Monday, February 27, 2006

Winter Wonderland

Last weekend (the 18th and 19th), we had an Arctic storm come in and dump some rain on us while keeping the temperatures chilly. That means one thing - snow in the mountains! Early Sunday afternoon the sky was clear and the San Gabriel mountains were covered in snow down to about 4000 feet. Unfortunately, I was lame and didn't take a picture of that. What I did do, however, was drive up into the mountains and see the snow up close.

Driving up Angeles Crest Highway, there started to be snow on the ground right around the point where Angeles Forest Highway starts. Shortly thereafter, traffic started to get congested as people were pulling over to the shoulder, what little of it there was, to let their families play in the snow. After the Mt. Wilson turnoff, traffic lightened up, and the farther I went into the mountains, the thinner the crowds got. Eventually I turned off and parked at the Three Points trailhead parking lot, a little way past Newcomb's Ranch.

Two weeks previously, I had gone up to that same point and taken a 3.5-mile hike with my sister Dorothy and her husband. It was pretty neat to see the same area a short time later covered in about six inches of snow. In the snow, I didn't do any serious hiking, but I did go up the Pacific Crest Trail maybe 100 meters or so to enjoy the mountain solitude.

Here's a shot looking southwest from the parking lot.

Here's a shot from about the same spot, two weeks before.

Watch out for snow-covered yuccas!

From the earlier hike, here's a blurry shot of me.

Here's Dorothy and Lance.

Our hike took us north and west maybe a mile and a half along the Pacific Crest Trail, southwest through some lesser trails and a dirt road past an old private camp, and then east back to where we started along the Silver Moccasin Trail. Here's a shot from the PCT, back on February 5.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

More political ramblings - but not here

If you're dying to read something political by me, you can find several rants/laments I wrote in the comments section of this post over on Ryan's blog. I talk about partisanship and Bush.

Roger Rabbit is Counterrevolutionary

With all the progress China's made in the past decade or so, at least in economic freedom, it seems almost quaint when they announce a bizarre proclamation banning movies that mix cartoons and live action. If I understand the article correctly, it seems that this is mostly a protectionist move for their animators, although why only cartoon/live action combos are nixed is beyond me. And no word on what fury would erupt in the event of someone screening a movie that featured Chinese actors playing Japanese characters interacting with a cartoon Muhammad.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Mystery blob eating downtown

That was the front-page lead headline in today's Los Angeles Daily News. I wish I could have been at the editorial meeting where they decided to lead with that one.
A mysterious black blob attacked downtown Los Angeles on Monday with a tar-like goo that oozed from manholes, buckled a street and unmoored a Raymond Chandler-era brick building, firefighters said.

One blogger noticed an unfortunate juxtaposition with the second-position front-page story.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Olympic Notes

ITEM! - Canadian-born American ice dancer Tanith Belbin is a stone-cold fox.

ITEM! - I don't fault U.S. speed skater Shani Davis for declining a spot on the pursuit team. But after he won the 1000m event, he seemed like the surliest Olympic gold medalist ever. I guess not everybody reads the script about what they expect you to say in those TV interviews. The article there says he was pissed at NBC for comments Bob Costas had made about him.

ITEM! - A man in Korea says he's mogul-skiing bronze medalist Toby Dawson's birth father, and that he lost him on a busy street back in 1981. Weird.

ITEM! - The United States doesn't have a monopoly on pro athletes underperforming at the Olympics. The Canadian hockey team lost consecutive 2-0 shutouts to Finland and, of all places, Switzerland.

ITEM! - American Matt Savoie gets my vote for the most underrated male figure skater. His jumps were powerful and his program was that rare combination of elegant, tasteful, and not fruity.

ITEM! - Canada's Jeffrey Buttle, though, has a distinct Danny Pintauro vibe.

ITEM! - How cool is Biathlon? You have people skiing with rifles on their backs. I must say, though, that the events in which the winner is actually the person who crosses the finish line first are more exciting than the "individual" events, where the start times are staggered and the penalties for missing shots are just automatically tacked on to your skiing time. The penalty is made much more physically manifest in the events where a missed shot means you have to ski a 150m penalty lap. It's like being in junior high P.E. class again.

