Mar 27, 2010

Scenes from the 2010 Millis Utah Retreat

Mark your calendars to join us next year at the 2011 edition; March 19-26 in Salt Lake City.

Here is the view from Alta Mountain; Tuesday afternoon:

A shot from Snowbird; Wednesday afternoon:

Best seats in the house; Jazz vs Celtics Monday night:

Polygamy Porter: Official beer of the Millis Retreat:

Conference lunch break; Thursday afternoon:

Mar 18, 2010

RIP Alex Chilton

"Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane -- ain't got time for no fast train"

I'l bet most of you loyal readers recognize that opening line from the hit oldie tuneThe Letter by 60s popsters Box Tops. We've all been there when lead singer Alex Chilton sings: "cus my baby, she wrote me a letter."

As a little kid, that band was one of my early favorites, along with the Young Rascals and Paul Revere & the Raiders. A couple hits more out of the group was all they had left in the tank as their brand of Top 40 gave way to the more bluesy FM staples of the early 70s.

Chilton, being a Tennessee lad, went on to dig into his twangy-twang roots and formed Big Star, which could be called a cross between the Gram Parsons-era Byrds and the Beatles. Now,99% of you never heard of Big Star, but for that remaining 1%, Big Star was the proverbial gem. Some have referred to them as the ultimate US cult band. I'm not sure of that, but they were certanly a listenable act that deserved more recognition than some of their lesser talented cosmic country brothers of that same timeframe. Yeas, I'm talking about you, Eagles, Pure Prarie League and Poco!

Here's a sample.

Mr Chilton left this earth yesterday. But let it be noted that he was right there 'til then end; coming up just three days short of a scheduled gig at South x SouthWest.

The price is right for apps

Today's mid-day recap of my personal software / application usage:

* Browser = Mozilla Firefox
* Mail Client = Mozilla Thunderbird
* Word Processor = Open Office
* Spreadsheet = Open Office
* Web Editor = KompoZer
* Website Content Management System = Joomla
* Web Traffic Analysis = Google and Stat Counter

What do all of these app's have in common? They are all free, with most of them part of the Open Source movement. Total cost for the whole shebang: $Zip. Interesting, huh? Yes, it's all legit, too

But I'm not 100% pure yet: still not brave enough to dump this Win 7 O/S for Linux Desktop.

Mar 13, 2010

Quote of the Day

Here's a great quote, popularly attributed to '80 Olympics hockey coach Herb Brooks:

"You're getting dumber every day, and today you're three months ahead of schedule!"

Who can this be directed to in YOUR life? Use it well.

Mar 12, 2010

Diary of a lonely horse racing fan

With Saratoga's racing now at risk, does anyone REALLY care?

Although it was decades ago, I recall my very first visit as a young boy to the race track in Saratoga. My father took a weekday afternoon off from work, picked me up from the front porch where I had been waiting in eager anticipation and off to “the bank on Union Avenue” we went.

As a precursor to my permanent future, I went right to work, handing over my hard earned two dollars for a show bet on the first race; a mile long affair from the old Wilson chute and on a CV Whitney runner. I know this level of detail today because I still have the program from that day. And yes, it was a $2.80 winner.

I was hooked. August became the highlight of my year, and the racing form became my summer reading. When I got a bit older, my friends and I would ride over to the action ourselves, dropping our bicycles along the Oklahoma track fence (no lock needed) and sneaking through a gap in the iron fence at the top of the stretch as a way of funding an extra wager. Ah, the benefits of being a skinny little junior high school runt.

Before heading over each day, I'd stop by my grandfather's house. Born in 1900, here was a guy who came of age at just the time where he witnessed the early heroes of the sport, long claiming that if the photographer had used a slightly wider angle, the famous photo of Man O War losing to Upset would have included a 19-year old lad in the infield that was none other than him. He followed the local meet right up to the last day of his life, and I'd run his $2 daily double wager over with me. His 'tip' to me for that valued service was to underwrite my own similar investment.

Most of my buddies were in the same boat, having inherited this love for the sport of kings in the same manner; from the prior generation or two. We could all read the Form by the time we hit double digits, and a copy of such would often make its way around study hall on any given day, even during the off season. Come high school, we'd gather daily, thirty to fifty at a time, at that part of the grandstand where the original section meets the 60's addition, back when they permitted such a gathering in the aisle way. One needn't bother even finding someone to go to the track with; you just showed up and found them all there.

