Toilet Wars

So, after all, should men put the toilet seat down after they are done?

I don’t think so. I sure don’t remember that one from when I was growing up. Chew with my mouth closed? Check. Open the door for the ladies? Check. Give flowers whenever you screw up? Check. Make sure the toilet seat is down? Uh… nope, not really. Granted, I shared a bathroom with two brothers and the only woman in the house, my mom, made sure we kept the hell away from her bathroom, but still... I have absolute no memory of that particular social convention until I started seeing couples argue about it in sitcoms during the Nineties.

I do have a good idea about the origins of this feminine claim, though. The Nineties were a very confusing time for men all around, the politically correct mentality was running rampant and most of us had absolutely no idea what constituted acceptable behavior anymore. Enter the women: they could smell blood on the water, as they always do. They knew no man would dare to raise his voice against any demand, no matter how preposterous, afraid of being labeled a sexist. So they gathered at an undisclosed location, probably a huge shoe store somewhere, for a World Woman Convention and made a list of all the little changes they wanted to see in male-female relationship. Thus, they established that truly sensitive men would sit through The English Patient (nearly 3 hours of a dude slowly dying!). They demanded we started cropping the native flora in our private parts, coining the term Manscaping. And they decided, out of thin air, that the original, immutable and absolutely natural position of the toilet seat was down, and that all men should respect it. We were too terrified to object and soon enough everyone began to take it as true. It was checkmate, Ippon and touché for the ladies in the ole battle of the sexes.

Now, that doesn't mean that most men bother to respect it as a rule - if they did there really wouldn’t be a quarrel - but they don't dispute it either. It became one of those things we do in shame, knowing we are in the wrong, like leaving dirty underwear on the floor, putting that empty bottle back on the fridge or inundating the bathroom whenever we exit the shower. We do it because we can't help it and then we suffer the consequences, using whatever little credit we have in the relationship to pay for those crimes.

But we shouldn't. My fellow men, it is high time we rebel against the tyranny of the toilet. They won’t stop there. Now they have exclusive restrooms on airplanes, which means they can use ours but we can’t use theirs, even though they take twice as much time as we do. Who knows what will be next. We need to make a stand. We should get our own damn restroom on the airplane. I'm keeping the bleeping seat up, and here's why:

The Male Toilet Manifesto

(Al Bundy Style)

I) Men get to pee standing up. It's one of the perks of being a man. Women have multiple orgasms and their own international day. Plus, they can score free drinks in almost any bar on the planet. Men pee standing up. It's our one advantage and I'm not giving it up. It should also be noted that, while some of us might prefer to sit down to conduct their personal business, it is their own choice and in no way it should be construed as a gender-wide forfeiture of this basic prerogative.

II) Peeing from an upright position is not an exact science, accidents do occur. In fact, the worse we need to go, the more prone we are to misfiring. So ladies, trust me, you want us to have a bigger target when we pee. And no, I'm not sitting down (please refer to item I).

III) I agree, the toilet seat is easy to handle. In fact, it is so easy women can lower it themselves. It takes half a second, anyone can try it. That way, the person who is about to use it can adjust it according to their needs. How ingenious, huh? Which brings us to…

IV) Men don't use the toilet without first assessing its status and neither should women. Ladies, if you decide to sit without looking down, you do it at your own peril. It is not your birthright to have the toilet always prepared for you, so sob stories about late night wet butts won’t break my heart. If we have to check it before we go, so should you. Gender equality works both ways.

V) Men usually want the seat up, women always want it down. Men occasionally put the seat down, women never put it up. Think about that for a second. Maybe we’re the ones who should be bitching about the damn thing.

VI) The above doesn’t really apply if you’re a guest at someone’s house, as good manners require one should oblige to the host’s wishes. But a man’s bathroom is his own domain, his private Fortress of Solitude. He goes there whenever the burden of existence gets too soul-crushing, and when he exits, he’s a renewed man, ready to face whatever the world decides to throw at him. He uses the time to gather his thoughts, to better himself. He should not have to worry about leaving no stinking toilet seat down.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to take a leak.


Welcome to the Jungle (Part 2)

Manaus sits at the northern bank of the Rio Negro, which is the river that actually touches the city, just a few kilometers before reaching the famous intersection with the Solimões. Its port, as previously mentioned, is a vital part of town and is incredibly busy, even early on a rainy Saturday morning.

The most noticeable - and curious - structure in the port area is a Customs Office. Its mere presence there struck me as odd, as the nearest border, in any direction, is roughly 800km away (and that's if you draw a straight line through the forest). And that wasn't all: apparently, the whole thing was imported from England and assembled, Lego-style, on its current location back in 1906, which also makes it one of the world's oldest prefabricated buildings.

After giving it more thought, I suppose there isn't that much civilization between Manaus and the neighboring countries and, since the river is the only available route anyway, perhaps it is easier to just wait until people reach the city instead of trying to cover the vast lengths of the Amazon border. So that could explain it, I don't know. In any case, I guess that if people bothered to bring an entire building from across the ocean and deep into the rain forest, they probably needed it badly.

As we made our way past the gigantic Lego house, just before reaching the floating docks and boarding our boat, we also noticed a huge plaque hanging on a stone wall over the water, marking the highest level of the river during the flood season each year.

Two things stood out there: first, the difference between the highest and lowest points in any given year is staggering - usually 8 to 9 meters, I've been told (which also means that the floating aspect of the docks is an actual necessity, not just to look cool). It wasn't even the dry season and the water was nowhere near the marks on the tablet. Second, the 2009 flood was a big one; in fact, it was the highest ever recorded and the water actually went over the walls and spilled into the streets, something that had only happened a couple of times in city history. Global warming, anyone?

However, oblivious to any sort of apocalyptic affairs, The Boss and I were just happy to finally be on our way. The vessel that would take us to the Meeting of the Waters was a traditional Gaiola (that's Portuguese for cage, by the way), which is the local name for those wooden boats that get trashed by anacondas in awful B-movies. They look really quaint and everything, but what nobody tells you beforehand is that they are slow. Like, really slow. Evolution slow. No wonder the damn anacondas always catch the boat and eat everybody on it, really. The Boss, for one, couldn't get over our speed (or lack thereof) and started to question whether the 6 hours scheduled for the tour would suffice to get us beyond the city limits.

Thankfully, we had our friendly guide, Aliomar - or Al, for short - with us. Al was able to greet people in half a dozen languages and was remarkably fluent in English, but, more importantly, he was also a living trivia database who seemed to know quite a bit about the Amazon, a trait that made the journey much more interesting.

So, as our boat slowly chugged down the Rio Negro, Al shared tidbits about the region with us. For example, that the Amazon river reaches an unbelievable 90km across at its widest point, and goes a remarkable 100m below surface at its deepest; that its water level can vary up to 10 meters over the year and, during the flood season, the river can make entire sections of the forest disappear. And the man just went on and on, each figure quoted more astonishing than the previous one. Everything there is superlative and, if you learn one thing - and one thing only -about the Amazon, it should be this: you just don't fuck with the river.

In that sense, what becomes really impressive is how nearly every single aspect of human activity in that region is deeply affected by the Amazon basin. They eat what the rivers provide, they build houses where the rivers allow, they go where the rivers go, they live according to the rivers' seasons.

For instance, as I mentioned above, there are virtually no roads going through the dense jungle and the water is really the only route available for most people. So they have floating gas stations and, instead of bus stations, transportation to different cities is made through boat stations. Moreover, because most of those boats would lose a race against pieces of driftwood and the villages can be quite distant, some trips may take days or even weeks, so people have to bring hammocks on board for the journey. It's pretty cool, actually.

