Friday, January 30, 2004

So Sad, but So Right

So I'm poking around TBogg's blog, reading the latest travails of America's Worst Mother™ when I decide to look down his link list — it's a slow Friday afternoon here in unemployment land! So I notice that he still has a link to Coultergeist, Ann Coulter's shortlived attempt at blogging. Morbid curiosity makes me follow the link. There really is something so satisfyingly honest about the page. The blog subhead is "Ann Coulter speaks her mind..." and the page is blank.

Meanwhile, Back on the Track

The new racing season is getting closer, and things seem to building to a fever pitch, so this is a quick post of everything I let slide over the past few days.

First, Renault launched the R24. Last year, Renault made a reasonable claim to be one of the top teams in F1, claiming all year that they had a really fast car with a mediocre engine. At the end of the year they scrapped the engine and its designer and have gone back to a more traditional design. The car body is different again, however. The aero designers seem to have done a lot of work on the back end. The vanes and winglets all over the sidepod look sort of swoopy and sensual, the fin on the back of engine cover is vaguly reminiscent of the Jaguar D-Type (OK, very vaguely) and they've changed the rear wing significantly, again. This is another car that I am looking forward to seeing race.

Sticking with open wheel racing, the bankruptcy judge rejected the IRL bid to buy some or all of CART's assets and cleared the way for the series to try and survive under the leadership of the OWRS, with its first race scheduled for Long Beach in March. At least OWRS is committed to CART as a racing series -- it has no other interests. Back in the '90s when Tony George spun off the IRL with the Indy 500 as its only draw, he opined strongly that oval races were the only ones worth having. Since then he has installed a semi-road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but his motives in trying to buy CART were always a little suspect.

Finally, Speedweeks at Daytona is underway, with the Rolex 24 Hour sports car race set to start tomorrow. Scott Pruett has taken the pole for Chip Ganassi, and it looks like Speed Channel will have about 15 hours of race coverage before some football game or other that's happening this weekend too.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Toy from Time

Viia the BoiFromTroi, I found this cute tool apparently related to Time Magazine to help you confirm what you already know -- who should your candidate be.

After whipping through the questions, and leaving my party selection blank (after my answers, it was pretty moot anyway!) I came up with the following list:

CandidatePercent Agreement
Kucinich100%
Sharpton97%
Kerry90%
Clark87%
Dean86%
Edwards78%
Lieberman74%
Bush6%

I am a little worried that I have a 6% agrement with the miserable failure, but am otherwise glad to see that all of the remaining democrats score well up there, and that Kerry is my highest placed candidate-with-a-chance. I'm a little surprised that Edwards was so low -- I strongly agree with him on the wrongheadedness of tort reform, so I must be differing with him elsewhere.

The layout in this post is odd in Blogger's preview pane. For some reason it doesn't seem to like html tables. Perhaps I'll look into reformatting it later... Fixed it. Apparently tables don't like forced page breaks in them, even if it makes them easier to create and edit.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Joining the 21st Century

Just for the fun of it, and because free blogger now supports it, I have added an RSS feed. The link is somewhere over there on the right. I suppose this means I ought to look for a reader too -- last time I investigated them, I found that having a blogroll that notes updates seemed more useful. With a bit of luck times have changed and there are new readers out there that will start to fulfill the promise of being closer to a personal agent.

Update:OK, so apparently an RSS feed and an Atom feed may not be the same thing. So this is the free blogger Atom feed that I have. Whatever, it's some kind of XML.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Congratulations

Chuck has just announced his impending journey into the undiscovered country. Many congratulations, the TiVo is a marvelous device. The kids are pretty fun too, most of the time!

However, getting Tiffany to agree to a TiVo is only a small step on the road to unbridled use of power. I tested my theory of Impending Parental Acquisition with a video camera and a new computer (to edit the video, dontcha know?). Once I realized the power that I held, I went for the brass ring. I got power tools, particularly a table saw, simply by justifying it as "for the baby". It is an awesome power, and with awesome power comes awesome responsibility.

Of course, one more kid and I'd've got a drill press...

The Big Dog Comes Out to Play

Ferrari unveiled the F2004 yesterday. It bears a truly astonishing similarity to the F2003-GA! Truly astonishing. In fact it almost looks as if they only changed those things that were mandated by the new regulations -- engine cover height and rear wing endplate size. Oh, and the Vodaphone logo is a little different!