ITEM! - If you think the luge looks like it would be loads of fun to try and you live in the Midwest, there's a public luge run at Muskegon State Park in Michigan. Prices are affordable and they have skating and cross-country skiing, too. Remind me to go next time I'm in western Michigan in the winter.

Slate on the New Figure Skating Scoring System

Slate gets into the mechanics of how at least the technical portion of the new skating score works, and how it inevitably leads to crappy performances.

A brief look at the chart reveals that a string of fancy moves done badly is worth a whole lot more than a string of simple moves done with grace and élan... [S]katers who know the system can treat it like a video game, stringing together fancy combos so they can rack up a high score... As long as the judges keep rewarding ugly failure, you'll never see a beautiful skate program.

This seems fairly easy to correct. Penalize more heavily for mistakes. More points for spins. Reforming the "program components" portion of the scoring might be more difficult (please stop rewarding meaningless hand-waving). Really, how can you stick a number on artistic impression?

Humor in the Muslim World

This Saudi guy living in Britain seems witty. He starts with the serious stuff, then moves on to Muhammad emoticons.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

More about Figure Skating

A few days ago the Men's competition was held, so now I've been able to see this new scoring system at work for them and the pairs. I must say my reaction is mixed. On the plus side, it's good to see them recognize that something was desperately wrong with the previous system, that the new way is more objective than the new way, and, probably most important, they've ditched that moronic system in which the final positions (i.e., who won which medals) were determined merely fromt he ordinal rankings of the two programs and replaced it with simply adding up the scores from the short program and the free skate. This aspect of the new system is both intuitively obvious (it's what they do in, as far as I know, every other event involving combining two scoring opportunities, like luge runs or ski jumps) and it is also less stupid.

Like, for example, after the men's short program, Yevgeni Plushenko's score was head and shoulders above everybody else's, whereas positions 2 through about 8 were all within striking distance of each other. That's as it should be. Under the old system, Plushenko's 1st place would be treated as one step above American Johnny Weir's second place, who would be one step above Stephane Lambiel from Switzerland, etc., when in reality Weir's score of 80.00 was just about as close to American Matt Savoie's 69.15, ranked #8, as it was to Plushenko's 90.66. If one guy's first run is really that much better than a wide field behind him, then it is only right that it should be difficult to catch up with him but easy for the contenders in the closely-bunched field to rearrange their order.

So as far as that goes I'm all for the new system. My issue with the system is that it leans too heavy toward the technical side. The scoring is open-ended rather than being based on deductions from a perfect 6.0. That makes sense to me, but unfortunately what happens is that competitors simply pile on as many jumps as they can with the knowledge that each jump will add to their score. The result is that, for all the talk of the "program components" part of the score being the equivalent of the old "artistic impression" component and of equal value to the technical marks, the new system favors athletic jumpers with little aesthetic sense over those who can truly transform an athletic display into a thing of beauty.

Exhibit A is the runaway winner, Yevgeni Plushenko. There is no disputing that, from a technical standpoint, Plushenko was the best skater in the competition. But, as the commentators pointed out, he had no program. His idea of choreography was "watch me gear up for my next jump" and "if I wave my hands around meaninglessly it will add to my score."

Contrast that with the sublime Johnny Weir, whose "The Swan" short program took a real risk but turned it into one of the most elegant programs I've ever seen a man perform on ice --- and he mixed in quite a number of flawlessly-executed jumps while he was at it. Weir, whose very entertaining flamboyance has been well-documented elsewhere, faltered a bit in the long program (AKA the free skate), but even there, his choreography and his ability to pull off that choreography with fluidity and authenticity. And yet for both programs, Plushenko had the highest score amongst all the skaters for program components.

I really don't know the details of how the program components are calculated. For all I know, it's not the judges' faults, and their hands may have been forced by the system to give the highest p.c. scores to Plushenko. Or maybe it is the judges' faults, and they just gave him the top scores because, well, he's their golden boy and he's the best jumper. But either way, if the stated intention is for the program components to give some measure of the artistic impression of the performance, they've failed. Either by design or by implementation, the two components of the scores are very strongly correlated with each other, when they ought to be almost independent. Someone could, theoretically, skate beautifully but flub every jump.

