Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday Night Videos

I've always loved "The Breakup Song" by the Greg Kihn Band. Probably because they don't write 'em like that anymore.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine.

Now Playing: Astrud Gilberto The Best of Astrud Gilberto
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Frankenstein's moon

One of the cool things about my day job is that sometimes it intersects with my genre leanings in a big way. Take Frankenstein's Moon as a case in point. This is how I spent much of last week, distilling a full-blown Sky & Telescope article down to a media-release-sized writeup, balancing readability with accuracy. Not always an easy task, especially when there's a lot of research and technical nuance involved. Practice helps, though. In the past, we've worked on similar projects connecting Edvard Munch's painting The Scream with Krakatoa, settled a date conflict regarding Caesar's invasion of Britain, offered a convincing new date for the ancient battle of Marathon and solved Walt Whitman's meteor mystery, among many others. Fun stuff, that!

The current Frankenstein piece seems to be capturing popular attention as well. Already it has resulted in a nice articles in The Guardian, which as been reprinted in quite a few British newspapers. Another article written by Jim Forsythe at WOAI in San Antonio has been picked up by Reuters and shown up all over the world, including MSNBC. So yeah, we've got lots of Frankenstein to enjoy here at the end of September.

One cool bit of conflation didn't make it into the media release, but is touched upon in the full article. Allow me to slip into Jess Nevins mode for a moment (although Jess would likely scoff that this is common knowledge) to explain. During the original "ghost story" challenge mentioned below, Mary Shelley is the only participant to actually finish a written piece begun at that time. Lord Byron began one, but soon lost interest and abandoned it. John Polidori, however, took up that fragment some time later and was inspired to write The Vampyre, published in 1819. The story was an immediate success, in part, no doubt, because the publisher credited it as written by Lord Byron (Polidori and Byron fought for some years to get the attribution corrected in subsequent printings). The Vampyre was the first fiction to cast the legendary bloodsuckers as an aristocratic menace in the narrative, and spawned a popular trend of 19th century vampire fiction which culminated with Bram Stoker's enduring Dracula in 1897. Which means the two most famous horror icons of 20th century pop culture--Dracula and Frankenstein's monster--can both trace their lineage back to that 1816 gathering at Villa Diodoti overlooking Lake Geneva.
Frankenstein’s moon: Astronomers vindicate account of masterwork

Victor Frankenstein’s infamous monster led a brief, tragic existence, blazing a trail of death and destruction that prompted mobs of angry villagers to take up torches and pitchforks against him on the silver screen. Never once during his rampage, however, did the monster question the honesty of his ultimate creator, author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

That bit of horror was left to the scholars.

Now, a team of astronomers from Texas State University-San Marcos has applied its unique brand of celestial sleuthing to a long-simmering controversy surrounding the events that inspired Shelley to write her legendary novel Frankenstein. Their results shed new light on the question of whether or not Shelley’s account of the episode is merely a romantic fiction.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (played by Douglas Walton) and Lord Byron (played by Gavin Gordon) listen as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester) tells her tale of horror. [Bride of Frankenstein]

Texas State physics faculty members Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, English professor Marilynn S. Olson and Honors Program students Ava G. Pope and Kelly D. Schnarr publish their findings in the November 2011 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine, on newsstands now.

“Shelley gave a very detailed account of that summer in the introduction to an early edition of Frankenstein, but was she telling the truth?” Olson said. “Was she honest when she told her story of that summer and how she came up with the idea, and the sequence of events?”

A Dark and Stormy Night

The story begins, literally, in June 1816 at Villa Diodati overlooking Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. Here, on a dark and stormy night, Shelley—merely 18 at the time—attended a gathering with her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, her stepsister Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron and John Polidori. To pass the time, the group read a volume of ghost stories aloud, at which point Byron posed a challenge in which each member of the group would attempt to write such a tale.

Villa Diodati sits on a steep slope overlooking Lake Geneva. Relatively clear views prevail to the west, but the view of the eastern sky is partially blocked by the hill. A rainbow greeted the Texas State researchers upon their arrival at Lake Geneva. [Photo by Russell Doescher]

“The chronology that’s in most books says Byron suggested they come up with ghost stories on June 16, and by June 17 she’s writing a scary story,” Olson said. “But Shelley has a very definite memory of several days passing where she couldn’t come up with an idea. If this chronology is correct, then she embellished and maybe fabricated her account of how it all happened.

“There’s another, different version of the chronology in which Byron makes his suggestion on June 16, and Shelley didn’t come up with her idea until June 22, which gives a gap of five or six days for conceiving a story,” he said. “But our calculations show that can’t be right, because there wouldn’t be any moonlight on the night that she says the moon was shining.”