In the face of the siginificant changes that Williams has made, this effort by Ferrari looks a little half-hearted. On the other hand, they did win both championships last year, so perhaps they do only need to evolve the car design slightly instead of revolutionizing it. The success that the Williams has been having in preseason testing, however, suggests that Ferrari may need to re-examine the evolutionary approach by the time the series gets back to Europe, at Imola (the fifth race this year). In fact, they are already hinitng that even by Melbourne there may be some significant changes to the car, which makes the whole unveiling a little silly, really.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Life in the Hills

As Pittsburgh's financial woes continue, life is apparently not much better in the suburbs either. There are (famously) three major rivers in Allegheny County, which in turn divide the county into three fairly geographically definable regions:

  • North which lies north of the Ohio and the Allegheny rivers
  • South: which lies south of the Ohio and the Monongahela rivers
  • East: which lies between the Allegheny and the Monongahela

For the most part the City of Pittsburgh starts at the intersection of the three rivers and travels to the East, between the rivers. (This is a simplification, but a fair one, I think).

I live in the north suburbs and after a year or so, I still haven't really figured out the difference between a town, a city, a village, and a township, but I have figured out that there are lots of them around here -- 48 different municipalities in North Allegheny County alone. Added to that are cities that just don't exist -- such as Wexford and Allison Park. They seem to be imaginary constructs of the Post Office in order to shoehorn extra ZIP codes into this area, so everyone knows where they are, but they don't have police or fire departments of their own, or any government for that matter.

This fragmented (sub)urbanscape has some unfortunate effects on its residents. In particular, while zoning is allowed, a municipality cannot zone a type of business out of its borders, only control where it can be situated. So there are no true bedroom communities in the state. Additionally emergency services can be very hard to coordinate when there are so many arbitrary bouandaries lying across the map. (When our car radio was stolen, it required a debate with the 911 operator, a store clerk, and my wife before they could figure out which police department to dispatch!) . One of the local paper's columnists has proposed a solution to this situation. Unfortunately the online article doesn't include the map that was in the paper, which showed both the current and his proposed new boundaries. The idea makes a lot of sense, and would probably also help in providing a framework to start negotiating a way for the suburbs to keep the city alive, so it ain't gonna happen. He promises and implementation plan for next week, but it seems that there are too many petty fiefdoms for this kind of change to be generated internally. Furthermore, any external change would have to come from the state legislature, who appear to be not only large-C Conservative, but also small-c conservative, and are unlikely to recognize that the situation is broke and should be fixed.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

NASCAR Rules

Racing is different from other sports in several ways, particularly in the means that are available to determine the best driver over the course of a season. If we look at the NFL, each week there are 16 games, and 16 winners. Over the course of a season there are 256 games and 256 winners, which allows the use of a Win/Loss record as an effective tool to determine rankings at the end of the regular season. In NASCAR, there are 36 events in a season and 36 winners, which reduces the effectiveness of a W/L record as a determining factor in the overall champion. In the NFL there are a series of tie-breaking rules that resolve the difference between two teams with identical records, but thery are rarely used. In racing, the role of the tie-breakers is replaced by the number of points awarded to each finishing position, and this is used continuously throughout the season.

Obviously, the distribution of those points is a key factor in determining what is rewarded over the course of a racing season. In Formula One, only the top 8 finishers, out of up to 24, are awarded points. This puts a premium on finishing close to the front of the pack. It also means that once a car is out of the race for some reason, there is little point in restarting and risking further damage. Up until last year NASCAR used a different system that strongly rewarded teams for showing up for the race. The largest point spread was the 40+ points from not starting the race to finishing 43rd. Then the point spread started at 3 between consecutive positions and slowly crept up to 5. This places a strong premium on coming to each race and making the field., issues that were a problem back when the system was adopted. Now the major teams can't skip a race because their sponsors require them to be there, but the old rules held sway through last year.

