Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday photo

Giant Forest. Sequoia National Park, June 2005

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Disaster can strike with so little warning. For example, one day long ago, my younger brother needed to back up my car in the driveway so that he would have room to shoot a little hoops. He touched the gas a little too hard, had to jump on the brake, and skidded through the gravel to a halt just inches short of our oldest brother's truck. Yes, he'd just come within an ace of damaging both of his older brothers' cars! He'd probably have fled to California years earlier than he actually did.

He got lucky, but this poor driver did not:

The wealthy French Riviera city state of Monaco was the scene of a pileup involving five luxury cars with an estimated value of more than $1.1 million.

The collision, involving a Bentley Azure (worth an estimated $400,000), a Mercedes S Class ($120,000), a Ferrari F430 ($230,000), an Aston Martin Rapide ($230,000) and a Porsche 911 ($130,000), occurred in front of Monaco's Place du Casino

So do you call Flo, the gecko, or just sing the State Farm jingle?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

"In Jesus' name, boogity boogity boogity amen!"

This was the prayer before the NASCAR Nationwide Series race this evening:

Yep, that's why Jesus died for you, Southern style.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Friday photo

Swimmer. Adrian, Michigan, July 2011.

I took my camera to the Ohio-Michigan Summer Swim League meet in Adrian this week and this was my favorite shot of the day, with my brother's youngest daughter performing the breast butterfly stroke. It's a good action shot, one that manages to freeze the action without destroying the impression of motion.

I've done a modest amount of sports photography, mostly of amateur events, and it's amazing how many shots taken at the peak of the action don't make good action shots. Just freezing an instant (in this case, about 1/1000 of a second) usually catches the athlete in an awkward-looking moment, with an arm half-cocked, or the leg one-quarter lifted, or some such thing. If you read up about action photography, they'll tell you to look for the right moment, and give you some hints as to when that's likely to occur. For example, in basketball, the peak of a jump shot is likely to be the "right" moment.

But I haven't seen anyone discuss why, during the right moment, this instant looks right and the instant before just looks clumsy, awkward, and unnatural. I don't have the answer, either, but I suspect that there's something about finding a sort of peak of the motion while avoiding the middle. For example, a tennis player's serve would look good with the ball in the air and the player preparing for the smash, or on the follow-through. But the instant just before the ball is hit would likely appear clumsy and (paradoxically) more frozen, ruining the sense of action.

In the photo above, it seems to make all the difference that the swimmer is caught with arms fully extended and not, say, three-quarters extended. Just to throw out a hypothesis, I suspect that motion is generally seen as movement from point to point (or from position to position) and we like an image that conforms to the way we see it; that is, we want to see those destination points, not the instants in between. Arms fully extended, or arms swept all the way back, look good and action-packed -- but in between is less pleasing. What happens in between is too rapid for our eyes to see properly and looks unfamiliar when it's frozen at 1/1000 of a second.* Perhaps we just prefer those ever-so-slightly-slower moments that our eye can detect in real time, that remain recognizable when they're captured in a still photograph.

One more stroke of luck in this photo's favor: good sports photos need faces and emotion in them and the splash has just the proper break to show at least some of the face, the eyes especially. Even with the swim goggles, an impression of determination and concentration comes through.

* Bearing in mind that cinema needs only 24 frames per second to give a convincing illusion of motion.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The language bobbies

The BBC lists 50 of the most hated Americanisms, as nominated by their readers. Some of them are current business jargon, such as "24/7" and "deliverables." Others have been around quite awhile. One person disparages "expiration date" and wonders what ever happened to "expiry." Truth is, that one expired on this side of the Atlantic some tim before I ever started listening to English. In general, it's the usual collection of pointless peeves that language mavens (including myself, at times) always whine about.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Google plays hardball

Last May Google lost a lawsuit to the Belgian newspaper consortium, CopiePresse, over Google News linking to their newspaper stories without permission or compensation. Today they're firing back in a big way - by blocking all search results to the newspapers in question altogether.

Google claims they're only complying with a court order. CopiePresse claims they have no objection to having their stories referenced in search results; they only object to some of the content appearing in the Google News results and that Google is deliberately obscuring the difference between search results and copying content.

