Monday, July 31, 2006

Feeling Small

If you ever think that driving a few miles to go to the big shopping mall is just too far, get over yourself and ponder this:

A Respite

As the marine layer has rolled in, the last couple of days, thankfully, have offered us a break from three weeks of this:

For Your Consideration

Ladies and gentlemen, a big blogsphere welcome to friend and former roommate Chris, who has finally joined the ranks of the self-published by starting a blog of his own. I think Chris has always been more courageous than I; his blog is more proof of it. Unlike the lightweight stuff you get here, Chris promises thoughtful commentary on weighty issues. I, for one, look forward to checking in and learning a little something. After all, who am I to argue with a guy with a Ph.D?

Especially one who is a professor at noted basketball powerhouse George Mason University.

Friday, July 28, 2006


You may have heard that the winner of this year's Tour de France, American Floyd Landis, has failed a drug test designed to catch cyclists who "dope" their blood in an effort to improve their performance. There is little question that cycling is the sport most closely associated with doping scandals, even in an era when "Barry Bonds" equals "steroids." Entire teams have been booted out of the tour in recent years; former cyclists have died due to the use of artificial stimulants, and several leading riders were shown the door this year before the Tour even started due to failed drug tests. This was also the first post-Lance-Armstrong year; the seven-time champion has never tested positive for doping, but the whiff of scandal followed him around relentlessly.

As a result of the dismissal of many prominent riders prior to the start of this year's Tour, there was a sense that this would be the first relatively clean race in a long time. Of course, cycling is the most demanding of sports, requiring the riders to travel dozens if not hundreds of miles every single day, with only two off days over the course of the three weeks. The race includes brutal climbs through the Pyrenees and Alps that would tax your car, let alone your lungs and legs while riding a bicycle. Even with the highly-publicized expulsion of riders prior to the start of the rance, the suspicion of illegal behavior lingers around the Tour because of the extreme nature of the effort expended by the riders.

Landis, a former teammate of Armstrong, offered a compelling story. Raised as a Mennonite in Pennsylvania, he used early success as a rider to break out of his culture, but he has never rejected it or his upbringing. After suffering a spill in training, he now suffers from a degenerative hip condition that leaves him in nearly constant pain, and will lead to hip replacement surgery before the end of the year. A mild favorite prior to the race, Landis took the lead about halfway through the Tour. He then suffered a shattering failure on the next-to-last day in the Alps, pulling what riders call a "bonk." He was unable to keep up the pace on stage 16, falling behind the leader by more than eight minutes. With only one more mountain stage, an individual time trial and the final day's ride to the finish line remaining, Landis was written off by experts and casual fans alike.

Before this week's scandale, Stage 17 was destined to go down as one of the greatest individual efforts in the history of the Tour de France. Landis attacked the field early, at the first of several major climbs, and proceeded to pull away from the everyone, mile after mile. Considering that it is estimated that a rider uses 30% more energy to ride on his own rather than with the aerodynamic assistance of other riders, the fact that he made up all but about 90 seconds of his deficit amounted to the cycling story of the decade. Landis then took the lead in the time trial the next day, a discipline in which he was known to be strong.

Now, of course, the allegation of doping. If it is true, even his mother has said he does not deserve to win. The charge, however, is curious. As the sports world awaits the testing of a second, "B" sample to confirm the results of the first, it is interesting to reflect on exactly what has been determined. Landis has not tested positive for any doping agent, such as human growth hormone or other steroid-type agent. He has also not, despite what the headlines may seem to say, tested positive for elevated testosterone, which would be the obvious (and time-honored) way to gain a sudden advantage. Instead, his tests have indicated a ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone is outside of the expected range. As this article explains, Landis' ratio was apparently out of spec not necessarily because of excess testosterone, but because of low readings of epitestosterone. Interestingly, epitestosterone levels can be depressed by alcohol and cortisone. Landis was well-known to have been receiving legal cortisone injections for his hip pain. Landis has also revealed that he imbibed some amount of alcohol the evening after his collapse in stage 16.

