Sunday, November 10, 2013

BRIDGE: Pre-emptors Who Bid Again Should Be Shot

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I live my Bridge life vicariously. I haven't seen live action since the North American Summer Championships two years ago, the first time this century Danny Ioannidis and I had a below 50 percent session (and actually had two of them). Made me want to retire. Which I have. Mostly.

BUT, and it's a big but, that means all my friends in Bridge take quite a delight in calling me with hands. And naturally, I get most of them right because [A] I'm a decent enough player to actually get them right on my own, and [B] just about every hand has some trick to it and I know that going in. Makes being 'brilliant' really pretty easy.

Occasionally, the phone call will be from somebody who tells some variation of the "Can you BELIEVE what my partner did to me?" tale. The phone call I just finished was one of those. Well, it was a two-hand phone call. On the first hand, my caller proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that HE's crazy. Successful. But certifiable. (and the reason I'm not identifying the curmudgeonly guy). But then his tale swung the other way with the following bidding on the first hand of the quarter-final:

  His partner, a reluctant user of weak two bids, opened the bidding with 2S in second chair, everybody vulnerable. The partnership had agreed to disciplined weak two's, thus this hand showed six spades with two of the top three honours and 6-11 high card points. This is the kind of bid I wish weak two's meant all the time. But it's a bit old-fashioned (and the ones I play also prohibit a side four-card major or a void, thus making me truly a creature of the last century). At any rate, reluctant or not, the enemy across the table uttered two spades. The next hand, held by one of a team of LOL's (little old ladies - dreaded by any good Bridge player) doubled. And finally we got to the hand held by my caller.

[S] 10 9 2  [H] 6 4  [D] Q J 10 9 3  [C] Q2

  I chuckled. I told him I'd think about 2NT to see how much mischief that would cause. And similarly, I wouldn't hate 3H. But playing with a putz, I'd probably settle for 3S. Pass simply wasn't in consideration. But I wouldn't insult the intelligence of somebody who did pass. It's just not in my genes not to operate a little here. After all, partner is barred from bidding and we have at LEAST five tricks in three spades.

  The bidding proceeded 4D after some thought and then partner, who's hand is completely and utterly meaningless in this harangue, somehow discovered he'd paid for the privilege of playing and bid 4S. Now, this bid is an affront to any and all Bridge players. It's brainless, unwarranted and I'd be embarrassed to do something like that in a pairs game where I would only have to fend off the attack of my partner. This was a TEAM game. Indeed, the quarter-finals of a Regional Tournament knockout. To call this bid inexcusable is the minimize the damage a call after pre-empting does to a partnership. (Ends it in this case). It's so horrible that I screamed for ten solid minutes at the caller for PLAYING with this baboon in the first place. Oh, the doubler doubled again for -1100 and a win in the round. Without the gift double opportunity, the next hand might very well have bid 6D, with a maximum of 11 tricks available (but not in diamonds) and a big win for my caller's side. Instead, it was 17 imps away and the match.

  But it gets worse. And here is the hubris of stupidity made blatant. The idiot, and I apologize to idiots the world over by lumping him in with them, then pointed a finger at my caller and said, "My partner didn't have his bid, that is why we lost," or approximately those words. Now, in civilized society, we don't let mental incompetents demonstrate so clearly their lack of mental acumen AND complete and utter cluelessness without somebody there to guard them from having fingers around their throat trying to choke the stupidity out of them. That's a fool's errand. The oaf then responded to one of his other teammates asking about what possessed him to bid again after pre-empting with, "Oh so you're an expert now."

  Because, after all, he's a LIFE MASTER with more points than the rest of his team combined.

  And therein lies the rub. Bridge was an activity where becoming a Life Master was something of an accomplishment. You had to fight and scratch for the points to become a Life Master and for a long time, Life Masters were all good to great to the best there ever was. No more. You can become a Life Master by spending your money playing frequently ... the LIFE part of Life Master. It's been decades since Life Master meant MASTER. And of late, it's gotten so bad that arboreal microbes like this brainless excuse for a card-pusher have become a Life Master. And far too many then thrust that title into any conversation with the great unwashed who have yet to pay their dues and join the unexalted ranks as some sign of expertise. The mere thought that having described his hand accurately with his initial bid barred him from TELLING THE SAME STORY later, at the expense of his team winning, prompted his boorish behaviour.

  I would not have had the strength to wait until the event's conclusion to tell this uninformed bozo that I couldn't stomach playing with him anymore. I'd have quit on the spot, suspecting him of being in cahoots with the opposition. I might have talked to a lawyer to see if I could sue him for non-support. For mental cruelty. But my caller is a far nicer man than I and bided his time. Chewing at the insides of his mouth. Not wanting to explode because he's civilized (and I am most definitely not).

  Before it's brought up as some sort of an excuse, some partnerships DO allow pre-emptors to bid again. By agreement, those partnerships allow for pre-emptor to have as many as six cards in a side suit. To NOT be disciplined. To take their chances because they will get into some pickles and depend on their stellar card-play to mitigate their gambling at the table. But this was NOT such an occasion with such an agreement by such a pair. This was directly the opposite. Unstated, but just as cast in stone as the requirements for opening two spades, was the rule that prevented the opener from bidding again unless forced to by partner.

  I typed in "bridge bidding again after a preempt" into Google and returned a long list, most of which had snippets like this: Once you preempt do not bid again unless you are forced to do so by your partner. That was from the VERY FIRST ENTRY, a link to one of Richard Pavlicek's teaching pages. Pavlicek is one of the best teachers (and players) in the American Contract Bridge League. He calls the prohibition against bidding again a Universal Rule. And he highlights the rule in a big, hard-to-miss pink box. And similarly statements can be read in ANY of the first 100 links Google conjures up. 

  No Bridge partner is perfect. Even me [G]. But to actually try your damnedest to futz up your partner and your team is revolting at best, a capital crime in the making. If it was me who allowed this goofball to ruin my tournament for me, I'd be taking out full-page ads in the local newspapers and in the Bridge magazines warning other players just how completely clueless and feckless this pseudo-intellectual is. He should be run out of town, tarred and feathered, and sent off to play tiddly-winks with his mental peer group. 

  Insulting my friend is MY job. I take ownership of that seriously. I'd name names here, but I wasn't given it. Maybe you've met the man and can give him my regards. It would involve a slap across the face or a right upper-cut depending on your proclivities for boxing. Just let me know where to send the Get Well Later card. 

  I'm coming out of retirement as soon as my most recent bout of illness is over with. You've been warned.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

LIFE: Shame on You, Politicians of Canada

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This will be a Stage 13 Rant. You've been warned.

Like a lot of people, especially older people, I need an emergency phone. I don't need a portable computer when I'm out and about or when the phone goes out at home. I just need some means to reach emergency assistance and to call a taxi to return me home on one of my rare forays from the Castle of Confusion. I know this to be the way a sizable portion of the phone-using population of both Canada and the US approach having a cell phone.

In the United States, you can buy a prepaid phone, use the minutes/money you bought with it and at the end of your prepaid use of telephone service, you can either buy another phone, decide not to have an emergency phone or buy some more service use. If it takes you a long while to use up your service that you have paid for it, so be it. You bought it, you own it

But here in Canada, where the law of the land for gift certificates and gift cards is NO EXPIRATION, our telecommunications companies STEAL the money of prepaid phone users if they don't use them by some decided upon expiration date. If you give the companies a hundred bucks, that expiration date will be a year away. Lesser amounts can mean as little as weeks and or a month. In fact, I can buy a Virgin gift card that will never, ever expire. But the money I gave Virgin Mobile (an indistinguishable branch) last year during my emergency when my phone service died due to my VOIP box failing, will soon be STOLEN from my account, via a legal contract I signed, by the oh-so-helpful, hip folks at Branson's legacy to Canadian consumerism (and the politicians who have continued to turn a blind eye to this practice).

In the last year, until last week, I had used a total of $4.80 worth of time. I went crazy and burned off another five bucks worth last week, out of spite, not out of need. I was in my living room, sitting beside me phone. In all, I will have paid $115 for those eight one-minute calls to the taxi company over the last year. That's more than $14 a minute. This isn't the dawn of the cellular age any more. It's been three decades since phone calls cost $14 a minute ... even with the money-grubbing roaming charges telecoms are thrilled to get away charging.

Last year, in the midst of my emergency that included a major malfunction by my then car-rental company (and yes, I am VERY, VERY, VERY HAPPY I switched to Discount Rent-A-Car, who picks me up and drops me off after giving me use of a good car, all for less money and WAAAAAAY less hassle than that other company that likes to advertise about the pick-up service), I was told by the salesman at Virgin Mobile that I could roll over my account with a minimal payment ($15), implying that that would then extend my expiration date to 2014. WITHOUT SAYING IT SPECIFALLY. What he said was true. That payment today or tomorrow would, in fact, extend my account ... for one month. A similar payment September 13th would give me another month. And so on and so on. Of course, the actual cheaper extension would be to pay another year-extending 100 bucks, not get bled to death for $180 a month a time. I asked several times, he danced around the specifics, but left me with the absolute belief I had found the deal I wanted ,,, to replace the crappy 7-Eleven phone that had cacked during the emergency,

Grating even further, he actually gave me the huckster's pitch to seal the deal. "Why don't you take the 10 buck a month plan and you'll get your minutes at 10 cents a minute? Then, when the emergency is over, switch your account over to the yearly plan. You'll pay 35 cents a minutes, but you tell me you will not be using the phone much. You'll get cheap minutes now when you have to use them, and then later, who cares?"