Moonlight is the key. In Shelley’s account, she was unable to come up with a suitable idea until another late-night conversation--a philosophical discussion of the nature of life--that continued past the witching hour (midnight). When she finally went to bed, she experienced a terrifying waking dream in which a man attempted to bring life to a cadaverous figure via the engines of science. Shelley awoke from the horrific vision to find moonlight streaming in through her window, and by the next day was hard at work on her story.

Doubting Shelley

Although the original gathering and ghost story challenge issued by Byron is well-documented, academic scholars and researchers have questioned the accuracy of Mary Shelley’s version of events to the extent of labeling them outright fabrications. The traditionally accepted date for the ghost story challenge is June 16, based on an entry from Polidori’s diary, which indicates the entire party had gathered at Villa Diodati that night. In Polidori’s entry for June 17, however, he reports “The ghost-stories are begun by all but me.”

Russell Doescher and Ava Pope take measurements in the garden of Villa Diodati. [Photo by Marilynn Olson]

Critics have used those diary entries to argue Shelley didn’t agonize over her story for days before beginning it, but rather started within a span of hours. Others have suggested Shelley fabricated a romanticized version for the preface of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein solely to sell more books. Key, however, is the fact that none of Polidori’s entries make reference to Byron’s ghost story proposal.

“There is no explicit mention of a date for the ghost story suggestion in any of the primary sources–the letters, the documents, the diaries, things like that,” Olson said. “Nobody knows that date, despite the assumption that it happened on the 16th.”

Frankenstein’s moon

Surviving letters and journals establish that Byron and Polidori arrived at Villa Diodati on June 10, narrowing the possible dates for the evening of Byron’s ghost story proposition to a June 10-16 window. To further refine the dates, Shelley’s reference of moonlight on the night of her inspirational dream provided an astronomical clue for the Texas State researchers. To determine which nights in June 1816 bright moonlight could’ve shone through Shelley’s window after midnight, the team of Texas State researchers traveled in Aug. 2010 to Switzerland, where Villa Diodati still stands above Lake Geneva.

Ava Pope, Kelly Schnarr and Donald Olson on the steep slope just below Villa Diodati. [Photo by Roger Sinnott]

The research team made extensive topographic measurements of the terrain and Villa Diodati, then combed through weather records from June of 1816. The Texas State researchers then calculated that a bright, gibbous moon would have cleared the hillside to shine into Shelley’s bedroom window just before 2 a.m. on June 16. This calculated time is in agreement with Shelley’s witching hour reference. Furthermore, a Polidori diary entry backs up Shelley’s claim of a late-night philosophical “conversation about principles” of life taking place June 15.

Had there been no moonlight visible that night, the astronomical analysis would indicate fabrication on her part. Instead, evidence supports Byron’s ghost story suggestion taking place June 10-13 and Shelley’s waking dream occurring between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on June 16, 1816.

“Mary Shelley wrote about moonlight shining through her window, and for 15 years I wondered if we could recreate that night,” Olson said. “We did recreate it. We see no reason to doubt her account, based on what we see in the primary sources and using the astronomical clue.”

For additional information, visit the Sky & Telescope web gallery at

Now Playing: R.E.M. Document
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, September 16, 2011

42: Life, the universe and birthdays

So, the birthday thing. I don't always do so good with them. There's lots more gray in my hair, my driver's license says I'm not allowed to drive without my glasses, and I've got a rickety gut seemingly held together with duct tape and bailing wire. All those bones I broke decades ago have started reminding me about those misadventures and generally all the parts that make up the whole aren't quite like a well-oiled machine anymore. I don't suppose I should complain much, though, as my blood pressure's good and my blood chemistry is excellent for a guy my age and weight.

Still, I'm not down with that "aging gracefully" thing. How else to describe my culinary dance with the infamous Ghost Chili last year? When you wake up and realize there are more miles behind the cart than remain in front, and the ambition of youth has given way to the lowered expectations of middle age, it ain't so easy to maintain a chipper outlook. Be that as it may, this is one birthday that isn't going to throw me into a funk. Being the science fictional geek that I am, I embrace the 42nd anniversary of my appearance upon the Earth, and celebrate the fact that our world has yet to be demolished to make way for a hyperspatial bypass. Since my accumulation of years is now equivalent to the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything I will henceforth stride boldly into the coming year with the all the enthusiastic mayhem I can muster in good conscience. After all, 42 is the last cool-numbered birthday worthy of celebrating (with the obvious exception of 69, of course, but the breakdown of the ol' chassis leaves significant doubt as to whether I'll be able to acquit myself properly as befits such an august number).

