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Rick Moran

Rick Moran is PJ Media's Chicago editor and Blog editor at The American Thinker. He is also host of the"RINO Hour of Power" on Blog Talk Radio. His own blog is Right Wing Nut House.
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Ballplayer’s Harrowing Escape From Cuba

Monday, March 23rd, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox has to pinch himself almost every day just to make sure he isn’t dreaming. Less than two years ago, his home was Cuba where life was much different. He rode to the games in a horse drawn buggy because even with his elevated status as a player for the national team, he couldn’t afford a car.

He grew up in a small wooden house — three generations of Abreus crowded together. There was never enough to eat. His father worked 12 hour days as a construction worker. But it was not a miserable existence, as young Jose thrived within the bosom of his family.

His love for baseball was matched only by his eye-popping talent. And by the time he reached adulthood, he was tearing up the Cuban professional league and performing wondrous feats in international competitions.

It was his belief that he could make it in the Major Leagues that eventually drove him to gather most of his family together and set off in a small boat for freedom.

He doesn’t talk about the journey much. But he opened up a little to Chicago Magazine in an excellent profile:

They left in the middle of the night, entrusting their fate to a tiny boat, its two motors, and the ink-black sea. For 12 hours, they pressed on. Through darkness, then dawn, then scorching daylight. Through 15-foot waves. And through the paths of trawlers and other ships that could cut their own 20-foot vessel in two.

Six of them huddled close atop a roiling ocean under an angry sky. But it was the hulking man in the middle who held them all together. Jose Abreu led his family—his fiancée, Yusmary; his parents; his sister and her husband—in prayers as the boat bucked and kicked beneath them. “It was dangerous,” he says. “The waves were high, but the Lord was at our side. God gave us the chance to reach our destination.”

It was the most important night of Abreu’s life, but one he has never talked about publicly before. That journey in August 2013 took him from his native Cuba to Haiti and, ultimately, to Chicago and big-league baseball. After signing with the White Sox, Abreu took the majors by storm in 2014, slamming 36 home runs, hitting .317, and posting a major-league-leading .581 slugging percentage—one of the best inaugural seasons ever. He was the runaway winner of the American League Rookie of the Year Award and a contender for Most Valuable Player. Even the men who bought the defecting player’s services for a team-record $68 million were surprised. “We thought he’d do well,” says White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams. “But I’d be lying to you if I said I thought he’d end up having the year he had.”

And what a year it was. He defied the expectations of critics, while endearing himself to White Sox fans. They said his bat was too slow, that he had a bad swing, that he wasn’t good enough to play in the field. His gaudy numbers proved them wrong.

But according to Adrian Nieto, Abreu’s closest friend and teammate, all of that was in doubt during the trip across the Atlantic  to Haiti. There were several moments where Abreu feared for his life:

“Jose was scared for his life in that little boat,” says Sox backup catcher Adrian Nieto, a fellow Cuban immigrant and Abreu’s best buddy on the team. “Everybody was freaking out. At times, he was doubting himself. He had to pump himself up, saying, ‘Let’s go. You got to be the one to take charge here and be mentally strong to get everyone through this.’ He told me many times: ‘If it’s everybody’s life or mine, I’m going to make sure my parents and my sister live before I do.’ Which is crazy for someone to tell you, that they’d put someone else in front of themselves. But that’s how he is.”

Now that the rest of his family has joined him in America, Abreu is setting expectations for his on field performance even higher. But that’s what the great ones do. They expect a lot from themselves and demand it from others. Abreu is a winner, and the White Sox are hoping that attitude rubs off on the rest of the team.

He certainly proved himself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when the elements threatened tragedy. After that, hitting a curve ball must seem pretty easy.

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March Madness: The Rich Get Richer

Monday, March 23rd, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Almost all of the Sweet Sixteen teams that will square off for the chance to make the Final Four in the NCAA basketball tourney later this week are programs from major conferences — many of them legendary teams with legendary coaches.

But there are a couple of surprises. Eight seed North Carolina State bumped off top seed Villanova in the East Region. The Wildcats were the only number one seed to fall last weekend. Seventh seeded Wichita State handled #2 Kansas, #6 Xavier ended #14 Georgia State’s dreams and #7 Michigan State shocked #2 Virginia. The Spartans, coached by Tom Izzo, have made the Sweet Sixteen 13 times in the last 20 years.

The lowest seeded team left in the tournament is #11 UCLA. Given the excellence of their program over the years, this isn’t as surprising as it should be. The Bruins had several bad losses this season — including an embarrassing 83-44 shellacking by #1 Kentucky. But UCLA got lucky when #14 UAB upset #3 Iowa State in the opening round and the Bruins eked out a one point win over #6 SMU. The UAB-UCLA game was no contest and the Bruins find themselves in the top 16.

Gonzaga from the West Coast Conference and Wichita State from the Missouri Valley Conference are the only Mid-Major teams to make it through. Atlantic Coast Conference teams went 11-1 with 5 of their 6 entries remaining. The Pac-12 has three teams left, and no other conference has more than two.

What this points to is that the programs that spend the most, have the best facilities, and possess the history that attracts blue chip recruits will continue to thrive at the highest level while the rest fight over scraps.

ESPN:

The names involved read like a who’s who of the past decade — or the past several — in college basketball. Kentucky. Duke. North Carolina. Michigan State. Louisville. Arizona. Wisconsin. Gonzaga. UCLA.

The coaches are a pack of Hall of Famers: Mike Krzyzewski, he of the 1,000-plus wins. Roy Williams, now tied with Dean Smith for all-time tournament wins. Rick Pitino, unparallelled defensive genius. Bo Ryan, synonymous with death and taxes.

Mark Few, who never misses a tournament. Lon Kruger, the only man to take four different programs this deep in the tournament. Sean Miller, the best coach yet to reach the Final Four. Bob Huggins, avatar for windbreaker-clad realism.

Izzo, who is Izzo.

And then there is John Calipari. Kentucky’s coach is not only a messaging savant whose unprecedented salesmanship has netted him an unfathomable wealth of talent, but also a deft molder of parts into wholes. In five full seasons at Kentucky, Calipari has not only sent several full NBA rosters worth of talent to the next level; he has also netted three Final Fours, two national title appearances and one national title. His current team is 36-0 and chasing history. And everyone else is chasing them.

The oddsmakers are still picking Kentucky as the overwhelming favorite to come out of the East Region, and Gonzaga is a heavy favorite to come out of the South Region. Otherwise, it’s even money between Oklahoma and Louisville in the East and Arizona and Wisconsin in the West.

If there’s one game you won’t want to miss, it’s #1 Wisconsin vs. #4 North Carolina on Thursday. Wisconsin, the power team while UNC is long and tall with excellent athletes. The contrasting styles should make for a hugely entertaining game.

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‘March Madness’ is an Understatement

Friday, March 20th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

If Thursday’s opening act of the 2015 NCAA Tournament was any indication, college basketball fans better have the local ER standing by with a defibrillator. There has never been an opening round like this one in the history of the tournament — and we’re only half way through.

Two #3 seeds — Baylor and Iowa State — were dropped unceremoniously by #14′s, and a third — Notre Dame — survived by a hair. The University of Alabama-Birmingham Blazers delivered the upset against the Iowa State Cyclones while the Georgia State Panthers shocked the Baylor Bears. Those stunning results were almost repeated when the #14 Northeastern Huskies roared back from a 10 point deficit with 4 minutes to go, only to lose to the #3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish 69-64.

But it wasn’t so much the bracket-busting wins by UAB and Georgia State that made Thursday such a memorable day. ESPN’s Eamaonn Brennan explains:

If you’re like us, you were watching the NCAA tournament today — or this afternoon, or tonight, or at pretty much any point during the thrilling opening Thursday that was. Another game would come down to the nail-biting, hairpulling wire, and you’d catch your breath, check your bracket and think: Man, there were a lot of close games today. This has to be some kind of record, right?

Turns out, you were right. This was, indeed, some kind of record.

* Five games were decided by one point on Thursday, the most of any single day in NCAA tournament history. But that’s not all. Behold the mind-boggling numbers, courtesy of the yeomen at ESPN Stats & Information:

* Eleven games were decided by fewer than 10 points Thursday, tying the single-day NCAA tournament high. Only three tournament days in history matched that number, the last of which came in 2010.

