he’s always played. He’s played hard, and he’s never complained.

We’ve watched him play on chilly March afternoons, blazing July days, freezing October nights.

As he’s gotten older, I’ve always wondered if he’d get tired of playing ball, and would decide not to try baseball in high school. He started high school yesterday, and he still wants to play baseball.

He says he will work hard this winter to get better for spring tryouts. He will need to work hard. There are some very good baseball players in his class. But he’s determined to make this team.

I’m proud of him, and I’m glad he’s getting to experience things that I missed out on.

And even if he doesn’t make the baseball team, I still feel comfortable knowing he’s one of the best basketball players in his class. He’s never let a pass hit him in the face.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Made in China

I recently purchased a DVD player for my SUV. (That’s right – I don’t care about the environment or gas prices. I still need a big vehicle to carry my family and all our stuff.)

The DVD player was installed, and I got my truck back a few days ago. When the wireless headphones weren’t working quite the way they should, I decided to consult the owner’s manual to see if there were any tips for making them work better.

It wasn’t long before I realized that the manual was written, no doubt, by a Chinese person with very little knowledge of English.

So, for your enjoyment today, here are some nuggets from the manual.

• Installation
o Disassemble the metal support bracket from the unit by loosing four screws…
o Take extra care to unbroken the ceilling of the vehicle.
• Simple trouble shooting with reasons
o The audio sets are setuped in wrong way.
o Electric wire conjunction inaccuracy: check connects the lines
o The CD has already pack into but no surd sound
o The disc put the anti;
o The disc become soiled or row to harm seriously
o Because of the vibration but the emergence jump the sound phenomenon
o Install unsteady settle: (use the gearing parts to pack this machine firm)
o Have noing vibration to also appear to jump the sound phonemenon

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Trying to Understand...

I read today that the CEO’s of the world’s largest oil companies are on Capitol Hill being harassed by lawmakers.

I’m curious why Washington thinks it’s a good idea to penalize the oil companies. In this so-call democratic and capitalistic society, it seems more and more that the most successful people and companies are being punished.

Of course, I don’t look at the oil companies as innocent victims, but I certainly don’t agree that they are the evil villains that Diane Feinstein makes them out to be.

When you hear that Exxon made $10 billion in profit in the first quarter, you think, “Wow! That’s a huge profit!” It is. But how much is the profit margin?

Think about it. How much money does Exxon have to spend to build an oil platform in the middle of the ocean? How much money does Exxon have to spend to build an oil refinery? How much money does Exxon have to spend to explore for new sources of not only oil but other energy sources? How much money does Exxon have to spend to turn a barrel of crude into gasoline? How much money does Exxon have to spend to ship that gasoline to the gas station on your corner? How much money does Exxon have to spend to maintain their gas pumps?

$10 billion in profit is huge, but so are the expenses. The profit margin for Exxon is somewhere around 10%. What is the margin for companies like McDonalds, Microsoft, etc.

Why isn’t congress interested in penalizing McDonalds? They say that the oil companies directly affect the American people. Doesn’t McDonalds?

Look, I’m not interested in penalizing any company. In the United States, successful companies should be rewarded for their success. Those huge companies provide thousands of jobs, and fund the retirement accounts of millions of people.

But let’s not villianize these oil companies. They do not set the price of oil. The price of gas is high, no doubt. But we live in a free market. Supply, demand, the cost of producing the product, and taxes dictate the price of gas.

Instead of slapping the hands of a few CEO’s, why doesn’t Congress address the real problem? Why aren’t they exploring ways to either increase supply (let us explore in our own country) or decrease demand (help fund technologies to reduce our need for oil).

The price of milk is also increasing, and yet I haven’t heard of any cries to penalize the dairy farmers.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I Love Free Stuff

I'm share Royals season tickets with a group of folks. A friend of ours buys the entire season, and then we get together and have a ticket draft to divvy them up.

This draft has always been a rather manual, tedious task. This year, I decided to try to automate it. To build a program to manage the draft, I downloaded Microsoft's Visual Basic Express.

Visual Basic Express is one of several free (yes, FREE!) Visual Studio products that Microsoft offers.

I used VB Express to build a simple draft management program. It was easy, and dare I say, fun. I was a .NET developer for a lot of years, and I must say that this VB Express works almost identical to the full blown Visual Studio product. It's a great way to allow hobbyists (or poor guys like me) to do development in a world class development tool for free.

Also available is C#, C++, and a web development tool. SQL Server 2005 Express is also available if you want a back end database for your application.

These Express tools are great! Get 'em here: Express Site

Monday, March 10, 2008

Surprise is my favorite place on planet earth

Late last night (this morning actually), my son Joey and I returned home from our annual trek to Arizona to enjoy some warm weather and Cactus League baseball. My brother Harry also came and as usual, we met Dan Fox in the desert. My buddy Bill and his son Matt also joined us this year.

