Saturday, December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas!

In what has become a Christmas tradition, I spent the evening cooking Christmas Eve dinner for our family, including my in-laws, and cleaning the fine dining implements in the kitchen while Christmas caroling drifts in from the living room. Continuing my new tradition, after chasing wired kids off to bed and wishing I could do the same, I retired to the solitude of the back bedroom to wrap the presents I got for Cheryl (amazingly, I didn't also buy them today). Just a couple more duties to go, then I can retire for the short night.

I hope your day will be as blessed as ours promises to be: surrounded by family, basking in warm, sunny weather, and marveling that no matter what may or may not be encased in colorful paper underneath the tree, we have been given riches in abundance.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Decidedly Unfriendly Skies

For those of you interested in spectacular or merely intriguing aviation videos, this is a pretty good site. Be warned, some of the videos involve crashes, but many are simply films of unusual flight events.

For instance, ever seen a 747 land sideways?

How about an aileron roll in a 707?

This is an interesting one, not just for the startling sight of a Navy crewman disappearing into the intake of a jet fighter (and surviving), but for the backstory that I learned from one of my Porsche buddies who was serving aboard that carrier at the time (internet clubs draw people in from allpoints of the compass and all walks of life). As he explains it, the first person seen in the video is a trainee checking the position of the launch bar in the shuttle of the catapult and then moving away from the aircraft. The next person on the scene is his trainer who attempted to double check the launch bar position. His mistake, with the engine at full throttle, was to walk straight toward the nose gear, which put him in front of the intake. He should have gone behind the intake and looked forward into the shuttle.

A couple of things saved the sailor's life. First, the nose cone on the front of the A-6 engines is about three feet long. When he was sucked in, his arm was extended over his head which caused him to get wedged between the nose cone and inner wall of the intake. Second, his helmet and life preserver were sucked off and destroyed the engine, causing the sparks and flames out the back of the engine that you see in the video. The pilot immediately cut power to that engine and the launch was aborted. The sailor apparently climbed back out of the engine on his own and fell to the deck; it happened so fast, nobody knew he was there.

The incident is now a Navy training video.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Stupid Car Marketing Tricks

I've been mentally composing a major discussion of car naming conventions. Something has happened recently, though, that demands a response without further delay.

Ford Motor Company recently introduced a mid-sized sedan line that will be sold by at least two of its subsidiaries. The Lincoln version is not a bad car, and has received generally favorable reviews. Lincoln has even given the car a real name. My forthcoming post on car names will bemoan the trend of mysterious alphanumeric jumbles (with notable exceptions) or focus-group-friendly proto-words, so ordinarily I would greet conventional nomenclature with approval.

Unfortunately, Lincoln has chosen to resurrect a thoroughly uninspiring nameplate: Zephyr. What's that? Only the nadir of Ford's 1970's engineering:

Buy a dictionary, Ford. There are so many words out there that could be used for your new product. If Green Bill Ford insists that you must recycle, at least use a name with some heritage; even Sierra would do. Why drag out a musty relic from Detroit's absolute worst era? Has the marketing staff suddenly been overrun by business school grads younger than I am, who don't have personal memories of cars with huge but blissfully power-free engines, steering with all the feel of the stereo volume knob, illegible instruments (all two of them), and chrome bumpers that outweigh a Prius? Shame on you. Nostalgia is supposed to be pleasant, not induce the gag relflex.

Christmas Concerts

Things have been busy lately. Our annual Christmas Concerts took place this past weekend: four concerts in two days, following tech/dress rehearsals on Wednesday and Thursday nights. Unfortunately, I was nursing a pesky cold/flu thing all week that threatened to ruin my voice. Lots of tea with honey, Airborne and Advil seemed to do just enough to keep my head and voice clear. With 12 songs, including a six-person ensemble piece and a major solo, I needed all the help I could get.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the event and we had a good time putting it on (even though it was pretty hard work). Christmas may now go forward as scheduled.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Best Municipal Sign

Seen at a small, fenced-in playground at the San Francisco Civic Center (a homeless haven):

"Adults prohibited unless accompanied by Child."

Monday, December 12, 2005

Turn Out the Lights…

The Mighty Tigers have finally been silenced. Kelly’s team surrendered to the Grey Wolves on Saturday by a score of 2-1. (One would have thought that the larger feline could dispose of the smaller canine…)

Our girls came out a little flat, not playing with the same skill or intensity that they had shown the previous weekend. The defenders played with the ball too much, the offense couldn’t get going. The other team didn’t have any superstars, but they were so much like us that we could not establish a rhythm in the game.

Halftime passed without a score as the tension rose on both sidelines. After playing goalkeeper in the first quarter and sitting out the second, Kelly went back into goal, presumably for the remainder of the game. The game began to be played almost exclusively on our end of the field. Halfway through the quarter, disaster struck. One of our defenders committed an obvious handball infraction, one that the referee could not ignore. To everyone’s horror, the violation was in the penalty box, meaning the Grey Wolves would get a penalty kick. This is the one-on-one shot, in which the goalie must stay on the end line until the shot is struck, from about 20 feet away. Seeing Kelly, the smallest player on her team, swallowed up by the huge goal around her as she faced an opponent who is allowed line up the best shot, made me feel sick for her. We had worked for a while after practice last week in the front yard in the dark on getting low and making good stops, but a penalty shot is a no-win situation for a goalie, especially one who is a good couple of years away from being five feet tall.

Under a leaden sky, the shooter lined up. The other players jostled each other along the lines of the penalty box. Kelly stood impassive in the goal, her hands in a tentative ready position. I crouched behind our chair, half a field away and utterly unable to do anything to help her feel okay about giving up the first goal in a critical game under impossible circumstances. The referee blew the whistle.

She made the save. She made the save!

Not only did she make the save, but she had to dart to her left, staying low, to do so. For someone as small as she is, it was a remarkable achievement, but particularly so under the pressure-packed circumstances. Was I proud? I haven’t stopped smiling about it yet.

Of course, our defense continued its uncharacteristic downward spiral. Not three minutes after Kelly’s game-saving deflection of the penalty shot, one of her own defenders deflected an easy roller away from her into the goal. A few minutes after that, the Grey Wolves’ best player got loose close to the goal and launched a high, hard shot that none of our goalies could have stopped. Our star scored a late breakaway goal, but we all knew the game had been decided long before. The other team simply played better than we did that day.

In the end, the girls had a great season. Out of 24 teams in their division, they finished fifth. I watched two of the other games that weekend, and the two teams that will be in the championship game are not nearly the well-defined team that our girls had. One team depends entirely on a transcendent superstar (look for her in the Olympics, seriously), the other has a Big Girl and a Mouth.

Half of our girls were in tears for a little while after the game ended, such was their intensity, even if it arrived too late to inspire them to a win. In a world that increasingly encourages uniformity by rewarding mediocrity, it was refreshing to see young athletes care so deeply about the success of their team. After a few misty moments, Kelly shrugged it off and moved on with life. That’s good, too.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Short Runway, Bad Weather

Yesterday's skidding crash of a Southwest 737 at Chicago's Midway airport bears an uncomfortable resemblance to an incident involving a Southwest jet landing at Burbank in March 2000 [the link is to the NTSB report; fascinating stuff if you're a wannabe pilot like me]. Like yesterday's crash, the 2000 incident involved very bad weather. A more alarming connection is the similarity between the physical layout of the two airports. Both are relatively small, regional facilities, with runways of 6,500 feet or less that cannot be extended due to the presence of homes and businesses that surround the airports. Like the aircraft in the 2000 Burbank crash, the jet skidded off the end of the runway through a catch fence, ending up in the street outside the airport grounds. Unfortunately, while the Burbank airplane avoided tragedy by sliding to a halt mere feet in front of a gas station, the Chicago airplane struck a car, killing a child inside.

I've written before about short runways. I'm not a big fan. Landing at Burbank usually means that the aircraft is hard on the brakes and reverse thrusters all the way until it peels off to its assigned gate alongside the runway, less than 500 feet before the end of the runway. Bad weather quickly increases the difficulty of the landing, which must occur early over the field and requires hard braking under the best of circumstances. Short of installing walls at the end of airfields that would restrain (but heavily damage) a runaway jetliner, it appears that tragedies like this will continue to happen from time to time at busy regional airports that are too hemmed in by the cities around them to afford a safety buffer zone for runoff.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Book Review: "First Man"

I have long been an enthusiast of the space program. I am too young to remember the last days of the Apollo missions, but I vividly remember arising early to watch the space shuttle Columbia lift off on its first mission. Almost by accident, I have begun to accumulate a nice little collection of books about the space program, which usually take the form of biographies. I have “Lost Moon,” Jim Lovell’s account of the Apollo 13 near-tragedy, “Failure Is Not An Option,” by legendary flight director Gene Kranz, and “For Spacious Skies,” the biography of Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter.

