Just a little touch-up

I don’t pay much attention to fashion or women’s magazines. There’s only so many articles on the lives of celebrities or new fad diets that I can take. And it bothers me that most of these magazines project an image of unattainable female perfection to so many women (and young girls).

Of course, we all know that a lot of photos in those magazines are extensively doctored. But most of my girl friends would not have noticed anything unusual about the July 2007 Redbook cover. (Other than noting that Faith Hill looks pretty good for a 39 year old mother of three.)

Well, the Jezebel gossip site got hold of the original photos of Faith before Photoshop, and put them together in a “before and after” animation: Redbook Shatters Our Faith.

It’s like one of those “spot the differences” games in the newspaper. When you flip back and forth between them, the effect is uncanny and pretty frightening. Not only did Redbook clean up her crow’s feet, but they actually changed the shape of her back and arms. Her arm after modification looks like it belongs on a space alien. Or a n anorexic super-model.

For a list of what changed, see the numerically-annotated version of the photo.

Friends don’t let friends orbit drunk

Aviation Week reports that NASA allowed at least 2 astronauts to fly after “heavy use of alcohol”. Even though flight surgeons warned that they were so drunk that they posed a flight risk.

Maybe we should cut them some slack. After all, if I knew I might spend the next 10 minutes as a pretty fireball across the country, I’d be tempted to down a few myself. Besides, what’s the chance that they’d get pulled over anyway?

Dopers on wheels

A month ago, Prof. John Hoberman wrote a scathing review of drugs in professional cycling for MSNBC. As the Tour de France collapsed in scandal this week, it’s worth reviewing Dopers on Wheels: The Tour’s sorry history.

Hoberman says that drugs have always been a part of professional cycling, beginning with caffeine and cocaine fuelled six-day races back in the 1890s. These were dangerous experiments on the limits of human performance and the effect of drugs. And little changed in the sport until the Festina drug scandal during the 1998 Tour.

According to journalist and Dr. Hans Halter:

“For as long as the Tour has existed, since 1903, its participants have been doping themselves. No dope, no hope. The Tour, in fact, is only possible because — not despite the fact — there is doping. For 60 years this was allowed. For the past 30 years it has been officially prohibited. Yet the fact remains: great cyclists have been doping themselves, then as now,”

Hoberman is especially critical of the International Cycling Union and cycling teams that publicly condemn drugs, but privately ignore institutional doping. Race organizers might arrest and make examples of individual cyclists, but do little to procecute doctors, trainers and other co-conspirators.

The UCI’s so-called doping controls have been inadequate or even fraudulent, depending on how one views the integrity of its officials.

The UCI leadership, whose doping controls did not produce a single positive before the disaster of the 1998 Tour, remained in office. What’s more, average rider speed has increased steadily since the introduction of (presumably) stricter drug-testing to prevent the use of blood-boosting drugs.

Swiss rider Alex Zülle explained the pressure on cyclists:

“As a rider you feel tied into this system. It’s like being on the highway. The law says there’s a speed limit of 65, but everyone is driving 70 or faster. Why should I be the one who obeys the speed limit? So I had two alternatives: either fit in and go along with the others or go back to being a house painter. And who in my situation would have done that?”

Cyclists earn less than most professional athletes, yet must train constantly, endure incredible hardship and risk deadly crashes every day. They may never get much recognition, and must support the team leader who gets all the glory. All this to hold on to a spot on a team, the only job that many of them know. It’s no wonder so many are willing to risk so much for an edge over the competition.

Religious totalitarians

NPR : Walking the Faith Line with Eboo Patel

Religious totalitarians have the unique advantage of being able to oppose each other and work together at the same time. Osama bin Laden says that Christians are out to destroy Muslims. Pat Robertson says that Muslims want only to dominate Christians. Bin Laden points to Pat Robertson as evidence of his case. Robertson points to bin Laden as proof of his. Bin Laden says he is moving Muslims to his side of the faith line. Robertson claims he is moving Christians to his. But if you look from a certain angle, you see that they are not on opposite sides at all. They are right next to each other, standing shoulder to shoulder, a most unlikely pair, two totalitarians working collectively against the dream of a common life together.

Religion reporter loses faith

William Lobdell was already a serious Christian when the LA Times assigned him to the religion beat. But eight years of reporting on the church shook his beliefs.

Religion beat became a test of faith

At the time, I never imagined Catholic leaders would engage in a widespread practice that protected alleged child molesters and belittled the victims. I latched onto the explanation that was least damaging to my belief in the Catholic Church – that this was an isolated case of a morally corrupt administration.

And I was comforted by the advice of a Catholic friend: “Keep your eyes on the person nailed to the cross, not the priests behind the altar.”

Like Charlie Brown and the football

For the past week or so, I’ve been avoiding water cooler conversations at the office, so as not to spoil the surprise. I really don’t want anyone telling me how it all ends. I have to cover my ears and scamper back to my desk, shouting “I’m not listening to you, la la la …”

I’m sure others around the country are doing the same thing. We’re all caught up in this together. No, I don’t care what happened to Tony Soprano or Harry Potter. I’m referring to the Tour de France.

I’ve been recording the Tour on a friend’s DVR, and watching a couple of stages every few days or so. Which means I’m always a few days behind the news. That’s bad enough when there’s a major upset in the race. (Like Vinokourov coming back from the brink to win the Stage 13 time trial, and to conquer the mountains in Stage 15).

It’s a lot worse when there’s a scandal. And boy, do we have a scandal now. First Vinokourov fails a blood doping test. Not only that, but his entire Astana team was forced to withdraw from the Tour. (Taking out a couple of other top riders with him).