The new system is modeled more after a NASCAR race and consequently rewards consistency a little and end-of-the-season success a little more. If you have ever watched a race, you know that there is nearly always a yellow-flag period toward the end of the race. All of the cars are lined up nose-to-tail, and when the green flag drops again there is a sprint to the finish. Prior to this last caution period, the most important thing a driver can do is keep out of trouble and not get passed by the leader of the race. Once the final sprint starts, it's anybody's race. The new points system relfects this. If a driver is in the top ten (i.e., on the lead lap) after 26 races, he is lined up nose-to-tail with the other top ten drivers, and they engage in a 10 race sprint to the end of the season.

It seems to me that they have gone in the wrong direction. Instead of changing the points system to more closely reflect the race structure, they should have altered the race structure to (sort of) more closely resemble the points system. The whole "Lap Carefully then Sprint Madly" structure of a race is one of the chief flaws of NASCAR in my mind. It really takes strategy, car design, and engine tuning out of the picture and leaves a significant chunk of dumb luck as the deciding factor in many races. Compared to a series like F1, where there are perhaps 2 or 3 safety car periods in an entire season, the lack of emphasis on engineering and racecraft is a damn shame. In the end, however, I don't think this system will last much over a year. There are probably more than ten heavyweight cars in the series, and their sponsors are not gonig to be happy at the lack of coverage that non-top-ten cars will get in the last 10 races. And if there is one thing that you can be sure of in NASCAR, if the sponsors aren't happy, then something's gonna change.

Political Predictions

I was absolutely correct, I didn't see a single minute of the SOTU address. Also, WDUQ has not yet fixed their antenna, so our reception of NPR is limited to the realaudio stream, which was unreliable this morning. So I have only the short bits in the newspaper and some online stuff to look at. I have statyed away from the Free Republic and other rabid sites, but the overall impression that I get from both sides of the aisle is that the speech was short, disjointed, and uninspiring. This is with the possible exception of the religious right who had a lot of stuff aimed at them.

I do wonder if the lack of any mention of NASA or Mars indicated that a section of the speech was pulled after the trial balloon was shot down last week. So far my favorite comment came from Red Ted (who has just earned a spot on my blogroll):

Bush is very good at proposing grandiose schemes, terrible at explaining, justifying, or funding them.

Amen!

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Enough Politics, Already

It may be the start of the political season, but racing starts again for most major series in the next couple of months. Towards that end, Jaguar and Toyota have unveiled their challengers for next season.

Not too surprisingly the Toyota bears a strong resemblance to last year's Ferrari. Not only was that car the winner of both the Driver's and the Constructor's championships, but Toyota are busy defending an industrional espionage case in which they are are accused of stealing plans and drawings from Ferrari. It looks like the Jaguar (That's Jag-yoo-ar, not Jag-wahr) designers had some similar ideas to Williams, but didn't want to go quite as far as they did. The fork holding the front wing is noticeably more split than that of the Toyota, however, and if the Williams is successful, we easily may see the split grow as the season progresses.

State of the Union Preview

Everybody's got a State of the Union prediction. South Knox Bubba is even proposing a replacement for the traditional drinking game. But here's my prediction: I won't watch it, or listen to it, or even pay attention to it. If any really striking new proposals come out of it, I'll probably read about them, or hear them on the radio tomorrow morning (assuming that WDUQ has its antenna working again). By 9:00, however, we have generally just put the boys to bed and are ready to settle down and enjoy what's left of the evening. George W. Bush and enjoyment just don't belong in the same sentence in my book.

So despite the total lack of civic virtue that I will be demonstrating, I'm probably going to be doing a crossword puzzle, watching something off the TiVo, or playing a game with my wife come 9:00 tonight.

No One EM Forster Comment Here

After all, it really is premature to start making comments about "Howard's End" after only one campaign event, which is really small-d democratic in the loosest sense of the word.

I am happy to see the Johns do well, however. Despite the lack of evidence here, I have long thought that Kerry is the best suited of the democratic contenders to be President. That doesn't mean he is the best man to beat Bush -- after he does look French (!?!?!?). In the meantime, I have already seen comments that Teresa Heinz looked disturbed on the platform with him. Is this the continuation of a new RNC spin point -- "Democratic candidates can't even get the support of their wives!"?