It was EASY to complete the plan all by myself. It was almost as if the setup at Virgin Mobile even allowed for this kind of scamming of the company in three easy steps. Do you think he saw an old dude coming and got ready to bank the commission? I hope he loses the means to procreate. In a painful way.

Completely oblivious to my compete and utter misunderstanding of the contract I had signed and then only cursorily read over ... hey, I'm not a lawyer in any case, I even 'TOPPED' up my account with a $15 donation to the Virgin Mobile bottom line last month. Actually a little more than a month ago. THAT donation has expires today. I should have waited until noon Friday, and THAT would have extended my account until the 15th next month. Doing it early? Well let's just say that the less-than-fine folks at Virgin Mobile laughed and laughed and laughed and then deposited the money directly to their account. Tomorrow, my account will plunge to 86 dollars because I have been using my FIRST purchase of time until it expires. The $15 bucks expired without me ever using a single minute. I double-donated to Virgin Mobile. I'm so proud of my stupidity.

So, given my antipathy towards the lying scum that hooked me for Virgin Mobile, you KNOW I was switching providers. Problem is, the cartel of telecommunications companies here in Canada have taken an oath to Muerta. Nobody will break the agreed on practice NOT to honour prepaid plans without having expiration dates. Steal it while you can. Maybe tomorrow, the sheep that have elected our current set of politicians, an incapable bunch if there ever was one, will be smote down by an angry electorate that will resent grandmom and granddad being soaked for money they need a heck of a lot more than the telecommunications companies do (some of the most profitable in the land).

I talked to one gentleman at Wal-Mart about maybe going with KooDoo (who have a new setup coming next week that MIGHT be a cost-effective). Currently, the same deal was in place for any of the service providers Wal-Mart, champion of low costs and big profits, sold. But he did tell me of one lady who pays the 100 dollar a year charge and keeps doing it, for fear of losing the money she has, in effect, on account with whichever one of the evil companies she is with. She now has a little bit less than 500 dollars on account. And she uses the phone LESS THAN I DID this past year. When will this stop? When that company can claim a THOUSAND bucks that have been given them in good faith, without providing the service that was paid for? Is there an upper limit to their collective greed?

The Telecom companies are campaigning hard to keep American competition out of Canada. How much market share would Verizon or some such company grab in our nation if they merely offered non-expiring prepaid phones? Five percent? More? Much more? Sure, all the ads are about foreign invaders coming to Canada and using the infrastructure they didn't bleed one cent in building ... as if the Telecom companies that rule the roost here in Canada spent much more than one (per) cent. And the other ads about cherry-picked examples being cheaper here than our American cousins pay is more embarrassing butt-covering and hope you don't smell the fertilizer.

Obviously, American companies CAN, in fact, BUY market share with competition-crushing introductory pricing. Losses? Thinking long term means they can treat Canada as a little experiment that will eventually pay off. So, yes, the $*_)%&## at the CRTC and in parliament, need to set up some protections,

But one of those protections should NOT be the cartel's right to steal prepaid money. Somebody with deep pockets and a victimized grandmother, has to take on the telecoms in court. Contractually agreed-to, or not, we victims of the telecom thievery, cannot lose this case in an unbought court. It's LUDICROUS that giving money to a company doesn't require service or goods in exchange, merely the promise that service will be available for a short period of time. Well, unless we are talking about prostitution.

The solution is simple. Give us what we paid for, the access to your network. If the price rises while we wait, that's on us. If the price for ALL users prepaid or on-going contract, rises from 35 cents a minute to 40, then that's the cost to we consumers for fiddling as Ottawa counted. We get less minutes, maybe waaaaaaaaaaay less minutes, if we wait a year, two years, three years to use our never-dwindling account. Or slowly dwindling. It shouldn't just go POOF! one Friday lunch hour. As long as price raises are fair (and I wouldn't trust the TELECOMS to figure out what fair is, it would have to be court-mandated), I think common business practices would apply. At the comic book chain I do point of sale software for, a $10 gift certificate bought you three comics two years ago. That same certificate, held to today, will only buy two comics, because of the rise in prices of comics over those 24 months. BUT YOU STILL GET TWO COMICS. Maybe just one if you wait another few years. BUT YOU STILL GET ONE.

What am I going to do in the short term? Well, I have oodles (well a few) friends who are always talking about giving me rides to and fro. Say to the hospital at the end of this month for my first eye operation. Thanks Marilyn, That'll save me the taxi phone call. I will run the risk of my VOIP not going south and go without the emergency phone, At some point I might end up with Rogers. If I can get some money off the other parts of my life I pay Rogers for, I might defray the cost of an emergency phone to double digits. I say MIGHT, because Rogers wants a ten-spot to 'switch' me over to Rogers system, graciously allowing me to use the phone I bought for the Virgin Mobile scam. Lucky for me, I only ever gave my cell phone number out to three people. I can't be held ransom for 'keeping' my number in the switch-over process, And maybe Koodoo's deal with Wal-Mart will offer a five dollar a month plan, which I would grudgingly pay. But for right now, I really, really like the idea of not giving the thieves one red cent. 

By the way, when I dictated this originally, the word blanked out before the CRTC reference was either about lack of mental acuity or a personal evaluation of the total lack of ethical backbone. I can't remember which. But it was one of them.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

TV: The Top 25 Shows of 2012-13

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It's my birthday and today I celebrate one of my top joys in life, TV. I normally do this in three parts, but I've got some eye issues right now (cataract surgery coming) and I don't have the ability to throw out the normal five thousand words or so. But don't get too happy. My verbiage flows thanks to dictation software.

I remind all that this isn't the Best of list. It's not about supposed quality or uniqueness. There's no Game of Thrones or Mad Men, because I simply don't love those shows. I watch them, I enjoy them. But not as much as the shows on this list. And I don't apologize for what I enjoy.

Before getting to the Top 25 and the new-this-year Honourable Mentions, let me talk about my greatest disappointment, Arrow.

A comic-book related series. How could it go wrong? Well, despite being one of the many, many pretty people populating the series, Stephen Amell is amazingly wooden in his performance. And I actually think the effect was on purpose to give the feeling of a recent rescuee from a deserted island. Deserted? There were more people on that island than Manhattan, it seemed to me. Sure, we got a chance to see a couple of long-time DC characters on the island, including the eventually pretty important Shado. But the flashbacks were annoying, disruptive and the only rare moments when Amell didn't hold his face in a frozen smirk all season long. So, despite the presence of long-time fave supporting actors Paul Blackthorne and Colin Salmon, and the TV debut of Emily Bett Rickards (Felicity Smoak), who is cute, adorably geeky, young and CANADIAN!!!, Arrow cannot be recommended. Maybe in year two after Amell's botox injection in his jaws wears off.

By the way, no cartoon made my list this year despite good wind-downs for Green Lantern and Star Wars Clone Wars. And don't be afraid of Archer if you run across it and have already hit puberty. But the most cartoon fun I had this year was a DVD set of Bodacious Space Pirates, a Japanese anime. Annoying music and filled with the usual anime fixation on shots up girls' skirts. But a well thought out science fictional universe and some great voice-acting (including the English dubbing in the first 13 of the 26 episodes I saw).

And no computer tech news show from the Internet this year. I might have at least mentioned GeekTV with Cally Lewis and John P., but I normally caught up with them in bunches after the fact. And the dreary phone-obsessed news coming out of Tech News Today just turned me off. (I'm having issues with my emergency phone provider and will not be extending my agreement with Virgin Mobile. And I really hate that the idiot government lorded over by Stevie Harper continues to allow telephone company to take back pre-paid minutes for their telephone system. while if you buy a gift card from the SAME COMPANY, it lasts forever. Cuz you PAID for it.)

So, what DID make the Honourable Mention list. Sort of the B List consisted of Da Vinci's Demons from Great Britain, Elementary, The Following (which should have been better, but turned into this year's Smash, another way of saying an over-hyped disappointment for not being great, but merely good), Mr and Mrs Murder from Australia, Doctor Who from Great Britain (if for only bringing back some beloved doctors of the past), Continuum from right here in Canada and The Voice, whether it be the American, Australian or British versions. The Voice scores because of the minimal humiliation factor that drove American Idol for years and still plagues that show. And because I hear a lot of familiar old music when I watch. 'Nuff said. Continuum is here more for potential that realization. But the SF on the show is first-rate. Rachel Nichols might very well share an acting coach with Amell, which is unfortunate. But it is generally a clever show that had 'Time' in every first-season show title and 'Second' in every second season title. It's a little thing. But it amused me. Elementary was the American take on Britain's hugely successful Sherlock and came out second-best, but entertaining nonetheless. Da Vinci's Demons, had all the camera tricks from Sherlock, decent mysteries and the suddenly popular years gone waaaaaaaaaay by milieu.