Well, that’s a shame. I had been rooting for Vinokourov for a couple of stages. He had come back from a bad crash, rode hurt, cracked in the mountains on Stage 14, then come back from defeat to win a really tough mountain stage.

I cheered him on – just like I cheered for Floyd Landis last year when, after a tough loss, he came back from behind to win a mountain stage, and eventually the tour. At the time, it seemed impossible that he could recover so much time, and reclaim the lead. Maybe it was. Only a few days later, Floyd failed a drug test. And the 2006 tour has been without a winner ever since.

So once again, justice was done. And the Tour caught one of the few cheaters.  Just one bad apple, right?

It got worse. The next day, the Cofidis team withdrew from the race when one of their riders tested positive for synthetic testosterone. And today, the other shoe dropped. Michael Rasmussen, the tour leader, was dismissed by the Rabobank team for failing to take drug tests this past Spring.

What happens now?  The Tour continues, but it’s a shambles. It’s hard to imagine how professional cycling can recover any credibility, after the past few years of drug charges and two disastrous tours. It’s hard to imagine sponsors will continue to fund the teams. Already T-Mobile is rumored ready to pull their support.

And it’s hard to imagine fans will continue to watch, wondering who is juicing, and if anyone is riding clean.

Just a few more bad apples? A few isolated cheaters? Doesn’t seem that way  anymore. And now I felt cheated, for having cheered on these guys. Fool me once, fool me twice…

No thanks, I’ll walk

A New York state senator has proposed a bill to specifically ban texting while driving. This was in response to a crash that killed 4 teens when the driver was texting.

Of course, existing traffic laws typically ban any behavior that distracts a driver or prevents them from safely operating a vehicle. But it’s probably a good idea to explicitly ban texting anyway. I’d bet that most people who text or talk on the cell phone probably think they’re still in complete control.

According to a survey by AAA and Seventeen magazine, a huge fraction of teen drivers engage in risky behavior – including DWT (driving while texting).

Many teens admit risky driving habits

The survey showed 61% of teens admitting to risky driving habits. Of that 61%:

  • Nearly 50% said they text message while driving.
  • 51% talk on cellphones.
  • 58% say they drive with their friends in the car.
    (Having other teens in a car can dramatically increase the likelihood of an accident).
  • 40% say they speed.
  • 11% say they drink or use drugs before driving.

Whenever I see a brand-new crop of teens getting their licenses and taking to the road for the first time, it reminds me of those National Geographic specials about turtles. One night each year, on a tropical beach, thousands of little turtles will hatch out of the sand and rush towards the surf. Many get caught and eaten before making it to the sea. Many more get picked off in shallow water. And only a few dozen of them will survive the whole year to make it back to the beach and lay their eggs. And then their offspring will ask to borrow the car keys.

Not ALL software projects are total failures

We all know that a lot of software development projects fail, in lots of different ways. But how many projects get killed without delivering anything at all? According to the Standish Group, these days about 20% of projects are flat failures. And that’s actually an improvement over the past 10 years or so.

How to Spot a Failing Project

In 1994, the [Standish Group] researchers found that 31 percent of the IT projects were flat failures. That is, they were abandoned before completion and produced nothing useful. Only about 16 percent of all projects were completely successful: delivering applications on time, within budget and with all the originally specified features.”

As of 2006, the absolute failure rate is down to 19 percent,” Johnson says. “The success rate is up to 35 percent.” The remaining 46 percent are what the Standish Group calls “challenged”: projects that didn’t meet the criteria for total success but delivered a useful product.

Just keep buying lighter bikes

I met a lot of other cyclists on my bike ride last Sunday. There were the club riders, barrelling down the road in their matching outfits. There were the kids and casual riders, in tennis shoes and baggy shorts. And there were also some pretty serious riders making good time on the hills.

Surprisingly enough, a lot of them were riding well despite carrying a few extra pounds. (Let’s face it – I could lose a few myself). I’ve often noticed that overweight people can still be good recreational cyclists.

That’s the lesson of a New York Times article on The Bicycling Paradox: Fit Doesn’t Have to Mean Thin.

“When I first got into cycling, I would see cyclists and say, ‘O.K., that’s not what I perceive a cyclist to be,’ ” said Michael Berry, an exercise physiologist at Wake Forest University. Dr. Berry had been a competitive runner, and he thought good cyclists would look like good runners — rail-thin and young.

He came to realize, he said, that cycling is a lot more forgiving of body type and age than running. The best cyclists going up hills are those with the best weight-to-strength ratio, which generally means being thin and strong. But heavier cyclists go faster downhill. And being light does not help much on flat roads.

And fortunately, you can keep riding well into old age. Your recovery time might get longer, but sometimes you can still teach those youngsters a thing or two.

Dreams of pulp scifi finally coming true

Another breakthough from MIT this week. Professor Dava Newman has developed a prototype skintight spacesuit for future Mars missions.

MIT Biosuit with 'Reclining Figure'

Instead of the traditional gas pressurized suit, Newman’s design relies on wrapping tight layers of material around the body. It’s much lighter and more flexible. And as modeled by Prof. Newman, it’s much more flattering too!

Biosuit - it shapes and controls

The suit is not yet ready for space travel, but the MIT researchers hope to have something usable in “about 10 years”. Maybe by then we’ll also have perfected ray guns and wise-cracking robots. And explorers will roam the solar system just like my boyhood hero, Col. Wilma Deering.

Erin Gray as Col Wilma Deering in 'Buck Rogers'