The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Friday, June 30, 2006

Ach! Du Lieber!

Jan out!
Porco Dio!
Ivan out!
¡Ay Caramba!
Mancebo out!

The Tour de France, scheduled to start tomorrow, has just been blown apart by the Spanish doping scandal that disrupted the Liberty Seguros-Würth team last month. The top four riders from last year - those mentioned above, plus Lance, of course - will not be competing. In particular, Ivan Basso, who won the Giro D'Italia, was arguably the favorite, and was going for a rare double of 2 of 3 Grand Tours in one season. It's incredibly hard - Lance was never even tempted - but he looked so good in Italy, it seemed achievable. Now we know why. Meanwhile, Jan was finally supposed to have his chance without watching Lance pass him on some impossible mountain stage. But apparently his training was enhanced as well.

I'm simply stunned. I actually get to watch the first four days of the Tour live this year, and it will be weird. But potentially amazing. The field is really wide open (especially because Ivan and Jan had probably the best 2 teams - it would have really been hard for anyone else to sneak past them).

So who's left? A quick guide:

Vino. Alexandre Vinokourov, of whom I've written before, and who's great, is on the now Astana-Würth team. He's still strong, and an aggressive rider, but he may not have the team, especially since it has been decimated in the scandal.

Floyd Landis, American. Team Phonak. Strong rider, former Lance teammate. Didn't do quite as well last Tour as he was projected, but did fine. Decent team, including Axel Merckx, son of Eddy "The Cannibal," greatest rider of all time.

Levi Leipheimer, American. Team Gerolsteiner. Another ex-Postal rider, has risen in the General Classification every year, with a couple of top-10 finishes. It's not clear to me that his team is strong enough.

Yaroslav Popovych, Ukrainian, Team Discovery. Until Tom Danielson arrives, Yaro is Discovery's post-Lance hope, White Jersey winner for best young rider last year. The team is largely intact from last year, and hasn't been touched by the scandal. Of possible intrigue is the role of George Hincapie, Lance's super-lieutenant. He was never seriously considered a contender for the overall race, but after he won a tough stage last year, he - and others - are thinking about it. Watch this closely.

Andreas Klöden, German, Team T-Mobile. He was the White jersey a couple years ago, and last year T-Mobile was paralyzed by the competition for leadership among Jan, Andreas, and Vino. Well, Andreas has the team to himself now. Can he return to that amazing 2004 form?

David Zabriskie, American. Team CSC. That's Basso's team, and he's the only one who was kicked out in the scandal. So you have an extremely strong team that's been decapitated. Zabriskie held the yellow jersey for the first few days of last Tour (until a bit of a freak accident in the rain), and - who knows - could step it up. It would be a shock, but that's the nature of this year.

I'm just sorry that I never blogged the scandal when it first broke; this would make more sense as part of a continuing story. Anyway, for more intense coverage, check out the (unofficial) Tour de France blog.


Post-Gazette Defends Freedom

You wouldn't think that would be a headline, but it's become news when an American newspaper defends the First Amendment against so-called patriots.
The war on terror is being fought to preserve our freedoms, or so the American people are told. But freedom is not just a feel-good expression -- it has real meaning. In the paranoid post-9/11 era, that truth seems largely to have been forgotten.

Last week, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal had a story the Bush administration did not want published, although it is The New York Times that is now taking most of the heat. Based on information from nearly 20 anonymous current and former government officials and industry executives, The Times' story described a secret government anti-terrorist effort -- put in place weeks after 9/11 -- to tap "financial records from a vast international database."


None of this is particularly surprising -- it would be more surprising if the government did not follow the money trail to catch terrorists. Clearly, however, this program is occurring in a questionable area of legal and privacy concerns and these are exaggerated because the program's scope is huge.

Given that the Bush administration has shown scant respect for the law, both in domestic surveillance and in confining terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay in defiance of the Geneva Conventions, this is an important news story that should be of interest to every American who cares about how the government behaves.

Yet because it revealed classified information, the administration and its supporters see this story as something akin to treason. This is consistent with their view that the war on terror should pre-empt all debate and the messenger must always be blamed when the American people are told about dubious policies. On Monday, President Bush said, "The disclosure of this program is disgraceful" and added that the disclosure of the program "makes it harder to win this war on terror."

That offends common sense.

[emphasis added]
So three cheers for a frank defense of the freedoms that actually keep us free.

