Saturday, December 27, 2008

Stormy Nights in Hawai'i

Most people believe the weather in Hawai'i is perfect all the time. That's an urban legend. In fact, it's only perfect about 340 days a year.

We do get occasional storm fronts and "cold fronts". I put "cold fronts" in quotes because our cold fronts aren't very cold, but they usually bring rain.

We've had almost-monsoon conditions for the last two or 3 days. Here on Maui, roads were washed out and the runway lights at Kahului Airport went out for an entire evening, stranding several thousand tourists for the night. I'm sure any airport in the other 49 States would have failed over to Emergency Power in an instant, but Hawai'i has infrastructure only slightly more advanced than, say, Haiti. On O'ahu, extremely rare lightning strikes brought down the power grid for the entire island. Initially, there was more-than-usual concern about this, because President-Elect Obama is vacationing on O'ahu's North Shore. I'm sure the Secret Service were shitting bricks, but everyone else calmed down about it when Obama himself - in his characteristic laid-back style - yawned about it and said (paraphrasing) "well, I guess I'll hit the hay a few hours early tonight. See ya.".

Over on The Big Island, there was a major blizzard on the summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea yesterday, each of which are slightly above 14,000 feet. Blizzards in the winter are common over there, but somehow the juxtaposition of a blizzard within sight of people surfing and walking barefoot on the nearby beach is just too exotic for many people to grasp.

The above photo is of the Gemini Dome, the observatory on top of Mauna Kea, this morning.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Update on RacerMom's Daughter

The daughter of RacerMom (mentioned in an earlier post) finished in the top 5 in one of the Europa Cup races in St Moritz last weekend, the top US finisher.

You go, girl.

It's great when somebody with whom you've got a personal connection does well, but above all, you just don't want them to wind up in the medivac chopper.

Riding with Andy Hampsten

I had the unexpected pleasure yesterday of meeting, and riding with, cycling legend Andy Hampsten, the only American winner of the Giro d'Italia.

What a cool guy, a smart guy, a good conversationalist, and a fabulous ambassador for the sport of cycling.

These days Hampsten splits his time between Tuscany and Colorado. In Tuscany he puts on cycling camps for wanna-bes like me, taking them riding through the hills of wine country.

Yesterday Go Cycling Maui held its annual Christmas ride, a local fun ride/race which usually attracts about 80 cyclists and usually morphs from a “ride” into a “race” amongst the fastest guys. It's a pretty tough ride (about 2 ½ hours with almost 3000 feet vertical) so everyone who participates is a pretty serious rider. Ryder Hesjedahl, who currently rides for the Garmin-Chipotle team and rode in both the Tour de France and the Olympics last year, rode too. Donnie Arnoult, the owner of Go Cycling Maui, made a point of introducing me to Hampsten before we started as a guy who “works behind the scenes at some of the biggest sporting events in the world, including the Tour of California”. Andy seemed interested, and we had a nice chat.

About halfway through the ride, on the way out to Kahikinui, I teamed up with a couple of guys into a pace line and we caught a group of about 5 riders about a half-mile in front of us. Cycling is all about strength in numbers. When we sucked onto the back of that group, there on the front was Hampsten, just cruising along, taking pulls in what I would guess is 2nd gear for a rider of his class. Riding in a pace line with Andy Hampsten. Ah, just another day out on the roads. How inspiring. There was a car filming the action and another taking photos, so perhaps I'll wind up with a photo of me on the front next to Hampsten at some point. Hope the photo doesn't show my belly hanging out.

In Lake Louise I got some in pretty good workouts on my AT skis and skins, but that was in -20C. Most of yesterday's ride took place in drizzly, cool conditions, so I felt pretty good despite zero time on my bike in the last month. However, Maui is known for microclimates, the weather can change from rain forest to desert in a mile. When we got out to the turnaround at MM 24, the weather had cleared, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, the temperature was > 90, and the humidity was palpable. My brains started to bake, and I drifted off the back of the group. Halfway back to Ulupalakua, I knew I was in trouble. 6 or 7 miles to go, all of it uphill, and I was cramping badly, I was out of water, and although I had Endurolytes with me (amazingly effective anti-cramp pills), my mouth was too dry to try to ingest any. Like a mirage, my friend Dan, who's a pretty good rider but was driving sag (maybe he's hurt), pulled up next to me in the sag wagon and yelled “hey, you look like you could use some water!”. If my lips weren't so dry, I'd have pulled over and kissed the man. He handed me two bottles through the window. I downed one whole bottle straight away along with about 10 Endurolytes. In two minutes, the cramps were gone. I limped back to Ulupalakua without seizing up, then sat down and drank 5 bottles of water in a row.

