Tag Archives: new york times

Berkeley Cycling: Going to a Dangerous Place

[Update: ‘A Dangerous Place, Part II’]

The week before last, a cyclist was killed descending South Park Drive in the Berkeley Hills. News reports say the rider, Kim Flint, crossed the center line and hit the side of an uphill-bound vehicle. He was airlifted to a hospital in Walnut Creek, where he died.

Here’s the twist to the tragedy, as reported in a subsequent story carried on The Bay Citizen and in the Bay Area pages of The New York Times: Flint may have been attempting to set a speed record on the descent to maintain his first-place ranking on a site called Strava.com. Strava, like other sites, allows riders to upload data about their cycling performance and create publicly viewable online training and ride logs. Unlike other sites (that I know of), it keeps records of times for defined road segments. Until shortly after Flint’s death, there was a “King of the Mountain” ranking listed for South Park downhills.

What I find interesting about the Bay Citizen/Times article is the series of leaps it makes to more or less attribute Flint’s death to his activity on Strava. I say “interesting” because it’s from the same reporter who put together a complete, well-reasoned, and sensitive piece for the local news blog Berkeleyside then produced this second story that suggests Strava was an “obsession” for Flint, who recorded the fastest Strava time down South Park in early June. “But on June 15,” the second story says, “another rider bested his time by four seconds, prompting Mr. Flint to ride that stretch again four days later.” There’s no support in the story–statements from Flint or from his fellow riders–for the notion that Flint was “obsessed” with Strava or that his fatal ride on June 19 was driven by a hunger to reclaim his Strava record. In fact, based on the evidence available on Strava, there’s little to suggest that Flint or anyone else is particularly obsessed with the South Park descent. The site lists 71 total descents of the segment since the fall of 2007, with 34 of those this year. Flint is listed twice–once last August, and once during his “record” run in early June–before the ride on which he crashed. Just one quote from another cyclist about what sort of rider Flint was, how he handled himself on the road or on this hill, would be persuasive in helping us understand his “obsession.” The second story offers nothing; the first story includes a long quote from a friend and fellow rider who emphasized Flint was not a reckless type.

But the real point here isn’t whether someone’s sensationalizing a story by suggesting that a speed-crazed cyclist may have been driven to his death by a website that encourages dangerous behavior. No, it’s this: Cycling can be dangerous, and never is the danger more present (though perhaps not obvious) than during a steep descent. Strava or no Strava, the ride down South Park Drive demands skill and attention. Many riders, including me, have hit 50 mph on their way down. When I read that someone had been killed up there, I could imagine two or three places that could happen, including the spot where the accident occurred. All it takes is carrying a little bit too much speed into a corner, finding something in the road you weren’t expecting–some gravel or an animal, say–or a moment’s distraction, and you can be in trouble fast.

That having been said, the focus on Strava is misguided. The virtual competition encouraged by the site is simply another version of what happens whenever groups of fast, fit, competitive cyclists get together. They’ll often ride aggressively–on the climbs, on the flats, in sprints, and yes, on descents, too. Why? Bottom line, it’s challenging and fun. I remember seeing a couple of longboard skateboarders on Grizzly Peak, getting ready to go down Claremont. I followed on my bike to see how fast they’d go. I can’t really tell you, though, because my top speed, in the high 40s, wasn’t fast enough to keep them in sight. I did see the guys at the bottom. They were getting a ride back to the top to do it again. They were were doing something that was very hazardous and required a high degree of courage and ability, and they were having a blast.

None of which is to discount the tragedy of Mr. Flint’s death. Most of us who have ridden the roads hereabouts take an incident like this to heart. We can all too easily remember at least once when, whether through our own error or another’s, we’ve narrowly avoided serious injury or worse. Point is, it’s really the nature of the activity itself and the sum of all our habits, skills, and even emotions that lead us to this dangerous place, not the inducements of a Death Race website. That being the case, it’s important to ride with some discipline–this coming from someone who got stopped by the UC police for rolling through a stoplight on Friday night–and with a commitment to being safe.

8 Comments

Filed under Berkeley, Cycling

Safire’s Rules for Writers

From Robert D. McFadden’s obituary on William Safire, the Nixon-Agnew speechwriter, conservative columnist, and usage maven:

“… And there were Safire ‘rules for writers’: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid cliches like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!”

Did I like the guy’s politics? No–not that it matters. But you have to love a guy so precisely but unfussily focused on the language and how we use it.

