Baseball Stories

Baseball might be my fourth favorite sport, but with the playoffs in full swing (hah!), I thought I’d post a few baseball stories I’ve been saving up.

Check out this picture:

baseball
(photo via National Park Service)

After the War of 1812 – when the British notoriously burned Washington DC – President Madison had a fit of “closing the barn door after the cow escaped” and decided it might be a good idea to build a system of defensive forts on the east coast. Construction on several forts started, including, in 1829, a new fort on Cockspur Island, Georgia, between Savannah and Tybee Island.

A man named Major General Babcock was put in charge of the project, but was later replaced by second lieutenant named Robert E. Lee. (yes, THAT Robert E. Lee).  By 1833, the fort was far enough along to get a name: Fort Pulaski, in honor of Kazimierz Pulaski, a Polish soldier who fought alongside George Washington in the American Revolution.

The fort was finally completed in 1847, after 18 years of construction. It took such a long time partly because that’s how long it took to build a fort in a swamp in the 19th century. It also took a long time because the fort was made out of brick –  like, a lot of bricks, an estimated 25,000,000 bricks – and Savannah just didn’t have the infrastructure to quickly make so many damn bricks.

Then, of course, the Civil War broke out. Georgia governor Joseph Brown ordered the state militia to seize the fort, which became a Confederate stronghold. Meanwhile, Confederate military leaders thought nearby Tybee Island was too remote to be useful for anything, so troops were withdrawn from there. And thus, Union troops moved in.

One of the reasons American sharpshooters were so successful in the Revolutionary War was that they used rifles, not muskets. Both guns are basically metal tubes that one packs with explosives and a projectile (like a bullet or musket ball). You then aim the tube at an enemy and set off the explosives. This causes the projectile to travel down the tube at a high rate of speed and (hopefully) hit the enemy.

But rifles were far more accurate than muskets, and that’s because of curved ridges carved into the inner barrel of the gun. Those ridges are called rifling, and that’s why they’re called rifles. The grooves cause the projectile to spin, which greatly increases accuracy. It’s the same reason a quarterback wants to throw a football in a tight spiral rather than just heaving it down the field. Muskets, on the other hand, lack such grooves inside the barrels, which is why they’re sometimes called smooth-bore weapons. That’s also why muskets were inaccurate, like a quarterback under pressure just tossing the football away.

Although the benefits of rifled vs. smooth-bore guns were known to American military personnel as far back as the 1780s, no one had ever thought to build a cannon with a rifled barrel. Until the Civil War. Union soldiers now stationed on Tybee Island were equipped with a brand-new weapon called the James Rifled Cannon. And they unleashed it for the first time ever on Fort Pulaski.

Continue reading

Why US Networks Remake Foreign Shows

If there’s one thing I see over and over again in TV message boards, it’s this: “why does [US network] have to remake [some foreign show]? Why can’t they just air the original??”

The answer to that question is the answer to almost every question: money.

As you may know, viewership of the Big Four broadcast networks is down. Waaaay down. Part of this is due to the exploding number of TV channels. Where ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC once had viewers all to themselves, they now have to compete with USA, FX, AMC and others. Another part of it is DVRs: Neilsen counts people who watch shows within three days of it airing (called “Live Plus 3″, or L3) and those who watch it within seven days (called “Live Plus 7″, or L7). But networks only care about the L3 ratings, so if you DVR a show on Monday but watch it on Friday, you may as well not watch it at all… from a ratings perspective. And, of course, you have the younger generation, who are more likely to pass the time watching YouTube videos over network TV.

Point is, the days of the Big Four networks having a captive audience of 300 million people are long over. Networks need as many eyeballs as possible, and foreign shows don’t help. A certain percentage of Americans simply won’t watch a show where people have foreign accents, no matter how great the show might be. I don’t know what that percentage is, but even if it’s a little as 10%, that’d cripple a show out of the gate. It’s like… atheist politicians. In several surveys, 53% of Americans have said that they would have “major reservations” about voting for an atheist presidential candidate. So, a hypothetical  atheist candidate would have to win almost 100% of the remaining 47% of the vote, which is almost impossible. So you don’t see foreign shows on US networks for the same reason you don’t see a lot of atheist presidential candidates: they’re set up to lose.

Then there are cultural issues. Perhaps African-American and Hispanic viewers think a show like Downton Abbey isn’t relevant to them. But if you were to take almost exactly the same scripts, but set it in a rich American’s house… then maybe that’s something they’d watch.

And all of us, even those of us who like foreign shows, have almost certainly come across references and jokes in foreign shows that go over our heads… kind of like the Grey Poupon joke in Wayne’s World.

There were a series of commercials for Grey Poupon mustard in the 80s where a rich man in a Rolls-Royce would be eating in the back of his car, and another rich guy would pull up at a light and ask if he had any Grey Poupon, ‘cos I guess Grey Poupon is mustard for rich people:

In Wayne’s World, Wayne and his gang pull up to a stoplight in their  piece of crap car next to a Rolls-Royce and ask for Grey Poupon:

Thing is, those commercials never aired in France, so when Wayne’s World was dubbed into French, Wayne says “you… you would look good in a Fiat Uno”, parodying a then-popular series of French ads for an inexpensive car.

*     *     *

But when I said it all comes down to money, I really mean it all comes down to money.

If NBC had chosen to buy the rights to the original British version of The Office, the only money NBC could have earned would be from running commercials during the show.

If, however, NBC chose to buy the rights to remake the original (which is much cheaper than buying the rights to the finished product, by the way), then NBC could elect to have its own production company – Universal – to make the show. In this way, NBC would make money from:

– Selling commercials that run during the show.
– Off-network syndication sales.
– Foreign sales.
– Licensing to airlines and cruise ships.
– Licensing to cable companies for OnDemand viewing.
– Licensing to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.
– Selling commercials for NBC.com streaming.
– Home video sales (DVD\Blu-Ray).
– Merchandise sales.
– (Possible) licensing for spin-offs and movies.

For NBC, the difference between airing the original Office and making their own was literally a billion dollars. Plus, most British shows only have 6-8 episodes per season. Americans are used to much more than that. Despite its legendary status in the comedy world, there were only 12 episodes of the original Office (plus two specials). That’s less than single US season! When the US version turned out to be a hit, NBC was able to make 201 episodes, something they wouldn’t be able to do with the original.

I agree that many of these remakes suck. Two of my favorite shows of the 2000s – the British Life on Mars and the Australian Rake – were dismal failures as American remakes. But I’m not sure how much of that was due just to them being remade, or to them being remade by broadcast networks. If you’ve ever seen the original Rake, you know there’s way too much sex and drugs and swearing for a US network. Had HBO or Showtime – or even FX – remade it, then it could have been much, much better. And while the British Life On Mars wasn’t afraid to show people smoking and drinking to excess… like people did back in the early 70s… the US network seemed to shy away from that, lending the whole thing an inauthentic, Disneyfied air.

But really, folks… it’s just TV. The reason I posted this today was because some folks on a message board were ranting about Gracepoint, the new Fox remake of the British show Broadchurch. Yes, Broadchurch is a really great show. But it’s not some priceless, immutable cultural icon. I’m sure the British version will go down in history as the better of the two… but there’s no need to get your panties in a wad about it.

"Treason!" cried the Speaker