I have now just finished reading the recently-published “First Man: the Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” the first and only authorized biography of astronaut Neil Armstrong. It is a long book, with large sections devoted to detailed accounts of Armstrong’s two space flights, described in second-by-second detail at points of particular interest such as the touchdown of the lunar module of Apollo 11. The book, written by Auburn University history professor and former NASA historian James Hansen, also devotes an equally considerable amount of ink to Armstrong’s service as a naval aviator during the Korean War and his work for NACA/NASA as a test pilot. Drawing from interviews of Armstrong, his family, friends and colleagues, as well as Navy and NASA records, the book is decidedly scholarly, yet quite readable.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, even for his own authorized biography, Armstrong steadfastly refuses to describe the emotional motivation or impact of any of his accomplishments or personal experiences. Long described, perhaps unfairly, as a recluse, Armstrong instead comes across as someone so self-controlled that he has no emotional center to which to refer, even when asked to do so directly. His interviews for the book are consistently non-committal when addressing issues of even the slightest controversy, such as the question of who would set foot on the moon first, his relationship with his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts, or even the death of his daughter due to cancer at age 2. He speaks the engineering equivalent of “lawyerese;” while precise in its own way, his mode of communication is relentlessly circumspect. Ultimately, he exhibits a personality of one who strove so hard to not disappoint anyone that he shut himself off from everyone. Coming to the book hoping to find revealed the normal man that has been hidden from view, you realize that there is no hidden man to find. Like Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, “there’s no there there.”

Oddly, based on portions of mission transcripts reproduced in the book, Armstrong appears to have an easy, dry wit, and would express enthusiasm as anyone would if they were, say, looking at the Earth rising over the Moon for the first time. Ultimately, however, the personality he displays for public, professional and personal consumption is intensely controlled and seemingly devoid of emotional range.

The book demonstrates, however, that Armstrong was an outstanding engineer and test pilot, whose cool demeanor and superior problem solving skills made him the ideal commander for the first manned mission to land on the moon. He may not have been warm and fuzzy, but he got the job done and allowed those around him to do their jobs as well. He also is shown to be a dynamic, gifted extemporaneous speaker, which skill he put to use almost from the beginning of his days as a Gemini astronaut, down to the present.

“First Man” is lengthy and laden with statistical facts that may seem unnecessary (i.e., how many rounds of ammunition Armstrong and his squad-mates expended in Korea; the number of sentences each of the three Apollo 11 astronauts spoke at their introductory press conference). The book, with its intent to be a scrupulously careful historical record, often finds its narrative drifting off correct relatively small inaccuracies in the record of conventional understanding about Armstrong. The book sometimes takes strident tone that comes across as unnecessarily defensive when debunking criticisms of Armstrong, particularly concerning Chuck Yeager. However, for those interested in the glory days of the space program, the level of detail with which Armstrong’s Gemini and, particularly, Apollo missions are portrayed provide a welcome addition to the historical record of these monumental events.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Playoff Beat Goes On

Two days, two games, two wins. Kelly's team is on to yet another weekend of playoff games after defeating a couple of the best teams from the other group in their division. In their next game, they have a rematch against the best team in the other group, to whom they lost on penalty kicks after playing to a 0-0 tie a few weeks ago.

Three more wins and they become division champions. Three more wins? It's all fun, but I think we're all ready for the season to come to a close. The team pizza party is going to be perilously close to Christmas!

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Common Sense Emerges from Hiding

No more cuticle disasters while on vacation, ma'am. Feel free to carry your trusty Phillips head screwdriver, sir! Small pointy things will soon be allowed to travel the friendly, more fortified skies.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Pop Culture Question of the Day

If Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal (the current "it" couple of the indie movie scene) were to have a son, would they be required to name him Aaron?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving Day, Remembered

This day, as with almost every national holiday, is best celebrated with at least a passing remembrance of how it came to be. As we work our way through Ken Burns' "Civil War," we have been powerfully reminded of what a precious thing our national liberty is, and under what forces it was molded. Mr. Lincoln's words reach across time and remain relevant:

Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day

October 3, 1863

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.

A. Lincoln

A very happy, and thankful, Thanksgiving to all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Setting the Record Straight

Powerful words, from March 20, 2003:

“It appears that with the deadline for exile come and gone, Saddam Hussein has chosen to make military force the ultimate weapons inspections enforcement mechanism. If so, the only exit strategy is victory, this is our common mission and the world’s cause. We're in this together. We want to complete the mission while safeguarding our troops, avoiding innocent civilian casualties, disarming Saddam Hussein and engaging the community of nations to rebuild Iraq.”

Well said, sir.

Tech Bargains

For those of you who like a good deal and aren't particularly brand loyal, keep an eye on Especially today, in advance of day-after-Thanksgiving shopping, it is full of interesting possibilities to stretch your technology buying dollar. For instance, if you are a Cingular customer, did you know that you could get Motorola's latest RAZR phone, which lists for $600, for free through Amazon? Lots of good deals on Dells, too. The site appears to do little more than the tedious work of collecting coupon and sale information. It's handy, though, if you're in the market for random electronics equipment.

New "Where On Earth" Quiz!

At long last, JPL and NASA has released the latest "Where on Earth" Quiz. One silly mistake prevented me from joining the honor roll last time. I vow to return to worldwide fame this time around.

UPDATE: Dad, you, of all people, need to do this one.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

New UCSB Webcam

For those who need a dose of the coast, UCSB has changed its webcam. The Surfcam no longer exists, but they have added a Lagoon/Ocean cam (permalink to the left). It's less dramatic that the surf cam sometimes was, but the feed rate seems to be better. Plus, sunsets might be very pretty.

For those of you who haven't been to UCSB, just be thankful the Lagoon cam doesn't come with Smell-o-Vision.

[Postscript: if you must see what a state of the art UCSB student looks like, you may also sample the Bookstore Entrance cam.]

Monday, November 21, 2005

Playoff Fever

In my playing days, AYSO never had playoffs. We had 8 to 10 games (rain or shine), a pizza party at the end of the year, and a nice participation trophy.

Things are a bit different now. Starting in the Under-10 age divisions, all of the teams have playoffs. In the lower half of each division or group, the teams play in a single-elimination "Knock-Out Tournament." For those in the top half of the divisions, the teams play in a double-elimination "Regional Championship." In a region that engages 5,000 soccer players, the playoff brackets put March Madness to shame.

I was unprepared for how intense the playoffs would be, and it's not just this sports fan's reaction. Judging by the very tight scoring in all of the games (no team scored more than 3 goals in any of the 20 or so games in the Girls Under-10 division this weekend), everybody is amped up.

Kelly's team finished fourth in its 12-team group, so they are in the Regional Championship. On Saturday, her team played the 5th place team from the other 12-team group and beat them, 2-0. Kelly played goalie for the last three quarters of the game, obviously without allowing a goal.

The Mighty Tigers' reward for winning was to be matched up the very next day with the number one team from the other group, which had gone undefeated and had a bye for the first round. That team had a couple of very good players, but Kelly's team has really figured out how to play smothering defense. Don't they always say that defense win championships? The other team scored first, and looked like they were going to play the whole game in our half of the field, but the Mighty Tigers tied the score just before halftime. Kelly again played the last three quarters in goal, after again sitting out the first quarter. And again she pitched a shutout, making a couple of nice saves. She doesn't do the dramatic diving stops that you might see from older players (few kids her age do), but she has consistently shown a good instinct for knowing when to come out to fall on the ball. The other team had only a handful of rushes that were not immediately squelched by the defense, but on the few times the ball squirted through, Kelly ran out to retrieve it and made very effective punts to put the ball back in play. Unfortunately, the other team held the Mighty Tigers scoreless, although we had far more goal opportunities. The game clock expired with the score knotted at one goal apiece.

As the sun began to set on what was a beautiful 85-degree day, the teams played a five-minute overtime period. Another player was finally put in goal, and she made a terrific save on one of the few breakaway chances the other team's best player had. The extra period ended without a score, so the game moved to penalty shots. Each team could take five shots, and the team with the most at the end would be the winner.

As the parents nervously paced the sidelines (okay, that was me) and the teams sat near the half line cheering on their teammates, each girl took her shot. The other team scored immediately, while our first two shooters missed the goal. Then our goalie made a couple of saves, they missed the net a couple of times, their goalie made a save, then we put one in. At the end of the regular shootout, each team had managed one goal. That put the game into sudden death shootout mode. The last two players who had been on the field during the overtime period who had not already shot were to take the next shots. First to score wins. Our shooter took a great, powerful shot, but the goalie made a nice play to block it away. Their shooter snuck one into the low corner, and the game was over.