[Update: In his “On Language” column for October 7, 1979, Safire included a query to his readers:

“I am compiling “Ten Perverse Rules of English Grammar.” Thanks to Philip Henderson of Lawrence, Kan., I have three. They are: (1) Remember to never split an infinitive. (2) A preposition is something never to end a sentence with. (3) The passive voice should never be used.

“Any others along these lines?”

Four weeks later, Safire published, “The Fumblerules of Grammar,” which contained the first three dicta and 33 more (ending with “last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.”) Here’s the complete set of 36 rules (along with some research disclosing that another writer published a similar list earlier in 1979). In 1990, Safire reprinted the list (and added 18 more “rules”) in “Fumblerules: A Lighthearted Guide to Grammar and Good Usage.”]

1 Comment

Filed under Current Affairs

‘Moderately Severe Antisocial Ideas’

From The New York Times on Sunday: “The Disability Board that Couldn’t Say No

The story profiles the federal Railroad Retirement Board and notes that last year, it paid 49 out of 50 disability claims, apparently with very few questions asked. Until the late ’90s, the board’s medical standards employed “archaic diagnostic terms like ‘cretinism,’ ‘imbecility’ and ‘middle-class moronism.’ ” And, the story says, “simply having a repugnant’ scar could qualify someone as disabled.”

And also: “Railroad officials complained that disability benefits were given for medical conditions regardless of whether they actually impaired one’s ability to work. The conditions themselves were often vague. A worker, for example, could be considered disabled with ‘moderately severe antisocial ideas.’ What constituted an antisocial idea was open to interpretation.”

I wonder how they determined the severity of an antisocial idea.

2 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs

The Times Endorses …

a guy from Illinois. You were expecting what? A surprise?

The Gray Lady’s endorsement editorial begins:

“Hyperbole is the currency of presidential campaigns, but this year the nation’s future truly hangs in the balance.

“The United States is battered and drifting after eight years of President Bush’s failed leadership. He is saddling his successor with two wars, a scarred global image and a government systematically stripped of its ability to protect and help its citizens — whether they are fleeing a hurricane’s floodwaters, searching for affordable health care or struggling to hold on to their homes, jobs, savings and pensions in the midst of a financial crisis that was foretold and preventable.”

It’s amazing the nation produced anyone who wants the job.

Online, the Times offers an entertaining adjunct to its Obama endorsement: A gallery of all the endorsements it has made since 1860, when it backed another Illinoisan (the taller of the pair in the race that year). The gallery bravely includes some of the reasoning that went into the endorsements. The rationales range from wildly misplaced hopes to something that approaches prescience.

In the first category, here’s how the Times led off its argument for the re-election of U.S. Grant (over Democrat Horace Greeley) in 1872:

“Greeley’s election would mean the unsettling of business all over the country.–Gen. Grant’s would instantly lead to the recovery of trade from the excitement of a Presidential election, and insure the continued prosperity of the entire Union.”

How did Grant’s era of prosperity pan out? See Panic of 1873.

And then there’s the second category, when the editorialists seemed to be pretty well tuned in to the choice of candidates and their potential impact on the future. Here’s part of what they said to back their endorsement of the eventual popular-vote winner in 2000:

“This is … the first presidential campaign in recent history centered on an argument over how best to use real, bird-in-the-hand resources to address age-old domestic problems while also defining the United States’ role in a world evermore dependent on it for farsighted international leadership. …”

“…Mr. Bush’s entire economic program is built on a stunning combination of social inequity and flawed economic theory. He would spend more than half the $2.2 trillion non-Social Security surplus on a tax cut at a time when the economy does not need that stimulus. Moreover … more than 40 percent of the money would go to the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers. … There is nothing compassionate or conservative about blowing the surplus on windfalls for the wealthy instead of investing it in fair tax relief and well-designed social programs.”

It’s worth going back and reading the rest of that one to revisit the days when Bush could be characterized outside a comedy sketch as “the most moderate Republican nominee in a generation.”

Technorati Tags: , , ,

1 Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, History

The Times Endorses …

a guy from Illinois. You were expecting what? A surprise?

The Gray Lady’s endorsement editorial begins:

“Hyperbole is the currency of presidential campaigns, but this year the nation’s future truly hangs in the balance.

“The United States is battered and drifting after eight years of President Bush’s failed leadership. He is saddling his successor with two wars, a scarred global image and a government systematically stripped of its ability to protect and help its citizens — whether they are fleeing a hurricane’s floodwaters, searching for affordable health care or struggling to hold on to their homes, jobs, savings and pensions in the midst of a financial crisis that was foretold and preventable.”

It’s amazing the nation produced anyone who wants the job.