I'm not asking them to turn figure skating into Ice Dancing. All of the elegant skaters I saw in competition were also accomplished, athletic jumpers and spinners. But there is a place in skating for both the technical and the aesthetic, and then needs to be reflected in the scoring. Otherwise all we have is a jumping contest, no more interesting to watch than freestyle aerial skiing.

Maybe Yevgeny Plushenko deserved his gold medal, and maybe not. As brilliant as his technical skills are, a skater with as dull a choreographer as his (and in a country with as proud a tradition of ballet as Russia, this should be cause for alarm) should not have run away with the competition the way he did. Is it just a coincidence that the underappreciated, more elegant style of skating is exemplified not only by the three American men but also by Michelle Kwan? The international sports world always seems to be looking for ways to screw over Americans, whether it's on the ice or the baseball diamond.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Douchebag Alert

Salon's King Kaufman opines that Michelle Kwan won't be remembered as one of the greats:

What's really sad is that for all the comforting talk that Kwan will be remembered as one of the greatest skaters of all time despite never having won Olympic gold, she won't be remembered as one of the greatest skaters of all time because she never won Olympic gold.

Jimmy Roberts, the Sultan of Syrup, intoned over images of Ted Williams and Dan Marino, "The history books are filled with Hall of Famers who never won their sport's biggest prize. Now Kwan sits shoulder to shoulder at their elite level."

But she doesn't.

The sad fact is that, except for insiders and hardcore fans, figure skating is a sport that really only matters at the Olympics. And in sports that really only matter at the Olympics, you're judged by how you do at the Olympics.

Oh, I see. That's why Sarah Hughes is such a superstar after her gold in 2002. Hrm, maybe not. How about Tara Lipinski in 1998? Less than two years later, being able to remember her name as a contestant on Win Ben Stein's Money earned me some applause, a couple hundred dollars, and a Lewinsky joke from Jimmy Kimmel . I haven't heard from her since.

Kaufman may have had a point before 1998, but the facts prove him 100% wrong since then. I'm sure Lipinski and Hughes are wonderful young ladies who have never hired thugs to beat their competitors, but anybody who has watched Kwan skate knows that she has the magic touch. Other skaters may have it in them to pull off some good, even great performances, but the ease and grace with which Michelle Kwan skates immediately conveys her innate greatness, and a couple of unfortunate slips on the ice don't change that.

Figure-skating people will put her in their Hall of Fame and forever think of her as a member of the pantheon. But for the rest of us, she had two chances to prove her greatness and she didn't answer the bell.
Kaufman's argument rests on the notion that Kwan's popularity is somehow merely a media creation and that the average viewer is the same kind of traditional sports fan like him who actually still pays attention to college basketball during the Winter Games. He's underestimating the audience. "Figure skating people" aren't just some bevy of frumpy-looking Russians who actually understand the scoring system, they're the millions of people (many of them women, which probably explains why he doesn't understand them) who tune in to watch the U.S. and World Championships on TV who know that the #1 person they want to watch is Michelle Kwan. What they care about is beautiful performances, not statistics. And they know who's given more beautiful performances over the past decade than anyone else. It's not Sarah Hughes.
[U]nfortunately for Kwan, there are no all-time great figure skaters who never won the Olympics.

There weren't. Now things have changed. Now there is Michelle Kwan.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Jane Jacobs

Here's a very nice appreciation of Jane Jacobs, who is still alive and kicking at the age of 89.
She's like a friendly next-door neighbor who likes to chat about the problems with traffic and parking on your block, and you agree politely—until you gradually notice that she has been laying out a far-reaching, cogent critique of the entire society, complete with systemic solutions to apparently unconnected problems. That's when you realize she may be the smartest person you know.
I like to think of her as a "visionary realist."

Cheney Accidentally Shoots a Guy


This might be a good time to remind you of how Laura Bush killed a classmate in high school.

Kwan Withdraws from Olympics

This makes me so sad. I want to give her a big hug and say, "We still love you, Michelle!"

Friday, February 10, 2006

"Trust Me"

Those are two words you never want to hear coming from George W. Bush's mouth. There's a damning new report showing that many, perhaps most of the detainees still held at Guantanamo Bay weren't members of al Qaeda at all, despite the President's assurances that they were. One of the hallmark features of the current Bush administration is its insistence that those boring old rules about due process simply no longer apply. What is he so afraid of? Can't we fight terrorists and still obey the law?