  1. Finish that damn Chicken Ranch book (okay, although this list is purposefully presented in No Particular Order, this particular elephant in the proverbial room is too big to pretend it isn't no. 1. Many, many other entries on this list depend wholly or in part in getting Dumbo to fly).
  2. Stop dwelling so much about what other people think of me. Stop censoring and limiting and restricting and misrepresenting myself in some misguided attempt to earn their approval. This does not mean I intent to turn myself into a loudmouth oaf with delusions of assholery (beyond what certain parties may already ascribe to me, that is).
  3. Finish my in-progress short story "A Life Less Illustrated."
  4. Be a better father and husband.
  5. Be a better role model for my children (and no, that's not necessarily the same as no. 4, although I agree there is overlap).
  6. Return to work on my half-finished fantasy novel, Wetsilver.
  7. Fill out my Farscape collection with the missing episodes from season 3 I don't have.
  8. Watch the entire run of Farscape, in order, from the pilot episode through Peacekeeper Wars (see no. 7).
  9. Finish converting the garage into a home photography studio.
  10. Lose 25 pounds.
  11. Watch Deep Throat with The Wife (see no. 2).
  12. Finish my in-progress short story "The Shoals of Cibola."
  13. Stop yelling so much/Keep my temper under control (probably should be two entries, but they kinda go hand in hand).
  14. Get back to that radio script I'm supposed to be writing with Mark Finn.
  15. Learn to scuba.
  16. Spend a long weekend in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, photographing landscapes and wildlife.
  17. Find a publisher for Voices of Wonder, my second collected volume of genre-themed interviews.
  18. Read Don Quixote.
  19. Enroll in photography courses at Texas State (I pulled a 4.0 in the photography courses I took two years back, and now circumstances may allow me to take the next round).
  20. Pull a 4.0 for the semester (see no 19).
  21. Put together that Apollo-Soyuz model kit I bought 20 years ago.
  22. Surprise The Wife with a Canon EF 24-70 2.8 L lens (if you see the price, you'll know why it'd be a surprise).
  23. Read those Hunger Games books.
  24. Finish that Green Arrow musical thing.
  25. Buy a new car.
  26. Publish (or rather, find a publisher for) my short story collection.
  27. Photograph a Division I-A football game from the sidelines.
  28. Get back to that short story I'm supposed to be writing with Chris Nakashima-Brown.
  29. Spend the better part of a week in New Orleans with The Wife (okay, this is a cheat, since we're already booked to go to Imaging USA).
  30. Return to, and finish, Memory, my online serial storytelling experiment.
  31. Visit Cape Canaveral. And the Everglades while I'm at it.
  32. If that buffoon Rick Perry wins the GOP presidential nomination, make my first-ever political contribution to any and all candidates capable of keeping that lunatic out of the White House.
  33. Spend a long weekend in Big Bend National Park, photographing landscapes and wildlife.
  34. Buy my dream telescope, the Meade LXD75 SN-10AT (f/4) Schmidt-Newtonian.
  35. Begin writing Sailing Venus, my long-delayed YA novel. My kids aren't getting any younger.
  36. Re-unite The Kinks (hey, a guy can dream).
  37. Write that "Airships and Apes" challenge story put forth by Joe Lansdale.
  38. See the Blue Man Group live.
  39. Rewrite "Where the Rubber Meets the Road."
  40. More skyrockets in flight.
  41. Get a Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex lens and convert it to EF mount with an Optix V5+ focus confirmation chip with "Trap Focus" feature.
  42. Re-read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Now Playing: John Mellencamp Human Wheels Chicken Ranch Central

42: Don't Panic!

Today I am 42. I have not been known for aging gracefully, but I am embracing this year's birthday because it is the last cool number I'm likely to encounter for quite some time. Understanding the profound significance 42 holds for geekdom, behold my birthday cake The Wife made:

Don't Panic! Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy birthday cake

It is okay to be jealous. Also, The Wife bowled me over with an early birthday present a week or so back. Behold my new Canon 7D:

Lisa On Location Canon 7D

Again, it's okay to be jealous. That gift, although mightily impressive, isn't entirely altruistic on her part. Since she had my Canon XTi converted to full-time infrared as an anniversary gift, we've been short enough cameras for both of us to shoot independently with emergency backup bodies. This camera fills that need, and indeed got quite a heavy workout last Saturday shooting a wedding at Chapel Dulcinea.

So yeah, I've got my towel, and am feeling like a hoopy frood. Don't panic!

Now Playing: Talking Heads Remain in Light
Chicken Ranch Central

42: Friday Night Videos

This being a profound and solemn occasion and all, for the observance of my 42nd trip around the star we call the sun, I sought to come up with a song to feature on Friday Night Videos that was worthy of such an august event. Alas, I failed miserably. But not to fear! During the wedding The Wife and I photographed last week, a song played that was so jaw-dropping in its inspired genius that I was left gobsmacked. Yes, you read that right: gobsmacked! I did a little research (as the journalist in me is wont to do) and discovered the musical masterpiece was performed by none other than Mark Jonathan Davis, the singer/songwriter who gave us "Star Wars Cantina" more than a decade ago now. Now performing as Richard Cheese with his band Lounge Against the Machine, he specializes in jazz and big band versions of well-known top 40 and rock hits. Which is all fine and dandy, but it does nothing to prepare you for the reality of a bossa nova "Baby Got Back". Consider this my gift to you.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Violent Femmes.