I had been concerned about the girls losing, and possibly losing big, to a team that was supposed to be easily superior. The hard-fought battle redeemed the day for everyone, though. There was little disappointment in losing. At the end of the game, the players and parents from both teams gathered at the middle circle, the girls from both teams did a joint cheer for each other, and the parents made one long tunnel for all of the players from both teams to run through. The tension of the game may have taken a few months off my life, but it was truly a happy thrill to see the teams and parents enjoy the pure spirit of competition.

There is a subtle downside to that competition. The player rotation, free-wheeling all season, is now decidedly locked into a pattern. I can't say I disagree with much of the lineup, but some of the kids are not playing as much or in as many positions as they did earlier in the season. Thankfully, everybody still plays, but the lineup is now clearly geared as much as it can be for winning.

Happily, the Mighty Tigers play again in a couple of weeks, now in the lower half of the bracket. If they play with the same intensity that they have demonstrated in the last couple of games, they could still go far. Even if they don't, though, this season, unexpectedly lengthened, has given the girls and their families some great experiences and memories.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Liable, But Not Guilty

Robert Blake has been found liable by a Burbank jury for killing his wife. So let me see if I have this straight: he probably did it (cha-ching), but it's not totally clear that he did ("you're free to go"). Who comes off looking worse, the prosecutor's office, or the jury in the criminal trial?

If they weren't both now broke, maybe he and OJ could roam the golf courses of the world looking for their wives' killers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

More Speedy Baseball

I'm not the only one who noticed the unexpected inclusion of amphetamines in the new baseball drug policy. A real live journalist has a similar take:

"Wait: Are they really going after the greenies?

Is baseball really acknowledging its historic association with amphetamines and beginning an attempt to turn the tide of their use? This is, after all, a sport so steeped in speed that a whole host of its players might not even think they're doing anything illegal when they "bean up" before a game.

Baseball and greenies go together like hot dogs and apple pie, assuming the hot dogs come flying off the grill at Warp Seven and the pie sort of jitters and sweats slightly as it is removed from the oven. They've been together for a long, untouted while, is the thing. ...

But the mere fact of amphetamines' inclusion in this new drug policy is news. Why? Because, from a letter Selig sent to Fehr in April asking that amphetamines be banned to Tuesday's announcement, this marks the first time in the history of the sport that its leaders have actually acknowledged the grizzly bear in the kitchen....

But amphetamines are so old school that many observers just assumed they'd never be addressed. Baseball people have long declared that most fans don't care what a player uses to get himself "ready" to play, and the notion that guys have been popping wide-awake pills for decades, going back well into the Willie Mays say-heyday, carries with it some implied grandfathering in of greenies as an accepted form of game preparedness. ..."
As I said, I think the amphetamine issue is going to surprise a lot of players and fans.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Watch Out For the Law of Unintended Consequences

Baseball, to much self-congratulatory acclaim, has finally agreed to a drug program that includes significant penalties. The commissioner’s office and the players’ association have agreed to stringent penalties for steroid users, with a 50-game ban for a first offense, 100-game ban for a second offense, and a lifetime ban (subject to a right to seek reinstatement after 2 years) for a third offense. The plan also includes additional penalties if a player is convicted of (not charged with) possession or distribution of steroids.

The steroids story gets the headlines. Of greater interest to a broader array of players, however, will be the new penalties tied to amphetamines. Use and abuse of “greenies” and other amphetamines is legendary in baseball, going back decades. The baseball season, with its two months of spring training followed by six months of travel and games almost every day, is lengthy and boring enough to have led players to all sorts of stimulants over the years. It has long been one of baseball’s open secrets, a sort of victimless crime.

Now, however, players will be tested for amphetamines for the first time. The penalties start gently, but become significant quickly. A first positive test will result in a mandatory second test. A second positive test, however, carries a 25-game suspension, 2.5 times the severity of the current first-level penalty for steroid use. A third positive test results in an 80 game suspension (50% of a season’s worth of games), and a fourth positive test will result in a review by the Commissioner of the player’s ongoing status as an active player in Major League Baseball. There are also penalties for convictions for possessing and/or distributing amphetamines.

Baseball players appear to be getting the message about steroids. With several high-profile players caught in the net, and others surely to come, baseball seems to have caught up with the problem. Time will only bring more developments in the doping world, which will require additional, new testing regimens, but baseball finally has a system in place to handle the issue.

Testing and penalties for amphetamine use, however, presents a very interesting wrinkle in the plan. This one cuts deeper into the culture of professional baseball. For that reason, I suspect that there are many players who will be swept up by this new ban. We may also see very poor late season performance from more players than usual as players stay away from uppers of all sorts. I don’t know much about the chemistry behind the testing for amphetamines, but I suspect that we may also hear a lot from players about false positives, stimulants that shouldn’t be banned, and other hair-splitting.

I foresee a lot of warning track power, more numerous ineffective relievers (really, who is more hopped up than the guy who comes in at a pressure-filled point in the game to retire one or two batters), and sagging August and September statistics. Still, it’s about time. Baseball fans deserve better than the cartoonish figures they have been presented over the last decade. I loved the summer of 1998 for the McGwire/Sosa home run spectacle, I still think Barry Bonds has the most amazing eye-hand coordination in the game (regardless of whether his power was artificially enhanced), and I dig the long ball as much as anyone else. But when a player like Brady Anderson suddenly looks like he joined the WWE and knocks almost thirty homers more than he had in any single season prior to then or at any other time in his career, something’s clearly wrong. When Ken Caminiti suddenly bulks up and puts out huge, out-of-character numbers, then dies a lonely, drug-addicted death at the age of 41, something’s clearly wrong.

The pressures on minor league players to make “The Show” are immense, which led many, if not most, to dabble in all sorts of questionable potions just to keep up with the next guy (or so they told themselves). Here’s hoping that the ban on steroids and other performance enhancements will level the playing field once again.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Apparently You Can Patent Anything

I am sometimes asked, by people who remember that I once wanted to practice intellectual property law, whether I practice patent law. The answer has always been "no," as patent law is an unusually specialized area in which the practitioners often possess engineering degrees. However, if one recent patent granted recently is any indication, maybe I should have looked into it more closely. They seem to be doing some pretty interesting things over there these days.

There are too many great parts of the patent claim of this device to excerpt, but let's start with the abstract:
A space vehicle propelled by the pressure of inflationary vacuum state is provided comprising a hollow superconductive shield, an inner shield, a power source, a support structure, upper and lower means for generating an electromagnetic field, and a flux modulation controller. A cooled hollow superconductive shield is energized by an electromagnetic field resulting in the quantized vortices of lattice ions projecting a gravitomagnetic field that forms a spacetime curvature anomaly outside the space vehicle. The spacetime curvature imbalance, the spacetime curvature being the same as gravity, provides for the space vehicle's propulsion. The space vehicle, surrounded by the spacetime anomaly, may move at a speed approaching the light-speed characteristic for the modified locale.

It's a spaceship! It travels faster than light!

This invention concerns devices self-propelled by the artificially changed properties of the pressure of inflationary vacuum state to speeds possibly approaching the light-speed specific for this modified locale. Furthermore, this invention concerns devices capable of generating the spacetime anomaly characterized by the elevated vacuum pressure density. The devices combining these capabilities may be able to move at speeds substantially higher than the light-speed in the ambient space.
As Lee Iacocca might say, if you can find a transport with a better flux modulation controller, buy it!

End of the Week Humor Break

Having wielded the Swedish allen wrenches many times, this one resonates deeply with me:

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Star Is Born

Introducing ...

Dr. Monk!

And here is what you can expect from the good Dr. Monk's class at George Mason University, PSYC 317-001 Cognitive Psychology:

This course will introduce some of the major issues, theories, and experimental findings in cognitive psychology. Some of the topics that will be covered include sensory perception, attention, memory, imagery, language, reasoning, and problem solving. Although the format will be primarily lecture-based, in-class discussion is encouraged. You will be expected to understand the facts and theories of cognitive psychology and also the research methods used in cognitive psychology — in other words, how human cognition can be studied scientifically, and why the results of experimental investigations support particular theories of human cognition.
Way to go, Chris!

Federal Courts Have All The Fun

One of my cases is venued in the local federal district court, which is a bit of a thrill because of the seemingly higher standards of jurisprudence and wisdom exercised by litigants and the court. Without knocking state court judges, who do a difficult job very well, the federal courts tend to handle a lot more "higher end" cases. The judges are powerful, the clerks are whip smart, and the general tenor of the place leads you to make sure you have shined your shoes and straightened your tie.