We arrived bright and early Friday morning and drove straight to the Surprise Recreation Campus where the Royals and Rangers train. We wandered around the practice fields, and watched as the Royals and Rangers played a “B” game on Field 1. The “B” game in spring training is interesting. The innings aren’t always 3 outs, as evidenced by Luke Hochevar’s inning where he allowed 2 walks and a hit, but got out of the inning when he hit his pitch count. We also saw a couple of 4 out innings. The “B” game featured some up and coming players like Billy Butler and Justin Huber (who isn’t really up or coming).

On Field 2, the other major leaguers did some bunting and fielding drills, and then took batting practice.

After a bit, we moved on up to the minor league fields where all four fields were filled with young players all trying to make an impression. We watched them work on several drills for a while and tried to grab some home run baseballs during batting practice.

We eventually made our way into Surprise Stadium where the Royals were about to take on the Colorado Rockies. I’ve always enjoyed watching games at Surprise. The stadium is small and comfortable, and they always have some great food. On this day, I decided to try the barbeque brisket sandwich. I’m not sure how much shredded beef the vendor put on my bun, but as I stood there holding the sandwich during the national anthem, it felt like a good 2 pounds.

The game finally got started and I eventually finished my sandwich. Brian Bannister started for the Royals. In what soon became the theme for our visit there, the Royals pitching was awful. The Rockies won the game 7-10.

After the Royals game, we found our hotel and then ventured downtown to take in a Suns-Jazz game. It’s been years since I’ve been to an NBA game, and while it was enjoyable, I must admit that I got tired of seeing the same play over and over. (Player A takes the ball, dribbles down the court, cuts through the lane and lays it up for 2. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Where’s the defense?). Even from the rafters where we were, it was easy to see that Shaq is a very large man. We all noticed how he seemed to take about every other play off. I guess it’s just too much work to run up and down that court so much. The Suns fell apart in the fourth quarter and ended up losing the game.

By the time the basketball game was over, we were beat. We had gotten up around 4:00am KC time to make our flight, and it was now close to midnight KC time (about 11:00pm in Phoenix). The hotel bed was nice!

On Saturday, the Royals played the Brewers at Maryvale Baseball Park. We drove over to Maryvale at around 10:00am and enjoyed watching the various Brewers players warm up and take BP. The Maryvale complex is much more accessible than Surprise. We could stand within feet of Ben Sheets as he threw off a mound, with no fence between us. That’s a little harder to do in Surprise.

Lucky us: it was Reggie Weeks bobble head day in Maryvale. We made off with a 2007 bobble head doll, which we assume were leftovers from a giveaway last summer in Milwaukee. This time, I enjoyed traditional fare – hot dog and nachos – and again the Royals got beat. This time, it was John Bale who took much of the abuse.

After our busy day Friday, it was nice to just relax at the hotel Saturday night. The boys did some swimming and Bill and I chilled by the pool.

On Sunday morning, we headed back to Surprise. We watched the major leaguers for a while, and then went up to the other fields to watch the minor leaguers. They were struggling with the pop-up drill. The coach would launch a baseball straight up from a pitching machine. With a moderate breeze, the players had all kinds of trouble judging the ball, and struggled with having the correct player move to position, call for the ball, and make the catch. It was really quite comical.

My son Joey, who had been trying to get a player’s bat all weekend, stood by and watched as the minor leaguers took batting practice. When he saw first round draft pick Mike Moustakas break his bat, he moved in. He asked for the bat, and was rewarded. He was thrilled.

After watching practice, we moved over to the stadium where the Cubs and all of their fans were visiting. The stadium was as full as I’ve ever seen it in my 5 years of visiting Surprise. Those Cubs faithful were happy: the Royals stunk it up again and lost 13-1. Trey Hillman started what projects to be his regular lineup, including free agent acquisition Jose Guillen, but the results were poor. Bad pitching (the Cubs racked up 21 hits), bad defense (2 Royals errors plus a few others that should have been errors) and bad offense (2 hits). By the end of this one, we were ready to head home.

We stopped by Target to get some bubble wrap so we could check Joey’s bat, then headed to the airport.

In all, it was a great trip. The Royals were awful, but we enjoyed the sunshine and warm weather. It was also great to see my old friend Dan Fox again, and engage in some sabermetric conversations, most of which eventually ended up going over my head.

We can’t wait to get back to the valley of the sun next spring.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Royals: Looking ahead to 2008

Spring is in the air.

Okay, it’s about 10 degrees outside, but still… The Royals officially report to Surprise, AZ tomorrow, which always gets me excited for the coming warmer months.

In just a couple of weeks, I will be heading out to Arizona, along with my brother and son, to get some sun and to fill my lungs with warm, desert air. As spring approaches, I have a few thoughts about the upcoming baseball season.

Over the last two off seasons, the Royals have been ready to spend money on free agents. Unfortunately, there haven’t been too many players available that fit the Royals’ needs.