Online, the Times offers an entertaining adjunct to its Obama endorsement: A gallery of all the endorsements it has made since 1860, when it backed another Illinoisan (the taller of the pair in the race that year). The gallery bravely includes some of the reasoning that went into the endorsements. The rationales range from wildly misplaced hopes to something that approaches prescience.

In the first category, here’s how the Times led off its argument for the re-election of U.S. Grant (over Democrat Horace Greeley) in 1872:

“Greeley’s election would mean the unsettling of business all over the country.–Gen. Grant’s would instantly lead to the recovery of trade from the excitement of a Presidential election, and insure the continued prosperity of the entire Union.”

How did Grant’s era of prosperity pan out? See Panic of 1873.

And then there’s the second category, when the editorialists seemed to be pretty well tuned in to the choice of candidates and their potential impact on the future. Here’s part of what they said to back their endorsement of the eventual popular-vote winner in 2000:

“This is … the first presidential campaign in recent history centered on an argument over how best to use real, bird-in-the-hand resources to address age-old domestic problems while also defining the United States’ role in a world evermore dependent on it for farsighted international leadership. …”

“…Mr. Bush’s entire economic program is built on a stunning combination of social inequity and flawed economic theory. He would spend more than half the $2.2 trillion non-Social Security surplus on a tax cut at a time when the economy does not need that stimulus. Moreover … more than 40 percent of the money would go to the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers. … There is nothing compassionate or conservative about blowing the surplus on windfalls for the wealthy instead of investing it in fair tax relief and well-designed social programs.”

It’s worth going back and reading the rest of that one to revisit the days when Bush could be characterized outside a comedy sketch as “the most moderate Republican nominee in a generation.”

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Leave a Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, History

‘You Don’t Need to Know’

A nice entry on The New York Times Olympics blog on the hair’s-breadth finish in the men’s 100-meter butterfly that gave U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps his seventh gold medal in Beijing. The Times and its sister publication, the International Herald Tribune, tried to get underwater footage from the official timekeeper, Omega, that reportedly gave a clear view of the finish. At first Omega said the footage would be distributed. Then FINA, the body that oversees competitive swimming, said the news media would not be allowed to view the pictures. The explanation, as related by the Times, is a pretty good working definition of arrogance:

“[FINA’S Cornel] Marculescu said it was a matter of policy, and that the Serbian team [whose swimmer finished second] was satisfied with the ruling after seeing the images — so there is no need to share the images.

“[Asked] why FINA wouldn’t distribute the footage if it showed the margin conclusively. Marculescu said: “We are not going to distribute footage. We are not doing these kinds of things. Everything is good. What are you going to do with the footage? See what the Serbians already saw? It is clarified for us beyond any doubt.

“He’s the winner in any way. He’s the winner no doubt. Even if you could see the pictures, I don’ t know how you could use them.”

[By way of Pete in the comments: Sports Illustrated has the next-best thing to the official photos–an amazing underwater sequence showing the race’s final two meters or so.0

Technorati Tags: ,

4 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs

Numbers ‘n’ Stuff

The New York Times op-ed page today features a column by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. To be honest, what drew my attention was a display quote in the column that says, “The math says that [Hillary] Clinton is quitting while she’s ahead.” Like many others who have watched the Democratic race, I’ve found it perplexing that Clinton won nearly all the biggest states but not the nomination. That’s an interesting and important topic—history will eventually show that despite Clinton’s insistence Barack Obama is some sort of defenseless naïf, he and his campaign just plain outsmarted her and hers—but that’s not what Tyson is writing about.

No—he’s taking a method of analyzing political poll results developed by another astrophysicist, Princeton’s J. Richard Gott III, and torturing it to come up with the claim that “if the general election were held today, Barack Obama would lose to John McCain, while Mr. McCain would lose to Mrs. Clinton.”

That’s a bold declaration, and you’d sure like to see it backed up. But that’s not what happens in the column. Instead, Tyson cites a paper by Gott and another author “that has been accepted for publication in the journal Mathematical and Computer Modelling” (meaning: you and I can’t read it to check the accuracy of Tyson’s summary of it or, feeble-minded as we is, try it out for ourselves). Here’s how Tyson describes what Gott & Co. discovered with their as yet unpublished new tool:

“[I]n swing states, the median result of all the polls conducted in the weeks prior to an election is an especially effective predictor of which candidate will win that election — even in states where the polls consistently fall within the margin of error.”