In checking on some items for our case, I came across an order issued recently by one of our local federal district judges that may illustrate the range and complexity of issues that come before the court. The mere title of the motion is something I could not come up with in a million years:

Order Denying MAAF's Motion to Preclude the French Phrase "Queljeu Doit-on Jouer Vis-a-Vis Des Autorities De Californie?" as Used in Mr. Simonet's Notes From Being Translated as "What Game Must We Play With the California Authorities?"
That's so esoteric that it can't help being cool.

A Legitimate E-Mail Chain Letter

Among the flotsam and jetsam of random e-mails that have been passed on to you for being one of someone's ten best friends, you may have received a message that provides advice for diagnosing a stroke. The core segment of the e-mail is this:


Thank God for the sense to remember the "3" steps. Read and Learn!
Sometimes symptoms of a stroke are difficult to identify. Unfortunately, the lack of awareness spells disaster. The stroke victim may suffer brain damage when people nearby fail to recognize the symptoms of a stroke.

Now doctors say a bystander can recognize a stroke by asking three simple questions:

1. *Ask the individual to SMILE.
2. *Ask him or her to RAISE BOTH ARMS.
3. *Ask the person to SPEAK A SIMPLE SENTENCE (Coherently) (i.e. . . It is sunny out today) If he or she has trouble with any of these tasks, call 9-1-1 immediately and describe the symptoms to the dispatcher.

It sounds reasonable, but so many of these kind of chain e-mails are meritless. This one, however, is apparently correct in its content and based on an actual (albeit small) medical study. According to, the advice is basically sound, although it has not been officially endorsed by the American Stroke Association. Here's a broader explanation of the test:

Focal neurological signs such as slurred speech, unilateral facial droop, blurred vision, discoordination, and partial or total paralysis are often indicative of some sort of brain dysfunction and would be recognized as important markers by those in the medical profession. However, expecting laypeople to diagnose that something has gone terribly wrong in a loved one on the basis of that checklist would be reaching for too much; in that key moment few would be likely to remember what they were supposed to be looking for.

By distilling the assessment process down to three simple tests (smile, raise both arms, speak a simple sentence), anyone is likely to remember what to ask of someone they suspect has just undergone a stroke and to correctly interpret the information so gleaned. (The tests are pass/fail, after all, so if the person they were administered to couldn't smile, couldn't raise her arms, and was incoherent, the party observing all this wouldn't be at a loss for what to make of the results — she'd conclude her friend had undergone a stroke.)

File this in the category of things you hope you never have to deal with. Someday, thought, someone may be very, very glad you knew this.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Little Boys Are Not Like Little Girls

I love picking Michael up from school, because the half-day kids in his class are scheduled to be in the play yard at that time. I get a chance to see him in his element, playing with his friends. Sometimes that involves riding a tricycle (and being driven off the road by one of the girls in his class), sometimes it's baseball or soccer, and sometimes it's leaping off a small play structure and bonking heads with one of the other boys, causing a moment of stunned silence and then laughter and more jumping.

Today, one of the boys was chasing other kids around, his hands formed like he was wielding a gun or, possibly, a syringe. As a teacher walked between my vantage point and Michael, I saw the boy run up to Michael with hands in attack mode and making a hissing sound. When I could see Michael again, he was sprawled prone on the playground floor in a very convincing portrayal of unconsciousness.

After he got up and came with me to go home, I asked him what they were playing.


Aw, they're so cute at this age.

Remember That Whole UCLA-USC Thing?

Okay, yeah, ouch. I just knew this would happen if I looked ahead to the USC game. I was going to prepare another post before that game showing how porous UCLA's run defense was, and how that didn't bode well against the two-headed monster of Bush and White, who have already rushed for more than 150 yards each in the same game this year. After the shellacking laid on by Arizona, though, UCLA is now an afterthought. They will be lucky to end up in a BCS bowl now. Still, this year was a nice turnaround for the team, which had been relentlessly mediocre in recent years.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Wanna Waste Some Time?

Here's another delightful little shockwave game. It requires even less of the participant than most shockwave games. It may be more thrilling, though, especially if you are an infectious disease specialist who watches cells multiply and divide through a microscope (that makes sense; you'll see).

My high score so far: 1537.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A Little Midweek Chuckle

What is sushi in Tennessee?

What your buddy says when you forget to introduce your new girlfriend to him.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

UCLA v. USC: The Coming Armageddon

If you follow college football, especially if you do not live on the East Coast, you know that USC has continued undefeated this year in its march toward a third consecutive national championship. You may also have heard that UCLA, thanks to four incredible fourth quarter comebacks, is also undefeated, one of five such teams remaining in Division 1-A. Thus, it is possible that the two Los Angeles gridiron powerhouses could meet at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on December 3 with pristine records. USC will be looking to retain its inside track to the BCS national title game, held this year at the Rose Bowl, the Granddaddy of the Bowls and UCLA’s home field, while UCLA will be attempting to knock USC out of the title game and, perhaps, put themselves in it (although UCLA has been the lowest-ranked of the undefeated teams all season).

Even discussing this could be the final jinx on their seasons, but supposing they get that far, an interesting question arises. In the long history of their intra-city battles, have these two teams ever met under similar circumstances, and if so, what happened?

Only once in their history, which dates back to a first contest in 1929, have both UCLA and USC entered the game against each other undefeated and untied. In 1952, USC spoiled UCLA’s perfect season, winning 14-12. USC lost the next week to Notre Dame, 9-0, but ended up the Pacific Coast Conference champion, went on to beat Wisconsin 7-0 in the Rose Bowl, and ended the season ranked 5th in the nation by AP. UCLA would finish the year ranked 6th in the country by both AP and UPI.

UCLA and USC also met when they were both undefeated but with one tie in each of their records. On that occasion in 1969, USC again ended UCLA’s undefeated run … with another 14-12 victory. As the Pac-8 champion, USC then defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl to conclude a 10-0-1 year with a final ranking of 3rd by AP. UCLA finished the season ranked 10th by UPI and 13th by AP.

Early in their history, UCLA and USC would typically meet at the beginning of their respective seasons, rather than at the end as they do now. As a result, there were several other games in which both teams were technically undefeated and untied, although neither team had yet played a game in those seasons. For the record, in those games USC beat UCLA four times and the teams tied once. In their first two meetings, opening the 1929 and 1930 seasons, USC trounced UCLA by scores of 76-0 and 52-0 (the teams would not play again until 1936, when UCLA managed to battle the Trojans to a 7-7 draw). USC opened its 1943 and 1945 seasons with 20-0 and 13-6 wins over UCLA. Only in 1944 did UCLA manage a 13-13 tie in its season-opening tilt with USC.

Unlike most blather that appears on blogs, mine included, what follows here is the result of my own independent research. Should both teams survive the next month’s worth of games to arrive at the December 3rd contest undefeated, I will have saved some stathead at some work. And don’t think I won’t be looking for some SportCenter anchor to spout exactly these stats, complete with grainy footage of the 1952 game.

As a UCLA alumnus, I must also point out that while the Men of Troy have a much longer and more heralded legacy in football, UCLA is the most successful intercollegiate athletics institution, with 95 total NCAA titles coming into the 2005-2006 year, while USC is third with 83 titles. Lest that make you think that UCLA is nothing but a jock school, let me provide a few more pertinent data points, courtesy of the 2005 US News and World Report Rankings:

Undergraduate rank: UCLA 26th, USC 30th.
Business school rank: UCLA 11th, USC 26th.
Law school rank: UCLA 15th, USC 18th.
Medical school rank: UCLA 11th, USC 32nd.

Fight on, indeed.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Local Athlete Honored

As you will see from this article in the Glendale News Press, Kelly has been chosen to receive her soccer team's Sportsmanship Award for the season. As the youngest player on the team, she has had to learn how to compete against much bigger, more experienced girls, but she is doing very well and enjoying herself. Her Mighty Tigers (she picked the name, by the way) have had a pretty good season, with a couple of very flat losses and a lot of blowout wins. Kelly has been the good soldier and spent a lot of time at goalie this year. The best thing is that she is having fun, getting a ton of exercise, looks forward to soccer camps, and views herself as an athlete. It's a lot of work for us to get her to practices and games, but every minute is worth it.

Here are a couple of shots from the award ceremony:

Here she is in action warming up before the game this weekend:

Monday, October 31, 2005

Fantasy Sports Updates

Even moreso than toenail fungus, few words generate a stronger impulse in the listener to drive knitting needles through his or her eardrums than the phrase, "hey, wanna hear about my fantasy teams?" Nevertheless, I feel compelled to respond to the clamor I hear in my head for news about my fantasy baseball and football teams. Please put your sewing implements away.

