Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Here's to the Winners: I spent the weekend in DC scurrying about the city with HRH Miss Anna trying to keep up with Miss Kate (Anna's mom) and Aunt Molly (Anna's aunt) who were also scurrying about the city, but with a purpose. They were competing with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training in the Marine Corps Marathon.

There is a point in running a marathon where it ceases to be an athletic challenge. It becomes a question of enduring the pain from the constant impact on the feet, the stress on the joints, the searing blisters. Of the estimated 18,000 runners who started the 26.2 mile race a little less than 16,000 finished, among them Kate and Molly, both of whom had the fortitude for a sprint to the finish.

Their race was rife with symbolism -- the impetus for undertaking the marathon to begin with was a show of support for their brother Brian, a marathoner and Lymphoma survivor, and the finish line was in Arlington cemetery under the memorial to the Marines who fought on Iwo Jima, one of whom was Anna's grandfather. The marathoners voluntarily accepted the pain and struggle of the race to honor those who suffered before them.

The race was followed by celebrations and radio interviews and a decadent dinner. The following day, would be when the pain and injury revealed themselves. But those will pass. The achievement, the admiration and the memory will endure. Now, others must live up to them.
Road Rant: I have a question. What, in the name of all that is Holy, is the purpose of the check engine light on your dashboard? If you are 600 miles away from home and it goes off, what are you supposed to do? As instructed, I opened the hood and checked the engine. Sure enough, it was still there.

I don’t mind a warning light when the car detects some suspicious goings-on under the hood, but the technology designer in me says -- out loud, waving my hands, terrifying other drivers -- "How STUPID is this?"

There are two classes of things that can go wrong with your car. One is something that can be quickly addressed with some routine maintenance, like low fluid levels. The other is something that must be dealt with by a mechanic. So which is "check engine"? You don’t know. All you know is that something undiscoverable is wrong with your car. Or maybe not, people I know who have had the check engine light come on have told me it comes on for no apparent reason sometimes and the dealer just turns it off. So actually, all you know is that something undiscoverable may or may not be wrong with your car. To quote Bill Murray, "I want to thank you. You could have helped me, but you've done so much more." (Bonus points if you can name the movie.)

Sorry to get all tech-designy on you, but let's think this through for a moment. Inside your car there is a little chip that gets signals from sensors at various positions in your engine. When one of these sensors detects a problem is sends a signal to the chip informing it that is has detected a problem. Rather than report the location the problem was detected - fuel injectors, coolant system, blown fuse, whatever -- the chip just triggers a "check engine" light, effectively narrowing the problem down to the front half of your car.

Auto Industry, pay attention here. Instead of "check engine" why not tell me what problem was detected or at least where in the car it was detected and how dangerous it would be to try to drive the 600 miles from DC to Ann Arbor before getting it fixed. Here's the design in a nutshell. An unobtrusive two digit LED instead of a "check engine" light. The two digit numbers correspond to a list that is in driver's manual indicating what the actual problem is. You can't tell me that technology doesn’t exist. Frankly, I would prefer that to such things voice response. What kind of loser wants to talk to his car?

And while we are on the issue of stupid car tricks, let me just say that I am disturbed by the trend toward auto-nannying of late. The last car I rented was a Buick. I could not -- as far as I could tell -- control the headlights. They went on at off at the car's whim. I found that truly annoying. Popping open the trunk from the driver's seat was not controlled by a little lever next to the seat, like it is in virtually every other car; you had to remove the key from the ignition and insert it into a keyhole on the door. Presumably that was some sort of safety measure, but it was a pain when I pulled up to a hotel and had to pop the trunk to get my bags before letting the valet take the car. We also have the phenomena of windshield wipers that go on automatically. And you've seen the commercials where the guy asks his dashboard for directions to a Chinese restaurant. Stop doing that kind of stuff and give me better 'check engine' diagnostics.

And another thing. If you want to do something really useful, how about giving me some warning when my tire is about to blow-out? I had the wonderful experience of having a blow-out on the Ohio turnpike. Not just a flat tire, a full-on, tire-shredding blow-out that left me riding the rim at freeway speeds until I could pull on to the shoulder where I had to change the tire with triple trailer semis flying by about four feet from my nose. Lucky for me my check engine light was on.