The REAL contenders for the 25th spot and the REAL Honourable Mention shows were Kangaroo Dundee from Australia and Don't Trust That B---- in Apt. 23. Dundee only went two episodes but it really hit home just how much it takes to run a Kangaroo Rescue Centre out in the outback of Australia. Kangaroos are equal parts lovable and pains in the butt. But when the first episodes ends in a cliff-hanger of rain and fire, the second episode simply can't be missed. The other half of the HM list is a star vehicle for James Van Der Beek, who played a hyper-realized version of himself, parodying himself to a degree way beyond that of Matt LeBlanc in Episodes. He was funny throughout and co-stars Krysten Ritter and Dreama Walker were top-notch too. It was presented as a Mean Girl comedy, but Van Der Beek made it worth watching every episode that eventually got released. Too bad people preferred 'family' comedies about truly unlikable people pretending to be related to each other. Oh well.

25. Comic Book Men (Last Year: 15th)

Hey, I know these guys. Not these specific guys, but Comic Book Shop guys. This is a reality show that hits home (I sell point of sale software into this niche market). In some ways, of the various guys, Walt and Bryan can be a bit meaner than the store manager and omni-present employee/customer that I'm familiar with (Bryan's got MY role in life). Plus Ming is played a bit more of a dupe than the minions at the stores I'm familiar with ... but not far off. In all, it's an ode to my world. So how can I NOT put Kevin Smith's vanity (store and show) project on my list. Again. If nothing else, it might teach people that bring stuff to nostalgia stores (including comic shops) that the store will ONLY give them 10 to 30 per cent of the perceived value of the item in question. IF the store wants to buy the item at all. I wish more people wouldn't go home disappointed in their dreams of getting rich not being realized.

24. The National with Peter Mansbridge (Canada)

I found myself watching LOTS of news this year because I was too lazy to haul my butt up the stairs and into the office after watching the game of the night. And over that time, found myself enjoying the work of Mansbridge more and more. I actually started scheduling around being able to see the At Issue panel on Thursday's along with the commentary that followed it from Rex Murphy, our national curmudgeon who hails from Newfoundland ... and you know I'm half Newfie. I reached curmudgeonly status YEARS ago. Don't agree with Rex more than half the time, but it's fun listening to him bloviate. Or blovate if you don't like him.

 23. Hart of Dixie (LY: 9th)

It's all about Rachel Bilson, who remains one of the most likable actresses on TV. Like her, like the show. If she's not self-sufficient for you to spend an hour waaaay down South, then move along. nothing to see here. Not the biggest fan of Jaime King's Lemon but I warmed up to her this year. And the acting jobs by the men continues to entertain, with Cress Williams being the standout. I appreciate that Scott Porter and Wilson Bethel pull in the women. But for me, it's all about the sassy NYC import, Bilson's Dr. Zoe Hart. I look forward to visiting Bluebell again in the fall.

22. Dragon's Den tied with The Lang-O'Leary Exchange (Canada)

I'm calling this the Kevin O'Leary slot. O'Leary isn't in the least, a likable person on TV. Don't think I'd get along with him in person either. But if I hit the jackpot, I wouldn't hesitate for a minute giving him some of my money to invest. (I'd be smart enough to share the money around several investment firms, but not smart enough to actually, you know, EARN the money). O'Leary is the signature Dragon and is so good at it that he plays the same role in the American Shark Tank. But he is always fascinating with what he says and every Den pitch really revolves around him making an offer or cruelly ending the commercial hopes of whoever wants his dough. (He's wrong JUST often enough for there to be some doubt as to his predictions). And on the Exchange, he tangles with the lust-worthy Amanda Lang, who's smart as a whip, can usually battle the free market guru to a draw and, as mentioned, is a not-so-secret crush of mine. Now, truth be told, I tend to 'catch  up' with the shows Sunday nights when CBC frequently replays the shows after the late news. But that's the time I have available for watching it. So, come for O'Leary and stay for the lady, Ms. Lang.

 21. Republic of Doyle (LY: 5th) (Canada)

Okay, Okay, so they didn't kill off Mark O'Brien's Des character after all. Heck, last year's rating was almost completely based on the finale's shooting (and hopefully disposing) of the comic relief for a show that didn't need it. The banter between star Allan Hawcon, Sean McGinley and even the ever-beautiful Lynda Boyd was good enough for me. Plus there was Marthe Bernard and another of my crushes, Krystin Pellerin, to serve as either foils or threatened 'extended family' members for Hawco's Jake Doyle to rescue. Sigh. More Des foolishness and idiot savant insights plagued the show. Ergo, the precipitous drop in the rankings. But at least Jake and Leslie (Pellerin) were together by season's end. Well, up until the very end, with Leslie headed to Ottawa for a new job and Jake literally shanghaied and heading in the opposite direction. Lots of old friend and foes re-appeared this season. I hated the opening sequence that had Leslie undercover, but regardless, this detective show from God's Little Green Acre (Newfoundland if you've never read my blog before), makes the edge of my top 20 of the year. Now, would SOMEBODY make O'Brien an offer for a big-paying, high-profile spot on US TV?

 20. The Blue Rose (New Zealand) 

 Jane March, a temp secretary at a big New Zealand law firm, arrives for her first day of work to find [1] that she's filling the desk of a woman who died within the last few days [2] that a foul-mouthed friend of the dead woman invades her office to prevent the deadbeat ex-spouse from benefitting from the death [3] that the death might be murder and [4] that a gang of well-meaning do-gooders is forming to find Rose's killer. Yep, an eventful first day. The formation of the Scoobie gang (one of the other characters even remarks on who each of the various members are from the famous Scoobies of Scooby-Do fame). It takes two episodes for The Blue Rose Society to form: Jane, forcibly retired predecessor Sonya/Elizabeth, IT tech and certified bug-eyed worrier Ganesh and finally the courier service manager with a heart and no censor on her mouth, Linda. Along the way, the Scoobies help others who have been defrauded by putative bad guy Derek Peterson, played with Jack Welchian zeal by Stelios Yiakmis. I say putative because he and one of the Society members do end up in bed later in the series. Although the story lines about helping others only serves as an under-pinning for the murder investigation, there's enough to blunt the week-by-week impact of discovering just who murdered Rose, the event that kicked off the show. I know this show is on the bubble down New Zealand way. PLEASE TV3, order a second series.

 19. Vikings  

 The show from the History Channel petered out at the end, turning into a well-shot, magic clap trap Nordic version of Game of Thrones. But until then, Travis Fimmel made Ragnar Lothbrok almost lovable, despite his pillaging, plundering, slave-owning and womanizing. But you never forget that the Vikings of lore were basically Northwestern equivalents of Atilla The Hun's hordes, trading horses for dragon shield ships. In the first episode he takes his son to see a beheading, not allowing him to turn away. He and feisty wife Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick, another Canadian treasure) engage in sparring that's as much physical as verbal. In other words, a man to observe from some safe distance away. Which, it turns out, is NOT England of that time. Ragnar, after deposing the old Earl (Played with nuance by Gabriel Byrne), makes a repeat voyage to England to bedevil the king of North Umbria. IF you decide to stop watching AFTER the King vows revenge for a successful second Viking incursion, you'll thank me. Skip the last two shows in Gotaland. Next year? Worth testing to see if the writers want to get rid of the mumbo jumbo and get back to pure violence and mayhem. That's what made the Vikings great.

18. Orphan Black (Canada)

 A tour de force by Tatiana Maslany, who plays seven different characters in this Canuck Sci-Fi show. Well, seven different clones of the same character. But they are all distinct and different enough to make Maslany's efforts noteworthy. To describe the plot is useless. You can't follow it unless you know all the players and all of them don't even know what's going on. The initial Maslany role is that of street punk Sarah who witnesses her own doppelganger commit suicide.. Naturally (hey, it's science FICTION), Sarah takes over the life of Beth, who's a cop currently on suspension because of a shooting gone bad. Flopping between her 'role' as Beth and her cop partner, Art (Kevin Hancard) and her own personna, Sarah, and her child-hood best bud Felix (an over the top Jordan Gavaris), she looks for information about who might be out to get her. By the second episode in, there are five different clones running around (well, four, another's dead quickly thanks to a sniper, which is the reason Sarah is so anxious to play cop). And of course, there's more clone discoveries on the way. I have this to say about Maslany: She reminds of the chameleon-like James Nesbitt. She benefits from a great costume department here while Nesbitt had to change characters in Jekyll with nothing more than body language. But the feat is in the ballpark.