My baseball team, the historic Eefus Aficionados franchise, concluded the season with a solid lock on first place, having spent only a few weeks out of the top spot all summer. I finished with a winning percentage of .603, which translates to 98 real-world wins. For comparison, the World Series champion Chicago White Sox won 99 games; only the St. Louis Cardinals, with 100 regular season wins, won more.

Like the Cardinals, however, the Eefus Aficionados flamed out in the playoffs. I had a bye for the first week and easily won in the second round to advance to the finals. The final round of the playoffs covered the last two weeks of the regular season. Unfortunately, I ran into a buzzsaw in my opponent, who put up otherworldly offensive numbers for the first week. My only hope was to claw back to respectability by catching him in categories decided by averages, as most of the cumulative categories were far out of reach. Sadly, although I had a good second week, victory was not meant to be. I guess I now know how John Schuerholz (general manager of the Atlanta Braves, fourteen straight years of playoffs with only one World Series win) feels.

As for my Fumblerooskies, the football year got off to a tough start. The NFL has had a strange year, with few of the perennial fantasy stars performing up to expectations. I finally bowed to conventional wisdom and drafted running backs first (because someone else picked Payton Manning). However, my running backs have all suffered injuries. My quarterback, Trent Green, has had a dreadful year in fantasy terms. My star wide receiver, Marvin Harrison, has endured an unusually lackluster year from the Indianapolis Colts’ offense. My backup quarterback, until last week, was David Carr of the formerly winless Houston Texans (I replaced him with notoriously inconsistent Jake Plummer of the Denver Broncos, who promptly had a career game … on my bench). Currently, I am the weakest team in my league, although I have managed to scrape out a couple of victories. If the Steelers shut down the Ravens tonight, and if the Steelers’ tight end can get involved in the offense, I might pull out another victory, but I will be coming from behind to do it, as usual.

I do have a couple of bright spots. Plaxico Burress has become the favorite target of emerging star Eli Manning. Even injured, running back Corey Dillon continues to put up solid numbers for the New England Patriots. The Steelers’ defense has been strong all year, and should remain so. Unfortunately, I can’t count on consistently big numbers from my quarterback and both running backs as I have for the past couple of years.

All I have to do is find a way to pick up a few more wins to get into the top half of the playoff draw. Then, anything can happen.

As if you care.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Ruminations From a Business Trip

I had occasion to make another milk run to San Francisco this week. As I’ve noted before, I’m warming to United again. As much as I appreciate the flexibility and convenience of Southwest, sometimes you don’t want to be able to count the hair follicles on the top of the head of the passenger ahead of you. There was enough room in my row that I was able to actually cross my legs (not just my ankles). Plus, the flight up was only about half full, and the flight back still had enough vacancies that the seat next to me was empty. Even better, United allows you to listen to the pilots.

The hotel where I stayed, just south of Candlestick 3Com Monster Park (bleah) offered Town Car service into the city for a couple of bucks more than a taxi. I certainly enjoyed the convenience of not having to worry about calling a taxi and hoping he would pick me up in time to get to court in a timely manner. I also enjoyed calling “my driver” to pick me up when I was done. I realized, however, that I probably gave off exactly the wrong message, if anyone had noticed. There I was, the attorney for an insurance company, involved in a lawsuit with the insured, showing up at a hearing in a dark-windowed limousine. No! It’s not like that! The limo cost the same as a taxi!

Waiting for my flight home, I picked up what seemed to me to be an interesting book. Recognizing that while my knowledge and study of World War II is fairly extensive, my World War I scholarship is seriously deficient, I delved into Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax," by Joseph Persico. It is written somewhat in the omniscient narrator style of Stephen Ambrose, whose books I’ve greatly enjoyed, in that the book’s narrative relies on first person accounts of many people and presumes to know what they thought, felt and hoped for. Thankfully, it is far less dry, and crafted with more creativity than Rick Atkinson’s “An Army at Dawn : The War in Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy (The Liberation Trilogy, Vol 1),” a thorough but frustratingly plodding account of the Allies’ actions in North Africa in WWII. On the other hand, Persico keeps a greater narrative distance from his subjects, perhaps because, unlike Ambrose, he was unable to interview and get to know them. As a result, his book reads much less like the screenplays that Ambrose’s books sometimes resemble.

(The absolutely stellar HBO production of "Band of Brothers"
is based upon the late Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same name. Ambrose was also an advisor to the producers of “Saving Private Ryan,” and was the driving force behind the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, which I still regret not taking a few hours to visit while I was there in June.)

I had hoped Persico’s book would provide at least some general overview of the Great War, even though it is expressly focused on the last hours of that war. Persico does not disappoint, providing a detailed yet concise account of the genesis of the war. I find that the awkward intersection of ancient dynasties and modern, industrial nation states that resulted in the armed conflict is very interesting and warrants further study. What I find less interesting, halfway through the book as I am, is Persico’s emerging theme that those stuck fighting the war really hated it. This is not a terribly surprising element of the story, considering the true horror that the war of the trenches became. Again, the more interesting aspect of the event is the tragic collision between 19th century warfare-by-parade and 20th century mechanized death-making. Generals parties while privates died, and the privates resented it? Well, yes. Commentary on this point is the least interesting or illuminating aspect of the book.

What is shocking, and the reason I picked up the book, is the fact that although the men in power had signed the armistice early on the morning of November 11, 1918, which fact had been relayed to their troops, strict orders were given to embark on a last attack beginning (depending on the location) within the 10 o’clock hour. Hostilities were not to cease until the agreed-upon hour of 11 a.m. Wow.

I read the opening chapters of the book while listening to Enya’s “Watermark” album on the iPod. “Watermark,” the album of choice for sensitive, romantic college men of half a generation ago, struck what seemed to me to be the appropriate melancholy tone to accompany the senseless slaughter described on the pages before me. After Enya, They Might Be Giants singing about “Particle Man” provided an amusingly discordant soundtrack. Ironically, however, their song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” addresses the name change of that prominent Turkish city, which came about in large part due to the same collapse of historic dynasties that contributed to World War I.

See, it all fits together.

A Little Midweek Humor

What's the difference between God and a federal judge?

God doesn't think he's a federal judge.

Thank you! Goodnight!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Entry Level Racing

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to do some real racing. Nearly every top racing driver, especially those from outside the U.S., began his or her career in karts. Karting is a relatively inexpensive way to gain valuable experience in car control and racing techniques.

National Kart News provides this summary of the road racing variety of kart racing:

Sprint racing is by far the most popular. Sprint races are held on road-course type tracks that are anywhere from 1/4 mile to 1/2 mile in length. Sprint karts can also be driven on any of the other types of tracks, which makes them the most versatile of all the karting divisions. This class, depending on engine size, runs speeds in the neighborhood of 45 - 80 MPH and fully prepared, generally cost between $2000.00 and $5000.00. Most Sprint races run short but quick 10 to 15 lap heat races, thus the name "Sprint". Each state usually offers a number of Sprint tracks that run every weekend, which makes it very accessible and the most popular division in the sport.

The typical entry-level race cart has no suspension, no multi-gear transmission, and about 15 horsepower. The stakes rise quickly, with the higher classes of karts sporting exotic chassis and body materials, 4-stroke motorcycle engines, six-speed sequential transmissions and four wheel disc brakes. These are serious machines that can outperform any street car.

I had my day at Adams Kart Track in Riverside. It's a dusty little facility, but the racing is well organized, and the track is challenging. They even give you printouts of your laptimes for each 12-lap sprint race. Plus, you get to wear a driving suit. It fits like Barbie clothes on a Cabbage Patch Doll, but in my mind's eye, I was Mario Andretti in sneakers.

We ran two races, which, as fun as it was, was plenty for a first time. The lateral g-loading and manual steering require a surprising amount of upper body and arm strength to control. Plus, the adrenaline rush of plunging harder into corners with each lap is thrilling, but ultimately exhausting. Racers emerge sweaty from their helmets for a reason.

Weight is the enemy of performance in every racing endeavor. In a vehicle that weighs about 200 pounds, this concept is especially acute. In particular, the power-to-weight ratio changes dramatically based upon the weight of the driver. Let's just say that my sinewy friend who was in his final week of training for the LA Triathalon seemed to have a substantially quicker kart than I did. Despite my extra, um, ballast, I had an absolute blast. I put into practice much of what I've learned through the Skip Barber school as well as countless hours of couch racing (real events and videogames). I discovered that there are limits to my bravery that I would need more time in the kart to explore. I learned that I could discern acutely the handling differences between the two karts I drove, and was pleased to find that I could adapt to their differing tendencies. Karts, by being so elemental, are brilliantly communicative; every physics lesson on car control I've every absorbed could be put into practice, which is part of the reason that karting is such a good training ground for serious racers.