Now Playing: The Kinks Give the People What They Want
Chicken Ranch Central

42: A momentous occasion

42: The ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything. Which is a roundabout way of saying today is my birthday. Grab your towels and don't panic. It's going to be an interesting ride.

Now Playing: The Kinks Everybody's in Show-Biz
Chicken Ranch Central

Saturday, September 10, 2011

First infrared wedding!

The Wife, owner and principal photographer of Lisa on Location, had an afternoon wedding today at Chapel Dulcinea, a lovely venue just outside of Buda. The whole place has a great magical realism vibe going for it, with bronze statues of Don Quixote and his love, Dulcinea, along with whimsical names for the buildings on the property, such as Wizard's Tower and the like. Which, you know, is like Pixie Sticks to my imagination, and I was ever so happy to play along. I finally, finally, finally got to use my infrared camera in a real live wedding shoot!

Lisa On Location infrared wedding photography at Chapel Dulcinea

I'm jazzed with the results. The otherworldly lighting of infrared took great advantage of the landscaping--even though the drought had taken a huge toll on the area--the fantastic white foliage practically glowed around Jonathon and Stephanie! I know I've said it before, but the effect is otherworldly, striking and fantastically stylish. I'm just happy the bride and groom trusted me enough to play along for a few minutes after The Wife had finished the main shots. It was very hot out there, and I know the air conditioned reception hall was calling their names!

Needless to say, I can't wait for those weddings Lisa On Location has booked through October and November. There are some great venues there that I know will be eye-popping in infrared.

Now Playing: Love and Rockets Sorted!
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, September 09, 2011

Friday Night Videos

I've made no secret that "Nightmares" is one of my favorite Violent Femmes songs. Possibly this is because I love the ultra low-budget video, which was in heavy rotation on MTV back when the single was released. 3 seems to be regarded as one of their lesser albums, but there's some strong stuff on there and as I've said, I enjoy the angsty cool of "Nightmares" to no end.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... "Werd Al" Yankovic.

Now Playing: Violent Femmes Hallowed Ground
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Bottling mead during Labor Day conflagration

So in between checking Facebook and various other news sites around the interwebs for updates on the 35,000-acre Bastrop wildfire on Labor Day, I decided it was high time for me to bottle some mead. For those of you keeping score at home, you'll remember that back in July I racked a 6-gallon batch of mead into 4 gallons of fig melomel and 3 gallons of prickly pear melomel. The airlocks on each fermentation vessel continued bubbling at a slow rate through the first week of August, and once all signs of fermenting ceased, I let them sit another few weeks 1) for good measure and 2) because I just didn't get around to bottling. This is what I ended up with:

I'm not entirely sure where I went wrong, but I sterilized far too few bottles for the amount of mead I had. Halfway through bottling the fig melomel I realized my error, sterilized another nine bottles, and still ended up three bottles short. I guess I expected the fruit to cut into the final volume more than it did. In any event, I finished the evening with 17 bottles of beautiful golden fig melomel, 14 bottles of beautiful crimson prickly pear melomel (three of which were merely washed and cleaned rather than sterilized, so they're in the fridge for early drinking) and a single bottle of mongrel, roughly half and half fig/prickly from leftovers from both batches. Having learned from my apfel wein experiment that I tend to enjoy carbonated fruit wines more than still, I opted to try my hand at my first bottle-conditioned meads to make with the bubbly. I added one teaspoon of granulated sugar to prime the bottles (dosage if you're a wine snob) which should effect a nice carbonation in the finished product.

As for the taste, it's too early to tell with the fig. I only had a small taste, and it seemed clean with not a lot of the harsh fusel alcohols that have marred my previous efforts. Beyond that, I'll have to wait and let it age a bit so it can mature. There was not a lot of fruit in the scent or flavor, but it was nice and dry with a good tannin body. The prickly pear, on the other hand, was quite mature and drinkable. There was a bit of harshness right away, but as the mead breathed for a few minutes this went away quickly. The prickly pear was very dry as well, and had a definite fruity profile, almost plum-like character. The tannins, which I'd been afraid of with my earlier effort at prickly pear mead several years ago, really help with the body of the melomel. If I had to characterize it, I'd say it tasted very much like a dry white merlot. That sounds strange, I know, but it had a similar color, flavor and mouthfeel. There's still that honey flavor underneath it all, but it's quite subtle, certainly not thick and syrupy like so many people expect with mead. This may turn out to be my best effort yet.