This explanation seems a bit dubious, but so does the fact that he did not test positive for anything until Stage 17. Would he be so foolish as to dope at that point, knowing he would be tested? Can his epic performance on that stage be explained by sheer determination and radically improved hydration (he went through 77 water bottles, most of which he simply dumped over his head)? Even if he is cleared, either by the B test or following an appeal, his thrilling victory is forever tainted.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Aw, Ain't She Cute?

I should have been documenting this all along. The sporting press, which is mostly composed of men reporting predominantly about men, has never quite figured out how to deal with female competitors, especially when those women compete alongside men. This is a limited area of crossover, of course, but Michelle Wie and Danica Patrick are no longer novelty items.

Here is the latest bit of editorial laziness that caught my eye. From a news alert on

Danica Patrick is staying in the IRL -- but switching teams. Patrick, who flirted with NASCAR, has signed with Andretti Green Racing and will leave Rahal Letterman when her contract expires at the end of the season.
[My emphasis.]

Really. "Flirted"? Did Michael Jordan "flirt" with the idea of staying retired before he came back to the NBA? Did Paul Konerko "have a dalliance" with the Angels before re-signing with the White Sox? Conversely, did Tiger Woods "pound some brewskis" before deciding to make his return to the PGA Tour at the U.S. Open?

Copy editors of the world, we get it. Ms. Patrick is a girl. There are actually some contexts in her sport to which that fact is relevant. The same can be said of Michelle Wie when she attempts to qualify for men's golf tournaments. However, randomly dropping cutsie verbiage into your news reports is so turn-of-the-century. The 20th century.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

It's Hot, Hot, Hot

It's been just a bit warm. 111 degrees warm.

So, of course, today was the day I played golf. It's not very often that my score is lower than the temperature.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Fascinating Internet Site of the Week

Want to know how popular your name has been, decade by decade? This is the site for you. You could spend a lot of time goofing around with this one.

To get you started, let's see some interesting examples. Check out the curves for "Michael" or "Kelly." Very predictable, much like their parents. Now try "Emma" and "George." Vive le difference, no?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

California Dreamin'

June gloom has finally gone away, replaced with scorching temperatures. Last week, at Kelly's request, we took advantage of the rare July 3rd Monday holiday to go to the beach. To avoid the crowds and traffic, we went in the morning, arriving on the sand at about 10:30 am. We could not have asked for a prettier day in Manhattan Beach. We cavorted in the waves and dug the sand until lunchtime, then found a meal at a unique diner in town. The fact that we had to park about 10 blocks up the hill from the beach didn't detract from the experience; no, it built character!

Some happy snaps from the strand:

Coming Soon To A Blockbuster Near You

Even as I sit here, our lovely little iMac is dutifully ingesting byte after megabyte of videotape. We finally picked up a device that will allow our old videocamera to communicate with the computer to that we can turn our old tapes into DVDs. In fact, one of the reasons we got this computer was to enable us to make DVDs easily. I was clever when I bought our videocamera a few years ago, getting one that can play old 8 mm tape but records digitally on tape and exports digital signal -- a hybrid of sorts, preserving a bridge to our older analog 8 mm tapes. What I did not realize was that our videocamera does not have a Firewire port, which prevented it from communicating directly with the Mac. However, I found a device today that allows the two machines to communicate with each other, and it works flawlessly. I now need to learn to use iMovie to edit the tape, and then iDVD to put the DVD together. An Adobe program came bundled with the link device if I need functionality beyond what Apple provides, but I'm going to try to work with the native programs. I'm very curious to see whether the Apple's capabilities match its hype.

If it all works, we should have several volumes' worth of video on DVD coming soon. Grandparents: get your orders in now!

Glendale Cruise Night 2006

We have turned the city's block party into a family tradition. California Pizza Kitchen at 4:30, stolling past old hot-rods and muscle cars (with a few Europeans thrown in for spice, which is a pretty accurate reflection of those times) under a warm setting sun until 6:30. This year, Sha Na Na made an appearance, although it just wasn't the same for me without Bowser.

