Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Zoom Zoom, Take 2

This weekend I had another opportunity to smoke the tires and boil the brake fluid of Mazda's latest offerings. As I did last year, I attended Mazda's Zoom Zoom Live event, a marketing junket that basically involves adults driving real cars the way they would drive bumpercars. This year, Mazda offered several different opportunities to send their products to the scrap heap early, all on autocross-type courses laid out with cones on one of the expansive parking lots at the California Speedway in Fontana: a very short untimed circuit for Miatas and RX-8s; a target course for CX-7s, in which you must drive precisely over several electronic plates within an allotted time; a matching-time gymkhana, in which you must match a target time while driving one of several different products; and the featured event, the timed autocross in Mazdaspeed 6s.

Last year, the timed event was for Miatas, which had been newly redesigned:

This year, the Mazda 6 sedan (in full afterburner mode) was the choice. My friend Mike and I paired up for our first shots at the course, then drove separately for our respective "hot" laps. We could tell from the waiting area that there was a tricky decreasing radius right hand turn about halfway through the course; half the drivers noisily ground their tires into dust as they carried too much speed into the corner. Several drivers plowed throught the cones altogether. My first lap was very satisfactory, as I turned a 34.4 second lap against a target-to-beat time of 34 seconds flat. I figured a sub-34 lap was in the bag, to avenge my too-slow-by-.01 second letdown from last year.

Alas, it was not to be. In the first major corner of the course about ten seconds in, I committed the cardinal sin of forgetting to look ahead through the corner, instead focusing on the wall of cones I was rapidly approaching. Unlike the first car I drove, this one refused to take the corner, understeering heavily, forcing me to scrub off all of the speed I had accumulated. By the time everything was under control, I was late for the corner and too slow to get a good run down the back straight. The same behavior repeated itself from there on out. Rattled by my amateurish failure in the first corner, I was simultaneously too cautious and insufficiently attentive to look into the coming corners. As a result, I was consistent slower through just about every corner and ended up a full second slower than my first run.

I put on a poor display, but the car was quite clearly showing the strain of a morning of slammed brakes, excessive slip angles and clutch abuse. The last corner, in particular, required at least 90 more degrees of steering lock than the first car; I had to reposition my hands mid-corner, which I had not had to do previously. Still, had I not made so many mistakes, I might have been able to overcome the car's weaknesses.

On the whole, of course, I had a blast. Driving new cars is always fun. Plus, my first run on the timed course was very good, considering that there were two of us in the car, and that only about two dozen people over the course of two days beat the target time. Mike came within .015 seconds of matching the target time on the matching time course. To our amazement, about five minutes after our run, someone actually matched the target of 27.000 seconds (yes, down to the thousandth of a second). He won a Bose radio on the spot.

We also learned the key to these kinds of events, which have become very popular over the past few years: go early. These sorts of things always require the partcipant to sign up for a time slot, but the reservation only holds a place, not a time. Last year, we showed up at about 11 and endured lines that got longer as the day went on. This year, we showed up at 8 and, as at all amusement parks, we enjoyed the run of the place for the first hour or so. Because you only get about thirty seconds in the car at a time, the less time spent waiting in line, the better.

Stay tuned for our next adventure, coming up in two weeks!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Fall, Schmall

October 20th, you say? Well, here we are at 3:15 pm:

I just figured that would brighten your day.

Okay, everybody back in the pool!

Honorable Discharge

You may have heard that golfer Arnold Palmer decided to retire from competitive golf last week. The 77 year old legend hasn't been truly competitive in a long time, but he still regularly tees it up. Unfortunately, after dumping golf balls in a water hazard repeatedly early in his round, he finally came to the realization that he can't do it any more. However, he soldiered on through the round without keeping score, because he felt an obligation to the fans, Arnie's Army, to carry on. It was his dedication to his fans that kept him going for as many years as he did, long after he was capable of putting up competitive scores. He was one of the first sports superstars, who brought both the sport of golf and the cult of personality to the culture at large. Well played, sir.