When I got back home to Kula, it was 55 degrees and raining. Where was THAT weather when I needed it? I felt sick and faint for the rest of the day, but hey, I got to ride with Andy Hampsten.

Due to my line of work, I've met a lot of sports legends in my time. Connors, Lendl, Edberg, Evert, Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Bode Miller, Hermann Maier, Dale Earnhardt, Lance Armstrong, Rod Laver, Toni Sailer, Sinjin Smith, Mats Wilander, Sampras, McEnroe, Billy Cunningham, Ken Rosewall, Steffi Graf, Gabriela Sabatini, Vijay Singh, Patrick Rafter, Boris Becker (to name a few). I would have to say, based on anecdotal evidence, that sports legends are no more and no less douche-y than the general public. I would also say their social grace seems to grow as they get further and further into retirement. Some of the above, like Edberg and Ashe and Laver, were true gentlemen at the zenith of their careers, which is difficult, because at that stage everyone wants a piece of them, everybody wants to be their best friend.

I didn't know Hampsten when he was a star, but in retirement he seems like a truly cool fellow, and it totally made my week to have had the chance to chat him up and take a few pulls on the front with him.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Riding the Brewster Bus with RacerMom

I had a depressing conversation earlier this week with the mother of a member of the US Ski Team. I was riding the Brewster Bus from Chateau Lake Louise to Calgary Airport, and the 50-something lady in the seat in front of me struck up a conversation. Turns out her daughter is an up-and-coming World Cup racer.

I explained my “part in the school play” of World Cup, and she was fascinated. She mostly understood what I was talking about, which is unusual, but she'd seen the end-product of what I do for a living, so it was pretty clear to her. She told me her daughter (who did quite well in the Lake Louise races) broke her leg last year, and the US Ski Team wouldn't pay her medical expenses. She had the leg reduced at the world renowned Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Vail, and the operation & rehab cost $200,000. This woman was not wealthy, by any means. I mean, hell, she was riding on a bus. With me. Mr Successful Entrepreneur. I told her I was only riding the bus because my Gulfstream G550 was in the shop. She laughed. She's of modest means, and LL was the first World Cup she'd ever seen in person.

She said she fortunately maintains a health insurance policy on her daughter, and the insurance picked up most of the costs of the daughter's operation and rehab. The money hurt, the insurance premiums continue to hurt, but seeing her daughter finally back slugging it out in World Cup dulled the pain somewhat. I was stoked for her, she got to watch her daughter race World Cup in the flesh, and her daughter did pretty well. Fortunately the daughter didn't wind up in the nets. Ski racing can be brutal, even more so because the rewards are so meager. I mean, even stars like Bode Miller and Benni Raich only earn in a great season what Roger Federer or Phil Mickelson or Kobe Bryant earn in a decent week. And Mickelson won''t be walking with a limp when he's 50. At least not from playing golf.

This year was the first Lake Louise mens/womens back-to-back World Cup I can remember where no racers left the course in the medivac chopper. Touch wood.

I have never met RacerMom's daughter, but I recognized her name of course. The mom is a real sweetheart. Smart, too. I won't reveal her name here, as this blog has been getting quite popular, and I'm starting to get some fairly substantial blowback from people offended by my enraged frothing rants. As cathartic as my rages here have proved to be, I'm going to stop naming names where possible from this point forward, because there are evidently douchebags lurking in these woods, in addition to friends and colleagues. You know who you are, motherfuckers. Go away.

But anyhow, my conversation with RacerMom made me wonder. I bet none of the other top teams make their athletes pay their own medical expenses. I bet Didier Cuche and Aksel Lund Svindal and Renate Götschl and Eric Guay don't pay a dime to get the best medical care available in their respective countries. I will research this and report back at a later date.