Another example: the farther you get from downtown Manaus, the simpler the houses get and, to withstand the seasonal inundations, locals have to build them on top of wooden poles. Whenever the flood surpasses their original expectations and actually reaches their doorsteps (which, according to Al , occasionally happens), they simply build a temporary second level and move to the roof. There's no point in fighting the river, so they just roll with it.

Still, even at our iceberg speed, soon enough the city was behind us and there was nothing but trees on both sides of the river, which meant Al was running out of cool stuff to point out - although, luckily, it also meant that the meeting of the waters was pretty close.

One of the main reasons why this aquatic intersection is so famous is that the water of the Rio Negro is, in fact, quite dark (thus the name), whereas the Solimões has that more common brown look. But that, of course, is just half the magic. The real eye-opener is how the two just don't mix. Apparently, differences in temperature, speed (the Solimões is hotter and faster) and density create the invisible water barrier that allows both rivers to run side-to-side for such a long distance. I must confess I wasn't terribly excited about going through all that trouble just to look water, but that was quite a sight (an a pretty neat phenomenon too).

* * *

After the boat spun a couple of times for pictures, it was time to move on. Next, we would go a short distance down the Amazon towards a lake that was notorious for the amount of Victoria amazonica (or Victoria regia, as it is commonly known in Brazil) leaves on its surface. We were also supposed to see a few of the famous Amazon pink dolphins along the way, but the little bastards never showed up. We did get to see a few of the boring grey ones, but they were way too fast for our camera (here's all got - a random bird).

Still, just because the pink dolphins didn't grace us with their presence, it doesn't mean that there was nothing to see. I particularly enjoyed the little floating villages along the river, whose people just live in a completely different reality than the rest of us. It's amazing, really. Unlike their city counterparts, these folks don't build their houses high above the ground, but rather drop anchor and just go up and down with the river as the seasons go.

Furthermore, these houseboats are definitely more house than boat. There's no hull beneath them and they stand on top of rough cuts of trunks from a specific type of tree, one which is able to withstand being immersed in water for up to 30 years. As a result of this cutting-edge engineering, some of the houses look like they are about to go under; although, other times, the houses look surprisingly well-built and even have satellite dishes - definitely a bizarre combination

The runaway winners of the twilight zone award for most unique sight, however, were the two little girls who were riding their bikes on a deck. Never mind the absolute lack of space - and maybe I've seen way too many Discovery Channel documentaries - but aren't piranhas supposed to live precisely in those shallow waters? Isn't that an extremely irresponsible behavior?

When we finally made it to the surroundings of the Victoria regia lake, Al told us that we would first change to smaller boats and visit a nearby igarapé, which is how the locals call the narrow and shallow waterways created by the rising levels of the river into the forest (you know, where the anacondas usually eat those lucky enough to survive that first attack in the main river).

The igarapé we saw was nice and everything, but I wasn't really paying attention to Al's explanation this time. Much more entertaining to watch was the futile attempts of a dragonfly to mate with our very charming (and just as green) motorboat. So yeah, I can't say much about the igarapé (water goes up, water comes down, you know how it is), but I can tell you that the poor bug was probably in love and followed us all the way to through the jungle and back.

Before returning to the lake to see the damn water plants, we also stopped at what could only be described as an Amazon convenience store. Al probably had a deal with those people, who tried to sell us all sorts of handcrafted junk, but he also had something to show us. Suddenly, with a silent nod from him, the owner of the store disappeared behind a door, only to return a few moments later with a teenage boy and a couple of broomsticks. The two then inserted the broomsticks in contraption that looked like a medieval torture machine and began to spin, slowly lifting something from the water.

It was a rudimentary wooden tank that contained a couple of pirarucus, one of the largest fish in the Amazon basin. Beautiful creatures. However, despite its size (or perhaps because of it), the pirarucu is also one of the fishermen's favorites: the poor thing has lungs and has to surface to breathe, only to be whacked in the head by hungry men when it does. Because of its tasty meat, it is also known as the Codfish of the Amazon - although I had it for lunch and, albeit delicious, it didn't taste like codfish at all.

As for the lake with the Victoria regias, for all the build-up involved, it wasn't that impressive. Sure, the plant itself is unique - it has the world's largest water surface leaf or something - but I had seen those things in back home, at the Botanical Garden, so they were nothing really new. And, truthfully, how exciting can a leaf be?

Moreover, in order to get to the actual lake, we had to go on a long wooden bridge that stretched into the forest and then over the water. It was one of the most precarious structures I have ever seen. Honestly, words cannot express how rickety that thing was. Al knew the walkway wasn't really that safe and kept shouting from the back to keep the line moving and avoid concentrating too much weight in any part of it, but stupid people in the front kept stopping to take pictures.

Standing some 4 meters above the ground, I wasn't entirely convinced that that was such a good idea, but I got even more anxious after reaching the water part and seeing a few alligators in the water just waiting for that thing to collapse. Truth be told, most of them were not really that big, but I'm not entirely sure I could take on even the really tiny ones under water. Plus, there were enough gators to make up for any disadvantage in size. And all just to see a bunch of big round leaves? Fuck that, it was lunch time anyway (for us, not the alligators), so I was out.

* * *

The Boss and I woke up Sunday morning not sure of what to do. Our flight back was early in the afternoon, so we didn't have that many options. There was a tour to a nearby city that promised the opportunity to actually swim with the elusive pink dolphins, but it was slightly too long for our timetable. Luckily, the super concierge once again came to rescue us and suggested a quick trip to INPA, the National Institute of Amazon Research, where we could see more of the region's wildlife.

As it turns out, at least from what I could see, the INPA isn't much more than a glorified zoo. And it didn't look like a really well-kept place either. In any case, I'm glad we decided to go, because that's where we saw the animal I wanted to see the most: the Manatee, a giant herbivore of the Amazon that seems to live in a constant Zen state of mind. It is really soothing to watch them slowly swimming around in their tanks, even if those seemed a little tight for such large animals.

On the opposite side of Zen - but right next to the Manatee - we also got to know an Otter that was frantically doing laps in its pool. Seriously, we stood there for about five minutes and it just swam with furious purpose, back and forth, never even taking a break. I jokingly told The Boss that it was probably training for the Olympics, but, given the fact that when we passed by its pool again nearly two hours later it was still going hard at it, it became clear that the Otter was using performance enhancing drugs and would never make it to the Olympics.

One interesting aspect of the INPA was that most of the animals were free to roam about the area - which, while cool to see in person, made it hell to take pictures. Most of the photos I took looked like they came straight out of a page of Where's Waldo In the Jungle. It was easier to capture the bastards in the wild than in that limited environment. Go figure.

(Quick tangent here: It is also really weird, in a scary I-would-certainly-die-here kind of way, how you never realize how much of the forest around you is alive at first glance. However, if you just stand still and observe for a minute, you notice how everything around you is moving. Monkeys, birds, really freaky bugs, you name it.)

I grew increasingly frustrated with my inability to photograph the damn monkeys and I really wanted to take advantage of that no-cages environment, so I decided to take a close up shot of a macaw that nested on one of the buildings. The nest was slightly beyond what I assumed was the implicit do not cross line for visitors, so I asked one of the keepers if I could get a little closer to take a better shot. He said that there was no problem, only I shouldn't get too close. My response was "Yeah, of course, you gotta protect the animals", to which he replied "I'm not worried about the bird, I'm worried about you. She usually attacks children, you know." So here's my close up photo of the man-eating macaw. Not really a close up, but then again I got to keep all my digits, so, all in all, I am happy with it.