I also suffered the dual humiliations of being slower than a couple of my companions (although still quicker than just about everyone else we had seen in preceding races -- it's all technique) and of spinning off the track and becoming high-centered on the two-inch edge of the asphalt. It was all in good fun, though, and no harm came to myself or the kart. Perhaps the best part of the day was reliving the experience over dinner with the four other guys I raced with, gearheads all.

As an introduction to a couple of pictures below, here is the track layout:

(The long upper bit is not used for the standard "arrive and drive" session we had. Instead, from the upper left corner of the image, the track makes a right-left turn to join the middle long straight. We also didn't use the right-left-right chicane shown in the lower part of the image; you will see it in the second picture below.)

Here are a couple of pictures, which together show just about all of the track. This first shot shows the end of the longish back straight (on the other side of the second line of cones, going behind the light post), which leads into a slightly banked hairpin. Heaviest braking here, right on the limit of locking; the real trick is figuring out the line around the corner and when to start putting the power down again. The "pits" are to the left of the exit of the hairpin; the track goes around the pits in a left-right combination onto the front straight.

This picture shows the rest of the track. The driver in the lower right is coming out of the right hand sweeper just past the pits. Turn one at the end of the front straight can be taken flat out, but I never quite did it. It leads into a very fast left-right-left chicane; the raised curbs can really upset the car's balance, especially if you are carrying full speed through there. If the picture were larger, you could see, out by the hay bales and the couple of guys standing out there, a set of two 90 degree right hand turns. I spun off at the first one as I was still trying to settle the kart down after flying through the chicane and applying too much brake while trying to turn at the same time. The complex around the hay bales brings the karts out onto the back straight toward the hairpin again, between 31 and 35 seconds since the last time you were there. (If you want full size copies of these pictures, let me know.)

Huge fun. Did I mention that these things have no seatbelts?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Time Out

Sometimes you just need to be someplace pretty and peaceful. Thankfully, our back yard now fits the bill:

"I Don't Believe ... What I Just Saw!"

In another October moment worthy of the late Jack Buck's call of Kirk Gibson's improbable game-winning home run in the first game of the 1988 World Series, Albert Pujols reversed the fortunes of two teams in a heartbeat last night. With his St. Louis Cardinals down by two runs in the ninth inning against the Houston Astros, the Houston crowd generating afterburner-level noise inside Minute Maid Park, Pujols launched a home run against Houston's closer Brad Lidge, one of the best closers the game has to offer. Pujols' home run, scoring the three runs that would give St. Louis the win, was epic not only for the fact that Houston was one out away from eliminating the Cardinals to go to its first World Series in its 45-year existence, but for the sheer no-doubt-about-it-ness of the hit. Unlike the homer that Astro Lance Berkman had poked into the short seats in left field two innings before to put Houston in the lead, Pujols' shot was worthy of the All-Star Game Home Run Derby. There was no question, from the nanosecond his bat made contact with the ball, that he had hit the ball out ... way out. The assured violence of the stroke instantly sucked the air from the throats of the Houston fans, turning what had been a boiling cauldron of hope and excitement into a vaccum of shock and, for those who really cared, despair. There was no need for an Astro fan to wait for the ball to come down to know the awful truth.

Every kid with a wiffle ball bat in his hand in his backyard dreams of doing something like what Pujols accomplished. Even in those contests of fancy, however, boys seldom dare to dream of bring misery on the opponent so powerfully, so convincingly.

I like football. This past weekend had some truly exciting games (Go Bruins! Oh yeah, nice win, USC). I like the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals in hockey. I like the last frantic seconds of a low seed's last desperate attempts to pull an upset in the NCAA basketball tournament. For my money, though, nothing compares to the drama of October baseball.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Redemption, For Now

Things couldn't stay bad forever. Well, sometimes it can seem that way, but in this case, my week improved. By weeks' end, I was getting attaboys for delivering effective briefs on an extremely short timeframe that may go a long way toward resolving the crisis that began the week. (Sorry for being so oblique, but, one, it all involves somewhat arcane legal procedure, and two, I really can't talk about what is happening in detail for reasons of client confentialty and attorney work product protection.)

It is an interesting fact of human nature, or at least my particular nature, that a single "good job" can go far toward restoring my self-confidence, even after almost ten years in the profession. Do we all thirst for approval from others?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Knock, Knock

For you dedicated few who stop by here every now and then, I'm sorry I haven't been more prolific with posts. There's a lot going on with us that would be fun to share. Unfortunately, I've been horrifically busy lately. Making matters worse, the huge project ended badly, at least for the short term.

I had expected to be really enjoying life again by today. I had a whole list of "you know you stayed too late at work" jokes ready to go. I'll get to them eventually. Right now, though, I feel like the Yankees did two nights ago, taking the long overnight flight back to New York after being eliminated from the playoffs. A flight that didn't leave the ground on time due to mechanical problems, and couldn't even make it across the country without stopping for a crew change. One of the players called it the "most miserable night ever." Yep, I hear ya.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Porsche Returns to Prototype Racing

At long last, and one race late, Porsche will finally get back in the game of fielding purpose-built race cars. In association with Penske Racing, which was a storied pairing long ago, DHL-sponsored Porsche RS Spyders will make their debut in the LMP2 class at the American Le Mans Series finale at Laguna Seca on October 15-16. The car was supposed to make its maiden appearance at last weekend's 10-hour Petit Le Mans at Road America, but Porsche decreed that the car had not yet demonstrated sufficient durability for the long race. Rather than risk the embarassment of mechanical breakdowns, the German manufacturer elected to postpone its first race until the season finale in Monterey.

While one might have expected the car to be entered in the higher LMP1 class, it is rumored that the LMP1 class will become the province of highly experimental cars such as diesels, which is of great interest to many of the European firms that are involved with the primary Le Mans series. Porsche, however, has expressed little interest in offbeat technologies, preferring instead to focus on components that could be used in their road cars. If other manufacturers shy away from LMP1 for similar reasons, the formerly irrelevant LMP2 class could become the most interesting of any field.

DHL recently announced its key sponsorship of the team. The cars will now be liveried in DHL's yellow and red:

I preferred the simplicity (and colors) of the factory look:

Either way, I'll be checking it out on October 16th, 10 am to 2 pm (PDT) on Speed.

Space Oddity, Citizen Tom

Did you know that there is currently a civilian in space? An American by the name of Greg Olsen arrived at the International Space Station via a Russian rocket earlier this week. The third "space tourist," Olsen will spend ten days in space, perform a few experiments for the European Space Agency, and otherwise enjoy weightlessness and the view. Not a bad gig for $20 million.

Friday, September 30, 2005

This Is Why American Kids Can't Compete

We aren't keeping up with the latest trends in digital quantity!

Don't let that innocent face fool you; it hides a ruthless competitor who can type 20% more letters that you!

“Serenity” Preaches to the Converted

Joss Whedon’s new film, “Serenity,” must overcome unique challenges in spreading the word to the “Firefly” agnostic such as this reviewer. “Firefly” is accepted gospel to those who worshipped at its altar since that series briefly walked the TV landscape before it was unceremoniously dispatched. The nonbelieving “Serenity” viewer, on the other hand, must receive the message and all of its historical underpinnings within the brief span of the film. “Firefly” disciples may greet “Serenity” with great adulation as the return of their beloved world, reborn larger than life on the movie screen. To reach the unconverted, however, “Serenity” must withstand greater scrutiny of plot and, particularly, character. “Serenity” is no Billy Graham at bringing new believers into the fold. However, like the many effective evangelists, the movie is attractive, friendly, and leads the curious to consider examining those “Firefly” underpinnings.

Here is the tract you receive when you pass through the doors:
Joss Whedon, the Oscar® - and Emmy - nominated writer/director responsible for the worldwide television phenomena of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE, ANGEL and FIREFLY, now applies his trademark compassion and wit to a small band of galactic outcasts 500 years in the future in his feature film directorial debut, Serenity. The film centers around Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a hardened veteran (on the losing side) of a galactic civil war, who now ekes out a living pulling off small crimes and transport-for-hire aboard his ship, Serenity. He leads a small, eclectic crew who are the closest thing he has left to family –squabbling, insubordinate and undyingly loyal.

Here is what you get when you have taken your spot in the unfamiliar pew:

Joss Whedon populates his mongrelized science fiction-western world with a population carefully painted from the diversity palette. Mal (Nathan Fillion), the leader of the pack, wields a six-shooter laser gun slung from a hip holster, lacking only a woven poncho and tired gaucho hat to pass for a spaghetti western anti-hero. He is joined by Zoe (Gina Torres), the cannon-toting Cuban woman who is married to Wash (Alan Tudyk), the nutty, Mentos-white pilot; Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the lovelorn, daft but cute-when-she-wipes-off-the-grease chief mechanic; Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the oafish gunman with a heart of gold; and Inara (Morena Baccarin), the captain's sometime flame, imbued with the power to cause him to stammer and grovel like a hormonal 13 year old.