Together, we witnessed our own versions of Man O War. I recall Secretariat's Hopeful, when the huge chestnut, his coat glistening in the sun, swallowed up Stop the Music on the far turn and my friend Stevie Boy tossing his as good-as-dead ticket into the air in front of me, saying “I just lost my last $2 , but I think I lost it to the next Derby winner.” He was right, of course.

The next year, Secretariat returned as the conquering savior of the sport, having won the Triple Crown during the interim, in breathtaking fashion. The Whitney was marked as his prep for the Travers, and he was matched up against a field of seemingly over-matched high level allowance horses. But one of those was a horse named Onion, who by fluke was a family favorite because of his gutty reputation as a hard knocking sprinter that had rewarded our backing in past years. My mother sent a bet over on our old friend from her Broadway workplace, and lo and behold, she was one of the few that can honestly say “I beat Secretariat with Onion” – although she was disappointed that she only got 9/2 on him.

Summer jobs and that eventual scattering to all points called college started the long process of dimming the old gang's enthusiasm to a more reasonable level. As the majority of us moved away from the hometown, we realized that Saratoga is a very unique island; a fluke of a place where people actually care deeply about this old relic of an activity called horse racing. The rest of the world certainly doesn't.

Whereas in the first half of the 20th century, the Big Three sports in America were baseball, boxing and horse racing, the latter two are today nothing more than niche sports, with racing now ranking alongside bull riding, skiing or judo in general popularity. Certainly, part of that is due to the disconnect between the average American and the equine species; after all, how many of us have a horse in the barn out back? Plus, the gambling monopoly once afforded to racing is now gone and the new competitive environment is having the expected negative consequences.

Horse racing is in trouble; on the verge of irrelevance. If not for its ability to generate cash flow into state treasuries, there might not be more than a dozen operating tracks in the nation. New York horse racing is in DEEP trouble, for reasons that have been exhausted in previous columns here on this forum. The Saratoga meet --- the crown jewel of NYRA's three-track / year-round circus --- is even now part of the panic, with some observers raising the prospect of the '10 +/or '11 meets being endangered. The effects of such a turn of events on the local and regional economies can be summarized in one word: disastrous. Now is the time to put all hands on deck, to unite the local forces in an effort to prevent such a calamity.

Certainly, we see local officials rallying to the cause and mobilizing certain forces. Other vested parties – local business groups, real estate interests, tourist bureaus – are pressing the flesh and making the case. All of this is worthy, all of it is necessary.

But missing from the equation is passion. It's one thing to be rallying around a breadbasket issue, it's another to be rallying around an issue that is felt from the heart. To a certain degree that passion is absent from the modern day Saratoga Springs collective body. When one does not have the long family and social ties to something – the way in which I described my own connection to this particular matter – can one be truly passionate about a cause? And if one is not passionate about it, is the fight itself winnable?

The dynamics of today's Saratoga is dominated by fresh blood; newcomers to the community that have chosen to live there as opposed to being born into it. But precious few know the rich and glorious history of the sport of horse racing, or even of the local race course. They're certainly not alone: 98% of the nation doesn't! There is no legacy of childhood memories, family ties or personal experience involved as there would have been for someone that grew up here as a multi-generation resident like myself or my old (and absent) pals.

This hit home the other day, when I was dining with a small goup of people, all of whom have a keen interest in local city affairs. When the topic at hand was brought up, it became apparent to me that these good people knew precious little about the sport, the industry or that local history. None made more than a token visit to the track annually; none ever attended a race at an out of town facility. When I (politely and strategically) brought this fact to the table, I even became brave enough to ask if any of the group could name a single winner of the Travers Stakes? None could.

More troubling was a subtle, yet unspoken and underlying vibe that I got from my more recent fellow Spa City residents: a negative opinion of the sport itself. Comments were made that included such phrases as “animal cruelty,” “problem gambling,” “negative social effects on families” and “backstretch undesirables.” Yes, even the PETA name was even brought up, with one lady telling of of both her organizational support and its stance on racing (the goal: to ban it).