So The Boss and I strolled happily on that Sunday morning, seeing snakes, turtles, fish, spiders, alligators, the whole gang. Our time was almost up, but the INPA is a reasonably large place and we wanted to see as much as we could, so we ventured down a narrow path that ended in a charming little lake. Right next to in there was a hut, where a security guard was sitting on a folding chair and taking a nap, seemingly without a care in the world. As we approached the hut, he opened his eyes, so I thought it would be a good idea to get some directions, since we didn't really know where we were going. I asked him what was ahead, over at the lake. He scratched his chin and said:

"Oh, you know. Some turtles, some fish. I think there's an electric eel in there too." And, after a beat, he completed: "Oh, and there's also an alligator loose somewhere around here, nobody has been able to catch it yet."

The man then lowered his hat and went back to sleep, as The Boss and I stared at each other in disbelief. We had seen the kind of gators they had in that place and, suddenly, it felt like a good time to turn around and start packing.


Welcome to the Jungle (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, The Boss (for those who were not paying attention, that's my girlfriend's name) and I went to the Amazon for the weekend. For the weekend! The Amazon is not exactly around the corner, even if you are already in Brazil - nor a particularly small venue, for that matter - so people usually don't bother hopping on a plane to spend 40-something hours there. But that's exactly what we did.

Of course I tried to reason with The Boss. I argued that we would spend more time on transit than actually there. I even went on Google maps to show her how freaking huge and far away the Amazon was, but to no avail.

The woman loves to travel and was on a mission. She might be leaving the country for good soon, so lately she added a sense of urgency to her tourism, as if she needs to see whatever is left in Brazil before moving on. And, because she is on the road more often than that George Clooney character from Up in the Air and practically lives in hotels, she racks up miles like crazy, meaning the trip would cost about $3.99 for both of us - breakfast included.

There was one catch, though: the Amazon had actually been my idea all along and I wanted to spend a full week there, maybe even two. I wanted to take a cruise down those rivers, see the wildlife, breath some fresh air and get bitten by prehistoric bugs - you know, the full experience. But The Boss couldn't take that kind of time off work, so, as hard as it is to argue against dirt cheap trips to exotic locations, I had been putting up a fight and negotiations had been stalled for a few months.

Still, The Boss is not one to dishonor her own title and wouldn't let my pretentious veto spoil her "weekend on the jungle" for much longer. Thus, in a rather cunning fashion, she booked the trip behind my back and waited until we were out and I was drunk to break the news. It was genius, really. In my intoxicated state I totally forgot to get mad and, by failing to object in a timely manner, I also forfeited my right to keep blocking the proposal. We were going to Manaus and there was nothing I could do about it (and, after discovering my flight back included a 5-hour stopover in São Paulo, it's not like I didn't try).

Since I was deliberately kept out of the loop during preparations, I would be once again travelling in the dark. The only instructions I received were to take a shot for yellow fever and to buy a gallon of insect repellent; then to meet The Boss at the airport on Friday night at 0700 hours. I was also informed that we would be returning on separate flights on Sunday afternoon, so I would suffer the 10-hour journey back alone. And that was it, end of briefing.

Furthermore, because I had also forgotten to do my pre-travel research (i.e. check maps, distances and things to do at our destination), all I knew about Manaus was what they taught me in school, which only added to my overall sense of blindness.

That's not to say I didn't know anything. I knew, for instance, that Manaus is the capital city of the state of Amazonas, smacked in the middle of the rain forest, right where the rivers Negro and Solimões merge to form the Amazon river (well, technically the Solimões is the Amazon, but it only gets that name after absorbing the Negro). I knew that, late in the XIX century, the boom of the latex extraction industry brought about a golden age for the city, of which the Teatro Amazonas is the most impressive reminder. I also knew that, later on, at some point during the XX century, the national government, trying to foster development in northern Brazil, turned the area into a tax-free industrial zone. Last but not least, I remember my grandma telling me that there were no mosquitoes in Manaus, which had something to do with the water in the Rio Negro.

Nevertheless, despite what was clearly an in-depth previous knowledge of the city, I was totally surprised by what I saw - and in a good way.

First and foremost, Manaus is massive. It has a population of about 2 million people, a figure truly remarkable, considering that the city is mostly unreachable by land. It is also staggering large, spreading out, towards the jungle, for miles and miles and miles. But then again, I suppose they don't really have problems with lack of space around those parts, something that can be inferred from the fact that there are not many buildings that go over 4 stories.

It is also a relatively modern city, not at all what you would expect of a town isolated by the world's largest forest. The streets are wide and, by and large, pretty well-kept. McDonald's is there, as are most luxury hotel chains and roughly one quarter of the total Japanese population (more on that below). Due to its strategic location and the development policies in place, and being the river the most obvious choice for transportation, Manaus also boasts a pretty relevant and well-equipped port, able to handle a considerable traffic that includes full-sized tankers. On a sad note, however, grandma was dead wrong about the mosquitoes in there. Whatever beef they had with the dark waters of the river seems to be in the past and I'd say they are quite comfortable in Manaus these days.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Evidently, we didn't get to see any of that on Friday night. In fact, when we arrived in Manaus it was almost midnight and there wasn't much to do besides taking a ridiculously overpriced cab ride to the hotel.

The hotel, in this case, was the Novotel Manaus, which was located at the industrial district. Industrial. Anyone who has ever gone anywhere, ever, knows that this is never a good sign, but we were confident that the fine folks of Novotel wouldn't have randomly set camp in a dodgy part of town. And we were right, or at least partially right. I couldn't see anything industrial or fishy about our surroundings and there were a lot of hotels in the immediate vicinity. We were, however, pretty fucking far away from the city center (thus adding the ridiculously to our overpriced taxi fare), and other hotels were all I could see in the immediate vicinity.

I had bigger problems, though. First, my dinner had been some foul-tasting airline cracker and a tiny glass of warm soda, so I was starving. Second, it was almost 1am and The Boss had ambitious plans for the next day: I just knew that, given the extremely short nature of our trip, she would try to do as much as humanly possible on Saturday, even if it cost me my feet. So it was important that I hit the sheets a.s.a.p. in order get as much sleep as I could, but I was too hungry. And the longer it took me sleep, the hungrier I got, which, in turn, made it even harder to sleep. I was doomed, trapped in a misery loop.

It wasn't easy waking up the following morning. In addition to my late-night struggles, it was pouring down outside and my religion does not allow me to get up on weekends before noon when it's raining. But breakfast was included in the price and we needed a decent meal before heading out, so The Boss kicked me out of bed at 6:45am.

When I finally managed to get dressed and drag myself to the lobby, we found the strangest breakfast buffet ever waiting for us. Sure, they had the traditional choices: juices, fruits, cake and bread; two or three types of cereal; coffee, milk and hot chocolate; scrambled eggs and sausages; and even a few exotic Amazon fruits for those who woke up feeling a little more adventurous. But then they had stuff like Piranha soup, rice, cup noodles and chopped beef, as well an entire table filled with Japanese food (no sushi, though).

While we attempted to make sense of this weird, brunch-like menu, we noticed that we were the only two non-Asian people in the entire restaurant. It was mind boggling, I felt for a moment like I was in another country. Granted, we were at a hotel and I half-expected to see more foreigners than Brazilians visiting the Amazon anyway (not really our first choice for tourism), but I wasn't ready for anything like that.

