Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Prime Time

My brother always claimed he was a better athlete than me in high school because I never played a sport where you had to try out for the team. I ran cross country and track, while he played football and basketball. My brother was and still is a better athlete than me, but it's not because he plays more exclusive sports than I do. It's because he's bigger, stronger, faster, and it better shape than me. Skip Bayless essentially rehashes my brother's old argument in this piece about Lance Armstrong.

I'm a big fan of Lance, no doubt, but I do understand Bayless' desire to knock him down a peg or two. What he has done in the Tour has been amazing, but the desire to crown him greatest athlete of all time is somewhat annoying. For my money, Lance isn't even the greatest cyclist of all time, that honor still belongs to Eddy Merckx.

Bayless basically takes the low road and makes all kinds of ridiculous statements like: "cycling doesn't test enough athletic talent or skill" and "Yet Armstrong hasn't had to battle the quality or depth of competition in his sport that baseball, basketball or football greats have risen above in theirs." His column wouldn't have been so bad had he managed to come up with a more convincing best all-around athlete. I have a hard time respecting the arguments of anyone who thinks that Deion Sanders was the greatest all-around athlete in history. Bayless seems to disqualify anyone who excelled at only one sport from contending for the all-time best athlete. To make matters worse, Bayless includes other multi-sport athletes much more worthy than Deion in his list of candidates, yet he still picks Deion. Jim Thorpe (football, baseball, track & field), Jim Brown (football, lacrosse), and Jackie Robinson (baseball, track & field) were all multi-sport athletes who were better at both of their sports than Deion was at either of his, and yet he seems to disqualify them because they only played one of their sports professionally and none of them during the ESPN era.

I don't like to get into discussions about greatest athlete of all time, because it's too difficult to compare different sports and different eras. While its true that riding a bike doesn't take as much hand-eye coordination as socking a 95 mph fastball out of the park, it's also true that racing your bike 2500 miles over 21 days takes more cardiovascular endurance than rounding the bases a couple of times. To say that cycling is less of a sport because it doesn't require some of the skills that ball sports require but failing to criticise ball sports for lacking some the demands that competitive cycling places on its participants is a very unconvincing argument. All in all, I'd have to say I agree with this post from David Irwin.

Hat tip: Dusty Young

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Conquistadors

I finally got around to watching the second installment of the Guns, Germs, and Steel PBS miniseries. This episode focused mainly on the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire during the 1500s. I remember learning about how the first Europeans who arrived in the Americas brought over all kinds of diseases that decimated the native populations since they had never been exposed to them and therefore, had no natural immunity. The thing that I never understood was why the Europeans didn't run into the same problems, since presumably the Native Americans had diseases that the Europeans had never been exposed to before. As Diamond points out, the illnesses that have decimated human populations over the centuries, such as the plague, smallpox, measels, and perhaps someday, bird flu, all have jumped from animals to humans. Europeans lived in close proximity to their domestic sheep, pigs, goats, and cattle in addition to eating their meat and, in some cases, drinking their milk. The reason the Europeans didn't get sick was because the Native Americans didn't have any of these killer diseases to pass around since they didn't live in close proximity with domestic animals.

Overall, I felt that this installment left a lot of questions unanswered. Both episodes have stated numerous times that the people of Europe, North Africa, and Central Asia were the beneficiaries of the great advancements made in the fertile crescent. The Europeans, however, were the only ones who managed to parlay this advantage into world domination. This episode really didn't do much to explain why Europeans had so much more success. There is only so much information that can be presented in a three-hour miniseries, but I feel like skipping from the dawn of agriculture to the 16th century was too big of a leap. Fortunately, I just picked up the book, which I presume covers this time period in more detail. The final episode, which covers the European colonization of the African continent, airs tomorrow night at 10 PM EST.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Red River Shoot-out