Unfortunately, I don't think that this small sample of “new Saratogians” is an aberration of the whole community's mindset. Conversely, I fear that it might be the new norm. That is troubling, given the current plight and the need for action. So here we are, needing to go to battle but with draftees not quite understanding what the war is all about.

It has long been suggested that the horse racing industry needs to better market itself, to engage in outreach programs that draw new fans into the game. The fact that such an effort may now have to include many of the residents in the very town that hosts the premier racing meet in the world shows just how big a problem we now have on front of us.

Mar 11, 2010

Yesterday's train ride conversations with strangers

* Does the joy of owning a family pet offset the sorrow of losing it?

* Has New York City lost its mojo?

* Will the Yankees repeat?

* When am I bringing the Tech Valley Times back?

* Is the Tea Party a sign of an impending US civil war or just another unfortunate byproduct of mass media's Lowest Common Denominator approach to both news and entertainment?

* The Simpsons or Family Guy -- who ya got?

I didn't get much work done on the rides; but then again I never do. Talking to people is better.

Mar 10, 2010

Saratoga: the Hialeah of the North?

VLT deal looks dead; NJ looks like a contender

Today's news delivers a double whammy to the New York horse racing industry (note: yes folks, that includes Saratoga). With the equivalent of a kick to the groin followed by another to the head, here's what we now know:

1) The VLT slots deal appears to be doing a quick crash and burn, as various players within the Aqueduct Entertainment Group (the recent designee to install the machines downstate) are abandoning ship, filing deadlines have been missed and accusations of high level political corruption continue to gain steam.

2) New Jersey racing authorities announced that the Monmouth summer meet -- whcih runs concurrently with Saratoga -- will offer a guaranteed $1,000,000 in daily purses; a significant sum that quickly surpasses those at the Spa.

First, about the slots: this recent nonsense will no doubt push the process back to Point A for the 100th time, dating back to something like the 12th century (BC). This ain't good, folks, as NYRA is backed up on the ropes with wobbly legs and ready to hit the canvas.

To those that think the Saratoga meet will always remain above the fray and immune from this "downstate" mess, I offer this comparison: who would have thought that Hialeah Park in Florida (the so-called 'Saratoga of the South') would end up running quarter horse races in front of 300 people a day? These are dangerous times and these problems do not seem to be geting the deserved local attention.

My question is this: why do we need a middleman (aka racino operator) for VLT's? Case in point: Saratoga Racing & Gambling elected not to renew its operator contract with Delaware Norht, and is now self managing the VLT operation. How about we cut right to the chase, and let NYRA do the same, or pick their own partner? With heavy supervision, of course, given their track record. Any real estate development deals are treated seperately and are between the State of New York (the owner of the land) and prosepctive developers.

What am I missing? Oh yeah, I forgot: it's that $300-$600 million upfront payment the state wants from the VLT operator. How silly of me. Scratch that thought, and fast forward us back to the brink of the canyon.

Regarding New Jersey: of interest here is the strategic decision that particular state is making in its vision for the future of racing there:

* Quality over quanity: the plan calls for fewer racing dates annually, and the closure of one of the two facilities; the Meadowlands in the Rutherford swamplands. In its place is a Monmouth meet high on competition and (no doubt) bigger crowds, handle and profits.

I have already spoken with horseman that have decided to shift their tacks to Monmoth this spring. Why not, given the sorry state of New York racing? Take note, New York, and look seriously at following the same model. After all, there is nothing more depressing than Aqueduct in February.

Except for quarter horses at Hialeah.

Mar 9, 2010

SPAC ticket fee as budget cure? Let's get real and just fuggetaboutit!

Concert surcharge = voodoo economics

As the Saratoga Springs city council continues to grapple with its budget predicament, last night's public forum on the matter was primarily devoted to exploring various revenue enhancement options.

Despite the thoughtful commentary from Accounts Commissioner John Franck that such a discussion was merely skirting the real task at hand --- personnel cuts --- the audience was nonetheless offered a smorgasbord of ideas, including raising the sales tax and either instituting or establishing user fees on everything from walking one's dog to taking a daytime nap.

With paid parking seemingly off the table, an old idea has again reared its ugly head as being the end-all and cure-all to the city's money problems; hitting up the attendees of SPAC's rock concerts with a ticket surcharge. Whereas the original thinking was to add a dollar to each entry, the number used last night was $2. The logic offered for this plan is that a vast amount of city resources (mainly public safety) are dedicated to supporting these events, hence the city should be compensated for their costs.