Later on I recalled some alarmist e-mails I received, the kind everybody gets once in a while, claiming that international forces were plotting to take the Amazon away from Brazil. At the time I dismissed those as internet nonsense, but now I'm not so sure. I know that there's much interest in the bio-potential of the rain forest. I even recall a real case of foreigners getting cute with its natural resources, when a Japanese - them again! - corporation decided to register Cupuaçu as a trademark. (Now, Cupuaçu is the name of a fucking fruit and has been used for as long as there have been people in the Amazon, you can't just come from across the planet have dibs on that. Sorry.) We sent those fools packing, but still. First they went after the fruit, now they are messing with breakfast, while their numbers keep growing. What comes next? Lunch? Dinner? Or, God forbid, our deep-fried snacks? Is nothing else sacred?

In any case, as politically engaged as I may sound now, nothing even remotely close to that crossed my mind during our meal. In my half-awake condition, I was infinitely more concerned with our upcoming activities than with the geopolitical ramifications of breakfast. We had booked a boat trip to the famous Meeting of the Waters, the spot down the river where the Solimões and the Negro converge, but still had a few minutes to kill before our transfer arrived, so I decided to find a comfortable couch in the lobby and sleep some more.

The Boss, on the other hand, was a little more anxious, bordering on cranky. The grand appeal of this tour is that the rivers have very distinct colors and run side-to-side, on the same riverbed, for nearly 16 kilometers without mixing. But, with the torrential downpour outside, she feared the whole thing would get stirred up and the only meeting of waters we would get to see was the one between the rain and the river.

Her anxiety increased as time passed and we could see no signs our ride, so she decided we should call and confirm the pick-up. However, since I was the one who made the reservation (my one task other than buying insect repellent) and I had forgotten to write the number down, I would have find a computer and access my e-mail in order to get it... all of it seemed like a lot of work and I really really wanted the extra 5 minutes of shuteye. By then, The Boss was fed up with my laziness and had definitely crossed the border on to Crankytown, meaning I was headed for trouble.

I knew I was on thin ice, so I did the only thing I could to prevent the worst: I furiously pretended to be asleep. Deep down I think I knew how unlikely it was that she would get bored and leave, or that she would even believe I was really sleeping, but perhaps I was hoping my own tranquility would sooth her somehow. Well, it didn't. But thankfully, a thoughtful hotel clerk saw the gathering storm from the main desk and intervened, saying he had the number and offering to make the call.

Much to our (my) surprise, the good man was promptly informed that there was no pick-up scheduled to pass by our hotel that day, at least not from that agency. I actually thought about suggesting we retreat to our room, finish sleeping and then find something else to do, but I could see the foam forming on the corner of The Boss' mouth and realized that it would be a bad idea (she had crazy eyes, man, and they were pointed right at me!). So, instead, I kept quiet and began wondering about my fate: even though I could swear on my life that I really made the damn reservation (Patricia! I spoke to a woman named Patricia!) and it wasn't my fault at all, I knew it would be my head and my ass nonetheless.

That was when the super concierge saved my life for the second time in as many minutes. Since we didn't pay anything up front for our so-called reservation, he suggested we simply join a different group, as there were several of them doing the exact same tour that morning. In fact, he said, there was one of those that had just left the hotel and could still be reached, and he could check if there was room for us, if we were interested. That we were and, within minutes, the kind soul put us on our way to the Manaus port. Whew!

So, against all odds, everything just fine again. The Boss was happy and smiling, my head was still firmly attached to my body - thanks to the adrenaline rush, wide awake too - and even the rain was finally clearing. Things were definitely looking up.


Someone should save football from the IFAB

The International FA Board, the (decrepit) body that has the final saying on the rules of football, met last week to, among other things, decide on the use of goal-line technology. The proposed idea was to put sensors on the ball and on the goalposts in order to determine whether or not the ball actually crossed the line, a rather simple measure that doesn't even require cutting-edge technology and that, if adopted, could potentially spare football fans everywhere from a world of controversy. It was a no-brainer, but still those stubborn old farts in Zurich decided to continue their private jihad against novelty and the XXI century.

I never really understood why it was so difficult to modernize football until I learned, a few days ago, how the process works. Apparently, the International Board is composed of eight members: one representative from each of the Football Associations in the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) and another four from FIFA, who supposedly are representing everybody else. Once a year they meet to discuss possible changes in the laws of the game and to vote on the proposals, which need 3/4 of the votes to pass.

In other words, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales together have the power to veto any change in the rules of football.

Let that sink in for a minute.

I can understand the English having a vote, after all they invented modern football and their Premier League remains one the most prominent club championships in the world. But what are the other three doing there? Wales and Northern Ireland haven't been to a World Cup in ages and have mediocre "national" leagues (I can't even name a team from either association), while Scotland doesn't fare much better. Hell, just look at the amount of time they spend sliding in the mud, beating the shit out of their opponents, instead of scoring. I really don't think they should be telling anyone how the game is supposed to be played.

So is there a reason - other than "things have always been that way" - why those three pseudo-countries should have that kind of power? You have the most popular sport on the planet being held hostage by a bunch of people who can't even play it right. It's like the UN Security Council, but with completely irrelevant permanent members. What the fuck, really. Perhaps they could ask the Falklands to be an alternate, just in case one of those football powerhouses has a cricket or a rugby appointment on the same day.

The saddest part is that the sport desperately needed this breath of fresh air, especially at its higher levels. Modern broadcasting has irrevocably changed the way we watch football and a global audience now can, within seconds, see any play from several different angles in super slow-motion HD. We get see everything that happens on the pitch and, yet, the one guy who is not allowed to take advantage of all that technology is the dude with the whistle. Referees are expected to reach, in a split-second and with very little help, the same level of awareness provided to everyone else by a dozen cameras and, when they inevitably fail, they are crucified by the fans and suspended by their federations. It's brutal and it's not working.

However, in addition to being a geographically unbalanced forum, the International Board is also a particularly conservative entity that looks determined to resist innovations until the bitter end. This trait probably has something to do with the fact that most of its members were alive when football was invented in the 1800's, but can also be linked to the belief that the popularity of the game resides in the simplicity of its rules. All you need is a ball and an open space, and people like it that way - no extra equipment, no unnecessary complications.

While I agree with them that it would be a mistake to mess with such a perfect formula, in this case the proposal didn't involve a change in the rules. They would be exactly the same, still as simple and straightforward as it gets: a goal is scored when the ball crosses the line. Besides, the rule in question is written in absolute terms, so there's no judgment call to be made: either the ball went in or it didn't. The technology would be there just to help determine which one was it. Nothing would be taken away from the referee, the human element of the sport would be left untouched.

But none of that mattered. The dinosaurs of the International Board, ever the guardians of the so-called purity of the game, only really needed an excuse and, in an awful display of biased nitpicking, rejected the idea on the grounds that the sensor wasn't reliable enough. Simply put, they claimed this new technology didn't work on those really really really really close calls, that it wasn't 100% fail-proof, so they decided to scratch it. But here's the thing: would a human being - any human being - be able to do a better job under the same circumstances? Wouldn't the computer's educated guess be, at the very least, every bit as good and accurate as the referee's?

Moreover, even if the technology is somehow flawed, couldn't they still use it as another advisory tool? Wouldn't that solve the problem? Just explain to the referee that there is a margin of error and give him the power to overrule the computer if he thinks he saw something different, like they already do with the linesmen. Or better yet, give the man a moment to look at a replays or something, so he can make up his mind. Football fans love the fact that the game is not filled with interruptions and time-outs, but I'm sure nobody would mind waiting 30 seconds while the referee checks if the goal was in fact a goal.