* Nine games were decided by five or fewer points, tying the single-day tournament high — one dating to March 15, 2001.

* Including the five Thursday, as well as Dayton’s win over Boise State on Wednesday night, there have been six games decided by one point thus far in the 2015 NCAA tournament. The record for most games decided by one point in a single NCAA tournament is seven — total. That has happened three times (in 1982, 1990, and 1998).

Oh, and then there’s this:

The entire 2013 and 2014 NCAA tournaments — from the first round to the Final Four — featured five games decided by a single point. Combined!

Most opening round games are mismatches — tune ups for the higher seeds to get the butterflies out of their system and acclimate them to tournament basketball. But yesterday, the lower seeds did not go quietly into that goodnight. They fought, and scratched, and clawed like hell, staying with teams they had no business being competitive against, and giving several of them the fright of their basketball lives.

College basketball fans who prefer that game to the pros will point out that you don’t get that kind of action and excitement at the NBA level. In one sense this is true — the NBA playoffs are 7 game series and one contest usually will not make or break a team.

But when it’s lose one and done, the drama is heightened considerably. Yesterday’s string of heart attack basketball games would be enough to satisfy even the most ardent college basketball fan.

Which is why we have to remind ourselves that it was only the first day of a long tournament.

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The Best Time of Year to be a Sports Fan

Thursday, March 19th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

The last two weeks in March and the first week of April is. without a doubt. the best time of the year if you’re a sports fan. The next 3 1/2 weeks will feature the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships, the final drive for the playoffs in pro hockey and basketball, Opening Day of the Major League baseball season, and to top it all off, The Masters golf tournament played in the most spectacular venue in sport during the absolute best time of year to see it.

The NCAA’s Big Dance got underway this week and you can expect the usual number of pulse pounding finishes, buzzer beaters, indescribable joy and heartbreak. “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” as ABC’s Wide World of Sports said every week in their opening. “The human drama of athletic competition” — the NCAA tourney has that in spades.

Kentucky comes into the tournament undefeated and basically unchallenged. Trying to dethrone the Wildcats are 5 or 6 excellent teams who have gotten hot at the right time of the year. The real drama will begin next weekend as the regional semi-finals and finals determine who goes to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

In the NHL, the race for the final two Wild Card playoff spots is really heating up. In the Eastern Conference, Boston has a precarious 4 point lead for the 8th seed over Ottawa and 7 points over Florida. In the West, Winnipeg has a slim one point lead over Calgary.

In addition to the drive to make the playoffs, teams are jostling for position, trying to get home ice advantage by finishing in the top 4 in the conference. In a way, the intensity in these late season games matches that found in the playoffs.

Similarly, NBA teams are gearing up for their playoff drive with less than a month to go in the regular season. After the long grind of the season, both the NHL and NBA are finally playing games that really mean something. It’s a time for the stars to shine and where reputations are made.

In the Eastern Conference, Indiana and Boston are tied for the 8th and final playoff spot, with Charlotte and Brooklyn well within striking distance. The real logjam in the East is the fight for the second spot. Atlanta has wrapped up the best record in the conference but 4 teams are within three games of second place Cleveland.

In the West, Phoenix and New Orleans are chasing Oklahoma City for the 8th seed. The injury-riddled OKC Thunder is finally starting to get healthy, which means every other team above them hopes they don’t get them in an early round. With superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook injured at various times during the year, if they get healthy for the playoffs, the dynamic duo will give the rest of the conference fits.

Then, there’s Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season. The openers don’t mean much in the course of a 162 game season. But the very fact that baseball — the quintessential American game of summer — is back gets one’s blood going in anticipation of warmer weather and the explosion of color that comes with Spring.

And if it’s an explosion of color you want, tune in to The Masters golf tournament April 9-12. There is no more beautiful place to be — much less play golf — than Augusta National Golf Course. A few photos to prove my point:

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Even though it doesn’t look like Tiger Woods will be playing, there’s always plenty of thrills as unknowns vault to prominence (only to wilt under the pressure of Saturday and Sunday championship golf), and the best of the world slug it out coming for home on late Sunday afternoon.

Yes, the next three weeks will be a sports fanatic dream come true. My Zsu-Zsu has already resigned herself to watching sports with me for the next fortnight. She’s a good sport about it, and has actually come to like athletics a lot more since we got together a decade ago. For those wives and sweethearts who can’t stand sports, my sympathies. I feel your pain. But there are times — and these next few weeks are one of them — when a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

And just think…only 4 months till the first NFL preseason game.

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Severe Solar Storm Creates Unbelievable Light Show in the Skies

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

A series of solar flares that left the Sun on Monday collided with the Earth’s upper atmosphere on Tuesday night, giving residents from the Arctic to Australia a spectacular light show.

The aurora is common in extreme northern and southern latitudes. But this particular solar storm was so energetic that people as far south as Detroit witnessed its shimmering brilliance.

The Southern Lights were visible to residents of Queensland in Australia — a rarity that brought out some spectacular photos on twitter.

 

 

Green is the most common color for the aurora, as particles moving down the axis of the planet’s electromagnetic field excite the atoms in oxygen in the lower atmosphere. The purple aurora happens when the particles come in contact with nitrogen. And the reds occur when oxygen in the upper altitudes is hit.

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Tribeca Festival to Close with Remastered GoodFellas

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s mob masterpiece GoodFellas. The film will close the 14th Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, April 25, 2015 at the Beacon Theatre.

Gothamist:

Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book, Wise Guy, GoodFellas looked at the rise and fall of half-Irish, half-Sicilian mobster Henry Hill—and his rebirth as a government informant. Pileggi adapted the book for the screen, and the film starred Ray Liotta as a handsome, charismatic Hill; an unforgettable Joe Pesci as volatile Tommy DeVito; Robert DeNiro as the wise Jimmy Conway (“Look at me, never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.”); and a fantastic Lorraine Bracco as Hill’s beleaguered wife Karen.

The screening will also feature a discussion about the film, with creators and cast members moderated by Jon Stewart, who channels GoodFellas every time he does a wiseguy accent on The Daily Show.

The film has been remastered using a 4K scan of the original camera negative, overseen by Martin Scorsese. A Blu-Ray edition is set for re-release on May 5 and includes Digital HD with UltraViolet. The Blu-Ray edition will also include a documentary which includes interviews with the director, as well as some of Scorsese’s most notable gangster characters, including Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Jack Nicholson and Joe Pesci.

The late film critic Roger Ebert called GoodFellas the best gangster film ever made. It’s a subjective call, but it’s hard to argue with the excellent quality of the actors, writing, direction, and photography.

When the film was released in 1990, Ebert wrote that GoodFellas was a personal triumph for Scorsese:

Scorsese is the right director – the only director – for this material. He knows it inside out. The great formative experience of his life was growing up in New York’s Little Italy as an outsider who observed everything – an asthmatic kid who couldn’t play sports, whose health was too bad to allow him to lead a normal childhood, who was often overlooked, but never missed a thing.

There is a passage early in the film in which young Henry Hill looks out the window of his family’s apartment and observes with awe and envy the swagger of the low-level wise guys in the social club across the street, impressed by the fact that they got girls, drove hot cars, had money, that the cops never gave them tickets, that even when their loud parties lasted all night, nobody ever called the police.

That was the life he wanted to lead, the narrator tells us. The memory may come from Hill and may be in Pileggi’s book, but the memory also is Scorsese’s, and in the 23 years I have known him, we have never had a conversation that did not touch at some point on that central image in his vision of himself – of the kid in the window, watching the neighborhood gangsters.

Everyone has their favorite scenes from GoodFellas. How about Joe Pesci at his most threatening, scaring the hell out of Ray Liotta before it becoming clear he was only joking? (Warning: Strong language)

Pesci won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Tommy DeVito. The film was nominated for 5 other Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Lorraine Bracco as Hill’s wife), Best Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Is this the best gangster film ever made? It’s a genre that has kept Hollywood in the black for more than 80 years. Films like White Heat and Public Enemy may look and sound dated to us, but they were gritty and realistic for films made at the time. I thought that Bogie’s Key Largo was one of his best, and a gangster film you would have to put in the top 5. And some critics rank Miller’s Crossing at or near the top.