Now, I'm not a big fan of SPAC's management nor its booking decisions of recent years. More so, I'm certainly uncomfortable aligning myself with the likes of Ticket Master and Live Nation, who have both done incredible damage to the music industry. But you can't always choose who's sitting in the seat next to you on the 6:05 to BWI, and this is one of those cases where it ain't real pretty but that's the way it's gonna roll.

At the risk of getting labeled as 'the guy who doesn't seem to like any of our bright ideas',for patching our budget mess, let's go on the record as saying that the SPAC surcharge should join paid parking in the fuggetaboutit file.

Anyone who has had the misfortune of driving past the Avenue of Pines when a SPAC concert is letting out can provide a pretty good vehicular traffic analysis. I'll take a shot here myself: 85% of the cars are tuning right, southbound onto Route 9 on their way to catch the Northway. The backside shows a similar pattern: the vast majority are turning left onto Route 50, southbound and away from the city. State DOT can surely offer input here on this observation.

Keep in mind, now, that both Routes 9 and 50 are roadways outside of the city's jurisdiction and responsibility, meaning that their maintenance is covered by the county and state. Yes, getting cars from the parking lots onto those roads is a giant mess, but how much of this traffic control is being managed (or needs to be managed) by city resources?

But back to the original point: the typical concertgoer is an out of town visitor utilizing state highways to enter a New York State park. He or she flashes an internet purchased ticket at the gate, enjoys the evening in a setting overseen by a combination citizen volunteers, paid employees, private security and EMS, NYS troopers, NYS park police and city public safety personnel. After the show, our visitor hops back in the auto and reverses the earlier path to get home safely. Any mess left behind (i.e., beer cans and paper) is disposed of the next morning by college kids with pointed sticks and trash bags.

Three questions then need to be asked:

1)What is our visitor “getting” from the city in return for this $2 surcharge now being demanded?

2)It seems here that the Parks Department is providing a greater level of service; should they now demand their own surcharge of, let's say, $6?

3)So what percentage of that multi - organization division of labor is the city's share? Those thinking that it is a major component are either mistaken or mis-led.

Further is the issue of fairness. Why is SPAC – and in particular: rock concerts at SPAC — being singled out like this? You want impact, how about the race track's impact on city services? That venue is inside the city limits, hence 100% of those daily visitors are using city streets, tying up local traffic, bumping into each other and requiring dispatched attention, leaving trash that needs to be picked up by city DPW, and on and on. If we apply this 'impact' logic, should we not be hitting up racing fans for $2 each day? How about the Chowder Heads or the First Night'ers? Where does it all begin – or end?

The SPAC experience is already a financial nightmare as it is. Let's go to the scorecard on this: those Tom Petty tickets that just went on sale sets one back $140 for the good seats. Then comes Ticketmaster's crime against humanity, otherwise known as its advance ticket convenience fees. Once there, each car is happily greeted with a $10 parking tab. Inside, pre-show socializing with friends costs dearly: $8 beers and $4 pretzels.

Now the city wants to pile on and add it's own two cents – I mean two bucks. Welcome to SPAC – and to Saratoga, folks! How's it feel?

The bottom line is this: the city PROFITS from SPAC rock concerts. Sales tax is collected from onsite transactions and those “15%” that make the left hand turn from the Avenue of Pines and into town to either continue the party or hit the hotel rooms further fill the city coffers.

Do the math – and end the greed.

Mar 3, 2010

Good decision / bad timing on parking

Well, it appears that the Paid Parking issue is dead in the water after last night's City Council session. If you read the earlier post here, you know that such a move is welcomed from this corner.

But why is this call being made at this juncture; namely AFTER the submission by four interested parties to the city's Request for Proposal? Why were these firms required to devote countless hours to the process of researching the needs and offering recommendations and bids only to have the city say "ah, never mind, we weren't really serious" after?

Plain and simple: this was not fair to those four parties. It's like promising a dog a milk bone if he shakes hands, and then tossing it in the trash after he complies.

The homework -- as in asking "OK, folks; are we in agreement and serious about going with paid parking as an option" -- should have been done before publishing the RFP's; not after.

This is but one more reason that the private sector is so frustrated with the way in which the public sector does business.