Now Playing: The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Chicken Ranch Central

Texas aflame

The Wife is from Bastrop, so the last few days have been quite stressful for us. The entire state, it seems, is on fire, with power lines, broken glass, cigarettes and open grills sparking all manner of wildfires whipped up dangerously by the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. That storm may have flooded the southeast, but it sent absolutely no rain to tinder-dry Texas. Instead, it sent dry, 30 mph winds. Very, very bad winds.

Sunday brought word of a fire in my hometown of Columbus, which we'd visited just the day before. Then word of the Bastrop fire came out. Bastrop, home of the "Lost Pines" forest, turned into a huge blaze very quickly with the parched pines going up like Roman candles. Most of Bastrop State Park is gone, as is the Texas Parks & Wildlife headquarters there. Tahitian Village, a sprawling subdivision where The Wife had many, many friends growing up, is close to a total loss. Not an hour has gone by without word of another friend's childhood home being destroyed. My mother-in-law evacuated her home near Camp Swift on Sunday. Thankfully, the fires haven't reached it as of yet. As long as the winds don't push the fires west, we may be spared the devastating loss so many others have suffered. Latest reports peg losses at nearly 500 homes. That kind of devastation is close to incomprehensible.

The Texas Forest Service has an update page here, and WunderMap shows a pretty good visual footprint of the various fires and their smoke cover, while the Texas Forest Service map has information about containment and other details if you click on the individual fire. KXAN has a list of donation sites and other things people can do to assist with this crisis. Stay safe, people.

Now Playing: The Kinks Schoolboys in Disgrace
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, September 02, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Because middle school and elementary school have substantially different start times, this year I find myself driving Monkey Girl in the mornings (since middle school is on my way to work) while The Wife takes Fairy Girl and Bug to elementary. The one-on-one time with Monkey Girl is interesting. Sometimes we discuss news stories we hear on NPR. Sometimes we discuss daily events in our lives. Sometimes she just tunes me out and reads. But today we had a genuine bonding experience. I played her "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Smells Like Nirvana" and she found it absolutely hilarious. Not Kure Kure Takora hilarious, mind you, but then again, what is?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Eddie Money.

Now Playing: "Weird Al" Yankovic Bad Hair Day
Chicken Ranch Central

As the conference turns, pt. 6

I was not going to do this today, honest. But the sniping back and forth between Texas Athletic Director Deloss Dodds and Texas A&M Athletic Director "Dollar" Bill Byrne has kicked it up to 11 over the Longhorn Network, so I'd be remiss in my historical chronicling were I to not offer comment. And the he-said-she-said back-and-forth is amazing for two grown men of their stature. First up is Dodds, who is telling everyone who will listen that it's not Texas' fault that ESPN dumptrucks have delivered $300 million to 40 Acres, and that the Aggies could've been part of that gravy train had they not not rejected Dodds' generous overtures.
"I called (Byrne) and asked if he wanted to visit about it. We did visit about a statewide network," Dodds said. "I told him I didn't know if we had the (program) inventory necessary to do a 24/7 network.