Certainly, the grand sweep in the telling of GoodFellas, following the life of Henry Hill from teenager to older adult, is an outstanding achievement, seamlessly accomplished. But what makes GoodFellas a cut above all the rest is its perfect evocation of a time and a place. Ebert notes in his review:

For two days after I saw Martin Scorsese’s new film, “GoodFellas,” the mood of the characters lingered within me, refusing to leave. It was a mood of guilt and regret, of quick stupid decisions leading to wasted lifetimes, of loyalty turned into betrayal. Yet at the same time there was an element of furtive nostalgia, for bad times that shouldn’t be missed, but were.

The Godfather trilogy told the story of one family. The fact that they were mobsters was incidental to the story. In GoodFellas, on the other hand, the mafia was the story. It was an ugly story, with little to redeem the characters. But most of us understood the attraction of the lifestyle and harbor a secret admiration for the “wise guys.”

It’s a guilty pleasure that all gangster pictures have offered for decades, which is why we keep going to the theater to experience it.

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Speaker at White Privilege Conference Goes Off on ‘Racist’ Tea Party

Friday, March 13th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

A speaker at a conference on white privilege, partially funded by taxpayers, let loose a torrent of mind-boggling vitriol against Tea Party members — in front of a mostly white audience.

Here are some quotes from Leonard Zeskind, who hosted a session titled “The Denial of White Privilege, the Tea Party Movement and the Building of Our Response,” via the Daily Caller:

“All this business about government and ‘constitutional’ is a smokescreen that’s really all about, ‘I want this country back for me.’ And ‘me’ meaning ‘white people,’” Zeskind told an overflow conference room crowd.

“We consider the tea party a post-Cold War nationalist group,” he went on to explain. Tea party aficionados “have an internal life around gun rallies” and “around constitutional study groups.”

“I don’t think I have to convince you that they have sort of a generic racism,” Zeskind informed the audience, to many approving nods. He also used the term “bald-faced racists” to describe the tea party. (And the term “screw-loosers.”)

After noting that tea party supporters do not like to be called racists, the leftist activist suggested that tea party advocates mostly don’t like President Barack Obama because Obama “broke the white monopoly on the presidency.”

“Tea partiers are not overly concerned about the economy,” he confidently asserted.

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Zeskind said he doesn’t know “how people could do it” but compared black people who support limited government and gun rights to “Jewish kluxers.”

Zeskind repeatedly referred to black people as “black folks.” He bizarrely suggested that “black folks” didn’t know about the tea party movement when it began because it wasn’t a topic of discussion “at the barber shop.”

Zeskind also adamantly suggested that there are “no gay people in the tea party,” and that constitutional government and a free-market economy cannot coexist.

It’s useless to list everything that Zeskind got wrong. It’s far easier to list what he got right: nothing.

But a couple of rebuts to his shockingly ignorant rant should be given. There are many black Americans in the Tea Party — in fact, there are many black conservatives. Just as Rep. Mia Love or Senator Tim Scott. Or Ben Carson. Or Colonel Allen West. And the idea that the Tea Party doesn’t care about the economy is about as ludicrous as it gets.

You would think that if you’re going to take the stage at a public forum you might read a little bit about the target of your hate.  Zeskind’s opinionated, fact-free hyperventilating against the Tea Party is an example of the “scholarship” associated with this relatively new academic discipline. And to think that tax dollars went to support this lunacy.

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Happy Pi Day!

Friday, March 13th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

This may be the ultimate geek holiday.

Tomorrow will be 3/14/15 — which just happen to be the first 5 digits of the transcendental number Pi  (3.1415).  Pi, as we all know from high school geometry class (hope you weren’t snoozing that day) is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It’s an extremely useful mathematical constant for many scientific disciplines.

As one might expect, any excuse for a party. My hometown newspaper, the Pantagraph, explains:

It’s 3-14-15 — as any good geek KNOWS, a date that corresponds with 3.1415, the first five digits of the infinite number pi. That calendar coincidence has math fans practically wriggling with glee, not to mention those who just appreciate the whimsy of celebrating a number that sounds like pastry.

You might say that’s irrational. Mathematicians would agree.

And therein lies the delight of Pi Day.

You probably remember pi from grade school, but here’s a quick refresher: Pi is the number that approximates the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. In other words, if you divide the circumference of any circle by its diameter, you always get pi, an irrational number that starts with 3.1415 and goes on forever. It shares its name with the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet.

The idea of celebrating Pi Day on March 14 — coincidentally, Albert Einstein’s birthday — started in the 1980s. The first large-scale celebration was organized in 1988 at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco, and Pi Day got a boost two decades later when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution supporting its celebration in 2009.

“It’s mind-blowing to think about a number that’s infinite and non-repeating,” said Dante Centuori, director of creative productions at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Science Center. Add to that the fact that pi sounds like pie, and you have a sweet connection the ancient Greeks couldn’t possibly have dreamed up, Centuori said.

Some just couldn’t wait for the big day. The members of the Undergraduate Mathematics Club at Kent State University celebrated at its biweekly meeting earlier this week with activities that included a talk on the history of pi, a debate on the merits of pi vs. tau (that’s 2 times pi, for you English majors) and a beauty contest comparing the complexity of the various fractions and formulas used to approximate pi.

Club secretary Courtney Augustine said before the meeting that the members would also be guessing the circumference of the pizzas being served.

Who said math can’t be fun?

Math is torture for some of us, but that’s beside the point. Pi is one of those things in science where you feel you are actually glimpsing a small part of creation. Carl Sagan, the late great astronomer, figured that as well and his book Contact (not the silly film adaptation) ends with a surprising revelation about Pi. I won’t give any spoilers but if you want to know what I’m referring to, you can find the answer here.

Pi Day is for everyone, not just geeks. Why not celebrate by ordering pizza for dinner tonight, or pancakes, or break out that round of cheddar cheese. The circle is trending today so get in on the fun.

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Bride Leaves Groom at the Altar and You Won’t Believe the Reason Why

Friday, March 13th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

An illustration of the value of an education.

In northern Uttar Pradesh state last week, Lovely Singh was all set to marry groom Ram Baran. Everything was perfect — except for one tiny detail: the groom had apparently misrepresented himself to the bride’s family.

The Independent picks up the story:

During the ceremony in Rasoolabad village in northern Uttar Pradesh state last Wednesday, the woman named Lovely Singh, asked groom Ram Baran to solve “15+6″.

When he replied “17″, she promptly left and accused him of being illiterate.

Despite pleas from the groom’s family, Ms Singh refused to return to the ceremony and said she had been misled about his education.

Mohar Singh, the bride’s father, defended his daughter and accused the groom’s family of concealing his level of education.

“Just before the marriage ceremony Lovely came to know that Ram Baran is illiterate and she refused to marry,” he told BBC Hindi.

“The groom’s family kept us in the dark about his poor education,” he said “Even a first grader can answer this.”

Local police in Rasoolabad, near the industrial town of Kanpur, mediated between the families, and both sides returned all the gifts and jewellery that had been exchanged before the wedding, local police officer Rakesh Kumar said on Friday.

India is a country on the make and education is absolutely vital for the poor — especially the rural poor — to raise their station in life. Since most women don’t work in the business world in India, the level of education of her husband meant the difference between poverty and a middle class life.

Arranged marriages are common in India and the dowry is still an important part of the wedding. If the groom had, indeed, misrepresented his educational level — and I’m guessing by that answer to the math question he did — it would certainly be grounds for the bride to call off the wedding and demand a return of the dowry.

It’s an ancient system and it seems to work well enough for Indians. But I would suggest that groom find a remedial education class or two before his next walk down the aisle and be a little better prepared next time.

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Disney Chairman Reveals How They Will Destroy the Star Wars Franchise in 4 Years

Thursday, March 12th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Disney Chairman Bob Iger isn’t wasting any time in exploiting the Star Wars goldmine he purchased in 2012 from George Lucas. The next episode of the epic story is set to be released in December of this year.

Iger announced at the annual shareholders meeting that Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens will be followed up with Star Wars VIII, set for release in May 2017. In between those dates, Iger says there will be a “stand alone” release of a Star Wars film set in the same universe, Rogue One in December 2016.

Disney is already thinking ahead to further spinoffs from the original Star Wars episodes. Imagine two or more Star Wars film threads at one time with sequels, prequels, and a new Star Wars film coming out twice a year.