And speaking of the turnpike, I hereby declare the Pennsylvania turnpike to be the most irritating road in America. First off, I loathe toll roads. Maybe this is because I live in Michigan where there are no toll roads so I believe free access to highways is a God-given right. Second, there are long stretches where the speed limit is 55. You are led to believe this is because of construction, but there is no evidence of construction -- workers, no equipment, no orange cones. Seriously, has anyone except a hamster like Jimmy Carter ever really believed the speed limit should be 55? I am convinced the 55 speed limit is an attempt to manipulate you, which PA has a policy of doing. To wit, and thirdly, they have a policy of posting strange statements on big orange signs get you to slow down. According to the PA DOT:
The Safe Driver Advisory sign sequence delivers six messages to passing motorists:

A couple of those are really strange. "Aggressive driver in high crash area" for instance. That could be an accusation that you are an aggressive driver in a high crash area, but I am not an aggressive driver and it seems they put these things just about anywhere they feel like it which undercuts the notion that you are in a warning that you are in some sort of high crash area. So that's just confusing. The fifth one, TARGETED ENFORCEMENT AREA, is insulting. Assuming that means "speed trap", then exactly how chuckleheaded would I have to be to believe that they were not only going to have a defined, permanent speed trap, but they were also going to warn you about it? Well, I'm not that chuckleheaded, but the PA DOT may be.

And then, there's this whole business of having two separate tolls. It used to be that as you entered or exited through the western border of PA, you stopped at a toll booth and got a ticket which stood you for the duration of your trip. That, apparently, wasn't annoying enough. So they moved the ticketing booth 10 or 15 miles east and added a tollbooth on the border where you have to pay $1 cash on the spot. Now, instead of getting a ticket when you enter PA and paying when you exit the turnpike, you stop at one tollbooth and pay a dollar cash, then you stop at another tollbooth some miles up the turnpike and get a ticket that carries you the rest of the way. What is the possible advantage of having an extra cash stop instead of adjusting the ticket fees so an exit in at the right place would cost a dollar? This is the slippery slope of irrationality that starts with toll roads and Targeted Enforcement Areas.

And what about Breezewood? Anyone who has had to get to DC via road from any point northwest of approximately Pittsburgh (including Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago…) is familiar with Breezewood, a city of hotels. When you exit the PA turnpike and head south towards DC, you don’t just exit on to another freeway like in a state with a relatively sane DOT. You exit the turnpike and are squeezed and hustled through Breezewood for, oh, maybe a mile, including a stoplight or two, then you get on a different freeway for the journey south. If you do this on off times it's not so bad. If you hit an inopportune time of day/week/month/year correctly you will find traffic backed up a couple of miles back on the turnpike to get through this bottleneck.

It has been this way since before I was born and PA has never gotten around to building a freeway-to-freeway exit to bypass Breezewood. It's a particularly ugly stretch of road –- fast food, truck stops, motels – yet everybody gets hustled through it. It's just the price you pay for driving to DC.

OK. I'm done now. I'm back home in Michigan where the roads are free, and the speed traps are hidden.
Football Blues: I'm having trouble getting into football season. Part of the reason that I got caught up in the utterly engrossing baseball League Championship Series. Even without the Red Sox or Cubs, the World series was pretty good. Another reason is all the football news this year has been essentially political.

The biggest story so far has been Rush Limbaugh, on ESPN Game Day, claiming that Donovan McNabb is overrated and is essentially graded on a curve because he is black. Donovan McNabb is almost certainly overrated (he is about as good a quarterback as Brad Johnson of the Buccaneers, who is in the top five on nobody's list). On the other hand Titans quarterback, Steve McNair, who is black, is almost certainly underrated (should probably be on the top of everyone's list). That would suggest race is not a key in ratings, but what Limbaugh said was not implausible. Everyone went wacky over it and accusations of racism were proffered which were generally based on Limbaugh's track record. I wouldn’t know as I've never listened to Limbaugh, but examined on their face, the reaction to his comments was grossly overheated. He resigns from, or possibly is sacked by ESPN, which originally hired him to add an edge to their show. Gutsy.