"The next time I heard about it (from Byrne) was a year and a half ago. And we said we had enough inventory to do it, and we moved ahead on our own. And that was before we knew what the money was going to be."
For his part, Byrne responded with a terse blog statement taking issue with the context of Dodds' assertions.
"Three or four years ago we talked about doing a joint flagship channel," Byrne wrote. "I liked the idea, but our fans should know me better than to think I would pass on a $150 million deal for Texas A&M. That never happened."
The basic facts don't appear to be in dispute, but it's pretty clear not all the facts have been brought forth. The word circulating in Aggie circles currently is that Dodds invited Byrne to invest in the venture, 50/50 (back when Dodds expected to foot the bill for the startup, rather than piggyback on ESPN) but only offered a 60/40 or 70/30 revenue split, along the lines of the revenue disbursement from the Permanent University Fund. Byrne subsequently declined. There may or may not be fact backing up that characterization, but parsing Dodds' statement "I didn't think we had the inventory to do a 24/7 network" could lead one to interpret his view of any A&M involvement as secondary, filler material--akin to Sham-Wow infomercials at 3 a.m.--and therefore less deserving of a full share. In the past, A&M would probably have accepted this as the cost of doing business. I could see Wally Groff accepting the deal, viewing even a modest new revenue stream and improving A&M's position overall even if it improved Texas an order of magnitude more. But Byrne's been all about national benchmarks and equal positioning and market share. He's not one to accept once slice of pie if the guy sitting across the table is getting three. I'm still a little annoyed by a persistent mis-characterization perpetuated by ESPN, though:
When six Big 12 programs -- Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado -- negotiated with the Pac-10 last year, Texas walked away from the negotiation at the 11th hour because Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott wanted all the schools in the new conference to pool their media rights. In other words, Texas walked away to preserve the Longhorn Network.
Those six Big 12 teams weren't negotiating with the Pac 10. Dodds himself negotiated offers from the Pac 10 behind closed doors and presented the plan to blow up the Big 12 as fait accompli. The invitations were on the table. When A&M balked, and instead started talking with the Southeastern Conference, this caught Dodds and the Pac 10 by surprise and the delay allowed Baylor an opportunity to martial its political supporters. The Pac 10 did not want Baylor, but Colorado panicked, seeing itself as the odd team out if Baylor muscled its way into the party, and promptly accepted the Pac 10 offer. Texas, seeing A&M as the cockroach messing up a perfect plan by opening the door for Baylor, instead used the LHN as an excuse to back out on the deal with the Pac 10. As Dodds himself has stressed many times, nobody expected the LHN to bring in as much money as it did. He was willing to scrap the idea for the LHN to join the Pac 10 if the idea for an eastern division with Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State could be pulled off. When that proved impossible, the LHN was a convenient excuse to "save" the Big 12 (which Dodds was all but burying a few days before). With Dodds being as shrewd a negotiator as he is, there is zero chance negotiations reached the point of invitations being extended without him taking the future of the LHN into consideration. But the money is only a secondary consideration--as others have pointed out, Texas has always had more money than everyone else and always will. It's the other issue that tilt the playing field, such as defying the Big 12 by contracting with ESPN to broadcast a league game (resulting in some conflict of interest bullying on ESPN's part toward conference schools such as Tech, Baylor and Kansas State).
Potentially as thorny was the plan to televise high school games and show high school highlights on the Longhorn Network. Televising games would give Texas an almost prohibitive recruiting advantage. The NCAA has scuttled those plans for this season, but if history is any guide, the NCAA must tread carefully when restricting television freedom. The organization already lost a Supreme Court case over its control of television rights in 1984. Plus, the highlights offer a similar recruiting advantage, and the NCAA has agreed for the time being to allow the Longhorn Network to show highlights. "The NCAA is taking a wait and see attitude on the highlights," Byrne wrote in his letter to fans. "I disagree with their stance -- as do many of my colleagues across the country. We anticipate that ESPN will continue to push the envelope with the Longhorn Network, regardless of Texas A&M's conference affiliation."
"Continue to push the envelope" is the key phrase. Texas and ESPN will keep pushing--a steady drumbeat, if you will--and eventually wear down the opposition bit by bit. Eventually, some Big 12 team will give in and let its game be broadcast (I'm looking at you, Iowa State) and once that levee is breached, more will follow. Eventually, I'd expect all Texas home games to be carried exclusively on the LHN. Comparisons to Notre Dame's deal with NBC are inaccurate, because NBC is a free broadcast network, included on every basic cable package. The LHN is a premium cable offering (currently with very few carriers, true) in which subscription fees go directly to Austin with ESPN taking its cut. So no, not an apt comparison at all.

If the swirling rumors that Texas is resurrecting the Pac 16 conference plan now that Utah State has filled the opening reserved for A&M (and that Baylor coveted) are true, it will be interesting to see what happens with the LHN. Will Dodds hold onto it with a death grip? Or will he compromise with the Pac, and partner with Tech and the Oklahoma schools to turn it into some sort of regional network? Whatever shakes out, it will be interesting to watch.

As the conference turns, pt. 1
As the conference turns, pt. 2
As the conference turns, pt. 3
As the conference turns, pt. 4
As the conference turns, pt. 5

Now Playing: "Weird Al" Yankovic Poodle Hat
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, September 01, 2011

As the conference turns, pt. 5

Okay, stop. Just please stop. Folks like Gerry Fraley who purport to "tell A&M what it's in for in the SEC" and then proceed to start talking about Bear Bryant. Just stop.

Texas A&M does not need anyone to tell us about Bear Bryant. The Junction Boys were all Aggies. They shouted "Gig 'Em" not "Roll Tide." Their blood bleeds maroon, not crimson. Coach Bryant won more national titles than the gross national product of Venezuela, but he only coached one Heisman Trophy-winning player in John David Crow. Who, curiously enough, did not play a down at Alabama. When A&M's over-taxed PR staff worried to Bryant that Crow didn't lead the nation (or league) in yardage, or touchdowns, or any of the other flashy statistics that tend to make or break a Heisman candidate, Bryant growled "Well, he sure as hell leads the nation in defenders run over!" And Crow won the Heisman. And don't tell us about Gene Stallings, either. He's a Junction Boy (see above). He coached at A&M first. He invented the legendary "Texas Special" pass play:

Stallings led A&M to the SWC title in 1967 and beat Bryant and the Tide in the Cotton Bowl (you know the picture of the aftermath--that's not Coach Bryant hand-picking his successor after retirement). Stallings was fired just a few years later because, let's face it, it was tough to win at A&M in those days with sub-standard facilities and the legacy of an all-male, all-military culture to overcome. But Aggies far and wide celebrated when Bebes coached the Tide to the national title in 1992, in fact, we were so proud of him that we made him a regent, where he's one of the biggest advocates of an A&M move to the Southeastern Conference.