Just let the man in charge see what everyone else is seeing, how can that be a bad thing? Everybody wins... or do they? I'm not entirely convinced that this systematic and stubborn rejection of goal-line technology isn't part of some evil plot devised by the English, who are just not ready to shut the door on those non-goals in overtime that were so helpful in 1966 (sort of a fail-safe, just in case Rooney doesn't come through). After all, the Brits do control the International Board. Hmmmm... I think I might be onto something here.


Olympic Gold Rush

Even though it took a few days to get into a rhythm, Vancouver 2010 delivered the goods. A dozen different events, two weeks of non-stop competition, human drama, funny moments, athletes wearing their countries' colors (or, in a few cases, bizarre colorful patterns resembling a blind man's rendition of their flags): the atmosphere was definitely there and it was contagious.

It couldn't be any different. I mean, it's the Olympics, baby! For a sports fan, that's as big as it gets... well, sort of. The World Cup and the Summer Olympics are definitely bigger, but this winter stuff is pretty neat too. More importantly, it has that rare and special allure that draws people even if they have no real connection with the competitors; the kind of appeal that makes a guy from a tropical country that only sent a handful of people to British Columbia, none of whom with any chance whatsoever at a medal, watch women's Curling at 2 in the morning.

Still, as thrilling as the actual events might be, one of the most entertaining moments of the Games - winter or summer - takes place after the athletes step down from the podium. That's when they update the Medal Table - you know, the one in which countries are ranked according to the amount of gold, silver and bronze hardware their respective athletes bring home. The table is just a great idea: it's exciting to follow and it ties all the events together in one big contest.

However, despite being an Olympic tradition by now, these rankings are not official. The brains behind the International Olympic Committee, claiming that each each event is independent and an end on its own, refuse to acknowledge the very existence of a medals table. In a way, it's much like those annoying PC parents who pretend not to know the score on their kids' soccer games, even though everybody knows exactly who's winning.

The downside of this stupid policy is that, well, the rankings are not official. Supposedly, by playing dumb, the IOC was hoping to squash the idea of a medals table altogether - which just won't happen. So, instead, what they create is room for controversy in what would otherwise be a great way to measure Olympic success.

I first spotted signs of trouble in 2008, during the Beijing games. A good part of the North-American media, defying what had always been one of those unspoken international rules, decided to base its table on the total amount of medals of each country, as opposed to the traditional gold-over-silver-over-bronze system everybody else was using.

A more cynical person could say that this newfound love for silver and bronze was somehow related to the fact that the US, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, were losing the first place in the rankings. China beat them in the gold column, 51 to 36, but the Americans still had the upper hand in total medals (110 against only 100 of the Chinese), so their new criteria would suddenly put them back on top.

Whether or not these conspiracy theories are justified is of no consequence, mostly because nobody else bought this nonsense. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, it wasn't even an issue: the Chinese had more gold, they were first and that was it.

But then Vancouver 2010 came and the plot thickened. This time the US finished third, behind Canada and Germany. Oh, Canada! Americans would rather die than admitting they finished behind their neighbors from the north at anything, so everybody just knew, even before it happened, that they would hang on to that same lame system like a starving man hangs on to a piece of moldy bread.

Sadly, even though anyone can immediately see that their table is inherently unfair and that their motives are questionable at best, those bastards have enough pull to eventually sway people their way. Thus, before this schism turns into yet another metric-system-type debacle that annoys the hell out of everybody, it is time to standardize the Olympics Medals Table.

It goes without saying that the starting point should be that gold is worth more than silver, and silver is worth more than bronze. None of this total of medals crap. Of course it must be thrilling to score some silver or some bronze at the Olympics, but nobody on their right mind would ever agree that it is the same as winning the gold. Not even a biased American journalist.

I would agree, however, that stepping on that podium is a great achievement no matter what, so we can't really dismiss its importance either. And, even though I'm a big fan of the simplicity of the traditional table, it can be occasionally unfair. Take, for instance, Cuba at the 2008 Beijing games: it won 24 medals (2-11-11) and yet, because it had one less gold, it finished behind Georgia, which had only 6 (3-0-3). One gold medal against 11 silver and 8 bronze ones seems a bit too much.

Just like with the bullshit in the American table, anyone can instinctively see the superiority of Cuba's results there, and it would be hard to argue against a criterion that would account for this type of situation. So colors should matter, but perhaps this "gold trumps all" thing isn't such a great idea after all.

The solution could be some sort of points system, where each medal is worth x amount of points. The main complication in that case would be deciding how many points should be attributed to each medal, something that would undoubtedly unravel into one of those heated and never-ending sport debates, but I suppose that's when that IOC authority would come in handy.

In any case, it doesn't really matter exactly where the line is drawn, as long as the scale reflects the true importance of a first place (something the traditional table does quite well). It needs to be a really skewed ratio, like 15 points for gold, 3 for silver and only 1 for bronze. I mean, imagine you won some Olympic gold: would you trade it for only 2 or 3 silver medals? Or maybe for 10 bronze medals? I wouldn't.

(If we apply those values to the Cuba-Georgia case, Cuba would score 74 points [2 x 15 + 11 x 3 + 11 x 1] against Georgia's 48 [3 x 15 + 0 x 3 + 3 x 1], which looks about right. Order would be restored and we would be well on our way to a fair table.)

There should be, however, a couple of additional provisions in this system. See, in the Montreal Olympic Park they built, after the games were over, a monument honoring all the countries that won a gold medal there. The monument itself is actually is quite simple, just a bunch of flags arranged in a circle and a plaque, but nevertheless a symbol of how important it is to get at least one first place. It's like joining a brotherhood: here are all those who made it to the mountain top.

So this should be tweak number one: you need at least one gold medal to be ranked above a country that has a gold medal; and one silver to surpass a country with at least one silver. I don't care how many times you came in second or third, if you didn't win any event you can't say you did better than a country that did. You're not in the brotherhood. Moreover, would you trade your only gold for any amount of silver or bronze? Didn't think so.

Tweak number two should address an even more pressing issue: how on Earth can a medal in events such as Women's under 48kg Weightlifting or 200m Butterfly Swimming count as much as the ones from, say, basketball, football or volleyball? A team of several people working in unison throughout an entire tournament is the same as one dude swimming funny for a couple of laps? Really?

What bothers me is how athletes like Michael Phelps - amazing as they are and as entertaining as it is to watch them - can throw the entire table out of whack by racking up 3 medals a day in several different events just because their thing only takes a few minutes, while equally dominant football of basketball players wouldn't even get that same opportunity because their tournament takes 2 weeks. Or, even worse, how they have all these distances and weight limits in a lot of different sports, each one of them worth a medal, but we don't get to see stuff like basketball under 2 meters, football 7-a-side or one-handed volleyball.

In that sense, it is definitely unfair to compare the achievements of entire groups of athletes with those of individuals, especially considering how these individuals are often broken down into several subcategories to reflect different performance levels (e.g. weight limits) or really specific skills (like swimming belly-up). That is something that ultimately softens the absolute terms under which teams have to compete and, simply put, is a double standard. There's only one winning team, but there's a whole bunch of fastest runners, fastest swimmers and best judo wrestlers; one for each situation. And that, for ranking purposes, is a freaking nightmare.