That's probably true, so some extent. But I've never found that Google News provides me with much more than the headline anyway; if I'm interested in a story, I still have to click through to read more than a sentence or two. So I've never understood the absolutist position that some newspapers take on this issue. It's free advertising! Imagine if movie studios tried to claim that tv stations should pay them for showing movie trailers? No, the fiscal incentives run the other way; studios pay tv to advertise their movies. Google is trying to prove to CopiePresse that the incentives do indeed run the other way and, because they're complaining about it, CopiePresse seems to secretly agree.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A lesson in incentives

Because I have far more important things to do, I've been spending a lot of time lately on iRacing, an online auto racing simulation with some 25,000 subscribers who can run practice sessions or race other members in any of two dozen cars on four dozen different tracks (each of which has been laser-scanned for accuracy to the nearest millimeter). It is, too understate the matter, addictive.

As I usually do when I start in with a new activity or a new system, I've been busy exploring the rules and culture by reading every manual they have and exploring the forums for information on how this all works. And the most interesting thing I have found so far is iRacing's approach to encouraging safe driving.

The problem is simple: you've attracted a bunch of people who aren't professional race drivers, but would like to drive as aggressively as professional race drivers, and you want to encourage them to keep a lid on it and stay within their limits. Somehow, you have to create a system of incentives that will discourage poor driving, reward safe driving, and be self-enforcing -- with 25,000 drivers, there's no way to have an impartial judge watching every race.

To that end, the system automatically monitors "incidents" and awards "incident points" based on the severity. Going off the track is 1 point. Spinning around or making contact with another car is 2 points. Especially hard contact is awarded 4 points. Based on a weighted moving average of "incidents per corner," a safety rating (SR) is awarded and continually updated. You need to maintain an adequate SR in order to advance your license, which you need if you want to race in advanced series with faster and more powerful cars. Don't take care of your SR and you'll be stuck racing the rookie series with the clueless noobs forever.

The controversial part is this: the SR is based on a no-fault system. If you and I make contact, we both accrue incident points. It makes no difference whether I hit you, you hit me, or we were both being too aggressive ... none of that matters. We both get points and, if we accumulate too many, our SR's suffer. That pisses people off. The forums at iRacing are filled with bitter complaints from drivers who've accumulated points and can't raise their SR's high enough to get our of the Rookie class, because all those other dolts keep crashing them out of races. Why does the service tolerate all those bad drivers who are holding me back?

And more experienced, wiser drivers will reply that the system is working exactly as it's supposed to work. When the complainer posts replays of the incident, as often as not they'll point out that the driver himself was often at fault, not holding his line as well as he thought, or getting impatient and trying a high-risk passing maneuver. Most of the time, you can examine the guy's record and discover that doesn't have nearly as much control of his car as he thinks he has. Usually he has some sort of expectation that he should be able to drive the same line in traffic that he does in practice and everyone else should just get out of his way.*

More importantly, though, they'll try to impress a driver with the necessity of thinking safety first. In real life, if your race car gets crashed, you suffer the injuries and you pay for the repairs, no matter how it happened. You don't rush into a dicey situation thinking, "If there's a crash, at least it won't be my fault." You suffer the same as if it had been your fault. And that makes you more cautious. In a no-fault system -- and God himself runs a no-fault universe -- it's always your responsibility to avoid trouble. You do that by being patient, by watching to see if your opponent is driving steadily or erratically, and by taking the approach that it's more important to finish the race than it is to get to the front.

This seems to be a hard lesson for some to learn. If you're constantly getting involved incidents that don't seem to be your fault, the first step is to examine replays and see if you aren't really more at fault than you thought (often you are). But the next step is to ask yourself, "Am I putting myself in dangerous situations too often? Am I taking risks that, even if I keep it together myself, have a high chance of ending badly?" 'Cause if you are, then you're not a safe driver, regardless of whose fault the final incident turns out to be.

That's the beauty of the no-fault system: you can never avoid the consequences and so you can never shirk responsibility. If you want to advance very far in iRacing, you have to temper your aggression and learn at least a modicum** of good judgment. It's all about the incentives.*** The drivers who complain about the system would generally like to do what they do and make everyone else responsible for the outcome. The no-fault system does exactly the opposite by making it always your responsibility, no matter how bad the drivers are around you. Just like it is out on the street.

* I came across this attitude back in my undergrad days playing pickup basketball. Quite a few guys were of the opinion that once they had begun a drive to the basket, it was some sort of violation if the other team still tried to defend it. In fact, I find a lot of the same attitudes at iRacing that I did on the basketball court -- the inflated egos and sense of entitlement, the win-at-all-cost attitudes conflicting with the let's-just-have-fun approach, and the mildly inverse relationship between whining and talent.