17. The Big Bang Theory (LY: 17th)

How's that for stability for you? My favourite scripted comedy, The Big Bang Theory does feel a little long in the tooth. Sheldon, played brilliantly by Jim Parsons, isn't quite as fresh as he used to be. The Sheldon-Amy affair has moved forward glacially, while the entertainment value has receded. But I honestly like the mature Penny-Leonard dynamic with Kaley Cuocco and Johnny Galecki and that keeps this show afloat after the mistake of breaking up Howard and Rajesh with Simon Helberg's Howard's marriage to Bernadette played by Melissa. Kunal Nayyar just can't carry the overly smart, but unattached Rajesh who's even more socially awkward than Sheldon. It's depressing. But in a sea of mediocre comedy on TV, I can still count on a half-dozen laughs and double that in sight gags every show. It used to be a contender for number one, actually getting to the summit of this list in 2009. But now it's just entertainment as I await the inevitable Penny and Leonard wedding in the series finale.

16. Real Time with Bill Maher (LY: 4th)

When you get gifted by such a paper man as the Republican nominee for President in an election year, Bill Maher should have hit new highs in taking down Mitt Romney and his team. He didn't. It was almost like he didn't want to keep hitting somebody who was down. As much as he disliked Romney and his papier mache foundation, Maher knew that Romney was, at heart, a good man. The fun was all during the Republican primary season with the wingnuts on full display. After that, Maher amused himself by donating a million bucks to the Obama campaign to get a reaction. Which was predictable and vehement and not worth the oxygen wasted. He had some good guests, including David Frum who I grew to respect a lot. The news of his father's passing so soon after his father-in-law's death (Peter Worthington) was sad, very sad. But Frum seems to have his game face back on, given his good-bye blog at The Daily Beast. But Frum seemed the only Republican who wanted to discuss moving forward, rather than the Tea Party-driven back to the past campaign. And without two viable sides, the discussions at panel's table were almost all joke-driven setups for Maher. America needs a vibrant conservative party to help revitalize the liberal Democrats. It doesn't have it now and talking about the current brain-deadlock that passes for political discourse is just not as entertaining as it should be. As it used to be.

15. Would I Lie To You (LY: Tied 14th) (Great Britain / New Zealand)

This is a Lee Mack vehicle in England and survives a truly awful year for his scripted comedy (Not Going Out) to keep Mack in my top 15. He's ably assisted by David Mitchell, the erudite opiner to Mack's crude Northman, and Rob Brydon who has now completely replaced Angus Deayton in my mind as the quizmaster. The show, which is SUPPOSED to be a game show featuring two teams of three celebrities telling whoppers (or truths) to each other and hoping the other side guesses wrong. But the show is moving further and further away from its game roots and turning into a gigantic "can you top this?" session and it works beautifully. I imagine they shoot 50 percent more questions than what appears on the air (Indeed there have been Christmas specials in recent years with some of that extra material). And the concept is so easy, and SO FUNNY, that it has made its wade to the opposite ends of the Earth where a successful season was held in New Zealand. I don't hardly know ANY of the Kiwi celebs, but the stories are name-defyingly funny. It is such a fool-proof concept. I wish it would come to Canada. George Stroumboupoulos would be the quiz master. Brent Butt and Rick Mercer would be captains. And hilarity would ensue. First episode? Nancy Robertson (Butt's better half) and Wendel Clark on Mercer's team against Butt, Raine Maida and Martin Short. Can I get a producer credit?

14. Nothing Trivial (New Zealand)

What's this? A THIRD New Zealand show? Not as many as the number of Canadian shows. But still ... Take the almost dead Bar Trivia scene (internet-enabled phones have largely killed the art form), and add a bunch of interesting characters and you get a show that improved year over year and jumped into my Top 25. And I lent my disks to a friend from my old NTN Trivia days and he called me back three days later and sleepily asked when was the third season starting. Heh, heh, heh. Let's start with the why's with Tandi Wright, who plays Catherine Duvall a divorcee with a teenage daughter and an ex-rocker ex-husband. She's beautiful, complicated and just ready to emerge from social isolation when she meets up with Brian King's trivia team at the local bar. She's hooked the team's table and sits idly by after she acquiesces to letting them share the lucky table. As questions go by, she can't help but join in. And it's game on. She forms a loose association with Mac (Shane Delaney), hard-scrabble business woman Michelle (Nicole Whippy) and sunny Emma (Debbie Newby-Wood). Through the course of the season, Emma and Brian marry and go through the growing pains friends-turned-spouses often do. Meanwhile, the long-expected Mac/Catherine hook-up happens, but not without a lot of drama from Mac's ex, Jo, played with harridan horribleness by Katherine Kennard. Like with Comic Book Men, this series hits close to home and I recommend it highly.

13. Last Resort

Unlucky 13th for the 13-episode long cancelled series. Last Resort was always a movie-length thriller puffed out into an ongoing series. A great idea with a bad follow-through. But in cancelling the series and giving the creators enough time to finish the story, a fairly strong story was created. Unlike many American shows not actually listed as a mini-series, Last Resort actually had a (GREAT) beginning, a middle and an end. Plus some strong acting from the likes of Andre Braugher (no big surprise there), Autumn Reeser, Daniel Lissing and Scott Speedman. Robert Patrick was, more or less, his usual ramrod self and Bruce Davison was a good guy Pentagon guy ... for a change. The idea of a nuclear sub taking over an island when it won't participate in a junta-driven pre-emptive strike on Pakistan by wackos in the American government and then declare itself a sovereign state, was brilliant and well-played. The problem is a lack of story possibilities inherent in that idea. It needed finishing, and finishing quickly. The lack of other savvy viewers provided that. Out of nowhere, the action came to a conclusion, with heroes returned to American soil and the bad guy warhawks thwarted by the actions of a single woman, Reeser's character. Her ability to rise above her beginnings as an annoying frenemy in The O.C. has me impressed with Reeser. Just wish she'd choose more long-lasting projects.

12. Banshee

If not for Vikings, Cinemax's Banshee would be the most violent show listed here. It's a caper show without a caper. But plenty of sex (we ARE talking about Cinemax here) and violence. Like a scene where the local Big Bad quickly cuts off the fingers of an underperforming underling and feeds them to the dog. Then orders the dogs after the fleeing man after they had finished their snack. That was NOT the most gruesome thing seen on the show. For a caper show that featured a recently released con taking over as sheriff of Banshee PA, the amount of crime committed by the former top-notch thief consists of exactly one show, a painting heist that comes out of nowhere. And Sheriff Lucas Hood's plan goes awry, needing help from former girlfriend Carrie Hopewell to get his butt out of the sling. And, although she denies it, Carrie, who used to be Ana back in the days before Lucas went to prison, is still hot for lawmen. Just takes her awhile to put thoughts of DA hubby Gordon behind her. Well, before he figures things aren't all that great and leaves concurrently ... with the kids. It's all a big mess that eventually brings Lucas and Ana into conflict with her father, played with Ukrainian Mob charm by one of the few names in the cast, Ben Cross of Chariots of Fire fame. He's the outsider Big Bad and brings guns, thugs and a revengeful attitude to town for a bullet-filled finale. And when it's all done, Cross's Mr. Rabbit is on the run, the local Big Bad, shunned Amish Kai Proctor (Ulrish Thomsen) is there to pick up the pieces for next season's goal of making Lucas (Antony Starr) and Carrie (Ivana Milicevic) miserable. But they will have Scoobies Job (Hoon Lee) and Sugar (Frankie Faison) by their side for that battle. Now, before anybody complains, I understand fake sheriff Lucas should have been more mindful of playing before the TV cameras, time and time again. Yes, the violence is often poorly shot. Yes, there are other logic holes throughout the show. But those are minor nits while we wait to see if the FOUR, count 'em, FOUR cliff-hangers pay off in the next season. Oh, and Odette Annable joined the cast late in the season. 'Nuff said.

11. New Tricks  (Great Britain)

New Tricks fell out of the top 25 last year after being fifth in 2010 and 18th in 2011. There has never, ever been an actual bad year in the nine seasons New Tricks has been on the air, but this season was the third best year ever for the geezer version of Cold Case. Obviously the first season and 2009-2010 series were the only seasons I enjoyed more. The reason for New Tricks' return to the rankings this season was the retirement of James Bolam's Jack Halford (in a teary-eyed ride off into the sunset. VERY well done). His replacement, inserting (relatively) young blood into the show was Dennis Lawson, playing Steve McAndrew, an ex DI from Glasgow. Adding a little Scottish circumspection into the team doesn't hurt the entertainment value at all. We did see less Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong) and even squad leader Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman) than usual, but the show's producers put a lot of effort into setting up a budding friendship between Gerry Standing (Dennis Waterman) and McAndrew. A very, very good move. A season finale wherein Standing and McAndrew are seconded to the Glasgow police department to set up a UCOS operation there was a great show. Indeed, with spy shows, the traditional whodunnits and the inherent Scottish-English grin-inducing conflicts, it was a season to remember for New Tricks.