Therefore, unless you consider swimming (34 total gold medals), weightlifting (15), wrestling (18), judo (14) and even diving (8) that much more relevant than the aforementioned teams sports - all of which combine for merely 6 podiums (8 if you count beach volleyball) - you can't say that this is a system that accurately measures the Olympic success of a country.

This, however, is a tricky problem to solve. First, the temptation of giving more weight to the most popular sports should be avoided - even though it would make for a very interesting table. The Olympics are about all sports, not just the cool ones and, in the end, any criteria based on popularity of would merely reflect individual preferences, meaning yet another never-ending argument - not the most decisive of steps if the goal is a standardized table.

Moreover, there is also the danger of concocting a formula so complex that would kill one of the best features of the traditional table: the simplicity that allows anybody to follow the medals race. If we start to compensate for things such as the length of the tournament or the number of different categories or whatever, we risk creating, instead of a medals table, something akin to the FIFA rankings: a process so confusing that only a half a dozen people in the world would even know how that final number of points was reached.

Nevertheless, there should be a way of rewarding those who excel in events that require the combined efforts of several athletes, even if for no reason other than the necessity of having that many people performing at the highest level to win a medal.

Thankfully, there is a straightforward enough solution: for ranking purposes, the value of medals in team sports (including relays and doubles) should be equivalent to the number of athletes competing in each squad. That way, for instance, a medal in football would count as 11, one in basketball would count as 5, one in the 4 x 100 meters relay would count as 4 and so on. After all, we count the medals of the "swimming teams", "track and field teams" and all the other "teams" individually, so why shouldn't the actual teams receive the same treatment?

It could definitely work: just multiply each medal by the value attributed to its color and then by the number of people who won it (reserves and alternates not included). Don't forget the brotherhood rule and voilá! Although not perfect, such a system would correct most of the flaws in the traditional table without becoming a statistical monster, preserving the fun of watching the Olympic gold rush while bringing the rankings closer to what most people would consider important.

Now, if only someone could please forward this to the IOC, it would be awesome.


Super Bowl Prop Bets - The Aftermath

As it turned out, I was wrong. Dead wrong. From the coin toss on, I barely got any of my Super Bowl predictions right, including the one that matters - i.e. the winner. I maintain it was worth it: I usually shank most of my predictions anyway and, had I predicted the Saints would win the big game, I would have probably jinxed them, meaning I would be wrong and angry instead of wrong and happy.

But still, after such a dismal performance, I feel the need to explain myself. I went out of my way to post my predictions on Saturday, hoping I would look like Nostradamus on Monday, but only managed to looked like an ass. Hell, my cousin's girlfriend came over for the game and, even though she only knew Bush because he was "the Reggie from Keeping up with the Kardashians", she managed get more picks right than I.

In order to prevent such a pathetic display of foretelling from ever happening again, I went back to my picks to discover where I went wrong. A comprehensive review of my predictions. Here's what I got:

Coin Toss: I said tails, it was heads.
I should have listened the experts saying heads was a lock this year. But then again, those were the same people who said the Colts couldn't lose, so what do they know?

Team to win the Coin Toss: I said Colts, it was the Saints.
In my defense, I did predict that the Saints would call heads.

Team to receive the opening kickoff: Saints.
That one I got right, but only because New Orleans decided to receive it right away, not because the Colts deferred it to the second half. In other words, even though I was right, I was actually wrong.

First penalty: I said holding, it was a false start.
That was a close one. The second penalty was a hold. Plus, how was I supposed to know the Colts O-line would jump early? I really thought they would be accustomed to Peyton's pre-snap monkeying by now.

First team to commit a turnover: Colts.
Another pseudo-right call. The first (and only) turnover of the game was an interception off Manning, but it happened two quarters later than I thought.

First team to call a timeout: I said Saints, it was the Colts.
And I said it would happen early in the second quarter, it happened just before halftime. Way off again. No excuses. Crap.

First team to score: Colts.
And I said it would be on their first possession too. I looked like a genius on that one.

First score: I said touchdown, it was a field goal.
But I don't even regret this pick. That first drive by the Colts had TD written all over it, but the false start penalty and a dropped pass on 3rd down by Garçon killed it.

First endzone celebration: I said flexed biceps followed by a group hug, it was... nothing.
I honestly don't know what happened there. Garçon caught the pass, ran into the enzone wall, then kind of looked like he was about to flex his muscles but settled for a series of individual hugs and high-fives. My friends wouldn't give me the points for that one, but I'm not sure I was really wrong. If anything, that was a push.

First player to score (jersey number): I said over 25.5, it was under.
I was sure it would be a Manning-Clark pass, or maybe a Manning-Wayne or a Manning-Garçon connection. Instead, a penalty and a dropped pass turned the TD into a 38-yard field goal by Stover. Lame. On their next possession, Manning found Garçon in the endzone. Too little, too late.

Yards gained in first TD: over 8.
I said 12 yards, it was a 19-yard pass. Close enough.

Time elapsed before first score: over 4:30 minutes.
And I said not much later than that. It was at the 7:34 mark. Again, close enough.

Total interceptions: I said over 2.5, it happened only once.
Way off on that one. I nailed Manning's interception, but thought Brees would be pressured by that Colts d-line all night. As it turned out, Freeney's injury really hurt them and killed my predictions. I thought the Colts would jump to an early lead (which they did), forcing the Saints to air it out. That's when Freeney and Mathis would kick into that extra gear and force Brees to hurry his throws. Not even close: Brees stayed calm and collected, took over the game and picked the Colts apart.

Total points: under 56.5.
Nailed it. The score was pretty much what I thought it would be, only the other way around.

Total one-handed catches: under 1.5.
Right again, although that was a fairly easy call.

Manning TD passes: under 2.5.
I said he would throw for two, he threw for one and got pretty damn close a couple of other times. The pick was still right, though.

Brees TD passes: under 2.5.
I said two and, again, nailed it. But I also said Brees would be in for a long day, which wasn't the case (unless you count the post-game parties that probably went until dawn, in which case I was right on the money).

More passing yards: I said Brees over Manning, but it went the other way around.
I said Brees would throw for 300 yards (he got 288) and Manning with end the day with a little over 250 (and he passed for 333). Everything was right on track until Manning threw that interception that went back for six. That meant back to back possessions for the Colts and an additional 80 yards or so to Peyton's passing stats. Even though I missed it, I thought I came pretty close on this pick. However, I also said, for no particular reason, that "Brees [wouldn't] be the one smiling in the end", so I feel monumentally stupid here.

More rushing yards: I said Pierre Thomas over Joseph Addai and, again, it went the other way.
I also said I would have more rushing yards than Addai, who ran 7 times for 60 yards in the first half alone. Thomas, on the other hand, finished the night with 30 yards on 9 carries. Duh!

Dwight Freeney sacks + tackles for loss: under 1.5.
That dude is a beast alright. He managed to sack Brees (with and arm tackle!) once before his ankle called it a day. I was right on my pick, but I must admit he did more than I thought he would.

Last team to score: Saints.
I was right. But, sadly, the last score was the interception return that decided the game and I wrote that "the last score wouldn't matter", which removes any merit whatsoever from my pick. The lesson, as always: if you want to look smart, keep your mouth shut.

Time remaining at last score: over 1:30 minutes.
Again, right and wrong. I said the game would be over way before the last score.

MVP: I said Manning.
Who else? Well, what about Brees?

Time left when gatorade shower happens: under 45 seconds.
Right. And yes, I was also right when I said they didn't have to wait that long. But I made that call thinking the Saints would have lost by then, so I can't take any credit for this. If anything, the fact that the game was already pretty much decided against the Colts only makes it worse.