In George Bush's America, transparency in the government doesn't matter, because he doesn't make mistakes. We're just supposed to trust him. He's our president. In a rare moment of clarity, Ronald Reagan once said, "Trust, but verify." I'd like to trust my president, but I don't.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Skandies

Voting for the 2005 Skandie Awards has finished, and Mike D'Angelo has begun posting the results. The first thing he posts are the "fake nominees," so called because there is only one round of voting, and he just lists the top 5 from each category in alphabetical order to create a simulated list of "nominees." Then, starting at #20 and working his way to the top of the chart, he reveals one chart-placer from each category each day.

The fake nominees for Best Picture are:

  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Caché (Hidden)
  • Grizzly Man
  • The New World
  • Tropical Malady

Personally I liked 4/5 of these enough to put on my own ballot, but I really didn't groove on Tropical Malady. I don't have anything against the "static shot" school of filmmaking per se, but I have my limits. Great photography aside, this movie was boring as hell. Maybe it would have been better if the two lead characters had had any kind of discernible personality.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Clinched Interstates

There's a neat new website that you can use to generate a map of all the Interstate highways you've been on. I should warn you that preparing the file to generate your map will probably take a while, unless you haven't done much travelling. My own map, along with state-by-state statistics, is here, or you can see a condensed version below, where the dark blue indicates the ones I've clinched.

There are a few unsigned "mystery Interstates" out there, like these ones in Puerto Rico. Click and scroll down to "additional designations" for something of an answer.

Freeway Quiz Answer

Way back in November I posted a free-form quiz about a 1960 painting of a freeway interchange, shown above, asking you, the readers, to point out what has changed since the time of the painting. The first order of business, of course, would be to identify the interchange. My sister Dorothy correctly identified it as the interchange of the Santa Ana Fwy and the Long Beach Fwy, looking south down the Santa Ana. Today those freeways are I-5 and I-710, but at the time the Santa Ana Fwy. was US-101 and the 710 was CA-15. CA-15 became CA-7 in 1964 when they needed the 15 number for the Interstate that goes to Vegas, and then became I-710 in 1984 when it got approved as an Interstate. Thanks,

My sister Connie points out the biggest physical change since 1960 in the painting, the odd onramp from surface streets into the left lanes of the 101 southbound. That onramp was demolished some number of years ago; I can't remember when but I think it may have been the early 1990s. The elevated part is gone, but the at-grade portion can still be seen in the median as a blocked-off "on-ramp from nowhere." You can see an aerial shot here.

Dorothy's notion about a tunnel is incorrect.

R.I.P., Betty Friedan

Feminist pioneer Betty Friedan died on Saturday. I haven't read her books and certainly don't share her views on abortion, but I think her influence on culture is nothing short of profound. The core of her revolution was the idea that women could have goals of their own and not define themselves only in relation to their husbands, essentially opening up half of the population to full participation in society.

Since 1963, when The Feminine Mystique was first published, women have made tremendous gains and feminism as an idea has flourished, split, declined, and re-emerged as post-feminism, which some people say isn't really feminism at all. There is still dispute over the specifics of the role of women, but today, at least on an abstract level the independence of women is largely a settled question in America.

There is also still, of course, the question of biology. Women and men are different, and it goes much deeper than just the fact that women can get pregnant and men can't. Through a combination of culture and biology, women are still the ones who do the bulk of the child-rearing, and as a society we have yet to come up with a satisfactory solution to the problem of combining motherhood with the pursuit of a career without shortchanging one or the other. In a feedback loop with rising housing costs, double-income families have gone from being an anomaly to almost a necessity in much of the country.

While the idea of women stretching beyond their traditional roles is widely accepted, chauvinistic attitudes do still exist, and of course women in many parts of the world have very few rights at all. Because of the physical and psychological differences between the sexes (of which we only have a limited understanding), I don't think that true equality, whatever that means, will ever be achieved, nor should it even be a goal. I think the real goal goes back to the founding of the country: equality of opportunity, not necessarily of result. Friedan saw that the doors of opportunity were shut and pushed them open.