And then there's Auburn. Texas A&M owns a 2-0 lifetime record against the Tigers. Which doesn't mean boo as far as history and culture and expectations go, but it gives me an opportunity to bring up this:

And don't tell us about Arkansas. They wear those damn stupid pig hats and scream "WHOOOOOO! Pig sooey!" all the time like they just found out their cousin said "Yes" to their marriage proposal. SWC, remember? I assure you, Aggies have forgotten more about Arkansas than the SEC will ever know. F'rinstance, in Stallings' first home game against Arkansas as head coach at A&M, the 12th Man was so loud that the Piggies couldn't hear their audibles and got beat. This is back when A&M had a student body of around 18,000 or so, remember. It was such a mismatch that Stallings felt guilty about having such rabid fan support and at the next yell practice asked the students not to be so loud. True story. And none of you SECers who are lecturing Aggies about Arkansas know it, either.

And then there's LSU. They still owe us money. I am of the firm opinion that a $300,000 payment directly from LSU to Texas A&M should be a condition or our accepting a bid to join the Southeastern Conference. The whole LSU/A&M thing is too convoluted for me to rewrite, so instead I'll post my little TexAgs essay from last year:
New Army is scratching its head over the fervor of playing LSU in the Cotton Bowl. This is understandable, because New Army wasn't even born when Harvey Williams switched his commitment on signing day, or John Roper split his forehead open with a killer hit against Tiger QB Tommy Hodson, or Larry Horton ran the opening kickoff back to open the R.C. Slocum era with a bang. LSU was, for all intents and purposes, our version of OU in a heated interstate, cross-conference rivalry. We played them in the Cotton Bowl during the State Fair. We played them in Galveston, Houston and San Antonio. We first played them in 1899 and kicked the snot out of 'em, 52-0.

Because College Station was small and rural, we had trouble filling Kyle back in the day. From 1921-1975 we played them 30 times, and only one of those games was in College Station. We essentially sold them our home games to boost our athletic department revenues. Playing LSU in Baton Rouge or neutral sites resulted in the Tigers getting the upper hand on us in the series, but even so, the overall record was remarkably competitive, all things considered.

In the 70s things had changed. Bellard had A&M playing big time football, Kyle had expanded and Aggie football was a big draw. We beat 'em back-to-back in '74-'75 in Baton Rouge, and wanted to revert to a regular home-and-home series. LSU refused, and broke off the series.

Fast forward to 1982. Jackie Sherill came in, had little success in the early days, so one of the many things he did to shore up support among Old Ags was revive the LSU series. LSU wanted to improve its Texas recruiting, so they agreed to a home-and-home series. They were quite happy with it from '86-'88, the heyday of the Mike Archer years when they won three in a row, and the contract was extended. But starting with Larry Horton's kickoff in '89, things spiraled downward quickly for the kitties. From '91-'95 A&M reeled off five straight victories, hard-fought contests in Baton Rouge but veritable blowouts in College Station. Leeland McElroy's 200+ yard game in '95 was particularly glorious. LSU was getting their heads handed to them in SEC play as well, and decided no amount of Texas recruiting was worth an annual loss to A&M. So they announced the series would end in '95.

Here's where it gets wonky. Under the terms of the contract, if either team cancels the series there is a $400,00 buyout clause, which can be waived if the departing school secures an "equivalent" substitute opponent. LSU told Wally Groff they had a suitable substitute--Northeast Louisiana University, which had just made the transition to I-A football in 1994 [Note: I've since heard some indications that the "replacement" school was actually Nevada-Reno, which had just moved up to Division I-A in 1992. Either way, LSU offered a weak opponent as a replacement]. Wally said (and I'm paraphrasing here) "Like Hell! You owe us $400K!" LSU said "Good luck collecting" and that was that.

Keep in mind, also, that LSU's baseball team knocked the '89 A&M team out of the playoffs. That Aggie team went 58-7, was ranked no. 1 almost the entire season, and may have been the most dominant team in the history of college baseball. The rivalry with LSU was intense across the board.

LSU fans today will tell you there never was a buyout fee (which is false) or--and this is the most popular revisionist history--that because the SEC expanded to 12 teams, they had to eliminate the non-conference A&M game to make the scheduling work. Which is fine and dandy, except that the SEC expanded in football in 1992 with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina, meaning LSU continued our series four years into the expanded SEC era.