Color of the Gatorade: I said Clear, it was Orange.
Again, I made that pick thinking the Colts would win. Had I known New Orleans would be the one pouring its Gatorade around, I would have chosen a more cheerful color.

Super Bowl Champs: I said the Colts (and I despise the Colts - I actually feel ashamed).
And I said they would cover the spread. Ugh. But I'm sure happy I was wrong on that one.

Times Kim Kardashian is shown: I said over 2.5, it was under.
I said it would be at least twice that much, but I only saw he once. I blame Bush's lackluster performance for this one.

Times Archie Manning is shown: I said over 5.5, it was under (1, in fact).
I decided to bump the line from 2.5 to 5.5 and I still took the over. How dumb was that?

More times shown: Eli Manning over Khloe and Kourtney Kardashian.
Nailed it. However, it was just because I didn't see Khloe and Kourtney at all. Contrary to my expectations, the Kardashians tied the Mannings with one appearance a piece.

Times Hurricane Katrina is mentioned: I said over 4.5.
Not even once, unless you count the pregame shows.

More times mentioned: I said N. Orleans and Katrina over P. Garçon and Haiti.
A tie, nil-nil. I'm now wondering if the broadcast in English to Brazil included the original commentators or if ESPN International had some of its own people to do it. I can't believe how wrong I was in the celebrity/parallel story department.

Kim Kardashian's attire: I said generic Saints shirt, she was wearing a jacket and a black shirt.
And it wasn't tiny. My cousin's girlfriend, the Kardashian expert, nailed it. She said the Super Bowl transcends sports, that it is a place to see and be seen, so there was no chance Kim would be wearing any NFL merchandise. I should have listened.

Bigger total: Kim's measurements (34-26-39) over Bush's running and receiving yards.
Bush didn't have a great game. A great victory for Kim's perfect ass.

Number of 'Who Dat' signs shown in audience: over 9.5.
I only saw 2. I totally forgot the audience in a Super Bowl is not made of your average football fans and that most of the people there couldn't care less about the actual game. Still, the two signs I saw were pretty lame, so I got something right.

Number of times TV guys will make the case for Manning as the best QB ever: over 2.5.
With an awful throw that cost his team a championship, Manning went from clutch-QB making-a-run-at-history back to great-player-that-can't-deliver-when-it-counts. Awesome!

End result: 15 of 35. And a few of those 15 were actually wrong predictions that somehow ended up being right. Ouch.

I suppose what I thought would happen did happen, only the roles were reversed. I knew both quarterbacks would have good games, but I figured Brees would have to play from behind in the 4th quarter and eventually toss the interception that would ice the game, just like Manning did. And I thought Manning would be in charge the entire time, just like Brees was. It was an honest mistake, could happen to anyone. And I'm glad I was wrong, I really wanted New Orleans to win it.

In any case, you live, you learn. I'll do better in the World Cup, I promise.


Super Bowl Prop Bets

The Super Bowl is right around the corner and, as usual, the actual game is the least fun part of the whole experience (although, in all fairness, the last couple of years featured great matches that went down to the wire). Nevertheless, the Super Bowl is not really about sports. It's about parties, guacamole, beer, two weeks of media frenzy, funny ads, and of course, prop bets.

So, without further ado, here are my picks to Super Bowl XLIV:

Coin Toss: Tails
The analysts are saying Heads is a lock this year and I'm just a sucker for an underdog.

Team to win the Coin Toss: Colts
The Colts are the designated home team this year, which means the Saints will call it. They will probably follow the football pundits and pick Head. Unfortunately, that won't be the only loss the Saints will suffer that day.

Team to receive the opening kickoff: Saints
The Colts will probably defer the choice to the second half, which means the Saints get to receive it first.

First penalty: Holding
I just hope it doesn't happen to the Saints.

First team to commit a turnover: Colts
I just know Manning will throw a first half interception. I fear Brees will answer with two second half interceptions, but that's not the point here.

First team to call a timeout: Saints
And it will happen early in the second quarter.

First team to score: Colts
And on their first possession, to boot.

First score: Touchdown
Although I'm really rooting for a safety on Manning.

First endzone celebration: Flex Biceps (followed by a group hug)
I'd usually go with a spike, but it's the Super Bowl and the players usually keep the ball.

First player to score (jersey number): over 25.5
I'm taking the over here because I'm convinced it will be a Manning-Clark connection.

Yards gained in first TD: over 8
I'd say 12 yards sound about right.

Time elapsed before first score: over 4:30 minutes
Not much later, though.

Total interceptions: over 2.5
Three is the number here. One by Manning, two by Brees - the second of which will be the result of one of those desperate last-minute attempts.

Total points: under 56.5
It won't be the shootout everybody is expecting just because it would be too much fun to watch and life is inherently unfair. Deal with it.

Total one-handed catches: under 1.5
Maybe one, by Marques Colston. Definitely not two.

Manning TD passes: under 2.5
Two sounds about right here. But then again, I've been wrong before.

Brees TD passes: under 2.5
I really wanted to say 3 or 4, but I think Brees is in for a long day. He will get two, though.

More passing yards: Brees over Manning
I see Brees getting 300 and Manning with a little over 250. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean Brees will be the one smiling in the end.

More rushing yards: Pierre Thomas over Joseph Addai
I think I might end the Super Bowl with more rushing yards than Addai.

Dwight Freeney sacks + tackles for loss: under 1.5
Because he's a beast, he might be able to pressure Brees and maybe even knock him down once or twice, but I'd be really surprised if he gets even one sack hopping on one leg.

Last team to score: Saints
Sadly, it won't matter.

Time remaining at last score: over 1:30 minutes
And the game will be over much sooner than that.

MVP: Manning
Who else?

Time left when gatorade shower happens: under 45 seconds
Not that they will need to wait that long.

Color of the Gatorade: Clear
Just because a bland gatorade color suits perfectly a coach that barely looks alive.

Super Bowl Champs: Colts
And they cover the spread (-5.5). But I sure hope I'm wrong on this one.

Times Kim Kardashian is shown: over 2.5
At least twice that much.

Times Archie Manning is shown: over 5.5
The line I saw was 2.5, way too low. I decided to bump it to 5.5, but I still take the over.

More times shown: Eli Manning over Khloe and Kourtney Kardashian
Just because he will be next to Archie, and Peyton will do more than Reggie Bush, so they will have more reason to show the Mannings than the Kardashians - which is, again, unfortunate.

Times Hurricane Katrina is mentioned: over 4.5
I see them milking this story all day long.

More times mentioned: N. Orleans and Katrina over P. Garçon and Haiti
Haiti is more recent, but Garçon is only one man. Plus, Katrina happened in the US.

Kim Kardashian's attire: Generic Saints shirt
A Bush jersey would be too obvious, but she will definitely be sporting some sort of Saints apparel. It will have the Fleur-de-Lis and it will be tiny.

Bigger total: Kim's measurements (34-26-39) over Bush's running and receiving yards
Bush won't have a great game. Plus, I would never bet against such a perfect ass.

Number of 'Who Dat' signs shown in audience: over 9.5
And yet most of them will be incredibly lame.

Number of times TV guys will make the case for Manning as the best QB ever: over 2.5
There's just no ceiling for that one.