In response to the Senate bill that would end commercial flights at Dallas' Love Field (see my previous post), a House Representative from Texas has introduced a bill to stop commercial flights at Tulsa's airport . The Representative, Jeb Hensarling (the linked article claims that he's a state Senator, but when I googled him to find a link to his webpage and it turns out that he's a US representative for a district around Dallas), admits that its a joke. While it is a welcome change to see an elected official with a sense of humor, it would be nice to see more elected officials speaking about against unnecessary interference into the aviation industry, even when such interference benefits them or their constituents.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Wrong Amendment

If you know anything about the US commercial aviation industry, you're probably familiar with the Wright Amendment, a piece of legislation that effectively prohibits one airline (Southwest) from flying non-stop to any airport beyond the states of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama from Dallas' Love Field. Two Senators, James Inhofe (R-Okla) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) have recently introduced a bill to go one step further and completely close Love Field to commercial airline traffic.

The Wright Amendment was enacted shortly after the airline deregulation act of 1978 as a way to handcuff Southwest Airlines, a low-cost, upstart airline that continues to frighten the legacy air carriers by its ability to actually turn a profit in the airline industry. The Wright Amendment is currently under attack by a competing bill in the Senate, co-sponsored by Senators
John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sam Brownback (R-Kan).

The Wright Amendment and the Inhofe/Harkin bill are designed to one thing and one thing only, protect the interests of American Airlines, the dominant carrier at Dallas/Ft.Worth International Airport. You can make a fairly weak argument that the original intention was to close Love Field after DFW was opened and therefore, it should be closed to commercial traffic and/or severely restricted. The supporters of this nonsense will say things about protecting jobs and the North Texas economy. Dallas/Ft. Worth may be the only place on earth attempting to restrict commercial air service in an attempt to bolster the local economy.

Allowing Congress to decide the winners in the aviation business is a bad idea. That's basically what we had prior to deregulation, and while there seem to be a lot of people who pine for the good old days, deregulation has allowed more people to fly to more places for less money. It's also allowed airlines to charge every passenger on a flight a different price for his ticket, charge $7 for a stale ham sandwich, and make the whole experience of flying slightly less enjoyable than a visit to the DMV. Consumers have voted with the wallets, and they have decided that price is the only thing that matters when flying. Southwest has proven that when a low-cost carrier comes to town, it stimulates demand for flying by allowing people to fly to places that they previously would have driven to or skipped altogether. The Wright Amendment and this new bill are pieces of blatantly anti-competitive legislation that benefit a single corporation and its congressional patrons.

WeakReferences and Dynamic Proxies

As I have said before, I have been hoping to augment my blog's slice-of-life commentary with some technical content specifically related to software development. Here's the first of possibly many more installments. Eamonn McManus has a very interesting post about using dynamic proxies in Java to guard access to weak references. I'm not sure when I or anyone else will need to use this technique, but its a very well-written exploration of these two somewhat esoteric features of the Java platform and as a bonus, it features some good examples of new J2SE 5.0 technologies, such as generics and the java.util.concurrent package.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The High Court

All of this supreme court talk in the news as of late has brought me back to the first supreme court nomination that I can remember. No one ever forgets his first exposure to the supreme court nomination process, and I am no exception. The first nomination that I have any recollection of is the classic Robert Bork nomination. The thing is, I was kinda young back then, so I didn't really understand the whole thing. As it turns out, until very recently, I thought that the reason that Bork didn't get a seat on the court was because he was too conservative AND schmoked schome weed back in the day. In fact, it was Douglas Ginsburg, the judge that Reagan appointed after Bork was bork'd by the Senate, who got taken down by the herb. For years I puzzled over how Bork could be too conservative for mainstream America and a total pothead, but I guess it didn't confound me enough to inspire me to try and set the record straight.

There is an interesting postscript to this story. A couple years back, I saw Douglas Ginsburg speak at my friend's law school commencement at Boston University. It was, without a doubt, the worst graduation speech I've ever heard in my life. It was essentially a lecture from a constitutional law course about court packing. Had I not recently listened to a radio talk show that discussed the same topic, I would have been completely lost. After the speech, he walked off the podium and exited the building through the door behind the stage. The only thing that would've made his exit more humorous would've been if we actually heard his tires squeal as he peeled out of the alley behind the building.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Tour de Difference

The more I think about it, the harder it is for me to believe that so many Americans are into the Tour de France. The whole story of Lance Armstrong is very inspiring and everyone loves a winner, but the more I watch the tour, the more I realize that it is nothing like the American sports leagues we all know and love. Don't get me wrong, I've been a tour fan since before it was cool and I'll continue to be a fan after Lance retires. Still, it's interesting to look at the differences between bicycle racing and more mainstream American sports.