As usual, there were a lot of Mustangs, Model A hot rods, mid-fifties Chevys and a host of 40's-era sedans that were incongruously lowered and chromed. A few items of interest:

Ya got me, copper:

One for Jack:

One for Jason:

A few for me:

One for Michael:

One for Kelly:

Kelly also made her yearly pilgrimage to the climbing wall. This year, the park rangers put it on, and the wall was much more difficult that it has been in other years, with very small hand- and foot-holds. She was about the first person to give it a try. She gathered quite a crowd, and received an appreciative ovation when she made it to the top and rang the bell:

A Glendale Cruise Night would not be complete without an interesting Hollywood car. Last year it was the original Batmobile. This year it was George Barris's Munstermobile:

In the words of Sha Na Na, Thank you, and good night!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

History: Written By The Victors, Edited By The PC Police

Poland has prevailed upon the United Nations to rename the notorious concentration camp located at Auschwitz. It seems that someone in Poland's Ministry of Culture felt that it was insufficiently clear that Nazi Germany was responsible for the atrocities that occurred at the camp. The former "Auschwitz Concentration Camp," where 1.5 million people lost their lives, will henceforth be known officially as the "Former Nazi German Concentration Camp of Auschwitz."

Apparently there is some confusion over which group gets to be considered the greater victim, Poles or Jews. Six million Jews were executed by the killing regime of Nazi Germany, of course, as were most of those at Auschwitz. Three million Poles were also killed by the Nazis, however, some at Auschwitz. Some Jewish factions accuse Poles of collaberation in the activities as Auschwitz, while Poles, whose country's sudden and total defeat at the hands of the Nazi war machine gave the world the very definition of "blitzkrieg," consider themselves to be victims of war as well.

It turns out that someone who is paid to care about such things "objects to references to 'Polish gas chambers' at the 'Polish concentration camp' in foreign media." This is what happens when countries have Ministries of Culture. Does the Culture Minister or the U.N. really think this will keep the "foreign media" from reporting that Auschwitz is, indeed, in Poland? Does any rational person with even passing knowledge of history believe that Poland ran death camps during World War II? No, this is about image, about sharing in the pity. As the article reports, "Poles see themselves as victims of the war. Because of this image, the role of Poles in the deaths of millions of Polish Jews, and at Auschwitz, is a sore topic."

This dispute over the right of victimhood is far from the noble effort to be sure the world will "never forget." The tussle over who gets to be remembered as a victim denigrates the memory of the millions whose lives were unjustly and cruelly snuffed out, and the millions more whose families have gaps and voids to this day.

The camp happens to be located in Poland. So be it. The fact that the Nazis established such a place within the territory of one of its conquests simply adds to the detestable policy that it represented. Were some Poles conscripted by the Nazis to carry out their schemes? Yes. Did they have free will to accept that gruesome task? Undoubtedly not. However, only the most uninformed person could possibly conclude by its location that the camp was created or run by Poles, and any such misguided thought could be corrected within seconds of conducting basic research or visiting the place.

Simple location markers should not be reworded to provide instant backstory out of a latter-day concern that some ignorant person might confuse Poland with Nazi Germany and in so doing forget to count Poles among the victims. Context is fine, of course, but hand-wringing over who gets to share in martyrdom is unseemly.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

World Cup Aftermath

You can all resume your normal lives now; the World Cup has come to an end. In a match brimming with countless potential jokes about each side's fortitude, Italy won on penalty kicks after playing to a 1-1 tie in regulation and overtime.

You may have heard something about a bizarre incident near the end of the game, when transcendant star Zinedine Zidane leveled an Italian player with a wicked head butt. Many theories abound as to why Zidane, closing in on the final minutes of his stellar career, would lose his temper so completely, soil his reputation and ruin his team's chances of winning the game. The most common belief is that the Italian player either insulted Zidane's mother or sister, or called him a terrorist. This is notable because Zidane is of Algerian decent, which for the French people is an extremely complicated issue.

As a former French colony that only gained its independence through bloodshed in 1962, Algeria's relationship with France is fraught with ill-will. Algerians who relocated to France are still considered by some in France to be second class citizens. Algerians, like Zidane's immigrant father, tend to live in the hardscrabble, racially homogenous neighborhoods that typify immigrant populations the world over. It is that racial and national identity that leads to further pain. Being of Algerian descent, Zidane and others like him is a man without a country, because it is presumed that his people either collaborated with the colonial government in its bloody war against Algeria, or is a traitor to true Algeria. Thus, Zidane is alternately dismissed by country of his birth or reviled by the country of his heritage. Moreover, Algerians like Zidane have been lumped together in the public mind with the Arab population of France as it becomes more stridently anti-government. Unfortunately, Zidane and his family are not Arabs, but rather Berbers. Tragically, Berbers of the region of Algeria from which Zidane's family came have been embroiled in a horrible civil war for the last decade.

The result of this stew is a supremely talented and accomplished international sporting star for whom questions of racial and national identity are themselves an integral part of his identity. Zidane is also reportedly a very private, shy individual. Everyone knows that it's those quiet ones you have to watch out for; when they let go, it can be volcanic. And so it was, when Marco Materazzi (who has a well-documented history of unscrupulous behavior) grabbed, tugged, pushed and insulted Zidane for 110 minutes of the highest-pressure event in the world, Zidane cracked, and sullied his reputation forever.

The most ridiculous part of this saga is that Materazzi now admits that he insulted Zidane, although he will not repeat what he said, and claims that he did not call Zidane a terrorist. Here is his alibi:
"I did insult him, it's true," Materazzi said in Tuesday's Gazzetta dello Sport. "But I categorically did not call him a terrorist. I'm not cultured and I don't even know what an Islamic terrorist is."

So, Segnor Materazzi, are you that much of a moron, or do you think the rest of us are?

I cannot condone Zidane's behavior; it made me sad, as a brand-new fan, to see him go out that way. But the actions and statements of Materazzi encapsulate for me the worst aspects of World Cup soccer. The non-stop tweaking, trying to get away with something, passing off blame, proclaiming innocence ... the World Cup is notorious for its players diving all over the pitch as a result of the slightest contact in an effort to draw a foul, but that tendency seems to stem from an entire attitude that is based upon feint and deception. There is something about it that rubs the American in me wrong, the part of me that says that you always pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and soldier on regardless of the circumstances.

I spent too much time over the last three weeks watching talented, well-trained athletes hurl themselves to the ground, hands flying to their faces when another player has the misfortune to swing a foot within the general vicinity of the wounded man's shin. Out comes the stretcher, the ice bag, the magic freezing spray, and, in extreme cases, the water bottle that is upended over the area of the injury. Moments later, the aggrieved player is sprinting around again. It is truly a sickening display. Interestingly, I've been informed that the English Premier League, where many of the world's best players ply their trade professionally, does not exhibit the same operatic tendencies. After watching a portion of couple of matches last night, I would have to agree. The players play just as hard, but without the drama.

Setting aside all of the difficult and complicated issues that flow from Zidane's actions, you have to admit that it was an epic takedown. That part of the American in me, the part that loves a bonecrushing blow struck in vengeance, loved it. And he didn't use his hands!

Saturday, July 01, 2006

World Cup Update

It's down to the final four now: host Germany, Portugal, Italy and France, which dispatched legendary Brazil today. I had been pulling for Brazil simply because it fields a roster of all-stars, which almost always yields a fun game to watch. However, like some other teams that pull great players together (see, NY Yankees since 2000), the sum is not always the equal of the parts. While Brazil boasts past superstars Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, and current star Ronaldinho, Brazil failed to put all of its elements together to beat an inspired France side.

I'm now perfectly happy that France moved on, however, because I get to see Zinedine Zidane play at least one more game before he retires. I don't follow soccer closely, which, to my current regret, means that I have missed out on this guy's career. A three-time international player of the year and the two-goal-scoring hero of the French team that won the World Cup in 1998, he was an absolute wizard today. Nobody on the field could match his creativity with the ball. He's the only sportsman other than Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods who has made me laugh out loud during an event in sheer astonishment of his abilities. Like all supremely talented athletes, he can pull off maneuvers beyond the reach of anyone else while remaining absolutely calm and focused on the play around him. He did that repeatedly today, turning clever magic with his feet into genuinely useful points of attack for his team. Plus, France's lone goal came off of his perfectly-placed free kick.

Click here for a little sample of what Ronaldinho and Zidane can do. The amazing thing is that Zidane did stuff like that shown in the video almost every time he touched the ball. Even better, it was never just for show. He does it, not just because he can, but because it makes his team better. Much better. Don't miss the Portugal-France game on Wednesday .