10.  The Good Wife (LY: 11th)

Honestly, the show is not as good as its heyday in 2011 when it was the best hour of entertainment on TV. But second-best Good Wife is plenty good. The focus has moved increasingly away from Alicia Florrick (Julianne Margulies)'s point of view to the other cast characters at her law firm. In many ways, this has become the reverse of a show like Boston Legal, where the firm boiled down to the characters played by William Shatner and James Spader. Here, rich vibrant characers played by Josh Charles, Christine Baranski and Archie Panjabi are worth watching all by their lonesome. Heck, even Matt Czuchry's Cary no longer caused me to clench my teeth over his smarminess. The character has grown up a lot. The backdrop to the season is the gubernatorial race Alicia's hubby with a past, Peter (Chris Noth), is contesting right down to a season finale on election night. I still think Panjabi's Kalinda might be the most interesting fictional character on TV. And Baranski can keep up (indeed, be more interesting this year) with Margulies. In most ways, The Good Wife is the consummate legal thriller each week. But that little bit extra the leads provide make this a top ten show. Again.

9. Red Widow

Cancelled, as was Last Resort. Ranked highly by me. Not that anybody cares. Oh well. Red Widow at least had a complete season and a fully complete story with a tiny, tiny Dallas-like cliff-hanger to look forward to a non-existent second season. Oh well. Radha Mitchell played widowed (in the first episode) Marla Walraven. She's the stay-at-home mom with three kids and a hubby who uses his boat to smuggle marijuana, enjoying a successful small niche in the local drug trade. Her brother, a loser for most of the series, helps out on the boat and dreams big ... and badly. Her papa is a west coast mob guy (the Russian mob). And yet she remains the perpetual protected princess. Then, when one of her brother's schemes goes awfully awry, her husband is murdered (and blamed for the botched heist for quite a while by the scruples-free brother). She has to assume the debt. Payable to local gangster Nicholae Schiller, played with charm and lethal attitude by Goran Visnjic. Who killed Marla's husband? The 'who' changes frequently it seems, and we know from the cliff-hanger, at least one of the kids didn't get the message about who the bad guy really was. Leaving a door to open and a gunshot to be heard. In the eight episodes of the series, Marla becomes fairly proficient, if nervous, while playing drug and gun runner. She comes ever so close to turning bad girl and to getting close to Nicholae. I wish we'd had more time to see if she could have continued to walk the line or go over it permanently. THAT would be some character development I don't think I have ever seen. A chance missed. Oh well.

8. The Americans

Keri Russell isn't Felicity anymore. Russell rose to fame in the late 90's, it seems, based largely on her hair. When she cut it, things went badly for her and for her series, Felicity. It took her awhile to find the right vehicle, but Russell is a star again, playing Soviet sleeper agent Elizabeth Jennings in the FX series The Americans. It's an early 80's era show with the FBI chasing after phantom Russian spooks living across the street in their nightmares. Except that's exactly the case where the Jennings, husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) and kids Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) are neighbours and budding best pals with FBI agent Stam Beeman (Noah Emmerich), his wife Sandra (Susan Misner) and their son Matt (Daniel Flaherty). The first episode sets up Stan as potentially suspicious of the Jennings family, but Philip outwits him and the spy race is on. It seems a one-sided chase for many episodes. Philip is cagey and works through his growing suspicion that the Western way might be the right way, while Elizabeth turns out to have a mean streak as wide as her fake smile. Stan's well-regarded around the office, run by Richard Thomas' Frank Gadd. But he doesn't seem as smart as he should be. He sets up Russian Embassy secretary Nina to spy for him, but eventually gets played long enough for Annet Mahendru's character to rise to power in the Embassy and set in motion becoming a triple agent. The Afghani-born Mahendru is a real revelation and is going to be a star. The various schemes that worked for so long fall apart under the relentless pressure of never trusting anyone and the first season ends in a cliff-hanger that has me thinking January can't come soon enough. Forget Christmas. Bring on The Americans.

7. Revenge (LY: 2nd)

No "How Mighty Are the Fallen?" headlines here. The sophomore season for Revenge was almost as entertaining as the first year. On one side, you have the rich, rich ... and evil Grayson family with Madeleine Stower as Victoria and Henry Czerny as Conrad, the parents. On the other side is the once Amanda Clarke and now rich, rich, and revengeful Emily Thorne, played by Canadian Emily VanCamp. In between is Daniel Grayson, played by Joshua Bowman. He's the once, then not, then once again fiancee of Emily. Plus, there are continuing, if not long-lived, complications by the once-Emily Thorne who now is Amanda Clarke (played by Margaret Levieva). She's street-smart, but not Hamptons-smart. And even though she connives her way into marrying Jack, Amanda/Emily's one true beloved, she can't skirt by the issues she creates for Victoria and Henry, connivers of the first order. In a series where lots of people get dead, although admittedly mostly of the almost deserving kind, Amanda has committed a fatal mistake. Eventually. And once the Amanda issue is resolved, it's back to revenge plotting and executing. It's entertaining in a sort of embarrassing way. But I truly admire Emily's ability to mix revenge and romance.

6. Rogue

If Red Widow took the titular heroine up to the line between right and wrong, Grace (Thandie Newton) takes that line and obliterates it in the first season of Rogue. Newton plays a cop who suffered having her kid killed in a random drive-by shooting last year. She's hanging on to her job and to her marriage by the tips of her fingers. And THIS is an officer the Oakland police send undercover? Clues to the non-randomness of her son's death point to the local crime family run by Jimmy Laszlo (Marton Csokas), The Laszlo's run the docks, but Jimmy is looking to move his youngest son over into legitimate business running a bank. But somebody has ripped him off of his 25 million dollars needed to set up the bank. The job of finding the thief and Grace's son's killer co-incides and Grace and Jimmy join forces. In several ways. Grace continues to act more like a gun moll than a police officer, even as dirty cop Buddy Wilson (Ian Hart) and good guy cop Lucas Mitchell (Ian Tracey) tried to keep her from going over the edge. Meanwhile the Laszlo gang crumbles as first one son and then the other, take shots at the old man. Literally in one case. After all the plotting and investigating is over, Grace is left standing and re-instated, while Jimmy seems to be walking away from the real Big Bad that operated the puppet strings from backstage all series long. My guess, is a second season sets up a rematch between Grace and Jimmy ... without the sex.

5. Person of Interest (LY: 13th)

I'm a motormouth. It's genetic, I think. I've long admired people who can hold their counsel and then keep it short and pithy. I can't do that. The go-to actor to play a character like that was David Janssen  The original Fugitive and Harry O, O'Hara and Richard Diamond. This century's version is Jim Caviezel. Now, on the face of things, Caviezel seems cut from the Amell mold. But Caviezel's ability to make stone-faced John Reese even more fearsome by smiling is impressive. Reese is not a talker. He's a doer, as the agent for Michael Emerson's Harold Finch. Harold is responsible for the computers that try to amass all the information floating around out there in the ether (we're talking the internet and assorted other computer conglomerations), and predict when non-terrorists are about to have a violent change of life experience. Then Reese intercedes. What made last year good was the fact that the spit out name isn't always the victim du jour. Sometimes they are the menace. And that separates Person of Interest from the normal perp-of-the-week police procedural. That and backup actors Taraji Henson and Kevin Chapman as Detectives Carter and Fusco. I think both are quite capable of winning a supporting actress/actor nomination. But the difference this year was a hard turn into true computerized paranoia. Bad guys figured out the existence of The Machine. Well, Bad Guys and Bad Girl, as played by Amy Acker (Root). But between the shadowy Decima operation and the police mob known as HR, the Good Guys find it a very difficult, if entertaining year. The season was a little convoluted, but it was worth unraveling the who's who to get to the finish line ... and empty building.

4. White Collar (LY: 3rd)

See what not having Hilarie Burton around every episode will do? White Collar slides to fourth after two straight third-place finishes. And it was ninth back in 2010 before Burton started playing Sara Ellis in the caper show headlined by Matt Bomer (Neil Caffrey) and Tim DeKay (FHI Special Agent Peter Burke). Now, there are plenty of other good actors on the show. Willie Carson is wonderfully squirrelly as Mozzie and Tiffani Thiessen has matured into a wonderful wife for DeKay's Burke. And the Scoobies at HQ, Marsha Thomason (Agent Barrigan) and Sharif Atkins (Agent Jones), are a necessary part of the success of the show. But I hate that reduced role Burton has, even though her visit this season was top-notch. Of course, most of the season is a case of "Beware what you ask for, you might get it" or as it was described in the show notes, Caffrey's search for his father. Caffrey finds out that father figure Peter is more of a dad than his actual Pops, played with pseudo charm and sleaziness by Treat Williams. Like Caffrey, you WANT to believe Dad's back and things will be better in the future. Only not so much. By season's end, Caffrey is back where he started, on the lam, and Peter's going to have to play the father figure again. Now imagine how a full season with Caffrey and Ellis would place White Collar next year?

