Monday, March 28, 2005

We Have a Winner!

Check out number 27 ... woo hoo!

Haven't These People Suffered Enough?

A big earthquake has hit Indonesia.

I Think I've Found Shakespeare's Monkeys

It is said that, given an infinite number of monkeys pounding on an infinite number of typewriters (okay, it was said some time ago) for an infinite amount of time, the monkeys could produce the works of Shakespeare. It seems that rather than engage in that lengthy and ultimately useless task, the monkeys have taken up paying work writing spam.

I'm not sure what it all means, but the spam that gets through the filters at the office is relatively benign and thoroughly bizarre. Sent by such luminaries as Eloquent M. Rainwater and Lynch E. Proprietor, I am usually cheerfully saluted with something along the lines of "Greetings, white man! :)" I then am provided with some wisdom of the ages: "Nothing is poetical if plain daylight is not poetical and no monster should amaze us if the normal man does not amaze.Count not him among your friends who will retail your privacies to the world."

This is what happens when academics leave the ivory tower; so sad.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

It's a Hard Knock Life

The one person no woman in her right mind should want to be: the wife or ex-wife of a Los Angeles celebrity.

Philandering Central Valley fertilizer salesmen get the needle, though.

You Read It Here First

You recall that witty little post below about the new Mercedes and the remarkable aural similarity between its model name and a certain libido-enabling pharmaceutical? Your humble scribe was not the only one to pick up on the connection.

In today's L.A. Times, Dan Neil (that's Car and Driver contributor and Pulitzer Prize-winning Dan Neil, mind you) derives the thematic metaphor for his entire review of the car from this link. The first three paragraphs concern the effort of carmakers to come up with names that will provide the desired market presence, and the liguistic pitfalls that occasionally result. Mr. Neil didn't draw all of the comparisons between the car and the pill (or rather, their owners) that I did, but he did observe, "the Mercedes-Benz CLS500 will forever be known as the "Cialis" 500 — which sounds like a NASCAR event and, come to think of it, probably is."

Well done, Dan. Feel free to call me anytime for more story ideas.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

File Under "Another Addictive Little Internet Game"

Brush up on physics and medieval warfare, all at the same time!

Let me know if you get onto the leader board.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Match Wits with JPL, If You Dare

Here is the latest installment of one of the internet's more challenging puzzle series. Once you've figured this one out, try a few of the older ones. Fun for the whole family! Or at least the one who knows how to use Google.

UPDATE: this is by far the easiest quiz in the series, although it is easy to be misled. Try some of the older ones for more internet-searching fun.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

What's the Nurburgring, You Ask?

Here, let me show you.

Keep in mind, this course, all 20 km of it, is open to the public. Not just to see it. To drive it.

Links Lefty Liked?

We build up our heroes so we can tear them down again, then enjoy their redemptive return to glory. It appears that Phil Mickelson may be entering into the tear-down phase now.

Sunday's final round battle between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson was great theater and a rare display of two superstars playing at their best, with the winner prevailing because of superior play rather than a mistake by the opponent. It is interesting to note, however, that a backlash is beginning to develop against Smilin' Phil. First, there is this AP article AP article that compares Tiger's rivalry with Phil to his rivalry with Ernie Els. The article mentions the even better final round between Tiger and Els in the 2000 Mercedes Championship and how much the two players appeared to enjoy the match, in comparison to the grinding, joyless approach Tiger and Phil took last weekend. (I have to agree that the Tiger-Els matchup, which kicked off Tigers historic 2000 season, was even more fun to watch, in part because both players seemed to be having fun, and marveled at each others' shots.) More intriguing is this quote:
"Ernie Els and Woods make the most natural rivalry. The Big Easy has finished second to Woods six times, more than any other player, and eight of his 15 victories on the PGA Tour have come with Woods in the field. But it is difficult for Woods to work up any animosity inside the ropes because Els is universally liked and respected.
That's not the case with Mickelson. "

The author doesn't elaborate.