This tossed salad of “OC”-friendly archetypes is tasked with mercenary, future day Robin Hood raids on outposts of the all-powerful Alliance. Our happy band’s lives are complicated by the presence of square-jawed Simon (Sean Maher), the sensitive-man doctor, and his waifish sister River (Summer Glau), a tortured teen of indeterminate race who apparently holds a dangerous secret within her fevered head. The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who could be Wayne Brady’s long lost brother), the Inspector Javert to River’s Valjean, plays the villain with gusto, showing off a talent for the dramatic … pause … that is utterly Shatnerian, and yet not out of place in this mildly campy romp.

The opening sequence of the movie sets up the girl-in-danger, rebels-running-from-the-law trope well, with clever changes of scene and narrative paths that may not be what they seem. Our heroes then bounce around the universe running from The Operative and his minions, their lives and livelihoods threatened by the mere presence of River among them. Thanks in part to the deus ex machina powers of Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz), the Serenity crew slowly learns more about the torment afflicting River. They are motivated to do so by her stunning display of combat prowess, which reveals that she will take down anyone who might stand in her way of reaching … something. Instead of abandoning the crazy, weaponized girl and her mopey brother, the crew stay together to solve the mystery of River, bound by an amorphous sense of common cause against … something.

Motivation is the weakest element of the film. Other than a rushed expositional voiceover at the beginning of the film, the only contact the audience has with the Alliance is The Operative, who admits that he is only a mercenary acting on the Alliance’s behalf. Mal once fought on the side of the Alliance, but now operates in the shadows at its edges, stealing from it. The leaders of the Alliance are unseen and not heard, yet we know they send amoral soldiers of fortune to carry out their plans, schemes that we are simply left to assume are nefarious. The Alliance governs (rules?) the universe, yet they chase the rebels with warships that unaccountably belch out oil smoke like a poorly tuned 1967 Plymouth Fury. (The Alliance clearly views the Kyoto treaty with disdain.) Does the film pack an allegorical punch against current events? The viewer might be led there, but the Alliance is never developed enough as a character in the movie to support either that notion or the determination of the characters to carry out their respective missions.

When the secret of River is revealed, it sheds only dim light on the horrors presaged by the dark setup. The Alliance’s plan to solidify its hold on the universe seems oddly benign, particularly because the crime that is revealed appears to have been confined to one location and consigned to the dustbin of government projects that didn’t quite work as planned. River’s apparent psychic powers notwithstanding, the magnitude of the threat she represents to the Alliance is not made sufficiently clear to explain her treatment at the hands of the Alliance or the intensity of their attempt to recapture her. In the end, the movie’s attempt to make a statement about “truth” rings hollow in the absence of context; i.e., the “lie.”

Structurally, then, the movie is a tent with a broken center pole that causes the whole enterprise to collapse confusingly upon itself. That does not prevent much fun from happening under the big top in the meantime. The effects are imaginative, the sets (particularly the interior of the Serenity) are well-designed, the action is predicable but well-staged, and the actors are given fun, oddball dialog to chew on. With a strange mix of old West drawl and occasional Elizabethan formality, Whedon clearly enjoyed crafting the spoken words. Humor frequently leavens (or undercuts) the implied dread that attempts to set a serious tone. On the whole, the movie plays like the brightly-lit, snappy, ironic television show that spawned it. The token romantic moments are almost intentionally cloying (causing even the faithful Whedon disciple next to me at the screening to cringe in embarrassment), the characters are stock and unsubtle, and drama is indicated by volume of explosion and mode of music rather than created by the story, but “Serenity” is a fun time nonetheless.

“Serenity” may not be enough for the nonbeliever to see the light, but it is charismatic enough to lead the curious to come back for more.

The Coolest Aviation Website Yet

I've linked to all sorts of aviation sites in the past, showing airport information, flight status and other nuggets that appeal to airplane nuts like me. I've now found the best one of them all. It tracks airplanes in real time in the vicinity of the Burbank airport. If you want to frighten yourself, back the magnification out so that you see the whole LA area. Is that enough airborne activity for ya?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Fire Central

In addition to the large and mostly uncontrolled Topanga Fire, it appears that a new fire has started above Burbank. It is a crystal clear day in our end of the Valley, and we could see from our office windows a fire beginning within the past hour in the hills near The Castaway restaurant. The fire began about 400 yards to the east of the building, and appeared to be at the edge of the DeBell Golf Course, perhaps right at the entrace to the Wildwood Canyon park. The fire stayed in one place for a while, but it has now started its inexorable march up the steep mountain ridge and canyons. This kind of fire broke out in 2002 and spread to the hills above our house. The terrain is very steep (see the link to Wildwood Canyon for great pictures of the area) and fires are difficult to manage. If the winds come up this evening again, it's going to be a long night.

UPDATE, 5:45 pm: The Burbank fire has not spread dramatically yet, but it is still going. Flames are visible from across the Valley. Also, an onshore flow has been developing over the past couple of hours, which has pushed the smoke from the Topanga fire back into the Valley; it has spread across the top of the Valley to just north of Burbank. That onshore flow reverses the direction of the strong Santa Anas. This is a good development for temperature, humidity and control of the fire, as it should push the flames back against areas that have already been consumed. Unfortuately, the northerly flow will push the Burbank fire right up the hill.

UPDATE, Sept. 30, 8:30 am: I guess I was right:
A fire in the Wildwood Canyon wilderness area of Burbank was considered nearly contained early Thursday after burning about 10 acres, a Burbank Police Department sergeant said.

No structures were threatened and there were no injuries, authorities said.

The fire broke out at 4:25 p.m., and two hours into the firefighting effort, the blaze was burning in a 5-mile-wide area of canyons a couple of miles east of Burbank Airport between Wildwood and Stough canyons, said Capt. Ron Bell of the Burbank Fire Department.

UPDATE, Sept. 30, 3:20 pm: The Burbank fire is still going, with sufficient vigor to require the use of two Canadian firefighting airplanes. I last saw those same airplanes a couple of years ago during the horrendous fires that hit the San Bernardino mountains (as well as the San Diego area). They would fly by the building on the way to the ocean to fill up with water, they fly past the building again to dump their payloads. All day long.

Summer Couldn't Leave Quietly

As is typical for September, it is preposterously hot here in SoCal. 90 degress at 11:30 pm kind of hot. Even in the peak of summer it is rare to maintain heat into the night because of the influence of the nearby ocean. Santa Ana conditions, however, change the game. The temperature records from yesterday show that when the winds picked up between 4:53 and 5:53 pm, the temperature increased sharply from 91 to 95, after temperatures had begun to decline for the day.

If you haven't had the pleasure, you really must experience the Santa Ana winds once in your life. Sudden, unseasonable heat, negligible humidity, stirred-up dust, and ashes from the inevitable fires all provide a delightful scouring for your eyes and throat. It's your early autumn exfoliation and tanning solution, right on time.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Stupid Media Tricks

“News,” at it is currently conveyed in this media-saturated, ratings-driven culture, apparently is no longer composed of who, what, where, when and why. Along the way, television added another component: drama. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is not a pithy joke, it is a mission statement.

Last night’s unscheduled landing of a JetBlue airliner with malfunctioning front gear provided an opportunity for talking heads and their associates to do their worst. The local television and radio stations interrupted regular programming (no great loss there) for hours as the stricken Airbus circled off the Los Angeles coastline. The dull visuals allowed uninformed anchorpeople too much time to shoot their mouths off. The lust for a spectacular crash was palpable. One local radio host’s insistence on a tragic outcome was utterly revolting. Her voice took on a hard edge as she questioned a pilot, express surprise to the point of outrage that the airplane would not become a Flaming Cartwheel O’ Death. The pilot explained that the worst that would happen is that the nose gear, stuck ninety degrees to the longitudinal axis of the aircraft, would first burn through the tires (“that is the black, rubber part”), and that the wheels (“that’s the metal part” – the pilot clearly understood what he was dealing with) would simply drag down the runway, and that it was highly unlikely that the strut would collapse. Sceptical, and expressing the thought that she needed to explore a “worst case scenario,” she asked about the chances that the wheel might snap off, the nose strut would catch on the runway …

[…in my car, I’m pleading with her not to go there. Please, please don’t say this …]

… and the plane would FLIP OVER?

[Gah! She said it! I actually laughed out loud in my car.]