Next came Warren Sapp behaving like a boor –- taunting opposing players during warm-ups, intimidating referees, etc. Sapp is an ass, for which he is rewarded through the standard mechanisms of celebrity, but the NFL is brutally strict about everything from violent behavior to dress codes, and so hit Sapp with a hefty 50K fine (nothing that would disrupt his lifestyle, but still...). Sapp responded by comparing life in the NFL to slavery – obviously he meant that odd form of slavery that involves fame, fortune, and glory beyond most people's dreams. OK, Warren – whatever. But naturally, we had to have a big to-do about his comment which dominated sports news for much longer than it should have.

The worst came when my favorite football columnist, Gregg Easterbrook aka Tuesday Morning Quarterback, got fired from ESPN. Easterbrook writes on innumerable topics besides football and has published a number of books on everything from religion to technology. In one of his non-sporting venues, specifically the New Republic magazine, Easterbrook published a review of the new Tarantino movie Kill Bill which he trashed as ultra-violent in these terms:
Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner, is Jewish; the chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, is Jewish. Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence? Recent European history alone ought to cause Jewish executives to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice. But history is hardly the only concern. Films made in Hollywood are now shown all over the world, to audiences that may not understand the dialogue or even look at the subtitles, but can't possibly miss the message--now Disney's message--that hearing the screams of the innocent is a really fun way to express yourself.

A heartfelt apology followed almost instantly but this quickly swept the world as a horrible piece of anti-Semitism – the old money-grubbing Jews stereotype. Frankly, I don’t see it. He's criticising in the producers of Kill Bill for being insensitive to violence and that, as Jews, they should know better. That's silly, of course, they shouldn’t know better any more than anyone else and Easterbrook is certainly employing a stereotype (what might be considered a politically correct stereotype) but it's hardly a virulent piece of Jew-baiting. But one person behind Kill Bill is Michael Eisner, who happens to be behind Disney, which happens to be behind ESPN, which is where Easterbrook published Tuesday Morning Quarterback. Bottom line: ESPN drops TMQ and, like a revisionist historian, wipes out all evidence that it ever existed from its archives and I am left with one less minor escape every Tuesday afternoon. Here's a third-party summary of the situation. Whatever happened to handling things gently, outside the spotlight, or just taking a deep breath and counting to ten before you do anything stupid?

This one, at least, may have a happy ending. The delightful site I just found called Football Outsiders, where they try to track football as statistically as has been done since forever in baseball, decided to run a temporary TMQ contest to see who could write the best fake Tuesday Morning Quarterback column. In a letter from Easterbrook, we see that he is actually preparing an entry himself and plans to find a new venue for TMQ. Mazel Tov!

If we can get back to football now, I may get interested again.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Cheaters Never Prosper: ESPN recently ran a competition to see what sports uniforms were the best looking. They picked 64 unis from various sports and ran an NCAA like elimination tournament based on reader voting. Here are the brackets and the final four. At the end it was down to the Denver Broncos vs. the Michigan Wolverines (football). According to the final report:
Trailing badly in the final round last Thursday, Denver received 20,000 consecutive overnight votes and 42,500 of the final 50,000 e-ballots cast… [snip] When the polls finally closed, the Broncos had rallied to post 137,257 votes, easily outdistancing Michigan's 88,743. However, has discovered that 71,465 of those votes came from one IP address.

So those clever guys at ESPN sought out an expert to find out what was going on -- specifically a guy named Chris Nandor, who is infamous for fixing on-line baseball all-star balloting. His expert opinion:

"My guess (is) someone from Denver."

Insightful. Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to just place a call to Captain Obvious? Anyway, in the end, they threw out the bad votes and we can all safely Hail the Victors. ESPN goes on to wax eloquent about the Denver uniforms:

In retrospect, Denver's mere presence in the championship round should have been a tip-off. First, the Broncos barely made it to the finals, beating the Atlanta Falcons by a mere 0.3 percent in Round 1 and never earning more than 53 percent of the vote in a single contest.

Second, the club's monochromatic unis give them the look of human popsicles. Or perhaps Regis Philbin, in his blue shirt, blue tie, Van Heusen endorsin' heyday.

"Be careful with the thick burnt-orange accent on the trouble-spot buttocks and thighs," added Victoria, one of Page 2's fashion experts. "You don't want to call attention to an unsightly entity. Spandex is a privilege, not a right."

Chortle. If I ever get back to doing football picks I shall only refer to that team from Denver as the Popsicles.
Making a Splash: The story of the guy who went over Niagara Falls and emerged unscathed amazes me. Of the 15 daredevils that went over the falls with some form of protection, 1/3 of them died. With one exception -- a child who accidentally went over with a life vest on -- every other person who just jumped in is classified as a successful suicide attempt (although, oddly the province of Ontario won't release numbers). Despite all that, this guy not only survives but he comes out pretty much unscathed, as if it were a big water slide. Here's the scoop; turns out this guy lived just east of Ann Arbor.

Frankly I hope this guy gets a lot of fame and notoriety. He's earned it. There's talk of fining him (10 grand -- yikes!) but he's claiming he was suffering from depression. I'm guessing that claim is just to get him out of the fine. What he's actually done is invent a new extreme sport - Fallsdiving or Watercrashing or something. Turn the Horseshoe Falls into the world's biggest water park -- that would be too cool. Somebody call Disney.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Read All About It: The first review of Business As Usual is up, courtesy of the good dogs over at blogcritics. I hope everyone feels that way. By the way, if you have read Business As Usual and would like to write up a quick paragraph of two, both Amazon and Barnes and Noble are accepting reviews. You have our gwatitude.
Low Lying Fruit: It easy pickins in this link harvest.
  • What web surfing would be like if you were drunk. I am not speaking from personal experience. Really.

  • As you may have heard, using implants, monkeys can move robot arms with their thoughts. I betting the first practical application of this is a TV remote.

  • I have stopped paying attention to the patron saint of lard-asses, Michael Moore. But luckily, for the sake of truth, justice and the American way, others haven't.

  • This site is called Awful Plastic Surgery. That's pretty self-explanatory. Track your favorite celebrity.

  • If one were to translate a certain song into Latin and then back to proper English, one would find oneself saying Large buttocks are pleasing to me, nor am I able to lie concerning this matter.

  • I would love to have this clock on my desktop. Very cool.

  • Some call it pop, some call it soda. People who call it soda are wrong, but I can accept their innocuous ignorance. I simply cannot abide people who call all pop coke. What kind of lunacy is that. Do they not see the absurdity of calling Pepsi coke? Here is your guide to where people are right, wrong, or insane.

  • It's hard for me to imagine a job more grinding than sitting in a tollbooth making change. No wonder they occasionally wig out.

  • Crayola is pointlessly messing with crayon colors. In what circumstances would you describe something as inchworm colored? "The seasonal rains transform the straw brown plains of the Serengeti to a vibrant inchworm." Um, no.

  • How not to run an eBay scam. Roberts…sent his customers a cut-out picture of the high-definition plasma TV that he sold in eBay's electronics section… We have a new candidate for Stupidest Person Ever.

  • These are a crack-up. They sat some kids in front of old school games like Pong and Donkey Kong and recorded their comments. Regarding playing Pong: I'd sooner jump up and down on one foot. You tell 'em, dude.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Not Bad: You know, I have been reviewing Apple Pie again in preparation for its triumphant return and I must say I'm impressed. I hadn’t read it straight through in what must be four or five years (of course, I read it about 900 times before it came out) and there is some good writing in there. If you haven’t read it, I promise you will get an opportunity.

Meanwhile Business As Usual is starting to come available in most places. I am sure you can order it in a brick and mortar Barnes & Noble. I have heard you can order it at Border's, although I have no verified reports. It remains discounted at Amazon. I also know for a fact that there is at least a small bit of marketing behind it in an effort to get it on shelves. No idea if that will work out; I know if you walk into bookstores it seems like they must have every book imaginable available, but in fact it is just a small portion -- there are over 300,000 new books published each year. (How did get myself into this oversaturated industry?)

In case you're interested, here is the official press release (it looks much better as an actual document with proper margins).
National Pastime: You know, I watched that wild Yankees-Red Sox game and I simply cannot fault Pedro Martinez for flinging Don Zimmer to the ground. Frankly, I have no idea how I would handle being violently rushed by a goblinesque senior citizen with a metal plate in his head. It's just something I don’t have an explicit policy on.

What I can fault is the behavior of the Yankees towards the Red Sox employee in the bullpen. Like everyone else, I thought it was a fan assault incident. Nope. It's the players who are getting hauled up on charges. has the official report.
Look Out Below: A fascinating article at the New Yorker about the Golden Gate Bridge as a suicide magnet. Apparently, it is the in place to kill yourself, should you be so inclined. It is no laughing matter, I suppose, but the article is pure black comedy in some parts. Sample quotes:
Many jumpers wrap suicide notes in plastic and tuck them into their pockets. [One] wrote, “Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache.”

And where else but San Francisco would somebody say something like this:

The idea of building a barrier was first proposed in the nineteen-fifties, and it has provoked controversy ever since. “The battle over a barrier is actually a battle of ideas,” Eve Meyer, the executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, told me. “And some of the ideas are very old, ideas about whether suicidal people are people to fear and hate.”

Huh? And as usual, everybody has an angle:

The coverage intensified in 1973, when the Chronicle and the Examiner initiated countdowns to the five-hundredth recorded jumper. Bridge officials turned back fourteen aspirants to the title, including one man who had “500” chalked on a cardboard sign pinned to his T-shirt. The eventual “winner,” who eluded both bridge personnel and local-television crews, was a commune-dweller tripping on LSD.
In 1995, as No. 1,000 approached, the frenzy was even greater. A local disk jockey went so far as to promise a case of Snapple to the family of the victim.

And then there's this:

In 1970, the board of the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District began studying eighteen suicide-barrier proposals, including a nine-foot wire fence, a nylon safety net, and even high-voltage laser beams. The board’s criteria were cost, aesthetics, and effectiveness. In 1973, the nineteen-member board, most of them political appointees, declared that none of the options were “acceptable to the public.” (The laser-beam proposal was vetoed because of the likelihood of “severe burns, possibly fatal, to pedestrians and personnel.”)

Am I the only one picturing Dr. Evil at a conference table crying, "Throw me a bone, people!" And lastly, Captain Obvious makes an appearance:

Survivors often regret their decision in midair…

Ya think?
Semi-Quasi Pointless: I just can’t let this short biography of a very rich chick name Paris Hilton (who I had never heard of, but is famous for some undiscoverable reason) pass without pointing out this remarkable description:
...she is also known for being a high-society party girl, part-time model, and quasi-actress.

In case you were wondering, in the pantheon of idiocy, quasi-actress comes right after demi-bimbo.
Sport of the Future: You can still make it to the Rock-Paper-Scissors International Championship. I've been needing something to hold my interest now that World Cup Tic-Tac-Toe is over.

Friday, October 10, 2003

The Southeast Corner: As promised, my latest travel essay, Babylon on the Make, the story of my recent week in southeast Florida, is up. In cased you missed the first one, The Gold Plated Swamp, it might be worth taking a look.

Busy, busy week. I'll try to get more up before the weekend is over.

Sunday, October 05, 2003

No Excuses: I ended up spending the better part of last week in the Annapolis-Baltimore area for my day job. So the bottom line is, I got big ole wad of nothing done. I really gotta get some semblence of order going in my life. Ah, well -- no excuses. Give me a day or three to get myself back in the swing, as usual.

In the meantime, did you have the slightest notion that Business as Usual is available -- and on sale! -- at Amazon? Were you even vaguely aware that you can read the first few chapters on-line? Did you have even a minor awareness that you can order Business As Usual at Barnes and Noble bookstores everywhere? Now you do. No excuses.

(Bloggers and other journalists who are interested in reviewing Business As Usual should send me a note.)