People reports:

Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger announced at a shareholders meeting that the stand-alone film, starring The Theory of Everything actress Felicity Jones, will be titled Rogue One, according to a statement on the official Star Wars website.

The movie, which will follow new characters and adventures in the Star Wars universe, will begin shooting this summer with a release date of Dec. 16, 2016.

The first film in the rebooted series, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, comes out Dec. 18. Directed by J.J. Abrams, it features Lupita Nyong’o, Adam Driver and Gwendoline Christie alongside the franchise’s original stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.

And Star Wars diehards will not have to wait too long to get their next fix after that: Disney also announced that the sequel to The Force Awakens will be released May 26, 2017.

Though the full title of Episode VIII has yet to be revealed, Iger said Looper’s Rian Johnson will write and direct the film.

There’s nothing wrong with the talent hired on to make these projects a success. Lawrence Kasdan, who helped write the original trilogy and has signed on for Star Wars VII, will bring a much-needed restraint back to the writing of the series and Abrams has the knack of storytelling that made the first three releases of the franchise so compelling.

But how much Star Wars can audiences take? Can the fanatics carry the box office? Even the Star Trek franchise eventually collapsed as a result of overexposure and tired story lines. I see something similar happening with Star Wars, as audiences get tired of light saber duels and weird-looking aliens.

But Iger and Disney have to justify the $4 billion price tag for Lucasfilm to stockholders, and recouping that money — quickly — is of paramount importance to Iger’s personal survival. He’s not concerned about driving the franchise into the ground. It’s all about the Benjamins and how quickly he can fill Disney’s coffers with Star Wars gold.

PJ Lifestyle Flashback:

5 Reasons Star Wars Actually Sucks

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Newest Spy Gadget: Barbie

Thursday, March 12th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

From our “What will they think of next” Department comes the story of a new fangled Barbie doll that will hit the market next fall. Not only can little girls (and little boys in those households where such things are tolerated) dress up the doll and talk to it; Barbie will now be able to talk back.

Branded “Hello Barbie” by Mattel, the doll uses Wi-Fi and voice recognition technology to make responding in context possible:

Here’s how it works: Your child pushes a button to chat, and Barbie will “listen” through an embedded microphone. She then sends the audio to a cloud-based server, operated by Mattel’s technology partner ToyTalk, which then records the speech and processes it. Then Barbie responds to the question or comment.

But all is not well in Barbieland. Privacy advocates are raising alarms at the potential of the toy to record and store your child’s conversations with the doll:

Privacy advocates and parents have dubbed the doll “Eavesdropping Barbie” and are concerned about their children’s conversations being recorded and stored.

Faculty adviser Angela Campbell from Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology said in a statement, “If I had a young child, I would be very concerned that my child’s intimate conversations with her doll were being recorded and analyzed. In Mattel’s demo, Barbie asks many questions that would elicit a great deal of information about a child, her interests, and her family. This information could be of great value to advertisers and be used to market unfairly to children.”

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood launched an online petition on Wednesday to stop Mattel from releasing the doll. The petition already has more than 3,000 signatures.

“Kids using ‘Hello Barbie’ aren’t only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial,” Susan Linn, CCFC’s director, said in a statement. “It’s creepy — and creates a host of dangers for children and families.”

Will the evil toy conglomerate painstakingly go through several hundred thousand conversations between “Hello Barbie” dolls and little girls to get marketing info and maybe some fodder to blackmail the family?

I wouldn’t necessarily put it past them, except that’s a hugely expensive means of getting information on customers. A survey at point of sale would be much cheaper. As your child is whispering her deepest and most private girly desires to Barbie it just doesn’t make sense that Mattel would be very interested in the content.

But what if Mattel decided to sell the conversations to someone who would find going through all those recordings profitable? It can’t be ruled out, which is why the privacy advocates’ concerns are not entirely misplaced.

Next up for Barbie: “NSA Barbie” who listens in on other people’s phone conversations to save America from terrorists. She doesn’t speak, but will gladly listen to and record your little girl’s most intimate thoughts for transmission later to headquarters.

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Large Hadron Collider Gearing Up for Re-Start at End of the Month

Thursday, March 12th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

After nearly 3 years of repairs and upgrades, the Large Hadron Collider located on the border of France and Switzerland is ready to continue to unlock some of the biggest mysteries of the universe. The machine — the largest and most powerful in the world — will resume operations at the end of March.

The LHC is an oval 17 miles in diameter. Packs containing about 11,000 protons are fired in opposite directions. The packs are accelerated to near relativistic speeds and their collision causes the protons to break into subatomic particles — some of them not found in nature except at the time of the Big Bang. The Higgs bosun — the misnamed “God particle” — was one of those particles and its discovery in 2013 by the LHC team rocked the world of physics.

Run by a consortium of hundreds of scientists, labs, and governments, the LHC is set to tackle the question of dark matter — a phenomena that can’t be seen but can be measured. Most of the universe is made up of dark matter and understanding it will give us hints about the origin and destiny of the universe.

It may also overturn our understanding of the Standard Model of particle physics by revealing previously unknown subatomic particles, helping scientists prove the theory of supersymmetry — a theory that many theoretical physicists consider an elegant means to explain some of the most complex aspects of particle physics. The upgraded LHC will be able to accelerate protons to such stupendous speeds that so-called “partner particles” to already known particles could make an appearance. The right collision may reveal that every type of elementary particle that we know of in nature would have to have partners.

How much power are we talking about? Scientific American breaks down the improvements in the LHC:

Its protons used to collide at energies of 8 trillion electron volts (TeV), but the machine’s electromagnetic fields will now inject them with more energy, causing them to crash together at 13 TeV. Particles will begin traveling around the loop at the end of March and if all goes well, the first collisions will start in May. To accommodate the energy uptick engineers made extensive improvements to the facility during the downtime. In particular, they enhanced the interconnections between the ring’s thousands of powerful magnets. The magnets keep the protons moving in a circle; when the protons become more energetic, they require stronger magnetic fields to keep them on track. The magnets that used to produce fields with a strength of 5.9 teslas will now create 7.7-tesla fields.

“We opened all the interconnections, we checked them and we completely redid one third of them,” says Frédérick Bordry, head the accelerator division at LHC’s home laboratory, CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). “It was an interesting adventure.” Workers also did maintenance on thousands of other components of the machine and tested them thoroughly to make sure the collider is healthy. Bordry says he is confident the LHC will not see a repeat of the electrical glitch that caused major magnet damage just after the accelerator first opened seven years ago, delaying operations by 14 months.

In cuckoo land, there is much anticipation of the restart of LHC also, although not quite the same kind of excitement shown by scientists:

Does CERN headquarter’s symbol of Shiva, dancing the cosmic dance of death and destruction, signal the TRUE purpose of CERN’s existence? A look at the ‘Shiva’ (the Hindu God of Destruction) symbology surrounding CERN’s headquarters gives us the beginning of what we need to know. “The men who would play God, in searching for the God particle, are truly going to find more than they bargained for as they open the gates of hell” we are warned by Stephen Quayle, “they will find inter-dimensional beings who have a taste for human flesh and humanities destruction. Most scientists, in lacking an understanding of the ‘supernatural entities’ that are going to confront them, are way beyond their ability to comprehend, let alone control, the forces of Pandora’s box that will be released.”

Um, yeah. Right. I wouldn’t worry about it, though. No doubt the scientists have developed an anti-interdimensional being weapon of some sort. Besides, they can always zap the creatures with 13 trillion electron volts of energy. That would ruin the day of most interdimensional beings with a taste for human flesh, I’m sure.

Of course, there’s always a chance that spectacular new discoveries will elude the scientists. Even with the vastly increased energy output and other improvements, the kind of breakthrough physics the LHC was designed to do might prove to be beyond the machine’s current capabilities. Further upgrades are scheduled for 2023-25, doubling again the power of the collisions. The promise of the Large Hadron Collider will eventually be realized as, in the words of Einstein, “I want to know God’s thoughts. The rest are details.”

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Mayweather vs. Pacquiao: Another Fight that Will ‘Save Boxing’?

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

The May 2 bout between the unbeaten Floyd Mayweather (47-0, 26 KO’s) and Manny Pacquiao ( 57-5-2, 38 KO’s) is shaping up to be the largest grossing boxing match — live gate and pay per view — in history. If there are such things as “superstars” in boxing these days, these guys are it.