3. The Newsroom

I really, really, really dislike Olivia Munn as an actor. Olivia Munn is in The Newsroom. And despite that, The Newsroom placed third this year. It's THAT good. Now, Munn is an undeniably cute young lady. And I've read she's a pleasure to work with. But on the Amell meter of acceptable acting capability she doesn't even rise to the threshold of having a rating. Her wooden readings off the prompter helped kill Attack of the Show, starting the rot that led to its extinguishing early this year. She was on and off the Daily Show before I could even complain or even consider a boycott. And The Newsroom is almost the best show of last year. It's that good. Now, some qualifiers. If you don't like Aaron Sorkin's writing, the rating is a cruel joke played on you for having read so far. If you have a problem with Jeff Daniels' character equating the American Tea Party with the Taliban (same recidivist attitude, different god prayed to), then oh, boy, is this the wrong paragraph for you. If like a LOT of people, including people in the media, you think shows ABOUT making TV are, at best navel-gazing, at worst, revealing how the sausage gets made, then you disagree with me vehemently. Reasonable men can agree to disagree. But you Newsroom haters, are wrong. Emily Mortimer is transcendent in this show, and were she single and drugged out of her mind, I would propose marriage to her immediately. Besides Daniels' weary newscaster Will McAvoy, there are also fine performances from Dev Patel as cyber-aware flunkie Neal Sampat, Sam Waterston as curmudgeonly News boss Charlie Skinner and Jane Fonda in a just-right amount of screen time as the media giant's owner. I didn't care about the love triangle between John Gallagher Jr (Jim Harper) and Thomas Sadoski (Don Keefer) with Alison Pill's Maggie Jordan in the middle. But Sorkin has never professed expertise in writing women characters. But he's done plenty fine with Mortimer's feisty producer Mac MacHale. Love it or hate it, the show knows no middle opinion. If you haven't watched it, you should. Then you should agree with me.

2. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (LY: 1st)

Did I mention the Daily Show's flirtation with Olivia Munn this past year? That'll teach Stewart. Now, having said that, Stewart et al produces the best half-hour (four nights a week, when not on vacation, which is a LOT of the time) on TV. It functions AS the news for a disarming number of liberal viewers. It's not as left-leaning as The Newsroom, but what's truly left of Sorkin? Still, the show fails to dominate TV simply because those on the right know they are going to be offended (being called on their righteous stupidity) and the lack of 50 per cent of the potential viewing audience stops Stewart from OWNING America. Although, his decision to take a Summer Vacation to direct, leaving the reins to a surprisingly effective John Oliver (the faux right winger, normally), has worked out well. Good for John. And Jon. The interviews at the end of the show are as important as the comedy bits up front. Those interviews continue to put 'real' news journalists to shame. Oliver and Stewart both can get two questions in in the space of a single Piers Morgan question. And here's the real trick of the show, they listen to the answer without interruption. Please take note Piers. If we wanted a monologue, you would have been auditioning for the late night talk shows. At any rate, mirth and information all wrapped up in a nice 22 minute package. That's the Daily Show (Can we get a fifth night when Jon comes back, with John being the Friday guy?).

1. ESPN 30 for 30

Ask me what the best hour of TV I saw this past 365 days and I'll have no problem citing episode seven of the revived series of specials called 30 for 30 that ESPN put out starting back in 2010. Survive and Advance was the story of the incredible run by the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack through the ACC tournament and then the NCAA tournament itself, culminating in the biggest upset of all time in NCAA men's basketball tournament action. The win over Houston's Phil Slamma Jamma group of future NBA all-stars and pros. It was the story of Jim Valvano, the iconic figure that told ESPN audiences, "never give up, never give up, never give up," as he was dying from cancer. It was something he'd already told his players. And a reunion of sorts, with Dereck Whittenburg organizing a dinner to remember Valvano and Lorenzo Charles, who scored the winning hoop as time expired, The rest of the team and assistant coaches were there, offering up remembrances from a season never to forget, as the show went from season's start to Valvano running around the arena in Albuerquerque looking for somebody to hug. This after spending a month getting a hug from Whittenburg after each improbable win, only one of which over the two tournaments wasn't a knuckle-biter. I remember watching that run, all of it, as it happened. And not being a believer until the improbable basket-ward heave by Whittenburg settled into Charles' hands and he dunked while Olajuwon watched from five feet away, frozen to the floor. I watched later as Valvano was ousted from the job he loved by political opportunists and a hanger-on who wrote a tell-all book that was mostly fiction. I watched as Dick Vitale and Mike Krzyzewski helped their friend down from the podium after his riveting speech at the Espies. And I saw for the first time, Valvano's speech when he showed up at one last reunion of his players and staff at the Wolfpack gym. I'm tearing up again just remembering it. For that ONE episode, ESPN deserves to be the top show this year.

But, as they say in the commercials, there's more. Just this season, the series also produced memorable shows on Ben Johnson (9.79) and Bo Jackson (You Don't Know Bo). Broke, the season starter, was a mind-shattering look at fortunes blown by athletes over the years. And the other shows were of high quality if not within my interest spectrum. And it seems either SportsNet or TSN appear to be running reruns of the first series, including special shows on the death of the USFL, Reggie Miller vs The New York Knicks, Ricky Williams, The House of Steinbrenner and Once Brothers, the tragic story of the too short life of Drazen Petrovic and the friendship he gave up with Vlade Divac during the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Another tear-jerker. You can still see the pain on Divac's face all these years later.

TV should entertain and inform. It should evince emotion and better that emotion be love or tears of compassion, than anger. I think my list does all of that. They are the most enjoyable shows of the last 365 days. Maybe not the best and certainly not a match for anybody else's Best-of list. But I don't have any regrets for making this list public. Maybe some of you can enjoy previously undiscovered shows, too.  See ya next year.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

INTERNET: The King (Google Reader) is Dead. Long Live the New King (Feedly)

[Do NOT click on ANY LINK found in the comment section of this blog. No matter how innocuous the link MIGHT appear to be, it is MOST LIKELY SPAM or a link to MALWARE. I am disheartened by the need to do this, which accounts for the sparsity of posts this year.]

I'm easy to enrage these days. Things are getting screwed up all over the Internet with new Web 2.0 re-designs that are horrible, just horrible. I've got a snit going (my second in a month) with PayPal over letting BitDefender charge me for a renewal when I used their program for a day last year and immediately replaced it with eSet Anti-Virus because eSet, ummmm, didn't DESTROY MY DATA!!!! You can read the details here.

Another major SNAFU was Google's decision to shut down Google Reader. This was close to a 'ban Google' moment as anything I've come across. I use GMail, I search with Google, whether it be text or images, occasionally use Google Docs in 'sharing' situations,'  and I've stayed with Google through thick and thin (Security issues, lack of technical support, re-designing for LESS effectiveness, etc.). And of course, this blog is a Google product (if not a creation).

But the actual Google thingamajig I used most often was Google Reader. Which was a RSS Feed congregator. For those who have never experienced that kind of programming, what it did was go through the sites I listed and see if anything new had been published by that site. THEN, it would present me with an ever-updating list of those changes. I could see the title of the change and a brief part of the text from the change, as well as the date and time. I could filter the list of news by site or by date and I could easily keep track of what I had read and what I hadn't. And I could even read the news right there in Google Reader, sans the ads and other detritus from the originating site. In all, I used Google Reader to track 249 sites. That's 249 sites that I didn't visit every day, unless Google Reader told me there was something of worth there. And even then, I could get the information directly without clicking on a link/bookmark or typing in an URL. And I could follow Google Reader on my main computer, the secondary computer in my bedroom or on any of my tablets spread out around the house. Or if I was at a client's and had some time to kill.


And that's not even taking into account the sharing features of the product that made it easy to blog or email or twitter about an interesting posting I had just read. I don't share much. But I DO rant [G].

Soooooo, let's just say I was in a murderous mood when I read Google was killing off Reader. I desperately needed to vent and couldn't. Reader was going away, despite being INCREDIBLY SUCCESSFUL, with MILLIONS of users and not a few businesses built on Reader services, because it didn't fit in with Google's 'vision of the future.' It was the victim of the Google-Facebook battle for eyeballs that STAY in their tight little website community. If any news congregating was going to be done, it would have to done within the community called Google+. It was the only way to monetize the service. My response to THAT decision was a string of epithets ten words long. No points for figuring out exactly what I said.

So, I went looking for alternatives. I tried Feedly. No. I tried OldReader. Maybe. I tried Omea Reader. Sort of yes. The problem with Omea was that it wasn't being supported any longer and was a standalone Windows program. I liked Omea's way of working, but hated having to occasionally access the news item in my web-browser because Omea would feed the link to my default browser, Firefox, while the browser I was using all the time was Pale Moon. (I like to control what and where I go to on the web, and don't normally like having my browsing session interrupted (and occasionally screwed up) by some program deciding to add to my loaded tabs list. I have Firefox security on high and Pale Moon a little looser because I don't have any unexpected third-party access.

I went back to OldReader, which was making massive changes every day, in the race to be the world's replacement for Google Reader. I've seen guesses of Google Reader's market ownership in the high 80 per cents area. THAT'S what Google determined wasn't worth keeping around. Grrrrrr!!!!!!! But something was just off with OldReader. It didn't have Google Reader's snappy response. Organizing was a chore with an awkward interface. I was still looking for the right alternative.