Agassi's Confession (and why he and I are cool)

I know it has been a few months since the shit hit the fan, but I feel I still need to write about Andre Agassi's controversial autobiography. Named Open, a somewhat obvious pun, the book is a weighty tome in which he confesses, among other things, that: a) he hated tennis; b) he wore a toupee for some matches; c) he stopped wearing underwear in court after 1999; d) it really pissed him off when opponents thanked God during or after a match; and e) he used crystal meth for a stretch back in 1997, when his marriage with Brooke Shields fell through and his career hit a solid rock bottom. These admissions are pretty well-known now, but, should the need arise, here and here are links to some of the pieces ESPN.com published about this story.

I haven't actually held a copy of the book yet, but it has the looks of a must-read. In fact, I'll download it to my Kindle as soon as I buy one (aaaany day now). Whether it is by force of Agassi's personality, easily one of the most beloved and charismatic people to ever grab a tennis racket, or by the depth of his confessions, the book just cannot be ignored, not even by those who don't really care about sports. As far as biographies go, this one has - or at least it promises - the entire package: lots of human drama, a big juicy scandal and firsthand celebrity gossip. Plus, that bit about the toupee looks like it came straight off a Seinfeld episode (as does his ban on underwear, for that matter), so for entertainment value alone it's worth a look.

Nevertheless, as amusing as the little anecdotes might be, the most interesting part of Agassi's admissions has to be the crystal meth experience. Not so much the actual drug use, but the stir caused by a former professional tennis player, a legend, confessing to use crystal meth while on the Tour. When the first reports about the book were published, people - as usual - immediately broke into two opposite camps: they were either praising Agassi for coming clean, a true example to other athletes all around; or they were calling him a cheater and a disgrace to the sport.

Even though I always liked him, my first thought was that Agassi was a bit of an asshole to blow the whistle like that, because he wasn't the only one involved. He got caught in a drug test and, to save his own butt, made up a story about unwittingly taking crystal meth. Then, using his enormous prestige, he convinced the ATP to be lenient and keep matters private. Basically, he asked for - and received - special superstar treatment. So when he decided, a few years later, to write a tell-all book, he was pretty much throwing in the fire the very same people who bent - and perhaps broke - the rules for him. Whether it was due to an irresistible urge to come clean or just to make a quick buck is inconsequential: that was a dick move, period. Not that the ATP people were right to cover for him, nor that they didn't have their own agenda there (Agassi on drugs would be bad press for the sport), but you don't ask someone for special treatment and then expose them like that. You just don't.

However, much to my surprise, that didn't seem to bother anybody else. In fact, I don't recall reading anything about how classless this particular way of confessing your sins was. But then again, maybe people were too busy being outraged by the fact that he was a cheater. Oh, the humanity! A cheater! Sergi Bruguera, the two-time Roland Garros champion who lost the 1996 Olympic final to Agassi, was suddenly demanding the gold medal, claiming it rightfully belonged to him. Marat Safin, formerly a top-ranked player in the world, suggested that Agassi should give back all the titles and money he won while on drugs. And, like them, a legion of journalists, athletes and anonymous people came forth to profess their indignation.

Although I don't necessarily agree with the doping rules currently in place, I understand certain substances are forbidden and that, if an athlete is caught using them, they could face sanctions - usually some sort of probation or suspension. Those are the rules of the game and everybody has to abide by them, whether they like it or not. So Agassi probably should have been suspended by the ATP, which he wasn't. Right. And the way he handled things later on was not exactly gentlemanlike, so 0-for-2 for Andre there. Still, to call the man a cheater is a bit of a stretch.

I know (actually, I didn't know, but Wikipedia told me so) that methamphetamines are substances that increase one's alertness and energy, so they could be used by an athlete looking for a boost, who wants to train and/or play harder. Thus, they are considered a PED - the infamous performance enhancing drugs - and are a no-no for athletes. Agassi, however, wasn't using it to gain an unfair advantage over his opponents. Crystal meth is also a highly addictive and harmful substance and Agassi was down in the dumps, using it as a recreational drug. So, if anything, to him, it was a performance impairing drug.

But rules are rules, right? In addition, it doesn't matter that he was not looking for a competitive edge, all professional athletes must cope with tremendous pressure. It's in the job description. In fact, that mental strength is what separates the wannabes from the great ones, it is perhaps even more important than pure athletic prowess. So, if Agassi resorted to illegal drugs because he couldn't keep his shit together and was unable to handle the mental aspect of being a professional athlete, he was cheating. Other players have to deal with similar problems - overbearing stage parents, annoying spouses, sleazy agents, you name it - and they have to stay away from these substances, so, in a way, it did give Agassi an edge. And, although I still wouldn't crucify the man for using recreational drugs, nor call him a cheater because of that, I cannot argue against that sort of reasoning.

Nevertheless, as airtight as that approach might seem, it does not mean that the critics are right to ask for his head. Agassi said he used crystal meth in 1997, when his self-loathing reached an all-time high, and dropped the habit soon after. He played a grand total of 24 matches that year and won zero titles, dropping to 141st in the ATP rankings. Some doping, huh? So, even if the he forfeits all his tainted matches and returns his earnings and titles from that period, as Safin suggested, he would keep all of his hardware and probably send the ATP a check for 47 dollars and change. As for Bruguera, their Olympic clash took place an entire year before the drug habit started, so the Spaniard should probably quit whining. People don't really like sore losers.

Looking at his subsequent results, it becomes clear that the so-called doping didn't do him much good. In 1998, after he quit the drug, he soared back to number 6 in the world, the fastest ever ascent to the top-10, which remains a record today. In other words: he lost when he was using it and went right back to winning after he quit it. Again, so much for performance enhancing.

This chain of events is also why I don't even question his version: not the dates, nor the alleged motives for using drugs or any of his personal problems. Everything fits, it makes perfect sense when combined with the information that was already available. Moreover, I don't think he would start this mess, out of the blue as he did, just to tell another lie. So, as far as I can tell, the man is not a cheater, though I wouldn't praise him for his honesty either - as I said, the way he handled things was classless.

In the end, what is left is a flawed human being - a self-loathing individual who hated the sport he played for a living, had issues with his father and a marriage from hell; someone who went through a rough patch and made some bad decisions, most of which only really hurt himself. And yet, oddly enough, in spite of all his problems and shortcomings, he was (and still is) seen as an example to be followed by the rest of us, a role model. People wanted to emulate him and, when they discovered he wasn't a deity at all, they were deeply disappointed.

Tales about great heroes dazzle us since humankind first started drawing funny pictures on cave walls, so maybe we can't help it. And that is the real irony: this controversy only exists because the man is an icon, and he's an icon only because he could handle a tennis racket better than nearly anyone alive. One skill - hitting a little yellow ball - it's all it took, people didn't even care about the rest. And now, the same irrational passion that made him relevant in the first place is the one thing that is keeping people from looking at his career objectively and from judging it solely based on his results on the court. Instead, he is measured against people's preconceived notions of how idols should behave, in all aspects of life - a contest no human being could ever win.

As for me, I still like Agassi, perhaps even more now that he is human. It takes some balls (balls which had no additional support, mind you) to admit wearing a wig, even if a decade after the fact. Plus, he's a man who went to hell and back (and married Steffi Graf and made millions in the process), so I give him some extra points for that. But I guess I admire him the most for his tirade against Michael Chang (something I would really like to say to quite a number of athletes out there nowadays):

"He thanks God -- credits God -- for the win, which offends me. That God should take sides in a tennis match, that God should side against me, that God should be in Chang's box, feels ludicrous and insulting. I beat [him] and savor every blasphemous stroke."

Amen, brother. You had me at blasphemous.