Both have outsized personalities and are skilled, deadly fighters. But boxing aficionados, of which there are fewer and fewer over the years, are pinning their hopes on the idea that this fight will be “the one” — the fight that puts boxing back in its proper place as a major spectacle in America.

It is a forlorn hope, based on the fantasy that televised sports hasn’t reached the saturation point yet, and that there is room for a sport where two men stand in a ring trying to beat each other’s brains out.

Boxing can still put on a show. There have been several memorable fights over the last couple of decades, including the epic Oscar De La Hoya vs. Pernell Whitaker bout in 1997 and Pacquiao vs. Miguel Cotto in 2009.

But boxing has largely fallen off the radar in America, banished, for the most part, to secondary sports channels. Whether it’s been a fall off in talent, the rise of Mixed Martial Arts as a bloodier, more action-packed alternative, or simply the fact that there are so many other sports to watch when boxing is on, ratings for boxing on TV has fallen precipitously.

NBC is trying an experiment with a weekly bout broadcast live on Saturday night. The premiere didn’t do too badly:

Premier Boxing Champions pulled in 3.4 million viewers on the night, making it the most watched boxing broadcast since 1998. They also did a 1.08 rating in the coveted 18-49 demographic, making NBC #1 amongst the big 4 networks in this group.

The show was headlined by Keith Thurman vs. Robert Guerrero in a dramatic fight, and also featured Adrien Broner vs. John Molina, Jr. in a snoozer.

One other statistic worth noting: the show saw a steady rise throughout the broadcast, with an increase every half hour, culminating in a 4.2 peak for the last half of the main event.

How did those numbers compare to MMA on Fox?

The most recent UFC on Fox show, UFC on Fox 14 headlined by Alexander Gustafsson vs. Anthony Johnson, pulled in 2.82 million viewers, a definite notch below the PBC show. That was the high mark for the UFC in some time. UFC on Fox 13: Dos Santos vs. Miocic saw a significantly lower 2.27 million viewers, which was consistent with their most recent shows.

The highest rated UFC on Fox show remains the first ever event (Velasquez vs. Dos Santos I) which drew 5.7 million viewers back in 2011. Overall, only 4 of the 14 UFC on Fox events have beaten this PBC show in terms of viewers – none more recent than UFC on Fox 6: Johnson vs. Dodson in January 2013 (3.77 million).

For Mayweather vs. Pacquiao, tickets for the MGM Grand will start at $1700 and may go as high as $7500 face value. Pricing for PPV hasn’t been worked out yet, but many observers predict a record $100 for the privilege of viewing the fight and the undercard. The total take from the bout — gate, PPV, closed circuit on the Vegas strip — will shatter the record gross of $150 million for the Floyd Mayweather vs. Saul Alvarez in 2013.

It says something rather pathetic about the state of boxing in America, that two 38 year old fighters with their best bouts behind them, are being touted as the saviors of the sport.

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Blind Canine Becomes Amazing Therapy Dog

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

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For many people with physical disabilities, making oneself useful and needed is the very best therapy.

The same holds true for dogs, apparently. Smiley, a golden retriever born without eyes, has found his place in life: he works as a therapy dog, visiting nursing homes and schools, bringing joy and laughter wherever he goes.

ABC News:

The dog’s owner, Joanne George, rescued the dog from a puppy mill, when he was about 1 or 2 years old.

“He was very scared, [the dogs] had never been out of that barn,” George recalled, adding that Smiley quickly bonded with another one of his dogs, a deaf Great Dane named Tyler.

“Tyler was so bouncy and crazy and happy go lucky and [Smiley] turned into the same dog,” George said. “He came out from underneath the tables where he was always hiding.”

George said seeing Smiley interact with crowds made her realize he would be a perfect therapy dog. She now brings the dogs to hospitals and schools in the area and says the dog almost always brightens people’s days.

She said at one nursing home, she realized how even a small visit with Smiley could make people happy.

“There was this man Teddy, [he had] no speech, no communication at all,” George said of one memorable nursing home resident. “[The staff] had never seen Teddy smile before.”

But once Smiley came up to Teddy, George said the staff was amazed. “[Teddy] smiled when Smiley got into his vision,” George said

George said after caring for Smiley for 10 years, she has learned a lot about how to care for blind dogs.

“Somebody through St. John’s Ambulance is wanting to adopt a dog that’s blind,” George said. “I told her all those things don’ t be his eyes, don’t run his life, don’t’ keep him in a bubble.”

She said it’s key for Smiley to figure out how to get around on his own. George said Smiley is mostly able to get around on his own without too much difficulty.

“Does he bump into things? Of course, he does. But he does it very carefully,” George said, noting the dog’s “high” steps when he walks. “He’s feeling with his feet.”

A great big shout-out to Mrs. George, who not only adopted blind Smiley but also deaf Tyler. She gives Tyler much of the credit for Smiley’s personality, but I think someone who likes dogs as much as she obviously does deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

Domesticated cats and dogs have a natural ability to bewitch total strangers they come in contact with. Of course, it takes a certain kind of disposition — a real love for humans and a keen sense of when to approach and when to back off. Not all dogs and cats have that innate ability and empathy, but those that do perform magic with Alzheimers patients, the sick, the depressed, sick children — anyone institutionalized and in distress.

I’ve seen this magic first hand as my friend’s cat made the rounds at a hospital once a week. Talk about possessing a good disposition. Before hospital staff would allow the cat to interact with patients, she had to have a bath and a check up. But the cat sat patiently while the staff readied her for her rounds.

She was a sensation the moment she hit the ward. She was on a leash and would approach patients in the hallway, rubbing against some she knew and sitting while newcomers would stroke her luxurious fur.

But it was in the hospital rooms where the cat showed her unreal ability. The sicker a patient was, the more tender she appeared to get: nuzzling, purring loudly and insistently head-butting the hand of the patient looking for affection.

I never saw anything but smiles on the faces of patients of all ages after meeting up with her.

Smiley seems to have the same ability. The thoughts of dogs are unknowable, but you like to think Smiley is proud of himself for bringing joy and laughter to so many who need it so desperately.

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Game of Thrones Season 5 Will Veer From Novels

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

The fifth season of HBO’s much anticipated drama Game of Thrones will premier one month from now, on April 12. Fans who have been speculating about the storyline got another tease from the showrunner, David Benioff, who made some surprising reveals in this interview with Entertainment Weekly:

“Worlds are colliding,” says David Benioff, who is showrunner along with Dan Weiss. “One of the things we’ve been most excited about from the beginning of the series is we’ve had all these far-flung story lines across Westeros and Essos which almost never cross. Now some of these characters start to head on a collision course for each other.”

And that new trajectory will have an unexpected body count. Characters that are still alive in the books will die this season (don’t worry, our coverage is spoiler-free). Key storylines will deviate from Martin’s narrative in controversial ways. There’s even another wedding. Or two. Actually three (gulp!). “With each season, the stakes get higher and higher and the war gets bloodier and bloodier,” says producer Bryan Cogman. “We’re in season 5 and there’s an expectation for big events and consequences.”

Indeed, the trailer appears to promise a lot more action with plenty of opportunities to kill off a favorite character or two:

How about this “new look” for Arya Stark. No more tomboy!

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As they have been saying for 4 seasons, “Winter is coming.” OK, already…bring it on! And who better to usher it in than the ice queen Daenerys Targaryen. The dragons are back and they’re kicking butt and taking names.

And with House Lannister in chaos, we can only hope that the fall will be as emotionally satisfying as their rule of the Iron Throne has been insufferably arrogant.

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First Responders Report Hearing ‘Voices’ in Rescue of Toddler

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

You’ve probably already heard of the inspiring story of 18-month-old Lily Groesbeck, who was in a car driven by her mother that veered off the road and ended up overturned and in a creek. It was 14 hours before rescuers reached the partially submerged car.

The mother, 25-year-old Lynn Groesbeck, died soon after the crash. But baby Lily hung on grimly. She is now recovering in a local hospital, as her tale of survival has swept the world.

But there’s another aspect to this story that hasn’t received a lot of press. Four of the first responders to the accident swear that they heard cries for help from a woman in the car as they were working frantically to turn the car over and rescue the occupant.

Fox News:

Ainsley Earhardt reported on “Fox and Friends” that as rescuers rushed down to the car, four police officers all say they heard the same thing: a woman calling out, begging for help.

But they can’t explain who that voice was, because the baby’s mother, 25-year-old Lynn Groesbeck, was killed in the crash hours before, and the voice they heard was too mature to be the toddler.

“When we all talked together, I said, ‘Was I the only one that was hearing this?’ thinking that I was hearing things,” Tyler Beddoes, one of the officers who rescued the toddler, explained. “And when I talked to the other officers, we all had heard the same thing, a voice saying, ‘Help us. Help me.’”

Another officer described the same thing to Deseret News.

“We’ve gotten together and just talk about it and all four of us can swear that we heard somebody inside the car saying, ‘Help,’” said Officer Jared Warner.

The officers say that the calls for help pushed them to work even harder to flip the car over.

When they righted the partially submerged vehicle, they were shocked to find the mother dead and the toddler alive

“We were just able to push the car onto its side. How, I don’t know, whether it’s adrenaline or what. But it was incredible,” officer Bryan Dewitt said. “As I grabbed the little baby out of the car seat, as I pulled her head up, I could tell that there was some life in her. I could see her eyes open.”

It’s easy for most of us to scoff at the officer’s story — except among first responders to accidents and other life and death situations, this is hardly unusual:

Both Meehan and Rudnicki regularly come into contact with people moments away from death or scenes where traumatic accidents have occurred as part of their regular full-time jobs. Meehan said, although they keep it separate, the duo started doing paranormal investigations as an extension of what they do through their fire departments: help people.

“When a person is killed before their time or in a violent manner you can sometimes come in contact with that energy,” Rudnicki said.

“You’re that beacon at night in the fog,” Meehan added.

There are many anecdotal stories of two or more first responders having a paranormal experience at an accident site. A mysterious stranger who talks with them and appears to know details of the accident, or strange lights and voices at the scene. Doctors and nurses also report unexplained phenomena at the time of death.

There are no easy answers based on science. About all you can say is:

For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.

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This Story Is Sure to Warm Your Heart — Even if You’re not a Sports Fan

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

As a sport, cricket isn’t even on the radar in the United States. But for many nations, it’s more popular than soccer.

Teams from India, New Zealand, Australia, and Pakistan have dominated the World Cup for several decades. Held every four years, a complicated rating system determines who is eligible for play. There is opportunity for some of the minnows in the cricket world, but it is usually a gradual process that moves a nation from Division 5 play — the lowest ranking — to the top tier of teams that get to compete in the World Cup.

But the route to the World Cup by Afghanistan is the stuff of legend. They didn’t even have a team 13 years ago. Then, one man, Taj Malik, who grew up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, made the rounds of embassies pleading for help in establishing the sport in Afghanistan. A British army cricket enthusiast ended up writing home to cricket teams in England asking for donated equipment — and bats, balls, gloves, and pads poured in.

From there, Malik organized a league of 14 teams and started to develop a national team for international matches. Beginning in 2008, the Afghan national team began a meteoric rise in the cricket world that stunned observers and delighted their growing fan base at home.

A few wins against other lowly teams in Division 5 that year meant a promotion to Division 4. What happened next belies belief:

The team returned to Kabul to a hero’s welcome, but the triumph meant that cricket was now being taken seriously in Afghanistan, and the starry-eyed Malik was brushed aside in favor of a new, pedigreed coach: former Pakistani test cricketer Kabir Khan. Yet Malik had laid the foundation: Six members of that winning team from seven years ago in Jersey are among Afghanistan’s current World Cup-playing 11. Malik would make brief returns to Afghan cricket as an assistant coach to Khan and as coach of Afghanistan’s second-tier team, but today he has left the game, devoting his efforts to the Tabligh religious movement within Islam.

In the Division 4 competition later in 2008 in Tanzania, Khan picked up where Malik left off, while adding a needed aspect of cold professionalism. Wins over fellow cricketing minnows Italy and Fiji drew little international attention but helped ensure a tournament victory and promotion to Division 3. A narrow, weather-aided triumph in Buenos Aires in January 2009 meant that Afghanistan had earned a chance to participate in qualification matches for the 2011 World Cup.

Those World Cup qualifiers proved a mixed bag. Although the team failed to qualify, a last-day win over Namibia on April 17, 2009, meant the team secured a coveted and critical consolation prize: four years of Associate status (the second-highest grouping in world cricket) and a place in the 2011-2013 World Cricket League Championship, the top competition for teams outside the 10 elite sides holding test status. The top two finishers would earn a place in the 2015 World Cup. The meteoric rise from Division 5 to Associate status had happened in less than one year.

After a surprisingly strong World Cup qualifying campaign, it came down to the 14th and final match: a “home” game in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, (for reasons hardly requiring explanation, Afghanistan cannot host matches within its own borders) against Kenya, a participant in the three previous World Cups and a surprise semifinalist in 2003. As happened five years earlier in Jersey, a devastating performance by the Afghan bowling attack pulverized the opposition, holding Kenya to a mere 93 runs (roughly one-third of a good total), which was then easily surpassed by the Afghan batsmen. With a second-place finish, Afghanistan had come from nowhere to cricket’s biggest stage. Malik’s dream had become reality.

In the 2011 World Cup, the Afghan side, as expected, did not fare well. Then, against the third-ranked team in the world — Sri Lanka — the inspired Afghans scratched and clawed their way to a narrow lead. But Sri Lanka’s final batsman came through in the clutch and Sri Lanka narrowly edged out the upstarts for the victory.

Their next game against Scotland was equally dramatic. Trailing by 19 runs, it fell to Shapoor Zadran, one of Malik’s original players back in 2002, to pull off the dramatic comeback and give Afghanistan its first World Cup victory ever.

His reaction was priceless:

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Because of their associate status, Afghanistan qualified for this year’s World Cup, now underway jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand. They are playing in Pool A — the so called “Pool of death” because there are 3 of the previous 4 champion sides playing in that group. But the Afghans notched their second World Cup victory — once again, against Scotland.

Playing no home matches because of the dangerous conditions, Afghanistan has defied the odds to field a world class cricket team. There may be religious and political divisions in the country, but the uniting expedient of sports has brought the country together to cheer on their 11.

It may be the one ray of hope in a nation where war, poverty, and ignorance have hung on for so long that the people know no other way of living.

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Sam Simon, Co-Creator of The Simpsons, Dead at 59

Monday, March 9th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Sam Simon, the man credited by many with giving The Simpsons, it’s heart and soul, died after a long battle with colon cancer. He was 59.

Simon was responsible for hiring most of the early writers and is credited with giving the show its unique “sensibility.” He insisted that the show be produced like a sitcom, rather than a cartoon show, which meant the writers worked as a team and the voice actors interacted with each other in recording each episode.

New York Times:

But although Mr. Groening is the person most closely associated with “The Simpsons,” Mr. Simon — who had published cartoons while he was a student at Stanford, worked on the cartoon show “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” and been a writer and producer for the sitcoms “Cheers” and “Taxi” — played a crucial role as “The Simpsons” evolved into a half-hour series. It became the longest-running sitcom in television history.

Mr. Simon helped populate Springfield, the fictional town where the Simpsons live, with a range of characters. He insisted that the show be created using some conventional sitcom techniques like having writers work collectively. He had the voice actors read their parts as an ensemble, with the goal of giving the show more lifelike rhythm and timing. And he hired many of the show’s first writers, a number of whom gave him credit for informing its multilayered sensibility, one that skewers pieties with anarchic humor and sometimes vulgarity while celebrating family and community.

“’If you leave out Sam Simon, you’re telling the managed version,” Jon Vitti, one of the show’s first writers, told The New York Times in 2001. “He was the guy we wrote for.”

Jay Kogen, a former producer of “The Simpsons,” told The Times that Mr. Simon “knew the freedom that animation provides and utilized it to the full extent.”

Mr. Groening, who was best known before “The Simpsons” for creating the syndicated comic strip “Life in Hell,” drew attention for his unusual career move into television animation. But Mr. Simon also had to change directions: He had to figure out how to make an unconventional product appeal to the mainstream audiences he had reached on “Taxi” and “Cheers.” He was surprised at how well it worked.

“There would be a few minutes where you’d have a parody of a Kubrick movie, and then you’d have Homer on the kitchen counter eating cake like a dog,” he told Stanford Magazine, a university publication, in 2009. “I thought some people would like some aspects of it, but I wasn’t sure how many would come along for the full ride. It turned out I was incredibly wrong. Homer is now the prototype for every male lead on a comedy show.”

Homer Simpson was the antithesis of nearly every male head of household who had ever appeared on comedic series television up to the time the show premiered in 1989. But it was this subversive caricature of a man that made Homer so engaging. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him — much the same way you can’t tear your eyes away during a demolition derby. The destructive, dysfunctional Simpson family managed to turn the idea of a nuclear family on its head, laughing all the way to the closing credits.

I recall when The Simpson’s debuted some critics savaged it. Some conservative critics thought that Bart Simpson was a poor role model for children. Most of the criticism was and is justified, but as with any kind of entertainment, if the story keeps your interests and the characters are vividly drawn and performed well, a multitude of sins can be forgiven.

I never thought the creators were trying to undermine the traditional American family or make a political statement about dysfunctional families. What they produced was a half hour of mayhem and laughs every week for going on 26 years. Simon can be credited with animating this animated show with heart and with a vision. That’s no small legacy to leave behind.

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NCAA Bubble Watch: Middies Get No Respect

Monday, March 9th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

One of the endless debates in college basketball come tourney time is the relative excellence of teams in the major conferences versus the mid-major or minor conferences.

A cursory examination of NBA rosters will see both the middies and minor conferences well represented. And every March when the NCAA tournament gets underway, there are always one, two, or three major surprises as a low seed upsets an upper seed.

Usually, those low seeds are in conferences largely overlooked by the NCAA. While conferences like the ACC or Big Ten will get 6 or 7 representatives in the tourney, the middies and minor conference will be lucky if they get 2.

That’s why it’s a shame that a team like Murray State — 27-5, 16-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference — will almost certainly not be invited to The Dance. At one point, the Racers won 25 in a row — until they met up with Belmont in the conference finals and lost in the final seconds by one point.

And some of those 25 victories were against quality opponents:

“The one thing I will say, and this is probably my only forum to say it, is this is an NCAA tournament team,” Prohm said, before detailing the Ohio Valley Conference’s postseason success and its production of NBA players since 2010, before turning to his own team’s record. “Everybody talks about, ‘Who have you played?’ We beat Illinois State. They beat Wichita today. We beat Evansville. Evansville [beat Northern Iowa]. We beat Western Kentucky by double figures; they went to Ole Miss and won, and they’ve got Ole Miss as a No. 9 seed. We beat Eastern Kentucky. They couldn’t make it to the [OVC] championship game; they went to Miami and won by 30.”

Yes, the Racers had some quality wins. But they also had some bad losses, as ESPN points out:

Of the 30 games the Racers played this season, just three came against teams ranked inside the RPI top 100. As Prohm noted, the Racers did beat Illinois State on a neutral court, which looked better after the Redbirds’ upset of Wichita State. But Murray State also lost at Xavier 89-62 on Nov. 24. Five days later, it was thrashed by Valpo 93-58. Every other Murray State opponent this season has been ranked outside the top 100 — including losses to Portland, Belmont and (gulp) Houston. Twenty-one of their 25 wins came against teams ranked outside the top 150.

These are the perils of playing in a conference like the Ohio Valley. We’ve seen countless teams overcome their smaller, weaker leagues in past seasons; to do so, you have to impress in November and December. Mid-majors have fewer opportunities to impress, and much less time to round into form. Is that fair? Of course not. It’s college basketball.

The all-powerful RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) is a measure of strength of schedule and how a team does against that schedule. Almost all NCAA tourney teams are in the RPI top 75 and virtually no at-large bids are given for any team worse than that.

Murray State is currently in 67th place in the RPI standings. The Selection Committee chooses 68 teams, 32 of which are already spoken for conference champions. That leaves 38 spots for the rest to fight over. With major conferences averaging 5 spots a piece, that leaves at most, a half a dozen at large berths that will go to worthy middie teams. Ultimately, the statistical advantages weigh heavily on the Selection Committee and teams like Murray State are likely out of luck when the brackets are filled next Sunday.

It’s not fair. It’s college basketball.

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Two American Tourists Arrested for Vandalizing Colosseum

Monday, March 9th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Two American female tourists were arrested by Roman police for carving their initials into a wall in the ancient Colosseum.

The young women, aged 21 and 25, were released on their own recognizance by a Roman court. They will be charged with aggravated damage to a monument.

The Associated Press reports:

Their names or hometowns were not released by police.

Iacobone said the young women apologized for the vandalism, but he said such acts “are extremely serious. No one considers the damage they are creating.”

“They have carved their names into ancient stone. It is not like writing with a pen, and then afterward it can be cleaned up,” he said.

A Russian tourist who carved his initials into the Colosseum in November was handed a four-month suspended sentence and a fine of 20,000 euros ($21,270) after opting for a speedy trial. It was the fifth such act of vandalism by tourists last year, including a Canadian tourist who tried to steal a piece of stone from the Colosseum hidden in his backpack.

Union leaders have complained about the lack of personnel to properly monitor Rome’s archaeological treasures — with increasing numbers of visitors seeking to leave their trace on antiquity, causing irreparable damage.

With thousands of tourists visiting the monument each day and many hidden corners, Iacobone said it was impossible to monitor everyone’s actions.

With the Islamic State gleefully bulldozing ancient towns of immense historical significance in Iraq, the care of our history has become of vital concern. Acid rain in Athens is eating away at 2500-year-old structures. Air pollution in Rome is disfiguring some of the most beautiful public art in the world, causing all that marble in statues, fountains, and facades to soften and eventually crack.

In our own country, historical sites, houses, and structures are being sacrificed for new homes or office parks. Developers wanted to give part of the Bull Run Civil War battlefield over to a highway, which would have encouraged more development. Despite the best efforts of local and national preservation groups, we are still losing historical sites to development.

The two young women arrested in Rome were not intentionally destructive. They simply didn’t think. They will learn an expensive lesson, but what about us? What are we learning about how to treasure and preserve our history?

It has been said that nations will be as environmentally friendly only as much as they can afford to be. In the very near future, we are going to have to decide how much of our cultural and historical heritage we are prepared to lose forever in lieu of doing what it takes to safeguard them.

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NCAA Comes Down Hard on Syracuse for Breaking the ‘Most Fundamental Core Values of the NCAA’

Friday, March 6th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Perennial college basketball power Syracuse University was slapped with severe sanctions by the NCAA for a decade long series of violations.

The NCAA also gave legendary basketball coach Jim Boeheim a 9 game suspension to be served next year. The school will be docked 3 scholarships a year for 4 years, and forfeit some games that ineligible players participated.

Associated Press:

The bulk of the violations concerned athletic department officials interfering with academics and making sure star players stayed eligible.

The basketball team must vacate wins in which ineligible players participated. Those players competed during five seasons: 2004-2007 and 2010-2012.

“The behavior in this case, which placed the desire to achieve success on the basketball court over academic integrity, demonstrated clearly misplaced institutional priorities,” the NCAA said.

Boeheim, the second-winningest coach in Division I history with 966 victories, has coached at Syracuse for 39 years, having played at the school as well. The 70-year-old coach has been an assistant on the last two gold medalist U.S. Olympic teams.

The punishment includes financial penalties and the reduction of three men’s basketball scholarships a year for four years. Recruiting restrictions will be enforced for two years. Boeheim’s suspension will sideline him for half the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.

The four-year investigation also revealed violations by the football program, although most of them came in men’s basketball.

In anticipation of the report, Syracuse chancellor Kent Syverud had announced a postseason ban for this year for the basketball team. The NCAA accepted the ban, meaning next year’s recruits won’t be affected.

Syverud said the school does not agree with certain aspects of the ruling and is considering a possible challenge. Syverud said Boeheim may choose to appeal that part of the decision that affects him personally.

“Should he decide to do so, we would support him in this step,” Syverud said in a statement.

Boeheim was en route with the team to North Carolina and could not be immediately reached for comment.

The NCAA said Boeheim did not promote an atmosphere of compliance and failed to monitor the activities of those who reported to him regarding academics and boosters.

The NCAA said several violations involved students and staff. The report added that academic violations stemmed from the director of basketball operations, who was hand-picked by Boeheim to address academic matters.

Boeheim was considered one of the good guys of college sports. A tough, no nonsense leader, beloved of his players, the consistent excellence of his teams year in and year out marked the Syracuse program as one of the top 10 programs in the country.