And I found it with Feedly. In the same month of hectic updating, Feedly had been working to take over the RSS universe. And I think Feedly has managed to do that, at least in spirit, if not in practice. The new Feedly made it a snap to read in all my Google Reader settings. (Getting those settings in OldReader in the original rush to find a replacement, had taken had taken me FOUR days!!!!). The organization remains a little iffy, but once you get the hang of it, I think it's eminently workable. And there are classifications (like Basketball, Baseball, OtherSports, Bridge, etc) where you can cut your big list down into manageable bites. Reading is pretty smooth, and the sharing even easier. Although the latter doesn't matter to me.

I have survived the loss of a loved site. I have found true affection for a new one. But still I seethe. And so does a lot of the industry. There was a very good article at TeleRead by Chris Meadows that organizes the thoughts he had and those of the industry in the wake of the Google Reader shutdown fiasco. In essence, Google said you can't complain to us when we shut down a product you were using for FREE. It's our toy, in essence, and we are taking our basketball home. Tough luck for you users and for the companies out there who had developed products (their livelihood) on the back of Google Reader services. Build your house on sand and don't be surprised the foundation can, and has, crumbled.

Don't trust Google, we make no promises to you at all.

I'm not far from actually hating Google enough to abandon it entirely. Do no harm?!?!!?! That's become a joke of a motto. But in this instance, with a quality replacement in hand, Google Reader cannot become the hill of my last battle with the juggernaut. It's not a hill worth dying over.

But dang, I wish Google hurt a little more over this than it does.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

SPORTS: A Few Helpful Hints for Alex Anthopoulos

[Do NOT click on ANY LINK found in the comment section of this blog. No matter how innocuous the link MIGHT appear to be, it is MOST LIKELY SPAM or a link to MALWARE. I am disheartened by the need to do this, which accounts for the sparsity of posts this year.]

Time to remake the Toronto Blue Jays before other teams find other solutions or discover they aren't buyers but are sellers after all. Yes, I'm talking about you San Francisco and the bi-polar Phillies.

The first trade is an innocent one that hides the Blue Jays' true intentions. The Jays send Darren Oliver closer to his Texas home by dealing him to St. Louis to put the finishing touches on the Cardinals' post-season roster. In return, the Blue Jays get back Marc Rzepczynski and, I hope, a little sugar in the form of outfield prospect Charlie Tilson. I think St. Louis will have to add their 12th-rated prospect simply to prevent Toronto from shopping Oliver to one of the other contenders. Rzepczynski is having a bad year and is in the minors, not helping St. Louis. And he'd still be in the minors after the trade, buffing up his confidence in Buffalo.

Then comes the still-treading water trade with Philadelphia, with the Blue Jays solving the future Phillie catching problems by packaging JP Arencibia, Emilio Bonifacio, on the mend closer Sergio Santos and top relief prospect John Stilson for C Carlos Ruiz, 3B Michael Young and two prospects, Canadian Phillipe Aumont a righty reliever, and second-sacker Cesar Hernandez, who is a ways away as they say. The Phillies can use Bonifacio at 3B for the rest of the year and have the catcher spot suddenly not be a concern past the end of Ruiz's contract this fall. Stilson is better than Aumont, or at least has more potential at this point. AND the addition of Santos gives the Phillies either a setup man to Jon Papelbon in the place of injured Mike Adams, or his replacement after the trade of Papelbon back to Boston. Or elsewhere. More of that later.

Toronto gets Young to man third for the rest of this season as Brett Lawrie moves to second base upon his return. Ruiz offers up more consistency and defence and less power than the controversial Arencibia and Hernandez is a cover-up for an otherwise thread-bare Toronto pipeline at second base. Aumont represents some pitching depth for Buffalo and a Canadian attraction if he lands as the fourth or fifth righty in the Toronto bullpen.

Having opened up the trading possibilities for Papelbon, Toronto must now move quickly and set up the Detroit-St.Louis World Series by dealing Casey Janssen and fallen pitching prospect Deck McGuire for 3B-OF Nick Castellanos and lefty staring pitcher Jose Alvarez. I would not be surprised to find this trade would require the addition of somebody like Sean Nolin or injured minor league lefty Luis Perez to finish the trade for Detroit. What Janssen would do is to close out the back-end of the Tigers' troubles with the bullpen. Adding Bruce Rondon as the setup man and letting the controllable and controlled Janssen close out games might be just what the doctor ordered for Detroit. Meanwhile Castellanos would immediately fill the injured outfield slot belonging to Melky Cabrera and would transition back to 3B in the off-season. Alvarez is young, left-handed and healthy, all things Brandon Morrow is not. Once Morrow is back, Alvarez would then contend to fill out the starting five with Todd Redmond, Esmil Rogers and JA Happ. The spots of RA Dickey and Mark Buerhle would not be up for grabs.

You noticed a significant missing name. And here's the 'give-up' trade that will either enrage or delight Toronto fans. Time will tell. Josh Johnson and Colby Rasmus would head to San Francisco in return for left-handed reliever Jose Mijares and a package of prospects, including OF Gary Brown, left-handed SP Eric Surkamp and 1B Ricky Oropesa. What San Fran gets out of this deal is as obvious as anything I could demonstrate. The Giants would be able to move Tim Lincecum to the bullpen where he seems destined to star, being replaced by Johnson. And Rasmus would immediately start in CF and resolve all but the Giants' lead-off issues. That would have to come in a second trade. But that's San Francisco's problem to make happen.

Toronto would get a replacement for Rasmus in the form of Anthony Gose in Buffalo as Gose FINALLY gets the permanent call in Toronto. Brown would then act as fourth OF in Toronto next year as Rajai Davis' contract finally expires. After that one-year apprenticeship, he should be ready to replace Cabrera in 2015. Surkamp gets the Buffalo SP job and a spot in the pecking order that is about eighth right now and maybe tenth when the injured Jays finally get healthy. Next year, another year removed from his own Tommy John surgery, Surkamp might be the Buffalo ace. Oropesa would be in the position of Adam Lind's eventual replacement (Edwin Encarnacion will play forever).

In all, Toronto would end up replacing a chunk of the minor league depth it lost over the past 12 months. Castellanos and Brown would be the two big names, but Hernandez, Oropesa and maybe Tilson are all top 20 prospects in Toronto. Surkamp could surprise although Aumont is mainly Canadian and really not a prospect anymore. The actual biggest issue would be getting Ruiz's name on a contract, a 2-year deal with a third-year option, to shepherd what could suddenly be a quite young Toronto pitching staff. Thankfully the Yankees are in a cost-savings mood for next year and Los Angeles and Boston seem happy with their catching staffs.

After the day of all these trades (what, you think Alex Anthopoulos would let moss grow around his feet?), the batting order would probably be Reyes, Bautista, Encarnacion, Lind, Young, Ruiz, Lawrie, Davis and Gose. The bench would be Castellanos, Thole and Izturis. The issue of Mark Derosa would hopefully end in him accepting a coaching job or, if necessary, being traded (I hear Washington would love him back). The need for eight relievers is too acute to afford DeRosa's main job of being Lawrie's mentor/baby-sitter. Cabrera's return would be at the expense of Castellanos on the roster and Davis in the starting line-up. And Cabrera would probably slot in between Young and Ruiz. Bison-bound, to accompany Brown, would be cult-hero Mune Kawasaki. The starting staff would probably go Dickey (which would result in Thole starting and batting eighth), Buerhle, Rogers, Alvarez and Redmond. Morrow would bump Redmond and Happ would result in either Rogers heading to the bullpen or Alvarez going to Buffalo. The bullpen would be backed by Steve Delabar (the new closer), plus Dustin McGowan, Neil Wagner and Brad Lincoln from the right and the lefty squad of Brett Cecil, Aaron Loup, Jose Mijares and Juan Perez. Should Rogers end up back relieving, the obvious once, and future, Buffalo Bison is Brad Lincoln. In Buffalo, Rzepczynski and Aumont would await the inevitable injuries or down-turn in performances. The Bison-New Hampshire Fisher Cat line-up of prospective starters would also include Redmond, Surkamp, Kyle Drabek, Chad Hutchinson, Chad Jenkins, Thad Weber, Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman, most of whom are coming up or back from injury. Maybe even Cheng Mien Wang rediscovers his control in Buffalo. This assumes Luis Perez, and not Nolin, is the extra something Detroit would need in the Castellanos trade.

So, how'd I do in reconstructing the Toronto Blue Jays into contenders for the next two years while giving local fans something to watch out for, come the second half of the season? I imagine Tiger fans want more, even though it's rare (three years since the last one) where a team trades a controlled closer. Castellanos started the year in that conversation as the best minor-league prospect out there and has been passed in a slightly down year. And Detroit needs SOMEBODY's closer or all those life-time (and their great-grand-children's life-times) contracts Mike Illitch handed out, will go for naught. I COULD see possibilities where Izturis makes the trip to MoTown as part of the trade, depending on the health of Detroit's infielders. San Francisco still needs a starting pitcher, even after acquiring Johnson. And would now have fewer chips to push all in on. But if there is a gambler out there, it's Brian Sabean. And maybe he leaves Lincecum starting and replaces Mijares in the bullpen, instead. Acquiring Oliver makes St. Louis look close to complete ... and not at a very big cost. Which leaves Philadelphia and the Phillie impressions of both Arencibia and Bonifacio. Power and speed at the likely cost of defence, for expiring contracts that might be more valuable parcelled off separately. Afterall, the Yankees need AT LEAST catching and as long as the cost doesn't stray into the new year, dollars be damned. And Santos hasn't exactly pitched a lot in the last year and a half. But if Ruben Amaro truly doesn't want to blow up his team, he has to take chances in challenge trades.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

SPORTS: My March Madness Motivates Another Post

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It's a new year and roughly six months since I posted anything. So there should be silence and tumbleweeds out there. What better time to catch March Madness and write up a few hundred words on this upcoming tournament.