Here are some examples of the strangeness of the tour. First of all, Jan's Journal. Velo News, a US-based magazine that covers competitive cycling, features race diaries that are written by rides who are participating in the race, including one of top challengers in this year's race, Jan Ullrich. Jan's Journal isn't going to win any blog of the year awards, but it's a pretty interesting read. For one, it's full of humility, self-doubt, and in places, it sounds like Ullrich has all but conceded that neither he nor anyone else can beat Lance this year. The idea of an elite American athlete publishing something like this in the middle of his (or her) sport's biggest contest is unthinkable.

Second, the tour is governed by all sorts of weird gentleman's agreements that are never really explained. I suppose baseball also has a large set of unwritten rules, but in all other American sports, anything that is not explicitly prohibited is tacitly allowed. I'm not saying that cyclists are a bunch of choir boys. Cycling has been and probably still is a very dirty sport from a performance-enhancing drug standpoint. One of the more interesting unwritten rules that has come up twice in this year's tour is the rule that you have to earn your jersey. When Dave Zabriske lost his yellow jersey due to a crash with 1.5 km left in the team time trial and when Tom Boonen lost his green jersey after dropping out of the race, the men who inherited their jerseys both refused to wear them at the start of the next day's stage. Could you imagine a wide receiver asking the referee to take six points off of the scoreboard because the defensive back who was covering him twisted his ankle during the play, allowing him to break free for the touchdown?

Another strange thing is how a lot of teams that come to the tour will admit from day one that they have no hope of winning. I'd be surprised if any sportswriter could get the coach of the most beleaguered American professional sports team to admit on record that the championship is out of the question for his team this year. The majority of the teams in the race do not have a team member who could conceivably win the race. The thing that a lot of people might not understand about the tour is that each individual stage of the tour is really a mini-race. A team with a strong sprinter but no overall tour threat might come to the tour and win three individual stages with their top sprinter. This would be considered a successful tour for that team. The closest analogy that I can think of is college football, where the only game that really counts for a school is its rivalry game. Win that, and even if the rest of the season sucked, you can still be proud of your team.

The tour is definitely changing these days, as Magnus B├Ąckstedt has highlighted in his race diary. Lance Armstrong and his team have really approached the tour from an American sports point-of-view, emphasizing technology, preparation, and a single-minded determination that had never really been part of the tour before. The current generation of American prospects have followed Lance's lead, as have a number of the European cycling teams. Paul Sherwin spent a lot of time during yesterday's broadcast questioning the logic of Team CSC riding Ivan Basso in the Giro d'Italia (cycling second-most prestigious stage race) in May instead of resting him for the tour. Win or lose this year, Lance Armstrong has proven that if you take an elite cyclist and build his career around a single race, you give yourself a huge competitive edge. I am fairly sure that over the next few years, we will see more and more tour specialists emerge, who race for the Tour de France title and nothing else.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

We are(n't) the Champions

I saw an ad for Buffalo Bills tickets in the paper today. It appears that one of their marketing gimmicks for this season is a special Celebration of Champions emblem commemorating the 40th anniversary of their 1965 AFL championship team. This emblem contains their modern logo, their original 1960s logo, and the years 1964, 1965, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993. The Bills won the AFL title in 1964 and 65, so I can understand why they are celebrating that. I can't figure out why they included their four consecutive AFC championship seasons from the early 90s. Sure, they had some great teams back then and came about as close to winning the Superbowl as any team could have without actually winning, but I think it's somewhat insulting to lump the 1990-93 squads in with the 1964-65 championship teams. It's obviously a marketing device to make the team's history look more impressive, but it seems to me that no self-respecting Buffalo Bills fan would be seduced by this lame attempt at championship inflation.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Bumper Snickers

I love bumper stickers and pretty much all other ways of easily communicating your deeply held beliefs to the public at large. My all-time fav was a Nader for Prez. sticker that I spotted on the back of Toyota Land Cruiser (the modern, luxury SUV kind - not the old school off-road vehicle kind) back in 2000. I spotted this gem on the back of a shiny new Volvo station wagon today - "Never have so few, taken from so many, for so long".