Read the whole thing.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

War Criminals.

It's official. To quote Marty Lederman at SCOTUSblog,
More importantly, the Court held that Common Article 3 of Geneva aplies as a matter of treaty obligation to the conflict against Al Qaeda. That is the HUGE part of today's ruling. The commissions are the least of it. This basically resolves the debate about interrogation techniques, because Common Article 3 provides that detained persons "shall in all circumstances be treated humanely," and that "[t]o this end," certain specified acts "are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever"—including "cruel treatment and torture," and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment." This standard, not limited to the restrictions of the due process clause, is much more restrictive than even the McCain Amendment. See my further discussion here.

This almost certainly means that the CIA's interrogation regime is unlawful, and indeed, that many techniques the Administation has been using, such as waterboarding and hypothermia (and others) violate the War Crimes Act (because violations of Common Article 3 are deemed war crimes).
OK, so the Supreme Court has declared everyone responsible for these acts, from PFC up to CIC, potential war criminals. When do the impeachment hearings begin?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Architecture and Autos

This image of a Speedster with a Case Study house - from a semi-interesting Times article about people with famous houses in LA dealing with tourists/architecture buffs (some houses are architecftural landmarks, some are famous from movies, some are both) - reminds me of something I noticed as a student. A very high percentage of the photos published in Sergeant's book on FL Wright's Usonian houses featured a VW bug in the carport. Which struck me as very fitting - just as the Beetle had extraordinarily high design quality for the Peoples' Car, so were Wright's Usonians intended as extraordinary architecture for, if not the masses, at least the middle class (a disproportionate number were owned by youngish professors, who may be an elite danger to the state, but are not very well paid).

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Hard out here for a farmer

The things you can get sued for these days:

Farm owner charged with failing to provide boar hunts

Who knew that farmers were even required to provide boar hunts?

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Fafblog is back.

Real World Opinons

Turns out that it's possible to get your opinion read by strangers even without having a blog. How strange.

My letter to the Post-Gazette about an article on the increasing support for municipal consolidation [Caution: may contain revealing personal information].

I'd like to write more about this at some point, but for now I'll just give you this to chew on: Allegheny County - a medium-sized county with Pittsburgh as its seat - has 130 separate municipalities for a population of about 1 million ( a third of whom are in the City - so that's 129 munis for 670,000 people, or about 5,000 per mayor). Now that's efficient. Or at least a really good way of dividing and conquering if you're a robber baron.

Well, at least I'm not nuts.

But Bernanke very well may be.

I asked Prof. DeLong about the issue raised in my earlier post, and he kindly responded:
Yep, I don't understand it, but Ben Bernanke feels like he has to talk like an inflation hawk...

I might add that, on Marketplace the other day, whoever was talking to Kai Ryssdal suggested that the Fed may simply be uninformed about the actual state of the economy. Refreshing thought, no?

Monday, June 05, 2006

Is Bernanke Insane?

The situation down at the Fed is starting to remind me - in an unfavorable comparison - of Greenspan's greatest achievement. His willingness to drop interest rates in the mid-90s, thus getting literally millions off the unemployment rolls. Basically, standard economics post-1979 said that the natural rate of unemployment was around 6%, and that below that inflation was sure to skyrocket. Bravely, Greenspan recognized that various factors - probably most importantly the dawn of the high-productivity era - had changed the equation, and he set aside his mortal fear of inflation and let rates drop.

Now, ten years later, Bernanke has forgotten this, and in an economy where inflation is low and wage growth is lower, he wants to keep raising interest rates. Why? Because there are hints - mere hints! - that inflation may be rising. In an economy nowhere near full employment. In an economy where real wage growth - the driver of inflation for all goods not dependent on nature (crops) or international relations (oil) - is negative for most people. To fend of inflation - which is good for debtors, meaning the vast majority of Americans, and bad for creditors, meaning banks and credit card companies - he's willing to make a move that will lower already-poor wage growth, increase unemployment, and increase housing expenses for just about everyone who pays a mortgage, or would like to. It's hard to see this as anything but irrational fear (of inflation) combining with class politics of the worst sort.

We were told that Bernanke was an excellent choice for the Fed. Time will tell. But I'm worried.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Car Talk

I had no intention of writing a post at midnight on a Friday, but just before going to bed, I checked the Times one last time, and came across a What's Wrong With GM article hung on the hook of the Impala. Basically your standard "50 years ago, GM sold half the cars in America, now it's a pathetic 25%" story, describing how, even though the current Impala is a good car, it doesn't matter, because the Camnry and Accord are better.