I'e not seen a lot of Edwards, but he has come across well on his two appearances on "The Daily Show". It's not much to base an opinion on, but he's talking a good line and apparently declining to attack his opponents. OF course, he was largely inconsequential up until yesterday, and it's much easier not to attack when you aren't being attacked yourself We'll see how he responds to the increased attention in New Hampshire, and particularly South Carolina in the next couple of weeks.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Dem Pittsburgh Blues

The Mayor and the city council seem to have come to some sort of agreement on a city budget. Basically the council gets what they wanted (few new taxes but service cuts) and the Mayor gets a significant parking tax hike. This should have the desired effect of making more of the city's tax burden fall on the suburban commuters (of whom there is one in my family) rather than cranking property taxes on residents yet again. This seems to be a good thing on the whole -- and if it encourages people to ride the bus or carpool more often, it has added side-benefits.

Predictably, the local legislators and business leaders are up in arms about it. On the legislators side, the best quote in the article has to be this one:

State Rep, Nick Kotik, D-Robinson, said Allegheny County legislators from both parties "have never sat down as a delegation and had a frank discussion'' about Pittsburgh's dire fiscal situation.

"It's time for that,'' he said.

It's time for that? Really? The city has been drowning in red ink for six years, and now it's time for the representatives of the affected population to finally talk to each other? I'd have said it was time to talk to each other, oh, five years ago. But that's just me.

That part of the business community that doesn't pay any taxes to operate in the city (nonprofits, financial services, many others) seem to be curiously silent on the subject of new taxes. But then again, if the parking tax hike doesn't fly, the city's Act 47 "Recovery Plan Coordinator" might notice that the Business Privilege Tax here makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and probably ought to be revamped.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Everything Old is New Again

South Knox Bubba has a lot to say, but it's well worth a read.

Sauber Launches

Red-Bull Sauber-Petronas (hereafter referred to as Sauber) launched their challenger, the C23, yesterday. It certainly isn't as groundbreaking as the Williams car, but it is unlikely that anyone else will be this year. Otherwise, the biggest surprise to me is how flat the front and rear wings are. Common wisdom over the past few years has had the front wing seriously dipped in the middle, in order to get it as close to the ground as possible, while remaining within the rules that govern the altitude of the endplates. Likewise, last year a number of teams (particularly Renault) were shaping their rear wings to minimize the drag induced by vortex shedding. Sauber seem to have rejected that approach as well, and are showing a very flat surface. Despite a fairly good pair of drivers in Fisichella and Massa, I don't anticipate that Sauber will be doing much to improve its middle of the pack position this year. I will definitely be surprised if they make it to the position of "Best of the Rest" (i.e., best team who isn't Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, and maybe Renault).

Monday, January 12, 2004

NASCAR stuff

Team news is fairly light at the moment, in advance of next month's Daytona 500, but back at NASCAR Headquarters weird things are starting to happen. First, a couple of things worth knowing:

  • After umpteen years, R.J. Reynolds had responded to pressure and pulled its Winston sponsorship from the series championship. They have been replaced by Nextel. In a strangely Orwellian development, all past champions are now referred to as Nextel Cup Champions, even though they won the Winston Cup at the time.
  • The Winston Cup points system was developed in 1973 to encourage consistency. In an effort to make sure that the top teams showed up every week, a driver gets a lot of points merely for qulaifying for the race, and a slowish escalation for finishing higher up the order. Nowadays, sponsor requirements mean that teams aren't going to miss a race for any reason, but the points system doesn't reflect this.
  • As a result of the skewed point system, last season's Cup Champion won significantly fewer races than the sixth place finisher. This has led to loud calls for change in certain corners of the community.
  • Football, basketball, baseball, and hockey all have playoffs.

All of these factors seem to be playing into NASCARs rumored decision to update the points system, in a strange way. Basically, they are going to take the last 10 races of the 36-race season and turn it into some kind of post-season shootout among the top ten drivers in the standings at the end of 26 races. Oh, and maybe some others too. The announcment about the details is anticipated next week, along with some indication of exactly why drivers outside the top ten would want to participate in a now meaningless race.