On the surface, these both seem ironic. I drive a big, gas-guzzlin' SUV but vote for the Green party, I'm mad as hell about economic inequality but I drive a luxury car. There could be a logical explanation for both them, but Occam's ironic bumpersticker razor tells us that when there are multiple explanations for a bumper sticker, the ironic one is usually correct.

As much as I love ironic bumper stickers, my favorites are the totally absurd kind. I spotted this one on a school bus that had been purchased by a private citizen and converted into his personal party wagon: "Support Your Local Police: Beat Yourself Up".

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

'Scuse me while I kiss this guy

Both I and a loyal reader of Data Janitor have puzzled over the lyrics to the refrain of a song that has been featured in numerous films and commercials over the years. It took a little e-sleuthing, but I managed to track down the artist and song title via the Boogie Nights original motion picture soundtrack and from there, I was able to get the lyrics. Without further ado, the lyrics for Sister Christian by Night Ranger are: "You're motoring / What's your price for flight / In finding mister right / You'll be all right tonight". Our best guess was "Motoring / What's your price to fight?". We were close, but in many respects, way off.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Home Field Advantage

I watched the first part of Guns, Germs, and Steel last night, a three-part miniseries on PBS based on Jared Diamond's book. I haven't actually read the book, though it's on my to read list. Last night's installment basically presented the question that is at the heart of the book, namely, why are certain societies so much better off than others? Interestingly enough, it started off with the assumption that Americans are much better off than the indigenous hunter/gatherers of Papua New Guinea. I don't dispute that, but most introductory anthropology courses seem to include an essay positing that the development of agriculture was mankind's greatest mistake. I'm a big fan of contrarian arguments, even when I don't agree with them, so I've always been somewhat fascinated by this one. Had we all kept on gathering and hunting, the world would definitely be a lot less crowded and we'd certainly have a much more pristine environment. From a quality of life perspective, it's hard to argue in favor of hunting and gathering. There'd probably be less war, since there would be fewer people competing for more abundant resources and weapons technology wouldn't be too sophisticated. Still, there would be much less opportunity for people to pursue their own interests, since we'd all be too busy hunting and gathering. Ultimately, the problem with this argument is that it makes no economic sense. Gathering and hunting are a much less stable and efficient way to eek out a living than organizing into a society built around agriculture and a division of labor.

The main point that Diamond made in last night's show was that the region of the world where civilizations emerged played a large role in their eventual success or failure. The fertile crescent had several advantages over the rest of the world. It had barley and wheat, which were the most nutritious crops cultivated by prehistoric farmers and also could be kept for a long time. It was also the home of all of our modern-day livestock animals. Ultimately, the fertile crescent proved to be too dry and climatically fragile to become the breadbasket of the world, so the farmers moved to the east and west into modern-day Europe, Turkey, and Central Asia.

The other point that I inferred from last night's show was that the role that adversity plays in the development of human civilizations. The hunter gatherers of the fertile crescent did not develop agriculture until a climatic shift occurred that made the world colder and dryer. This killed off plants and herds of animals that were previously their primary food source. This is an example of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" rule. Had the climatic shift never occurred, the people of the fertile crescent may have kept on hunting and gathering.

Friday, July 08, 2005

What is a Data Janitor?

If you do a Google search on data janitor, you mostly wind up with links for database and data mining software. If you look carefully, you might find something about a musican by the name of Ken Vandermark. I stole the title of my blog from the title of one of his songs. When I started this blog, I thought I was going to write a lot about music and software, since they are two of my biggest interests in life. That hasn't been the case so far. I thought that maybe if I explain the significance of the name data janitor, it might inspire me.