Around 2000-01 our AD, Wally Groff was asked in his online Q&A if we could re-start the LSU series, after Saban (again, IIRC) commented in the media that he'd like to play A&M. Wally responded that he'd never schedule them again, since they couldn't be trusted to live up to their contracts, and that buyout penalties were obviously worthless since LSU was an extension of the state of Louisiana, and therefore a federal Texas vs. Louisiana civil suit to reclaim the unpaid $400K was impractical.
If you go to the LSU sports message boards, you'll see Tiger fans excited by the addition of the Aggies to the SEC, because now they'll "Finally have a rival!" Seriously. LSU is like the Texas Tech of the SEC, desperate for anyone to get worked up about playing them. A&M and LSU have played each other more times than they have pretty much any other non-conference opponent, and more than some current conference rivals. But who leads the series, you may ask? Why, LSU leads the series, 27-20-3. That's a very interesting series record. We've played 50 times, only 12 games of which were played in College Station. That means A&M home games account for just 24 percent of the series overall. Then consider that LSU has hosted 32 home games, which makes up 65 percent of the series. Holy crap! They have that big of a home field advantage over us, and still only manage to lead the overall series by seven games? Damn, that's got to be embarrassing!

So, yeah. We may not know all the best places to eat in Starkville or have a clue as to where or what Vanderbilt is, but we pretty much know what we're getting into. I don't know an Aggie who doesn't break into cold sweats whenever he hears "Rocky Top" on account of that horrible, horrible Cotton Bowl a few years back. But you know what? We're gonna be okay in the long run. Gig 'em!


NEWS RELEASE - August 31, 2011

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Texas A&M University today officially notified the Big 12 Conference that the institution will submit an application to join another athletic conference. Should this application be accepted, Texas A&M will end its membership in the Big 12 Conference effective June 30, 2012.

"After much thought and consideration, and pursuant to the action of the (Texas A&M University System) Board of Regents authorizing me to take action related to Texas A&M University's athletic conference alignment, I have determined it is in the best interest of Texas A&M to make application to join another athletic conference," President R. Bowen Loftin wrote to Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe in the letter dated August 31, 2011.

"We appreciate the Big 12's willingness to engage in a dialogue to end our relationship through a mutually agreeable settlement," Loftin added. "We, too, desire that this process be as amicable and prompt as possible and result in a resolution of all outstanding issues, including mutual waivers by Texas A&M and the conference on behalf of all the remaining members."

Texas A&M has participated in intercollegiate athletics as a member of the Big 12 since the conference's founding 16 years ago. Last season, the Aggies claimed nine Big 12 championships and four national team titles, both of which were school-bests. Since joining the Big 12 prior to the 1996-97 athletic season, Texas A&M has won 55 conference championships, including 32 in the last five years.

Texas A&M finished eighth in the prestigious Director's Cup all-sport rankings a year ago, tallying its most points ever and leading all Big 12 schools. In the inaugural Capital One Cup, which rates teams' final rankings, the Aggies were the top-ranking university from the Big 12. The Aggie women finished second with five top-10 finishes, while the Aggie men finished tied for third with five top-10 finishes.

"As I have indicated throughout this process, we are seeking to generate greater visibility nationwide for Texas A&M and our championship-caliber student-athletes, as well as secure the necessary and stable financial resources to support our athletic and academic programs," Loftin said. "This is a 100-year decision that we have addressed carefully and methodically. Texas A&M is an extraordinary institution, and we look forward to what the future may hold for Aggies worldwide."

While Loftin did not specify an application timeline in his letter to the Big 12, he previously indicated that he does not intend to prolong the application process for an extended period of time.

    Texas A&M at a glance
  • Located in College Station, Texas.
  • Home to more than 49,000 students, ranking as the sixth-largest university in the country, with more than 360,000 former students worldwide.
  • Holds membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities, one of only 63 institutions with this distinction.
  • Has an endowment valued at more than $5 billion, which ranks fourth among U.S. public universities and 10th overall.
  • Conducts research valued at more than $630 million annually, placing it among the top 20 universities nationally and third behind only MIT and the University of California at Berkeley for universities without medical schools.
  • Recognized as Home of the 12th Man, where students stand during football games to show support for the team – and for fellow Aggies – a personification of the Aggie Spirit.
  • Corps of Cadets is recognized among the nation's largest uniformed student bodies at more than 2,000 strong. Texas A&M commissions more officers than any other institution outside of the nation's service academies.
  • Named second in the nation by The Wall Street Journal among all universities, public and private, in a survey of top U.S. corporations, non-profits and government agencies, based on graduates that recruiters prefer to hire.
As the conference turns, pt. 1
As the conference turns, pt. 2
As the conference turns, pt. 3
As the conference turns, pt. 4

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