** You don't necessarily need much more than a modicum. The SR system is pretty generous and drivers who are conscientious, but unskilled, can still do pretty well. And even the upper level series contain a pretty fair amount of trouble. But then, have you watched a NASCAR race lately?

*** When the developers put the system together, they actually considered charging small amounts of money for excessive incidents. They decided against it, probably wisely.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday photo

George Gordon Meade Memorial. Washington, D.C., March 2007

Friday photo, public softcore edition. George Meade, of course, was a Union general of the Civil War who took command of the Army of the Potomac and, in his first battle, decisively defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, crippling the Confederate army and and earning a statue of a naked woman ministering to him. If he was awarded the real thing, it has gone discretely unrecorded

According to the description on Wikipedia, that's Chivalry to Meade's left, accepting the offer of a coat she obviously needs a hell of a lot more than he does. The dude copping a feel from behind her is Progress; it's not clear whether he's progressing upwards or downwards.

It might only be my inner sixth-grader that gets so amused by this statue, but it also amuses me to see how dramatically cultural tastes and norms change from generation to generation. The 1860's were a pretty religious and typically prudish age, but even the genteel classes saw no embarrassment in adding a naked figure to a statue of a hero and putting it up in the nation's capital, for all to see. I'm guessing this is because they still admired the art and literature of Classical Greece and Rome, whose statuary features plenty of nude figures. I'm not an art historian, but I would hazard a guess that any nude in a 19th Century statue almost certainly represented one of the ancient gods or was the personification of some abstract virtue. Nudity in the 19th Century was not about sensuality; it demonstrated your good taste and your classical education.

Monday, July 11, 2011


It's hard for me to fathom, but there are still a lot of people out there - not all of them men - who dismiss women's sports as some sort inferior endeavor. Slower, weaker, less athletic, less skilled. Less deserving of attention. What nonsense. Two of the most dramatic, clutch, courageous, even heroic athletic performances I've ever seen were performed by women.

Here is one, which fifteen years later still puts a lump in my throat:

And yesterday was another that I shall never, ever, ever forget:

[UPDATE: Dammit! Video pulled because of a copyright claim by FIFA! What sort of idiots try to quash free advertising? Most sorts, it seems.]

Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday photo

Devils Tower, Wyoming. December 2004.

I consider this the most perfect photo of Wyoming that I've ever taken. Geology and culture blended seamlessly. Perhaps it would be even more perfect if the grazing animal were a cow rather than a horse, but that's a pretty close call. After all, one could hardly have run cattle without horses. Either way, this is iconic Wyoming.

And Devil's Tower, that magnificent, 867' tall, exposed igneous intrusion. That is, it was a plume of magma that forced its way into the surrounding rock before cooling some 40,000,000 years ago. That seems ancient, but geologically I suppose that counts as recent history. The rock one finds on the surface today is 200,000,000 years old, five times older than the Tower itself. The ground used to be a lot higher than it is today, but that's all gone now, softer sandstone that's been eroded away over the ages, leaving the harder, granite-like plug standing in place, with nothing left to plug but the sky.

When I first visited Devils Tower, perhaps in 1978, Close Encounters of the Third Kind had recently made the site known to the rest of the world and the Visitor Center bookshop was selling Bob Balaban's diary of the filming of the movie (Balaban played François Truffaut's interpreter and had the honor of being the only actor in the movie to utter the phrase, "close encounter"). I no longer have the book, but I recall his account of being driven to the location. Like most of us at the time, Balaban had never heard of Devils Tower and had no idea what he was going to see, just that there was some sort of Point of Interest. His account of the drive went something like this:

Balaban: "Is that it?"

Driver. "You'll know it when you see it."

Balaban: "Is that it?"

Driver. "You'll know it when you see it."

Balaban: "Is that it?"

Driver. "You'll know it when you see it."

Finally they drove around a bend in the road ... and he knew it when he saw it.

Death in Yellowstone

I missed this story a couple days ago, but a hiker was killed by a grizzly bear east of Canyon Wednesday. He and his wife had the bad luck to surprise a bear with cubs, who charged the pair and fatally mauled the man. The Park Service plans no action against the bear, since it seems to have been acting only in perceived self-defense and has no history of aggression against people.