What RacerMom told me jived with a conversation I had in Maui on a bike ride with a male US Ski Team downhiller last year, who said the US Team refused to get him the therapy he needed to recover from a major injury, so he had to go to his parents to fund the medical care he needed to get back on the World Cup Tour. This downhiller wasn't exactly rich either, nor are his parents. He's from a working class family. He's a really great kid, and he's back and he's winning, so all I can say is any success he has couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

The US Ski Team. Sigh. Another thing - in addition to Homeland Security and TSA - to make me ashamed to be an American.

Homeland Security?

For starters, the name "Department of Homeland Security" is unbelievably lame. Sounds like an obscure "dirty tricks" bureau headquartered deep inside the Reichstag in 1941. Only a numbskull like George Bush could come up with such a dumb name.

But what really irks me about the DHS is that they suck. Let's not even talk about the Katrina fiasco. Don't get me started on Michael Chertoff. Do you want to know who's winning Bush's "War on Terror"? Here's a suggestion. Go to any departures terminal at LAX, JFK, or any major US airport at 8:00 on a Tuesday morning, and stand there & watch for a few minutes. Highly-trained TSA technicians pawing through the medications of semi-ambulatory octogenarians. Lawyers in $2500 Hugo Boss suits walking on filthy floors in their socks. Hundreds, if not thousands of people angry, bored, delayed & demeaned. Ocassionally desperate. The airline business in shambles.

We're not winning. I don't think the DHS even has the correct objective identified. I personally think the Bush Administration and DHS have done more to destroy our quality of life than any rag-tag group of terrorist diaperheads could ever do directly, and chaos is their objective, so they are winning. Look at our airports, look at our economy, look at our job market, look at our 401(k)s. The progress that has been made, has been made on a grass-roots level, American by American. I think the American people are sucking it up and "hardening the fuck up", in the words of the Australian comic known as "Chopper". For example, I predict it will be a long time before another successful hijacking of an American airliner, because anybody attempting such a thing is going to get his ass kicked by some truly pissed-off passengers, regardless of the techniques and weapons used by the hijacker. The passengers will tear the guy apart, limb from limb.

In a country where guys like Larry Page and Steven Jobs literally change the way we live almost overnight through their sheer brilliance (although I still don't like Apple products, for the most part), we wait in line for an hour, we take our laptops out of their cases, we remove our shoes, put our toothpaste in a plastic baggie . . . . . . . and we are rejected by the 1975-era scanner because our belt buckle is made from steel.

Of course, Page has his own 767 and Jobs has a G5 which the Apple Board of Directors GAVE him, unsolicited (along with enough money to pay the taxes on the gift), so I don't think those two guys are going to devoting much mental energy to airport security-related solutions. But this is America, we could solve this problem if our government really gave a shit.

One thing that makes me optimistic about Barack Obama is that only a year ago, he was flying commercial, in coach. He's been there, waiting in line, looking at his wristwatch, walking around in his socks, wondering if he'd make it home that night to see Sasha and Malia. I'm sure he remembers. I'm sure he knows how fucked up our Department of Homeland Security is. In 40 days it's his problem. Maybe he'll fix it.

If you're wondering what sparked this diatribe, it's two things.

(1) I showed up at Calgary Airport on Tuesday at 5AM for a 7AM flight. US Customs wasn't even open yet. I trudged over toward Customs and got in line. I stood there sweating in the overheated terminal bldg, muttering to myself. 5 AM and I was already having a shitty day. By 5:30, Customs still wasn't open, and I overheard two American Airlines AAgents talking in hushed tones about some sort of technical breakdown. At about 5:40, the line started to move. Barely. A DHS agent came out and announced that DHS's computers were down, and every Canadian Airport was on "manual Customs procedures for departures". I guess that's not good, because it took me almost 90 minutes to clear Customs, and I was one of the first hundred or so people in line.

It had nothing to do with Canada or with Canadians. It was 100% the fault of US DHS.

(2) After I got home, I got a note from my colleague Jim. The previous day, he'd been in the same line with a female member of the US Ski Team. She'd fractured her arm at the World Cup races in Lake Louise. She was in pain and couldn't push her baggage cart very well. She left the cart on the other side of the ropes while she proceeded through the long maze, giving it a shove along every time she proceeded through two turns in the maze. It was never out of her sight, but was mostly out of her reach. When she got up to the Customs booth, the asshat Customs Officer made her open and empty all seven of her bags because she had "left them unattended".


To their credit, TSA now has a blog.