Last year’s big signing, Gil Meche, turned out to be a valuable asset to the rotation. This year, the Royals were focused on acquiring offense. I heard an interview in which GM Dayton Moore admitted that they Royals wanted to sign both Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones. When they failed to sign either player, they settled on Jose Guillen.

Try to imagine the Royals with both Hunter and Jones along with DeJesus in the outfield. That would allow Teahen to move to first, and would have made the Royals a potentially great offensive team.

Instead, Guillen will take his spot in the cleanup role and will occupy right field while Teahen will move to left.

Young slugger Billy Butler will compete for a job at first, but most likely he will spend more time as a DH. Ross Gload and Ryan Shealy will probably share time at first.

Most of the other position players will remain the same. Look for Alex Gordon to blossom in his sophomore season. Tony Pena, Jr. will return to his short stop position, and is becoming somewhat of a clubhouse leader. Grudz returns for probably his final season at second, with newly acquired Alberto Callapso as the utility infielder and second baseman in waiting.

The catcher position is a curious one. John Buck is struggling to come into his own, and this year he will be competing with Miguel Olivo for playing time. Both Buck and Olivo are similar players, so I’m not sure what Moore is thinking.

The first three rotation spots are pretty much set, with Gil Meche, Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke. Bannister had a great rookie season in 2007, and hopes to continue his success in ’08. Greinke is emerging from his personal problems and showed last year that he is potentially ready to take on a more prominent role in the rotation.

Fighting for the other slots are a myriad of pitchers. Mike Moroth, Jose DeLaRosa, Brett Tomko, Hideo Nomo, John Bale, and others will be fighting it out this spring. Jimmy Gobble returns as a solid middle reliever, and Joakim Soria slides into the closer role.

Another newcomer this year is manger Trey Hillman. Hillman joins the Royals after managing in Japan for the last five seasons. Hillman’s signing is really the crown jewel for the Royals’ off season. Hillman is a well-regarded manager who was being courted by several other teams, including the Yankees. Hillman promises to bring a new level of fundamentals and a “pitching and defense” attitude to the Royals.

Lifetime Royal Mike Sweeney was not brought back, and Sweeney signed a minor league contract with the Oakland A’s. As a Sweeney fan, I certainly hope he can provide the A’s with a solid bat off the bench or as a DH this season, so he can finish his career on an up note.

Also exciting and new this season will be Kauffman Stadium. The “K” is well into a major renovation, and fans will experience both the excitement and pain of that renovation this season. Work will continue throughout the season, with quitting time set at 3 ½ hours prior to game time. This will allow a cleaning crew to sweep up the dust prior to each game. There will be temporary restrooms and concession stands in some areas of the stadium. The new video board will be operational. This new scoreboard replaces the famous crown scoreboard, and will be much larger than the old board. This huge high definition scoreboard will be the highlight of the new “K,” though the crown atop the scoreboard will not be installed until the 2009 season.

While it’s pretty certain that the Royals will not compete for the division title in 2008, there are signs of improvement. The Royals finished 69-93 in 2007, and I expect around a 10-15 game improvement in 2008, for a third place finish behind the Tigers and Indians.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

It's the Economy, Stupid!

I was watching the Today Show this morning, and I noticed a recurring theme from the sound bytes from our illustrious presidential candidates. They kept talking about the poor souls who “live paycheck to paycheck” and those where are victims of “predatory lenders.” It made my think to myself, what about responsibility?

I mean, these candidates are telling us that they will take care of us. But why do we need taken care of? Because we have been stupid.

Why would somebody be living paycheck to paycheck? Sure, there are legitimate folks who have had a string of bad luck who need assistance. But for the majority of folks, they simply spent more than they make. It seems to be how our society is groomed.

What if the majority of people had 3-6 months of living expenses tucked away in an Emergency Fund? And what if people avoided debt and actually paid for things.

If they have a crisis like a lay-off, instead of repossessions and foreclosures, we’d be discussing strategies for a new job or career. And, we wouldn't be asking Hillary or Barack for help.

Which brings me to Ron Paul.

Let me just say first, that I am not endorsing one candidate over another, and I do not yet know who I will vote for in this upcoming election.

But after hearing this talk about all of these “victims” (true, victims of their on irresponsibility), I happened to hear an interview with Ron Paul on the radio during my commute.

Amazingly, he said what I had been thinking. The problem doesn’t require spending more money to help people (for instance, an $800 tax “refund”), but rather a change in behavior. The Fed needs to stop cutting interest rates. That is only a temporary band-aid that, in the long run, weakens the dollar and encourages more borrowing and consumption.

Instead, the government should be encouraging saving and spending less that you make.

I’m not smart enough to completely understand all that Mr. Paul was saying, and I’m certainly not smart enough to repeat everything here. But, let me just say that he is the first candidate who made sense when it comes to the economy.

The government spends too much money, and so do its citizens. Let’s learn to save for a rainy day, and stop charging our coffees. Let’s take responsibility for our own stupid actions, including agreeing to take out risky loans.

Seems like we could use a good dose of grandma’s common sense right now.