That’s it: no definition of “swing states,” no useful definition of “the median result of all the polls,” not even a precise statement of the time frame. But those details are dispensable, because this analysis is so powerful, Tyson writes, that Gott was able to correctly predict 49 out of 50 state races in the 2004 contest between Bush II and John Kerry. So Tyson decided to put it to work looking at the 2008 race, with results as mentioned above. Tyson says, with the certainty of Ptolemy describing the sun’s orbit around the Earth, that “this analysis does not predict what will happen in November. But it describes the present better than any other known method does.”

Being generous, one can only say about Tyson’s “analysis” that it reads as if substantial sections of explanation have been edited out to make the piece fit the page. His examples don’t illuminate much about Gott’s method. Beyond that, two flaws seem transparent. Tyson acknowledges one: that public opinion shifts over time. My translation: It’s ridiculous to project the electoral landscape in November based on iffy reading of polls five to six months ahead of time. Ask Michael Dukakis if you don’t believe me.

The other major flaw in Tyson’s “work” is his attempt to use a tool applied to a two-candidate race nearing the finish line in a single election and applying it to a wildly different set of circumstances. Poll respondents asked whether they’d prefer Obama or Clinton over McCain in May were being asked a theoretical question. Yes, it was certain that either Obama or Clinton would oppose McCain. But the very nature of the campaign at that point, as unsettled and increasingly divisive as it was, might skew the result. You wonder if Gott himself would make the predictive claim for his method, as applied here, that Tyson does.

(If Tyson’s piece was heavily edited, the Times would perform a public service by publishing the full piece. It would also help to have a link to Gott’s paper so that readers can judge for themselves whether Tyson is representing it accurately.)

Technorati Tags: , ,

2 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs

Forced to Drink Beer

From my continued researches in The New York Times archives, this little snippet from October 23, 1900 (to put the item in context just a little, the country’s male voters were getting ready to re-elect William McKinley; who was running against … William Jennings Bryan, a son of Salem, Illinois, I believe; how many elections have pitted major candidates with the same first name?).

200803171411

Technorati Tags:

3 Comments

Filed under Berkeley

He Didn’t Inhale Enough

I noticed yesterday that one of the New York Times blogs, The Caucus, had an item on how a gaggle of right-wingers is promising to do a “documentary” that will expose the dark side of Barack Obama. ‘Bout time! Here’s a guy who for years has been leaving a trail of unpleasant secrets. He has even written books full of assertions that people can fact check to find out what a self-aggrandizer he is.

The Times itself begins the process of exposing the mendacity with a 1,751-word story this morning–“Old Friends Say Drugs Played Bit Part in Obama’s Young Life“– that investigates his claims that he used drugs as a youth. That’s right: Obama says he used drugs and has suggested both in writing and on the campaign trail that his occasional pot smoking, drinking and cocaine sniffing was troubling and unwise.

But the Times is blowing the lid off those claims. The story says that “more than three dozen interviews” with “friends, classmates and mentors” from his high school and college years find that Obama is remembered as “grounded, motivated, and poised, someone who did not appear to be grappling with any drug problems and seemed to dabble only with marijuana.”

What could account for the discrepancy the Times seems intent on manufacturing? Ready? Here it is:

“[It] [could suggest he was so private about his usage that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Current Affairs

He Didn’t Inhale Enough

I noticed yesterday that one of the New York Times blogs, The Caucus, had an item on how a gaggle of right-wingers is promising to do a “documentary” that will expose the dark side of Barack Obama. ‘Bout time! Here’s a guy who for years has been leaving a trail of unpleasant secrets. He has even written books full of assertions that people can fact check to find out what a self-aggrandizer he is.

The Times itself begins the process of exposing the mendacity with a 1,751-word story this morning–“Old Friends Say Drugs Played Bit Part in Obama’s Young Life“– that investigates his claims that he used drugs as a youth. That’s right: Obama says he used drugs and has suggested both in writing and on the campaign trail that his occasional pot smoking, drinking and cocaine sniffing was troubling and unwise.

But the Times is blowing the lid off those claims. The story says that “more than three dozen interviews” with “friends, classmates and mentors” from his high school and college years find that Obama is remembered as “grounded, motivated, and poised, someone who did not appear to be grappling with any drug problems and seemed to dabble only with marijuana.”

What could account for the discrepancy the Times seems intent on manufacturing? Ready? Here it is:

“[It] [could suggest he was so private about his usage that few people were aware of it, that the memories of those who knew him decades ago are fuzzy or rosier out of a desire to protect him, or that he added some writerly touches in his memoir to make the challenges he overcame seem more dramatic.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Continue reading

Leave a Comment

Filed under Current Affairs