The pilot did not allow the reverberations of her triumphant, “gotcha” tone fade away before responding, “Zero. Absolutely zero chance.”

That would have been bad enough, but the anchor then challenged the pilot, countering with a curt, petulant “why not?” The pilot patiently explained the physics of the event – all of the energy is horizontal, not vertical, etc. I imagine he was also either stifling laughter or rolling his eyes to the ceiling, or both.

There was misinformation and rampant speculation all over the airwaves and internet in the hour leading up to the landing. CNN’s story said that the Airbus was circling off the California coast to dump fuel, when in fact the airplane did not have that capability. The pilot had to fly for three hours to burn off the fuel; if it could have dumped fuel, it would have landed hours before. I heard second hand that a national anchor stated that the airplane was heading back to Burbank for an emergency landing. I’ve written about SoCal airfields before. There is absolutely no possibility that an airliner would attempt an emergency landing at an airfield whose main runway is among the shortest anywhere in the area, and half the length of the runway eventually used for the landing.

The aviation experts, on the other hand, were uniformly excellent. Characteristic of pilots, they expressed calm and useful information. One grumpy old man pilot gruffly set one set of anchors straight in detail about how straightforward and non-dangerous the landing would be. The anchors thanked him and wished that his words could be conveyed to the passengers. (Little did we know that the passengers could hear some of the commentary.) Another pilot explained how the tires and wheels would scrape away, and that hydraulic fluid would probably catch fire, but that it would not be a major concern. All of the experts stated that the pilot would have been trained for this sort of thing. As it turns out, they were exactly right, and the pilot did a masterful job of bringing the airplane down softly, holding the nose aloft as long as possible, and brought that baby down right on the center line. He also did not order an emergency evacuation, which, as several of the experts pointed out before the landing, would be the likely, and probably only, cause of injury.

What the networks received was a well-packaged, well-timed, flaming-but-safe drama in the air, lovingly lit by the late afternoon Los Angeles sun. They made the most of it.

Don Henley’s scathing critique of the media (Los Angeles news in particular), 25 years old by now, has never stopped being true:
"The bubbleheaded bleach blonde
Comes on at five.
She’ll tell you ‘bout the plane crash
With a gleam in her eye.
It’s interesting when people die.
Give us dirty laundy.”

The Haves and the Have Nots

It's official: Nokia has sold its one billionth cell phone. Perhaps emblematic of the "global village" the world is purported to be, the phone was sold in Nigeria.

In other seemingly unrelated news, nearly 160,000 people have died of AIDS so far this year in Nigeria.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Happy Birthday, Michael!

He's four years old today, and relentlessly enthusiastic about life. He's a charmer; he could sell sand to a bedouin. For now, though, he's content to do puzzles on the floor and whack things (including, but not limited to, his sister) with his light saber.

Joy personified!

Thursday, September 15, 2005

I'm Ready For My Closeup, Mr. DeMille

Google has unveiled a new search engine aimed exclusively at blogs. Now, finally, the world will have the swift, efficient access to thousands of bloggers' self-obsessed navel-gazing for which it has clamored for so long.

What, you didn't hear the clamor? I assure you, there has been clamoring.

Isn't it odd that when you say a word over and over, it begins to sound wrong? Like just now, when I used "clamor" in three different ways, it started to morph into a non-word jumble of letters and sounds...

That, folks, is classic, bloggerific navel-gazing. You're welcome.

Follow up: On a semi-serious note, I'm pleased to see that I dominate the first page of search results for "epilepsy surgery screening." For the purpose of facilitating an exchange of information and opinion among us mere diarists, Google's blog search may indeed prove to be very useful. Even if you're searching for "McDLT and Taco Bell." Go ahead. Try it.

Back to the Moon

A plan has been unveiled to return astronauts to the Moon by 2018. Interestingly, the proposal calls for the launch vehicles to consist of Shuttle engines and rockets. Whew! Without the sharp pencil types scrimping and saving like that, NASA might not have been able to hold the budget to $100 billion.

Charts and pretty pictures can be seen here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Here We Go Again

You may remember Michael Newdow, who challenged the Pledge of Allegiance as unconstitutional a few years ago. He found success in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2002, which reversed a California federal court's dismissal of the case (after a federal court in Florida in 1998 dismissed his case because his daughter [now a Christian] was not yet old enough to attend public school). The United States Supreme Court subsequently dismissed the case because he lacked standing to bring the suit on behalf of his daughter, of whom he did not have custody.

A federal judge in San Franciso has ruled today that the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional for its inclusion of the phrase "under God." It appears that the plaintiffs in this case are represented by Michael Newdow. By representing children other than his own, he appears to have solved his standing problem. The judge ruled according to the existing 9th Circuit precedent, notwithstanding that Newdow's 2002 case was eventually tossed.

The U.S. Supreme Court will now undoubtedly be forced to address this issue, as the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals came to a different conclusion this summer, since one of the Court's roles is to resolve conflicts in law between circuits.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Confirmation Hearings

You have to have an interest in this stuff, because it can be pretty dry, but if you are looking for a rundown of the confirmation hearings for John Roberts, you could do far worse than to peruse SCOTUSblog. It has been running a remarkably detailed account of the Senate confirmation hearings (Day 1; Day 2; Day 3; Day 4), with a minimum of commentary (I believe that the commentator is also reporting for NPR). Contrary to the headline snippets I have seen on or other conventional news sites all day, the confirmation hearing involves a daunting array of legal issues, not just the headline-friendly abortion issue (which has actually accounted for a relatively limited portion of the questioning). Judge Roberts hasn't gone into the hearings cold, of course, but the sheer breadth of the range of issues is intimidating, and Roberts' ability to address them is impressive, and absolutely expected of someone seeking confirmation to the high court.

Even if a detailed discussion of the long term effects on privacy rights introduced by the Griswold case don't send a shiver up your spine, don't dismiss this proceeding entirely. This is only the 17th confirmation of a Chief Justice in the nation's history, and may be the last one of its kind for the next 20 or 30 years.

Monday, September 12, 2005

What Time Is It? Take 2

Just in case you have to calibrate your watch to UTC standards of accuracy, go here.


You may have heard that Los Angeles was subjected to a blackout for a couple of hours today, apparently due to the bungling of a Department of Water & Power employee or two. Whoops! My bad!

While the event passed without a great deal of inconvenience, it is the thoughts that pop into your head that leave a lasting impression. I was in a restaurant in Studio City when the lights went out. Thanks to patrons' cell phones, we very quickly learned that downtown Los Angeles as well as the Valley where we were had gone dark. Power outages are not uncommon on extraordinarily hot days, but they are never as widespread as what happened today. Plus, the temperatures are in the mid-seventies, so it seemed unlikely that demand had caused brownouts.

When the power did not return quickly, the awful thoughts started. As much as you try to fight it, you cannot help but become slightly untethered from reality, wondering if, while you sit munching on Chinese chicken salad, a smoldering crater is all that remains of some major installation somewhere else in the region. After yesterday's new threat tape specifically naming Los Angeles as a terrorist (oops, sorry; insurgent) target, the thought that the outage was not accidental was unavoidable.

Thankfully, of course, nothing like that came to pass. Notably, nothing like that has come to pass in four years. Our cities may remain free from attack by lunatics, but for those of us who live in big cities and work in large office towers, our psyches may never enjoy that freedom again. As a friend said this weekend, until four years ago, the fear of flying did not usually include fear of the person sitting next to you on the airplane.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Culinary Incorrectness

And now, another self-indulgent Andy Rooney moment:

Don't you just hate the way Taco Bell makes their tacos? I mean, the ingredients are acceptable, in their low cuisine way. But what about how they're put together? Look at this:

See anything wrong? Taco Bell's fast food rival McDonalds sure did. Remember the McDLT? It kept the "hot side hot and the cool side cool" through the magic of oversized styrofoam containers? (Click here for proof, and to see the low point of Jason Alexander's career. I defy you to watch it without hearing ironic George Costanza overtones. A word of caution: the Unintentional Comedy Meter runs into the red for this one.) McDonalds understood that temperature matters to the palate, and it kept the cool lettuce from wilting against the hot hamburger patty.

In contrast, in its basic tacos, Taco Bell has ineptly insisted upon jamming lettuce against the reheated meat substance (or, even worse in the case of the Supreme shown above, slops sour cream on the meat, followed by the lettuce). Meanwhile, marooned on top of the lettuce lies the cheese, the one element foodstuff in the ensemble that should get cozy with the meat. Melted cheese and crisp lettuce -- good. Limp lettuce and cold cheese that falls onto your lap -- bad. Come on, Taco Bell. Get it right.

Rest assured, any guests to our house on taco night will be duly served with properly constructed tacos. No tortured greenery or misapplied dairy products here.