Anyway, if you're interested in learning more about the song Data Janitor, you can listen to a clip here. In all fairness, it's a pretty lousy clip, the song is seven minutes long and the intro isn't even done before the 59 second clip ends. The Vandermark 5 is definitely my favorite band that is still alive and performing today. For an avant garde jazz unit, they have a tremendous amount of crossover appeal. If you're really into any of the alternative rock subgenres (punk, prog, kraut, etc.), you'll probably be able to find something you like in the Vandermark 5, even if you hate jazz.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Make it an Alice Cooper Night

Rock & Roll's high prince of weirdness, Alice Cooper, has his own syndicated radio show. It's called Nights with Alice Cooper. Check out the website to see if there is a station in your area that carries the show. I've found myself listening to it a few times and it's surprisingly entertaining. It's a classic rock music show that features a higher quality of classic rock than your run-of-the-mill classic rock radio station, IMHO. He works solo, except for when he's interviewing guests. He spends about half of the time between songs talking about the music and maybe an interesting anecdote about the song/musician/etc. that only an industry insider like himself would know. Then he spends the rest of the time making up unlikely stories. For example, when I listened to the show last Wednesday, he played "Couldn't Stand the Weather" by Stevie Ray Vaughn. Before the song he, started talking about Stevie's first television appearance, which was on the public TV show Austin City Limits. Then he made up a story about how his second TV appearance was the time he dressed up as a 70 year old woman and filled in for Angela Landsbury on Murder, She Wrote. If you're the kind of person who enjoys above-average classic rock and absurdist radio humor, you should check out Nights with Alice Cooper.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Tour de Lance

It's July, which means it's time for the Tour de France. Lance Armstrong has done a lot for himself as well as American cycling by wining the past six tours. When he began his reign in 1999, the only televised coverage available in the US was a 30 minute re-cap show each night on ESPN or ESPN2 around 10 or 11 pm. Now we get a live broadcast every morning on OLN which is then rebroadcast about three or four times over the course of the day. Still, the amount of time they devote to covering and praising Lance Armstrong is a bit ridiculous. I don't expect a lot of objectivity from sports journalists, but when Lance-buddy Bob Roll is sitting there wearing his live strong wristband practically declaring Lance the winner of the 2005 tour before it has even started, it's kind of annoying. Of course, were it not for Lance, there would be no OLN coverage, and Bob Roll wouldn't be on TV. It creates an interesting dynamic when the commercial viability of an entire sport rests on the shoulders of a single athlete. It will be interesting to see what happens next year after Lance has retired. There are a number of American riders who have the ability to contend for the Tour de France, but none of them have a story that is anywhere near as compelling to the media and general public as Lance. I don't think we'll go back to the the bad old days of miniscule coverage, but it seems like there will have to be a reduction somewhere. As long as Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin are along for the call, I won't have any complaints.

Blame Canada

Last Friday, as you may know, was Canada Day. Canada Day is the closest thing Canadians have to our Independence Day, so I assumed that they would celebrate Canada Day the same way we celebrate July 4th. This assumption proved to be incorrect on at least one account. On Friday, we headed across the border to meet up with some friends at a Provincial Park on the coast of Lake Erie for a weekend camping trip. Not wanting to bother with the vagaries of transporting alcohol, meat, and produce across the border, we decided to pick up these things once we arrived in Canada. I know for a fact that most American grocery stores are open on July 4th, because I have worked at an American grocery store on July 4th. In fact, I was hired for that job based on a single qualification (after being legally employable in the US, I suppose) - the ability to work on July 4th. In Canada, almost every grocery store was closed all day and the ones that were not were only open through the late afternoon. Almost all of the beer and liquor seems to be sold at state-run stores, which were all closed on Canada Day, of course. On one hand, I think it's nice that a lot of service industry people who usually have to work when the rest of us get to relax get the day off. On the other hand, what kind of country prevents its citizens from purchasing alcohol on its biggest summertime holiday? So if you ever travel to our neighbors to the north on Canada Day with the intention on boozing it up once you arrive, make sure to BYOB.