One of my very few brushes with celebrities involves Arnold Palmer. About twenty years ago I had the opportunity to attend a Senior golf event in Lake Tahoe. Palmer was the featured player. The crowds were relatively sparse, so it was possible to get right up to the action just about anywhere on the course. Unfortunately, being that I was but a callow youth, I had heard of almost none of the players, so while the golf was interesting, I was not terribly star-struck.

Until late in the day, that is, when we followed Mr. Palmer down one of the last fairways. On that beautiful day in the mountains, with a brisk breeze blowing in off the lake, Arnie had not had a very good day. As we tracked with him from behind the yellow rope that separated the players from the crowd, which at that time was just myself and my stepdad, he made a rather poor shot from the fairway. Shockingly, instead of trudging up the fairway toward whereever it was that his ball had landed, he walked directly toward us. From thirty feet away, as he approached, he looked me directly in the eyes with an expression that showed his resigned frustration at his poor play. In that split second, I processed a whole bunch of competing thoughts: ohmygod, here he comes; wow, he looks really sad; well, he should -- that was a terrible shot; oh man, he wants me to say something; geez, all I can think to say is "sorry that was such a bad shot" -- no! don't say that! To my everlasting regret, with all of these thoughts swirling in my brain, I simply stared back, unable to say anything at all. I may not have even managed to muster up a cognizable facial expression. Then (and the memory still pains me), he gave a little grimace, looked down, and headed up the edge of the fairway ahead of us. Just to twist the knife a bit more, the two guys walking ten yards ahead of us engaged Palmer in a friendly, animated conversation. Gah! That could have been me!

I learned a lot in those brief seconds. The ability to engage in small talk is a valuable skill. A friendly word, no matter how innocuous, is always welcome. And Arnold Palmer really was a man of the people. I am convinced that he would have been happy just to gab with a fan for a few minutes. Meanwhile, I stewed about not breaking his concentration by saying anything, or by saying the wrong thing, so I said nothing. I determined much later that what I should have said, and what I will say if I'm ever in a similar position again, is simply that it was fun for me to watch him play.

I can only imagine how difficult it was for Palmer to end his career in the middle of a round because he was no longer able to do thing one thing to which he had devoted his life's work. That is the dark side of the coin for athletes, or anyone else whose identity comes from skills that deteriorate over time. Most people are permitted to preserve their dignity by aging in private, a luxury that celebrities are not afforded. They are well compensated in the meantime, but every now and then their humanity shows through and we see the void appear. At least Arnold Palmer can say that he played better, for longer, than nearly everyone else of his time.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Who's the Published Writer Now?

Well, well. My old English 2B classmate, Professor Monk, has hit the bright lights of the media world. The Professor has an article at Newsday.com in his area of scholarly expertise, the effect of distractions on driving performance and safety.

In this instance, The Professor addresses the oft-ignored issue of statistical relevance, and the way that failure to bring context to scary numbers can make for great headlines without really providing useful information. I love it when experts in statistics point out stuff like this -- Disraeli was right, after all.

I particularly enjoyed the seemingly random cross-reference between the Long Island counties that are the subject of the piece and Santa Clara County. Only those who know the good Professor would be likely to pick up on why that comparison was made. Also, I must nod in appreciation to the properly pluralized phrase "these data are..."

Being an expert in how drivers deal with distractions, in this era of cell-phones and the execrable iDrive system seems likely to lead to many more opportunities to conduct research and inform the public. Can an appearance on The Today Show be far behind?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

On Athletes Dying Young, and Old Men

In a weird confluence of the political and sports worlds, the airplane that crashed into a Manhattan highrise yesterday, rekindling 9/11 jitters in New Yorkers and plenty of others, belonged to and was transporting New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle. Just about the time that the population in general calmed down about the possibility of a terrorist threat, the news began to emerge about the identity of the victims, which caused the sports world to run with the story.

One of the plotlines was the fact that Lidle was not the first Yankees player to lose his life in a small aircraft crash. Thurmon Munson, an All-Star catcher for the Yankees during the Bronx Zoo era of the late 1970s, died in August 1979 when an airplane he was piloting crashed upon approach to an airfield.

The Munson crash resonates with me to this day. At that time, I was a couple of years into my boyhood baseball frenzy. My earliest memories of baseball are of the 1977 World Series between the Dodgers and Yankees, and it seemed that one or the other of those teams was on NBC’s Game of the Week every Saturday. Those two teams had staged an epic World Series the past fall, as well.

Just down the road from my grandparents’ little farm was an elderly couple. During the summer, we would drop in on them from time to time. Mr. Still, who was probably in eighties, would gladly talk baseball with me. Considering that he was a contemporary of Babe Ruth, he had a deep-rooted love of the game, and seemed to enjoy gabbing about it with me.

In 1979, the world was not as small as it is now. News did not enter the collective conscience within seconds, as it does now thanks to the internet. News waited for the evening broadcasts, or the morning paper. And for a nine year old boy, news of the world was largely irrelevant anyway, so I missed the announcement that Munson had died. However, a few days later, I received a letter in the mail, which was an extraordinary event. It was from Mr. Still, who, in the careful yet slightly shaky handwriting of an old man, advised me of the plane crash, and commiserated with me in what he knew would be a shared mourning for a great baseball player. He was right that I was very saddened by the loss, as death was not something that I had learned much about up to that point.

More extraordinary, though, was that Mr. Still wrote to me at all. He reached across hundreds of miles and decades of life lived to connect with a fellow baseball fan. I had always thought that it was wonderful of him to remember little ol’ me. I realize now that my short, infrequent visits probably meant even more to him than they did to me. I simply saw my visits with Mr. Still as a chance to indulge in my passion for baseball, to enjoy fellowship with another fan. I think for him, living out what would be his final days in the quiet isolation of a little home in the country away from any other family of his own, he was given a chance to share a lifetime of love for the game with a kindred spirit, even one removed by two or three generations. Our conversations enabled him to slip away from the burden of his years, if only for a little while.

Baseball, with its well-known affinity for its own history, can do that. It can tie generations together. It can restore lost youth. That is why, despite the worst efforts of union heads, television executives and medically enhanced players, baseball is still America’s pastime.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Brainteaser of the Day

Do you have a few minutes? Good. How about a couple of hours? If you do, try this flash-based set of puzzles. They are very light on directions, so good luck.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Beam Me Up, Scotty

Teleportation is reality!

Well, it is if you happen to be a "macroscopic atomic object containing thousands of billions of atoms" and would like to be transported instantly across the vast expanse of half a meter. This, of course, is a vast improvement on prior efforts in which one single atom was teleported a distance of a fraction of a millimeter. I'm guess I'm going to have to ride my bike a lot more before this will be useful to me.

Scientists involved in this stuff claim that perfected teleportation will result in a completely new, and totally secure, way to transmit information on a far larger scale than is currently the norm. But teleportation is also one of those emerging science areas that has its own lingo that is nearly impenetrable to the outside world, which, frankly, is the entire world less a few propellerheads in Denmark. If you are into entanglement, quantum measurement and quantum feedback, then this is the field for you.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Listen To Your Mother

Researchers have recently determined that children are far more likely to be roused from sleep in an emergency by the sound of their mother's voice than the sound made by a typical alarm. In a study involving 24 children between the ages of 6 and 12, 23 awoke quickly to the sound of their mothers commanding them to get out of bed (median time: 20 seconds). The regular alarm awoke only 14 of the 24 children, with a median awakening time of three minutes, which is an eternity in an emergency situation. At least one company already has a suitable product on the market.

Just don't set the alarm to say "clean your room!" There is a 100% chance that the command will be ignored.