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.