Fine. I wouldn't own or even drive any of them, so I have no dog in this fight. But I'm a designer, and I simply cannot allow this to stand:
On the outside, Impala looks conservative — a criticism that used to be leveled at Camry before its latest redesign, which created a curvy car with a light, nimble feel.

Unlike Toyota, which was aiming this time out for a more eye-catching car, Chevrolet deliberately tried not to make a style statement with Impala, Mr. Clawson said.

"We weren't looking for a vehicle that would turn heads, but we weren't looking for one that would turn heads away either," Mr. Clawson said. "We were looking for a balance," a car that was "nicely styled but not ostentatious."

That approach, Mr. Moody of said, seemed reasonable given the relatively bland appearance of the previous Camry and Accord models. But it now seems unwise given what Toyota has done with the latest Camry, which "so far exceeds the previous car that it almost seems like it's not a Camry," he said, but rather a Lexus luxury car. The Accord, already more eye-catching, gets another face-lift this fall.
Just yesterday I was discussing the Camry with a colleague, and I had almost the same response. Well, similar, anyway:
The good news is that it's the best-looking Camry ever. The bad news is that that's like having your best STD ever.
These guys' cluelessness is neatly embodied in their citing Lexus as some sort of design leader. That would be the brand whose flagship has only just now, 15 years after its debut, stopped looking like a poorly-rendered copy of a 1986 Mercedes. My favorite example of the plug-ignorance of car writers talking about aesthetics - in particular regarding Lexus - is the obsequious praise they slathered on the SC400 when it came out (setting aside for now that they refused to criticise the identical sheet metal on the SC300, a cross-price level sin that they normally decry in full throat). These guys, who probably couldn't tell Monticello from a McMansion, couldn't say enough good things about the SC400 - 'looks like a bullet,' 'screams fast!' and a lot more nonsense. Basically, the second coming of the 911.

I haven't posted a picture of the SC400 as evidence of my point - 10 years later, do you even recall this car? It was another milestone in Toyota's seemingly endless quest to create an invisible car. I saw one a few months ago and marvelled at how poorly it had aged: kind of bulbous, kind of bloated, and utterly characterless. Which brings us back to the Camry. As late as 1992, the Camry still looked like the boxy, utterly unattractive kind of thing that justified so much of Middle America's distaste for Japanese cars (obviously, economic insecurity, jingoism, and xenophobia did the heavy lifting). The great quantum leap in design at the time was to make a bulbous, dull car that somehow looked about 15% bigger than it actually was. Five years later, someone finally noticed that the "fat car" look hadn't really taken off, so they gave it a tail- and facelift, incongruously tacking on some corners.

So yes, compared to this, the newest Camry is good looking. In other words, it is no longer the ugliest car you can drop $25 grand on (you may hate the Chrysler 300, but it's ugly like retro fashion, not like a grandmother in appliqued track suit). It's not clear to me what the writer means by "light, nimble feel" - that hardly seems like a visual comment, but that's the only logical meaning in the context. So I'll say that the curves are pleasing, some of the detailing nice, and the overall effect is still of a big honking hunk of metal. Most significantly, it grows in three dimensions - front or rear view, it's reasonably crisp, but as soon as you get that 3/4 view, it starts to look... bloated. Again.

But hey, 400,000 Camry fans can't be wrong, right? So therefore, we must praise its appearance. The Impala, I'll readily admit, is nothing special, but its lines are clean, the profile is sleek, and it actually works in three dimensions. I'll be surprised if, 20 years hence, anyone recalls either car's aesthetics fondly, but I'll be truly shocked if this Camry survives the test of time.

Friday Random Ten

OK, not 100% random: I thought to do this, for the first time in months, because I love the first tune so much. Is there anything sweeter than a love song from a father to his daughter?

Memphis - Chuck Berry
field of diamonds - Johnny Cash, American III Solitary Man
I Don't Live Today - The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?
Courtney - The Clarks, ClarksLive
Within You Without You - The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Wish (Komm Zu Mir) - Franka Potente & Thomas D, Run Lola Run
Wonderful Life - Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, Nocturama
Nothing @ All - Jethro Tull, J-Tull Dot Com
Sometimes - Daniel Lanois, Shine
Hey Bo Diddley - Bo Diddley