It's been quite a season in NCAA Basketball, with #1 ranked teams losing every other week. Top-ranked teams could be 2nd in the nation one week and 14th two weeks later. The collapse of traditional powers Kentucky after the Nerlens Noel injury plus North Carolina's plunge to the precipice of making the field meant this year's madness IN-SEASON has produced many more teams with a chance to win. Maybe as many as ten teams are talking title in the locker room. And newcomers are talking tough, too. Heck, Florida Gulf Coast University is in--and has a victory over former #1 and second-seed Miami to show as a reason why. I'd never heard of FGCU until the teams were picked for the NCAA's. But I will tell you that I think this year's dance is going to be good for the likes of teams from both Colorado and Iowa. A changing of the guard? Not really, but a nice set of usually reserved tickets for programs not seen on National TV in a l-o-n-g time, if ever.

Now, last year's rules still pertain to this year's prognostication, even after Rule #1 was violated badly by the Kentucky win. And injuries did in my pick, the North Carolina Tarheels. Otherwise, the rules might have been inviolate. You can see them here: the original My Madness Returns. One thing though, ignore rule #12. I'm going against the pick one #12 to win. And, as for a Cinderella run by an 11, 12 or 13 seed? Not so much this year. I know that goes against the screwy ability of top teams to lose to those they shouldn't. But I'm playing way more conservatively this year in some ways.

But here's the gambling aspect that makes my bracket something worth hanging a lottery ticket on: I've got all four 11's winning, three 10's and a couple of 9's (Rule #5). ESPN thinks I've got a 'B' grade sheet, a little brave and a little under the first day's best picks, but one that could have me riding high. And my percentage of pulling off a big lead is somewhere around 12%. So, I am sticking with my choices. And then reverting mostly to favourites after that.

Of the four 11's I've got winning the round of 64 (can't say first round, what with the First Four dance in Dayton having that description these days), only a Minnesota win over UCLA has much company. I think Tubby Smith saves his job over a UCLA team with flaws and one starter injured in the league tournament. I've also picked Belmont over Arizona because ONE of these years, taking the Belmont Bruins is going to be right. And this is the year, despite Belmont not being the pressing team that is usually required to beat Zona. And the same bad weakness/strength description plagues my prediction of Bucknell making twice-runner-up Butler disappear in disappointment. I say this despite thinking Brad Stevens is in the conversation for best coach in the country and he has an experienced squad with Rotnei Clarke ready to go off at any moment. But injuries have affected Clarke to the point where I've rarely heard from him in months. Bucknell just has the kind of squad that is upset-ready, having done it before, Very few share my opinion on this. Which is great! And lastly, I think Matthew Dellavedova will lead the Saint Mary's Gaels past Middle Tennessee and into the round of 64, where the Gaels will then extend Josh Pastner's record with the Memphis Tigers in NCAA action to 0-3. The uber-athletic Tigers will have their hands full with the Australian star Dellavedova and STM has been a worrywart team all year long. 'Course most prognosticators have Middle Tennessee advancing, so this is a twice-risky pick.

As I said, I think the states of Iowa and Colorado have a good tournament ahead of them. In the #10 seed area, I REALLY like Iowa State to beat #7 Notre Dame and for Colorado then to do in Illinois. I'm countering the mid-America happiness by getting the feeling that Cincinnatti will end Creighton's star Doug McDermott's career without another victory. Which will be too bad because watching McDermott play is a real joy. But I have a sneaky feeling Cashmere Wright is feeling like that's his time to announce he's healthy too.  I've got more company with my #10 picks than with the 11's, but I'm still betting against the field.

Now for the usual 8-9 upset picks that are required by statistical law and just plain logic. I realize North Carolina has been a much improved team since going to small ball in the new year. But they are playing Villanova, where modern-day small ball was invented. It's the way they play in Philly. And if the Wildcats can get J.M. McAdoo into foul trouble then it turns into a three-point hoist-up. And I will go with 'Nova, thank you very much. But wait, I'm not done with goodies for middle America just yet. I think Wichita State is due to beat Pittsburgh in another nominal upset. I respect the heck out Jamie Dixon and what he does making men out of Panther players. But I think this is a case of the last-belch Big East team getting the seed nod over the team from Small Conference USA. A shocking win by the Shockers? Not from my perspective.

And yes, I have Colorado State and Iowa also winning opening games.

Now after all of those upsets (NINE, if you just refer to the round of 64), I'm expecting all Cinderella activity to cease and desist. No double-digit seeds getting to play spoiler on bracket sheets all over the world. Yes, I have second-round upsets. But these are moderate, the #5 over #4 battles, like Shaka Smart's VCU squad doing the dirty to Michigan in yet another sublime March for the Rams. Add Wisconsin as an over-achieving #5. Bo Ryan understands this March business too. But none of my upset picks will see another week in the spotlight. Honestly, I'm hoping not getting TOO ebullient about my picks will let me back into those who pick upsets better than I do, but then ride the Cinderella feeling one round too long. And besides, I'm SUPPOSED to go chalk at this point. See Rule #13 from last year. What it's not there. It should be. So, here it is:

RULE #13:

With little time to prepare for the rounds of 32 and 8, pick the higher-seeded team unless there's an obvious weakness/strength mismatch the other way or the lower-seeded team is just crazy good on defence, usually with something unusual about that defence.

That explains VCU and Wisconsin. And it also explains why Louisville is actually the top seeded number one in the country. But there ARE exceptions to every rule. More of that later.

Well, later has arrived. I'm picking Duke to win it all. That means BEATING Louisville in the South Final. Which I think will obviously happen. Here's my Duke theory: the Blue Devils are two teams. A top-tennish team without big man/long range bomber Ryan Kelly and an almost undefeated team with him. The Andrea Bargnani-like Kelly was actually undefeated until the Blue Devils laid an egg against Alex Len and the Maryland Terrapins in the ACC tournament. That's NIT-bound Maryland. Still, losing in the ACC's has never been a big bugaboo with Duke. The reason I like Duke versus Louisville is because the senior-laden Dukies are composed enough to handle the Cardinals' 40 minutes of pressing defence and good enough from three-point range to outscore the notoriously inept offence the Cardinals have. I think it will be one of the most entertaining college basketball games in years. Even the interior battle between Mason Plumlee and the resurgent Giorgui Deng will fun.

And once past Louisville, the Blue Devils will do in my favourite ex-pat Canada squad (they are called the Gonzaga Bulldogs down south) before dispatching the Kansas-Indiana victor (which I think will be Kansas, despite Indiana's Victor Oladipo).

Look, I know picking Duke to win is unpopular on two fronts. First, I'm breaking Rule #3 by predicting they will get by Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans, and secondly, picking Duke is like siding with the bad guy in any other conflict you can think of. It's DUKE and you're either with 'em or agin 'em. Hating Duke is a national past-time in many places in the U.S. But this bracket is for the money, so go BLEEEPPPPPP!

Indiana has the easiest ride to the Final Four because Miami, they of the loss to FGCU (do you remember what that acronym stands for ... check back to paragraph two), are simply too inexperienced to take on the Hoosiers. Not with Oladipo, the most destructive defensive force in college ball (after Noel got hurt), waiting to prove Shane Larkin has some learning to do. That's not to minimize the season Larkin has had. He's been fabulous. And the Hurricanes simply have no a answer to this year's Zeller, Cody. Mind you, I had a Zeller making a difference last year and was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Kansas will have a slightly harder row to hoe in that the East title will require beating Florida or Georgetown. And I actually picked Georgetown because Otto Porter Jr. is a GREAT college player. Right there with McDermott, Oladipo, Larkin and Michigan's Trey Burke as the contenders for the award. Now, a grain of salt. I have gotten it horrribly wrong when to get on and off the Florida bandwagon for years. Off when they got their back-to-back titles and on for toooo many disappointments. I just can't get over the fact that Florida has lost EVERY CLOSE GAME it's played this year. I have them as a sweet sixteen squad and no more because I KNOW Georgetown's slow tempo will keep it close and Porter rates to be the deciding factor in decision time.

Why Kansas and not Indiana to do the losing deed to Duke? Jeff Withey will off-set Zeller. The Ben McLemore-Oladipo battle will be epic. But that then leaves three aside to decide who moves on. And I just like the experience and abilities of Kansas' supporting cast. You are allowed to differ. In fact go ahead.

I'd rather be lonely on the podium.