Then there's Skip Bayless's hack job against Phil this week. Bayless clearly doesn't like Mickelson for some reason, and spares no opportunity to smear him as insincere and not well-liked inside the ropes. While I detest this sort of broadside attack that does not include any evidence and is secondary to the thesis in any event, I suspect that Bayless and others in the know (assuming Bayless is in the know; as he a studio talking head now, I doubt it) have seen things that the public doesn't know about. Stopping short of speculating about really detestable, Kobe-level behavior, it would not surprise me if it turned out that Phil annoys his fellow professionals. He's talented, been at the top of the game since he was a kid (before he was a successful pro, he was USGA Junior champ, USGA Amateur champ, 3-time NCAA champ and a winner on Tour while an amateur), he's good looking and, most importantly, he's a gambler. He's known for his gambling proclivities, especially his longshot Super Bowl bets (the Ravens paid off big). I take all of this to mean that Phil is ruthlessly competitive, and probably arrogant about it (Michael Jordan, who never met a circumstance he wouldn't wager on, was brutal to his betting partners, teammates or not).

A small moment at the end of the tournament led me to think there may be more steel in Phil's psyche than would appear by his plodding, aw-shucks-grinning exterior. Final hole, Tiger up by one, Phil just off the green behind the hole needing to drop the putt to birdie and tie after Tiger ran his 60 foot birdie putt 6 feet by the hole. Phil nearly holes it out (leading to the unintentionally hilarious photo shown in the first linked article above), leaving his ball a couple of feet out. Technically, Tiger is away, and should putt next. However, Tiger now has a lead and can only fail to seal the victory he screws up the putt; Phil can no longer do anything about it. Ordinarily, when a player is about to putt for the championship, his playing partners will putt out, regardless of the usual etiquette, to give that player his moment of glory with the crowd. However, on Sunday, Tiger putted his fourth and final shot before Phil had finished, which led to the somewhat awkward circumstance that Tiger had just won the tournament, the crowd is trying to show its enthusiastic approval for the day of golf they just witnessed, but thay all have to be shushed immediately so that Phil can proceed with his meaningless tap-in.

Because the tournament would be over if Tiger made the putt, it seemed to me that he should have gone last. Gamesmanship? Did Phil insist that Tiger putt first, with the inevitable result that any celebration would be muted? It would have made more sense, and followed tour custom, to allow Tiger to play last, which would have created additional pressure: on the last shot, either he wins the tournament (but gets the unrestrained adulation), or he misses and they play extra holes. If a little gamesmanship took place, it seems that it would be consistent with Phil's competitiveness, as well as his rarely-seen irritation at losing. It may also lend some credence to the veiled suggestions that Phil is admired far more outside the ropes than inside them.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have always admired Phil. We're the same age, so he was one of the first people of my generation to make a splash in the world. I got to see him play up close at his first professional tournament at the 1992 US Open the week after we both graduated from college. He seemed to be a good guy back then (and he definitely had the attention of every 16 to 30 year old woman within a 100 yard radius; he could hardly take a step without some PYT saying "Hi, Phil!"). He's done well for himself, and I was very happy to see him win the Masters last year. He and Tiger are going to be fighting it out for the rest of their golfing lives, and they probably will never really like each other. Their play, though, is magnificent to watch.

Video Game Review: Gran Turismo 4

This is the Holy Grail, the game all gearhead geeks were waiting for. I sat on a Best Buy certificate for more than two months to use to purchase this game, which I then picked up on its first day of release.

Is it worth the hype? It depends on what you're looking for, and whether you are willing to accept its particular culture.

First, the biggest flaw is the lack of a damage model of any kind. Bang over curbs, sideswipe your competitors, run straight into a wall ... you might lose some time, but the car will be undamaged. This is a huge void in a game billed as a "simulator." However, the Gran Turismo series has always operated on this basis, and within its world, the lack of damage makes some sense, because the simulation is aimed at something else.

Gran Turismo has always been about driving real cars on real tracks, and modifying those cars in realistic ways to simply make them go faster. It's about a competition of speed, rather than a fully realistic and ultimately frustrating battle with fragility. This is part of the GT "culture" that the gamer must buy into. Races then become a series of lessons in getting around the track faster rather than repeated trips to the garage to repair the banged-up car.

The GT physics engine makes up for the lack of a damage model (again, if you buy into the concept of speed for speed's sake). The game drives extremely well, with very accurate and lifelike response to controller input and game environment conditions. The game is also brutal in its punishment of sloppy driving, which for me excuses its lack of damage. If you are not on the racing line, or you carry too much speed into a corner, you will not do well. Learning takes place through losing races, one corner at a time, rather than busting up the car.

Another "culture" issue with the GT series is its heavy concentration on Japanese cars. Although the game includes numerous European cars you would never see in the US, and a variety of US cars as well, the heart of the game (not unexpectedly) is Japanese, with a dizzying array of Japanese models available. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld might say, but considering all the interesting products made in other parts of the world, the balance seems a bit off. However, if you simply accept this as part of the local culture, it's not a hinderance to having a good time. The lack of Porsche and Ferrari, though, is a major blemish (those manufacturers have licensed their images and trademarks to other games; GT makes do with Porsche-based RUF).

GT4 is not the leap forward in visual landscape that GT3 was. However, the visuals are improved, and tremendous. Playback still looks a little wonky, but the environments are rich, detailed and, often, beautiful, with a variety of weather conditions and sun angles (which can be very difficult at times).

Gameplay is essentially the same as in GT3, although it has been enlarged with more tracks and significantly more cars. The player still must pass licence tests, compete in beginner race series in a variety of cars, and collect enough prize money to win or buy cars to compete in higher level races. A notable addition to the gameplay is the B-spec mode, in which you direct an AI driver in your car. I was unsure about this feature ... until I used it. Far from an uninvolving cheat mode, as I expected, B-spec is actually extremely handy for progressing through the game. B-spec can be used to rapidly progress through a race series to gain prize money and reward cars (which can often be sold for more cash), which is the process necessary to proceed early in the game. Frankly, it's pretty boring to keep running the same races over and over just to gain enough money to get away from the beginning races. B-spec both automates and accelerates the process (up to 3X real speed); the gamer directs the driver to go slow, steady, fast or push, with appropriate consequences. If the car is not up to snuff, it will not win. The driver will sometimes make mistakes, especially if it is inexperienced (yes, that matters) or it is being asked to push too much. B-spec is a great time saver, a good way to collect the money needed to try new areas of the game, and even engrossing competition. To preserve my own sense of fair play, though, I won't go to B-spec until I have run and won the race on my own.

So far, I have made it through 3% of the game, so I've go some work to do. I've finished three of the beginning level race series and one Miata-only championship. I'm now working up the courage (and cash) to tackle one of the world's great tracks: the Nurburgring Nordschleife.

I'll be sure to keep all of you (that is, all five of you) closely updated on my progress. I know you can't wait.

New Possibilities

As Chris noted in a comment to the clock post below, my birthday was last week. Not just any birthday, though. It is perhaps the second most significant birthday of my life, after gaining the vote at age 18. What could possibly be so momentous?


I have dropped out of the coveted 18-to-34 demographic upon which networks build their schlocky schedules and to which manufacturers of everything from soup to cell phones direct their advertising efforts. MTV will now have nothing to do with me (although that became a mutual decision several years ago). Nothing but ads for Buicks and Propecia from now on, I guess.

Well, there is one other little consequence of my birthday that has some significance: I can now be President of the United States.

Don't hold your breath waiting for my campaign contribution letters to arrive in your mailbox.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Video Game Review: NASCAR Chase for the Cup 2005

Yep, I'm swappin' paint with the good ol' boys now. I picked this up because of the gameplay progression: start in the minor leagues and work your way up to the Cup cars. I have found the game to be very fun, and more enjoyable in some ways than Gran Tourismo (heresy!). The driving physics are good, the damage models are solid without being either too inconsequential or too punitive, and the extras like the agent calling on the phone delight the kids. There is something enriching about having someone call you and say, hey, you've done a great job, why don't you come test this other car in the next class up? Satisfaction in a job well done.

The game also works emotion into the racing. If you work with other drivers, help draft and generally behave yourselve, you will make allies. However, if you bounce other guys out of the way, you make enemies and get a bad reputation. You can use that to your advantage, as your "intimidation" powers go up (yes, there's a button for that), but I've learned the hard way that when the other guys don't like you, they will engage in some pretty anti-social behavior to keep you from succeeding. In my first Craftsman Truck race, with an underpowered racecar, I was passing for the lead when the car I was passing bumped me, sending me into the wall. I ended up finishing last, a lap down, because the whole field streamed by while I tried to back away from the barrier. I'll be looking for that guy in the future. In the same race, though, I worked carefully with another driver, drafting a little, eventually passing cleanly. After the race was over, I discovered that I had made an ally -- my first! (My villain quotient is pretty high due to ineptness with the controller in the first couple of events.)

Good clean fun, y'all.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

What Time Is It?

The hardest working clock on the internet.