The oddest part of the plan is that it apparently attempts to emulate the excitement surrounding "Stick and Ball" sports at the end of the season without considering that there is a fundamental difference between racing and other team sports. In the other sports, two competitors out of (in the case of the NFL) 32 participate in each competition. At the end of the regular season, they each have W/L records, but the best may not have had head-to-head competition. So a playoff format enables the arguments to be settled. Indianapolis deserves to advance and Denver or Kansas City doesn't because the Colts beat them straight up in a head-to-head battle. In racing, however, every car is competing with every other car every week. In the case of NASCAR that means that any given week there are 43 cars on track, each one racing with all the others. The need for specialized head-to-head competition is obviated by the structure of the sport.

Instead of this false postseason, NASCAR should just tweak the points system. In particular, they should equalize all points below, say, 30th. This would take away the incentive for a battered car to come back on track and endanger everyone else just to pick up a couple of laps and gain 5 or 6 race positions (assuming that the battering occurred in a large wreck). That would also make sure that the occasional DNF doesn't hammer an otherwise strong driver, and generally allow NASCAR to benefit from the experience of nearly every other major racing series in the world.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Comparing Ideas

This week in Time Magazine, Michael Kinsley points out that the "Starve the Beast" theory of government spending control is wrong both mathematically and psycholgically. He makes some good points, too, espcially that the added interest burden of increased deficits if tax aren't matched dollar-for-dollar by spending cuts more than kills any hope that cutting taxes will force spending cuts and reduce the deficit.

Shortly after that I was walking the dogs and listening to yesterday's Marketplace (I have a "Radio TiVo" for this very purpose) they mentioned that the gross underfunding of "No Child Left Behind" was causing the State of Utah, among others, to strongly consider forgoing all federal education funds rather than try to comply with the ruling. This story touches on the same issue from a more local perspective (Marketplace doesn't seem to have individual story links). Although this may look on the surface as if Starving the Beast has succeeded in possibly reducing costs to the Federal Government, it seems that the cost to society is starting to look astronomical.

Items of Passing Interest

If this report is to be believed, Joe Gibbs is returning to the Washington Redskins in an attempt to see if they can be persuaded to play football again. Since the source is his NASCAR race team site, I have no reason to disbelieve it. It is possible that he no longer sees a huge challenge in racing -- his team won the Winston (now Nextel) cup twice in eleven years -- and is seeking a "new" challenge. There certainly seems to be little doubt that working for Dan "Lord Voldemort" Snyder is a major challenge for anyone. After all, it is pretty impressive to go through five head coaches in five years.

In a vaguely related story, apparently Open Wheel Racing has a challenger for the carcass of CART. A company wholly owned by ISC, who also essentially own NASCAR, is challenging them for assets of the defunct organization, which apparently include a number of race fixtures, some open wheel chassis, and the traveling safety team equipment. Of those items, the safety team equipment is something that has been lacking in NASCAR for some time, and may be the reason for the bid. On the other hand, if ISC did want to promote CART, it would probably be a good thing for the series. The PR and marketing has been abysmal since the IRL/CART split, while at the same time ISC has promoted NASCAR into some very impressive publicity figures.

Monday, January 05, 2004

A New Year, A New Season

Football is nearly over, and that means that in the distance you can hear the high revving of finely tuned engines. OK, so Barcelona is a long way away, but BMW.WilliamsF1 are out of the gate with their contender for the new year.

They clearly chose the revolutionary approach over the evolutionary one. With the short split nose, nothing like this has been seen on track in, I dare say, for ever. The theory is probably sound -- Williams has a lot of money to make sure that the car will work on track, and the radical changes promise an interesting year to come.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Back Home Again in Pennsylvania

So that Orange Alert thingy was no big deal in the Thousand Islands in upstate New York. Actually, it may just have been that I bore a remarkable resemblance to Chevy Chase in Vacation, but we sailed through the border with no problem. We did see cars in front of us getting at least a desultory look in the trunk, and having to chat to the border agent for a while. But apparently driving up with a station wagon containing two adults, two young children (4 and 1.5) and two large (~60 lb) dogs in the cargo area, plus a roof shell, made us look very unlike terrorists. Anyway, we only had to have our passports flicked through, and then we were waved back into the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

Note for future travel: young children are very hard to entertain in the back seat once it gets dark. Consequently no winter driving stint should be longer than about eight hours. Twelve hours is way too much, although the alternative (staying a dog-friendly motel on the way north) was pretty bad too.