Now it appears that Boeheim was sweeping academic problems under the rug, and even finagling grades:

“Improper institutional involvement and influence in a student’s academic work in order to gain or maintain eligibility is a violation of NCAA rules and a violation of the most fundamental core values of the NCAA and higher education,” the committee wrote.

The school also didn’t follow it’s own drug policy:

The committee also found that from 2001-09 the school did not follow its own written policies and procedures for students who tested positive for banned substances. NCAA rules require that if schools have a drug-testing policy, it must include substances on the banned list and the school must follow its policy. Syracuse had a written policy, but both Boeheim and athletic director Daryl Gross acknowledged they did not follow it.

This is extremely disappointing news. It makes you wonder if other seemingly untouchable schools have problems as well.

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NTSB Begins Investigation into Harrison Ford Plane Crash

Friday, March 6th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Actor Harrison Ford is listed in ‘Fair to Moderate’ condition at a Los Angeles area hospital following a plane crash yesterday afternoon. Ford reportedly broke his pelvis and ankle and had numerous bruises, cuts and abrasions.

The National Transportation Safety Board has begun its investigation, and already has several clues to the cause of the crash.

Fox News:

With the sounds overhead of planes taking off and landing at Santa Monica Municipal Airport, and the wreckage of Harrison Ford’s 1942 Ryan Aeronautical ST3KR on the Penmar Golf Course behind him, National Transportation Safety Board investigator Patrick Jones said the fact that Ford survived his harrowing crash landing was reason enough for celebration.

“Anytime that a human being can survive an accident involving an airplane, it’s a good day,” he told reporters.

Jones said the inquiry into the “Indiana Jones” actor’s Thursday plane crash had just begun.

“I’m not going to jump to any conclusions at this point, we’re going to wait for the evidence to come out,” he said.

“This is an 1942 vintage aircraft,” he added. “A lot of it is old school mechanical. We’ll see what it is. We’ll look at everything.”

Jones said the NTSB had not yet spoken with Ford, who is still recuperating from his injuries at a nearby hospital.

“There will be an attempt to talk to the pilot, because we definitely want to know what he knows,” he said. “When that happens depends.”

He also said he did not know if Ford had been tested for drugs or alcohol.

Eyewitnesses reported the plane was in serious trouble:

Ford took off from Santa Monica Municipal Airport at around 2 p.m. Pacific Time. About 20 minutes later, Ford, 72, told the airport’s tower that he was having engine failure and was making an “immediate return.” The plane crashed at Penmar Golf Course, about a quarter-mile short of the airport runway, soon afterward.

Ford was about a half-mile west of the airport and flying at 3,000 feet when he told air traffic controllers that his engine failed, interim Santa Monica City Manager Elaine Polachek said in an email to city officials. She also said that some witnesses reported that the plane hit a tree on its way down.

“Immediately you could see the engine started to sputter and just cut out, and he banked sharply to the left,” said Jeff Kuprycz, who was golfing when he saw the plane taking off. “He ended up crashing around the eighth hole.”

Kuprycz estimated the plane was about 200 feet overhead when it plunged to the ground.

“There was no explosion or anything. It just sounded like a car hitting the ground or a tree or something. Like that one little bang, and that was it,” Kuprycz said.

Charlie Thomson, a flight instructor at the airport who saw Ford take off, said engine failure like Ford’s does not make the plane harder to maneuver. “It just means you have to go down,” he said.

Ford is being praised for crashing on the golf course, avoiding several residences along his flight path. Witnesses say he hit a tree on his way down and prevented the plane from going nose first into the ground. The plane crashed a quarter mile short of the runway.

This isn’t the first brush with death for the actor. In 1999, he was learning to fly a helicopter when the aircraft lost power and made a hard landing. Ford and his instructor were unhurt but the helicopter was severely damaged.

Then, a year later, bad weather forced down his six seat Beechcraft plane, which clipped the runway causing major damage to the plane. There were no injuries in that crash either.

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Breaking: Actor Harrison Ford Seriously Injured in Plane Crash (Updated)

Thursday, March 5th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

Actor Harrison Ford was seriously injured in a plane crash this afternoon, according to numerous sources.

NBC:

Actor Harrison Ford was seriously injured Thursday when a vintage World War II training plane he was piloting crash landed on a Mar Vista, California, golf course.

The actor was stabilized and taken to a local hospital. Sources said he sustained cuts to his head. There was no word on other injuries or what caused the plane to crash. It appeared he was flying solo.

His injuries were originally described as “critical,” but sources emphasized they are better characterized as serious, including lacerations to the head and possible fractures.

Howard Tabe, an employee at the Penmar Golf Course, said ‘There was blood all over his face … Two very fine doctors were treating him, taking good care of him. I helped put a blanket under his hip.”

The plane crashed on the golf course just west of the airport shortly after takeoff from the Santa Monica Airport, according to Ian Gregor of the Federal Aviation Administration, NBC Los Angeles reported.

An avid flyer of both planes and helicopters, Ford was in a bad crash of a Bell chopper in 1999 Santa Clara, Calif. In 2008, he told National Geographic, “Well, there was a mechanical failure while we were practicing power recovery autorotations. It was more or less a hard landing. Luckily, I was with another aviation professional and neither of us was hurt—and both of us are still flying.”

To survive a crash like this is a near miracle:

000.0000

We will update this post as necessary.

UPDATE: Air Traffic Control audio

Ford reports an engine failure and declares an emergency.

As of 4:00 PM Pacific Time, Ford is listed in fair condition.

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How Much Did You Spend on Your Pet Last Year?

Thursday, March 5th, 2015 - by Rick Moran

The American Pet Products Association released their annual report on consumer spending for companion animals, revealing that Americans dropped $58 billion on their beloveds.

What kind of market are we talking about? How’s this for an eye opener. Stats from American Pet Products Manufacturers Association:

According to the 375 page survey that tracks hundreds of pet ownership trends, Americans own approximately 73 million dogs, 90 million cats, 139 million freshwater fish, 9 million saltwater fish, 16 million birds, 18 million small animals and 11 million reptiles.

What is that $58 billion spent on?

The association measures five areas of spending. Last year, people spent $22 billion on food; $15 billion on veterinary care; $14 billion on supplies such as beds, bowls and collars and over-the-counter medicine to fight ailments such as fleas, ticks and colds; $4.8 billion on other services; and $2 billion on animals themselves.

The “other services” category grew the fastest in 2014 and includes payments on grooming, boarding, walking, training, day care and even trips to the spa — where pets can get facials and massages, said Bob Vetere, president and CEO of the pet products association, based in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The report says trips to the veterinarian were unchanged or slightly down last year, although expenditures per visit have increased as owners green-light more expensive procedures, Vetere said. Those treatments ranged from the lifesaving to the exotic, like plastic surgery.

A robust human-animal bond still exists, especially with dogs and cats, and people are doing more to prolong their pets’ lives, from surgery to food, Vetere said.

This can’t be making Hollywood happy:

COMPARING SPENDING

People spent about five times more on their pets than they did on movies last year. The box office firm Rentrak estimated that ticket sales from 2014 totaled $10.4 billion, a 5.2 percent drop from 2013. But people spent far more on their homes than they did their pets, with expenditures from home improvements and repairs reaching $298 billion in 2013, the most recent data available.

We spend $100 a month on our three cats, including food, treats, and toys. Sue can’t resist getting the beasts toys, which they will play with for exactly three hours and then ignore forever. We tried growing our own catnip last summer but because of conflicting information, did not cure the plant correctly. We now spend a fortune on the stuff looking for a brand they like.

The best catnip available commercially used to be Cosmic Catnip, which was a company founded by a bunch of hippies who loved cats and grew catnip that the little ones went ape over. Alas, the hippies got greedy and sold the business to a large company that now sells overpriced stems and tries to pass it off as catnip.

Many of us draw the line when it comes to super-expensive procedures to keep our loved ones alive — especially if they are along in years and suffering. But more and more people are going into hock these days to give their companions life saving treatments — just as they would any other member of the family.

The human-animal relationship is evolving. The change is driven partly by commerce but mostly because we are recognizing more value to the personal relationship we have with our pets. It shouldn’t surprise us that we spend nearly $60 billion on our loved ones. When they’re happy, we’re happy.

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