It's only the sixth documented fatality from a grizzly bear in Park history, and the first since two killings in 1984 in 1986 (although perhaps one should also count the death that occurred just outside the arbitrary Park boundary last summer). Both of those victims were hiking alone in bear country, just as I always did. In '84, a Swiss woman died in her tent after taking all proper precautions; Pelican Valley, where she was camping, has been closed to overnight travel ever since. Two years later, a wildlife photographer was killed and devoured by a grizzly near Otter Creek, south of Canyon. His tripod held a camera with a wide-angle lens mounted on it, indicating that he probably made a choice to approach too close to the bear that killed him.1

1. Whittlesey, Lee. Death in Yellowstone, 1995.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Dying for what you believe in

My sister's friend likes to say, "Some things are tragedies; others are just too bad." It's a mean thing to smirk at a fatal accident, but when this happens:

A New York man died Sunday while participating in a ride with 550 other motorcyclists to protest the state's mandatory helmet law.

Police said Philip A. Contos, 55, hit his brakes and his motorcycle fishtailed. Contos was sent over the handlebars of his 1983 Harley Davidson and hit his head on the pavement.

He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

"The medical expert we discussed the case with who pronounced him deceased stated that he would've no doubt survived the accident had he been wearing a helmet," state Trooper Jack Keller told ABC News 9 in Syracuse.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Fast squirrel

The guys on the iRacing forum post some terrific automobile-related videos. This one has a wildlife theme as well:

Friday, July 1, 2011

Friday photo

Rainbow over Hayden Valley. Yellowstone National Park, June 1995.

Rainbows. The only cheaper subject for a nature photographer is sunsets, and that only because they happen to you more frequently. You get especially spoiled living in the mountains, because unlike the Midwest, where the clouds may cover the entire sky for hours on end, a sharp end to the storm is likely to arrive while the rain is still falling. Also, thunderstorms are especially common in late afternoon and when the cloud's edge approaches, the sun is sinking down to the optimal level for creating rainbows (a 42° angle from sun to rainbow to observer).

As far as the mythology of rainbows goes, I'm mostly familiar with the Noah story, where God promises never again to destroy the Earth with a technique that could never have worked in the first place. You can read a quick summary of some alternative mythologies at the relevant Wikipedia article. I often wonder how much anyone took these stories seriously; after all, we all still know the myth of leprechaun's gold at the end of the rainbow, although people who believe it are probably as scarce today leprechauns. Were these stories ever for the adults, or were they always meant as children's entertainment?

Still, I was a bit surprised to learn how long ago people were trying to figure out how rainbows work, from a naturalistic framework. Based only on surviving writings, we can push it back at least as far as Aristotle in the 4th century BCE. It was probably easy enough to understand that the sunlight was being reflected back from water droplets in the air, since the rainbow always appears in the opposite direction from the sun and, in fact, you don't even need rain. The spray from a waterfall will do nicely. But the Greeks were also damned good with geometry, and Aristotle used these skills to explain how logical it was that that the rainbow should have such a perfect semicircular shape. He grasped that the light had to be reflected at a particular angle back to the observer and that the entire set of points that satisfy this condition would form a circle.*

Figuring out why their are colors is pretty tricky, but sometime around 1300 the Persian astronomer Kamāl al-Dīn al-Fārisī used a large, spherical globe filled with water to model a raindrop and worked out that the ray of light is refracted twice, once as it enters the droplet and again as it leaves, having bounced off the far interior wall. He eventually concluded that the white light was somehow being decomposed into the various colors, anticipating Isaac Newton's famous prism experiments in the 1680's

Traditionally, we divide a rainbow into seven colors, but those bands don't really exist and Roy G. Biv is as fictional as Cupid. The bending of the light is seamless and the change in colors ought to appear perfectly seamless as well. But we don't see color that way. We have three types of photoreceptor cone cells in our eyes that each respond to a different wavelength and what we see is a calculation based on those three inputs. Birds, reptiles, and amphibians, on the other hand, have four or five different types of cones and almost certainly can discriminate colors far better than we can. Set your monitor to 256 colors and take off your glasses - that's probably how a bird would feel if you were to suddenly give them human vision.

* The ground cuts off the bottom half of the circle, of course, but full circle rainbows can be seen from the air. I have a cousin who flew on helicopter gunships in Vietnam and tells me that he saw one. I could really envy him the experience, if it weren't for all that war and shooting and danger business that went along with it.