I'm sure most of the entries left on there by the public fall somewhere between furious rants and blind rage. I myself, uncharacteristically :=) have dropped several furious rants on them, although I'm sure you have trouble believing an easy-going guy like me could be so undiplomatic. No doubt my ragings weren't the worst of what was left that day.

Give it a try yourself. Venting is theraputic.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Sweet Redemption, with a Dash of Revenge

Yesterday's womens DH was, in a word, sweet redemption. My colleagues Peter and Tobias slightly reworked the RADAR graphic to make it a bit smaller and a bit easier to read at a glance, and it looks cooler than ever. The DATA from both RADARs was great. RADAR 2, at the course section known as Gun Barrel, has been close to perfect for two weeks. OTOH, RADAR 1 (at Tickety Chutes), has been spotty. My colleague Mike, who is the most technical guy (with the possible exception of myself) on the TIMING crew and is a genuine factory-certified conehead (for me, a designation which denotes true respect), has tinkered tirelessly with the placement and aiming of RADAR 1 for two weeks and he finally found the sweet spot.

The TV show looked great. We were all stoked.

The weather sucked, and the start had to be moved down a few hundred meters to the "bad weather start", which doesn't really mean much except my other colleague Brian had to work his ass off to move all the start dreck and re-wire all of our gadgets a half-hour before the start. In the "old days", when I was starter for TAG Heuer, I kinda liked those bad weather days, because I could haul all the crap down myself (I was young and strong) and I'd re-wire everything myself, it gave me a chance to be the hero for a day. When you're starter, it's pretty rare to get a chance to be a hero. It's one of those jobs you can screw up fairly easily, but it doesn't offer many opportunities to excel. It's mostly routine, but it's kinda fun because you're on TV a lot, and you get to hang out with the racers. One time in Beaver Creek I was a hero when a forerunner literally sheared off the internal start gate mechanism two minutes before first racer. The gate looked fine, but it didn't give a start impulse and it felt funny to me as I snapped it shut. I was able to diagnose the problem immediately and since I was a pack mule, I had a spare in my backpack, which wasn't always the case in those days. Most of the other starters didn't carry a spare because they're heavy, bulky, and almost never fail. The wands occasionally shatter so you always carry spare wands, but a mechanical failure happens maybe once a decade. I grabbed the spare and got to work. When TV went on the air, rather than showing the first racer staged in the gate, they showed my ass as I knelt in the start, working furiously on setting up the replacement start gate. Quick mechanical replacement, quick re-wiring, quick re-test, the first racer was one minute late in starting, but other than that minor hiccup, the race that day went smoothly. If I hadn't noticed the squishy feel of the start gate mechanism when I snapped the gate closed after the final forerunner, the first racer would have left on time but we wouldn't have gotten a start impulse for him, so we'd have been forced to go to backup "hand timing" for the first racer and the race would have had to have been stopped while I replaced the gate on live TV. That would have been pretty bad. If I hadn't had a spare gate mechanism, the race would have been delayed for at least 15 minutes while a replacement gate was brought up to the start by snowmobile, which would have been a REALLY bad and embarrassing thing for TAG Heuer and for the entire crew.

Anyway, back to the RADAR. I heard a few of the team coaches expressed doubts about the RADAR's accuracy in the team meeting last night, which is predictable because ski racing is a sport which abhors change, even if said change is for the better. I wish I'd been allowed to answer their questions in the meeting, because I'd have made an excellent expert witness. I know a lot about RADAR, but I'd have made no technical arguments, I'd have spoken two and only two sentences. To paraphrase my colleague Doug DeAngelis, I'd have said this:

"Properly calibrated and operated RADAR readings from these very devices is admissible as prima facie evidence in a court of law. Any further questions?".

TV loves the RADAR, the fans love it, it's easier to set up than photocells, it enables us to measure speed at points of the course too dangerous for photocells. Decades of legal precedent have established that RADAR is indisputible except for cases of mistaken identity (RADAR clocks the wrong object) or mis-calibration. The former is impossible in this case, as due to safety reasons, the racers are alone on the course. The latter is very easily verifiable with a tuning fork, a procedure which we perform on a regular basis. The crime lab-certified homologation certificates for all our RADARs are in the filing cabinet in my office.

The screenshots above are the Kitzbühel-spec real-time RADAR graphics we used for the mens races.

The following are screenshots of the slightly smaller, Corvette Stingray-style RADAR graphic we used yesterday for womens DH #1: