Saturday, December 6, 2008


earn your trucknutz!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tiny blink in the sky

Did anyone happen to be outside looking at the night sky around 2 or 3 in the morning early Wednesday? You might have seen sort of a funny-looking 'extra' star up there. Lasted about an hour. Nothing fancy.

Turns out, all it was was a star 40 times more massive than the sun exploding 7.5 billion years ago about 44,086,280,000,000,000,000,000 miles from earth. That's all.

NASA SWIFT News story

Here is an animation from

Sunday, March 16, 2008

As reported by Ben Smith at Politico, the results of the Iowa Caucus are not 16-15-14 for Obama-Clinton-Edwards, as we have all guesstimated since January. Turns out the folks who went to the County Conventions (the people chosen by the initial caucus results) largely switched away from Edwards and towards Obama. The tally is now 25 for Obama, 14 for Clinton, and 6 for Edwards. This is a net gain of 10 delegates for Obama.

Clinton now needs to win 373 of the 576 remaining pledged delegates to enter the convention with the lead, or 64.8%. This means that if she wins Pennsylvania by 20 points, 60%-40%, it becomes even harder for her to win; she then would need to win 66.5% of the remaining delegates.

Anyway, the basic point still stands - Clinton only wins the nomination at this point by getting the remaining 300-some-odd Superdelegates to vote against the pledged delegate lead held by Obama, a situation that would likely disenfranchise a significant number of the new Democratic voters that have driven turnout so high in the primary, and causing low turnout for the general election. That doesn't mean she wouldn't win in the fall, but it would likely be another 50%-50% split election with Florida and Ohio determining the president, and so far the Democrats haven't done well in that situation.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Grammar Police

OK, I know I shouldn't be complaining this much about something so stupidly inconsequential, but I can't just let it go. I wrote a pretty long essay about NASCAR a few days ago, and how it is a very sophisticated an complex sport that, given a chance, would appeal to intellectual sports fans.

Trying their damndest to prove me wrong though, are the journalists of While most articles on there are merely race recaps or well-written news items, the editorial staff on the site often fails to reach the level you would expect for the Official Website of a Major Sport.

Actually, I'm being unfair. There are four opinion columnists - Mark Aumann, Dave Rodman, Dave Caraviello and Raygan Swan. Three of them are pretty good, or at least tolerable. They have a grasp of the English language, do enough research to add depth to their articles and only speculate when they are commenting on an area of personal expertise. But one gives us sentences like this:

But after hearing Golich's explanation of why Edwards was able to drive a car with a dislocated thumb before the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard last season made me a believer.

Not only does that 'sentence' start with SEVEN(7) prepositional phrases, it fails to actually create an English thought. Without the phrases, it reads "But made me a believer."

I am not a journalist. I am not an English teacher. I shouldn't care, and I wouldn't if this reporter had accidentally thrown this nugget into a well-researched journalistic endeavor. But this is a journalist on staff at who (presumably) gets paid to write. I know she can write decent news articles, like this one on Jamie Hayes tragically losing an uncle, which even features correct usage of a semicolon. Twice. Maybe she read the article in the Times last month about that. But her opinion pieces often read like essays from the rejection pile at a high school paper.

Some are better than others, like the recent one interviewing an actress in the Kasey Kahne/Allstate commercials, but others leave me wondering about the efficacy of the Indiana State University Journalism department.

Maybe I'm expecting too much from someone who lists her favorite food as "McDonalds No. 2 go-large". Maybe I'm expecting too much from someone tasked with writing softer-side fluff pieces for NASCAR fans. If I were a journalist, I'd maybe do some more research, and point out examples, and close this entry with a conclusion or thought, or purge this entry of misplaced and dangling modifiers or unclear pronoun references and run-on sentences, but I'm not, and she is.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Some wild speculation on the PA primary

OK, I've done a little bit of homework to see what Congressional Districts will be important. And then I very quickly guessed what the result might be in each, and calculated the statewide vote...

It's Hillary by 4 delegates! Just enough to keep the race going for two or three more weeks into May.

Here's my spreadsheet, which will be updated and made much better over the next 2 years or whatever till the PA primary. (download PA_Chart_tjbeck_3-5.xls 82k)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

NASCAR: The thinking man's sport

Yea, that's right, I like NASCAR. I like that it draws its fan base from those with less than 10 teeth and a soft spot for American light beer. I like the ridiculously blatant corporate sponsorships and the barely-coherent analysis by the talking heads on the tee-vee. It's the best sport on television from February through November. I never really liked racing for the first 20-some-odd years of my life. Like most people, the Winston Cup seemed mind-numbingly boring. It was just a bunch of ugly cars piloted by rednecks driving in a circle. But there's a lot more to it.

I grew up an Orioles fan, and to his day I will tell you that my favorite sport is baseball. However, I will admit that baseball, too is exceedingly boring on television. Baseball is best on radio - you can be outside during the summer doing something else, with the radio on, just following the game. It's relaxing. The ballparks themselves are a draw; last summer a childhood friend and I went on a 900-mile, 2-day weekend road trip to catch a game at Fenway and another at Yankee Stadium (before they replace it). No other sporting event can capture the tension that can develop in the late innings of a playoff or World Series game - where decades of frustration for entire regions can weigh on every pitch.

Football is the current U.S. sport champion, and once the season starts to develop, it's exciting the whole way through the playoffs. It's definitely not relaxing, but the violence and fan intensity are unmatched. Pro football has little of the baseball 'gravitas', and the stadiums themselves are pretty much interchangeable and forgettable anywhere other than Green Bay. College football, despite attempts to ruin it with a playoff, still has the history and tension of baseball, and when it's not acting as a farm-system for the NFL it's incredibly entertaining.

When football's not on, and you want to watch something what else is there? Hockey? I like hockey, but it's hardly even on TV anymore so far as I can tell, and it's only good during the playoffs when you know they won't tie. Bonus points for the fisticuffs, though. Pro basketball has become a joke, and college basketball is entirely unwatchable save a couple weeks in March. Soccer? Yea that's not happening. X-treme sports? Please.

So what if there was a sport that combined the intense irrational partisanship of pro football, the occasional fighting of hockey, the quirky historical venues of baseball and college football, and a long season that doesn't interfere with following other sports? What if it had 40+ teams competing every weekend, most of whom have a legitimate (albeit slim) shot at winning? Throw in some fiery crashes, colorful characters and events that let you bring in your own beer, and you've got a pretty good sport.

I started catching a race here and there in college. What initially drew me in was the intellectual side of the pit strategy and race management. How could cars involved in minor accidents end up competing for the win? Why are 400- and 500-mile races decided by less than a second? From that aspect, the races are essentially math problems in which each of 43 relatively equal cars has a choice of when to pit. Really it's not being the fastest on the track - it's being the fastest among those cars that are on the same pit strategy, and picking the strategy that gets your car to the front at the end of the 500th mile. Throw in unpredictable cautions bunching the field, fuel cells that limit the maximum number of laps a car can run (the cars don't have a fuel gauge, so it's a lot of guessing and gambling), and setup and speed differences between each car, and it gets very complicated very quickly.

Road races (Formula 1, ALMS etc.) don't get nearly this complicated, because generally within the first few laps the fastest cars on a particular track get to the front and can pull away from the field. Fuel strategy can be important, but without full-course cautions constantly bringing the field together, and with aggressive passing impossible or even frowned-upon, the races tend to be pretty boring despite the technical complexity, incredible engineering and driver skill necessary in those series. The greater focus on driver skill and technical setup actually creates a much more boring event because it's over so quickly. With NASCAR focusing on nearly-identical cars circling a track many, many more times over a long period of time, driver and chassis variability is minimized and gambling, aggression and chance come in to play.

Still it is hard to get started with NASCAR. I only watched a race here or there for years, even though I appreciated the aspects I described above. In February, 2007 I took a trip to Florida with my dad, and we had an extra day or two. I checked the calendar and realized it was the week of the Daytona 500. I convinced my dad that we should get tickets to the Gatorade Duel, a pair of qualifying races held before the big race. The only motorsports event I had been to previously was a dirt track race while I was in high school to see a friend's brother race. We weren't sure how the beer situation worked - was it like other events where it costs $8 for a 20 oz. Bud Light? With multiple beer sponsors, and obvious heavy tailgating, maybe you couldn't drink in the stands,and we should try to get drunk before going in. It seemed like people had coolers, but we were unsure. So, we asked.

"Um, excuse me, tank-top-wearing mulleted redneck, but do they sell beer inside?"

"What? Why?" replied Billy-J-Bob.

"Well do people drink inside? Are we allowed to bring beer inside?"

At this point, Billy-J-Bob furrowed his brow and said incredulously,"Well, yea, why the hell else would anyone come? If you couldn't bring beer in nobody would show up!" Then he walked off chuckling and yelling to his buddy - "Hey Leroy, these guys just asked if they were allowed to bring beer in." And we felt stupid. So we went back across the street and picked up a cold 12-pack of Budweiser cans (to match the Dale Jr. Budweiser hat, of course).

Going into the weekend I figured we should pick a couple drivers to root for, one in each duel. We didn't really want to stick out too much, so I got a cheap Dale Earnhardt Jr. Budweiser hat and we blended into the crowd in race #1. The first race was won by Tony Stewart after Junior spun out but the crowd had fun when he briefly got to the front. I was more interested in the second race. This one featured a driver I had read about, Juan Pablo Montoya, who had just spent several years as a highly interesting figure in Formula 1.

F1 is the most popular and flashiest form of motorsports in Europe and the rest of the world. The cars themselves are stunning machines worth millions of dollars each that are meticulously engineered and amazingly capable. An F1 car is easily the pinnacle of automotive design, with ten-cylinder engines running up to 19,000 RPM (limited by rules, not technology), aerodynamic downforce that can produce upwards of 5 times the force of gravity, traction control that can handle 800 horsepower and computer-controlled gearboxes that complete shifts in less than a tenth of a second. Unfortunately, the team budgets are in the hundreds of millions (and that's not all payroll like team sports). That means the whole sport is dominated by a few obsessive-compulsive egotistical jackasses, and it's more about the spectacle than the actual racing. Drivers are groomed to be good enough to pilot these incredible machines up to the limit without crashing them, and actual passing on the track is rare. They actually call it 'overtaking', because 'passing' or 'blocking' is a little too scary at those speeds with the expensive cars. Enough about F1, let's just say it's sort of like the X-games - it seems like it would be cool, but its amazingly overhyped and quite boring as a sport.

Well Juan Pablo Montoya (JPM) spent a few years with the BMW team and gained a reputation as an aggressive loose cannon, because he actually tried to make passes and acted like he was actually racing, rather than just driving really fast in a loud, shiny car. This led to some wrecks that were mostly his fault, but he was good enough to land a job at McLaren. This is one of the top teams in the sport, but it also has the most anal-retentive, unlikeable management (and they cheat). After a couple lousy years there, JPM said in late 2006, in the middle of the season, 'screw this I'm going to NASCAR." No one in Formula 1 or NASCAR believed him, but damn if he didn't follow through with it.

Stock cars, unlike the fragile F1 cars, are actually designed to handle poorly. As you move up to higher levels, the cars actually get heavier and handle moor poorly. If you don't wreck every once in a while, you're probably not trying hard enough. The cars are 800 horsepower, 200 MPH bricks.

Montoya made a few stock car starts in 2006, and one NASCAR race the last week of the season, but the second Gatorade Duel was his first real race as a full-time driver going into the 2007 season. So after making friends with the two rednecks next to us, I sort of explained as much of that story as I could between race one and race two. These guys were Kurt and Kyle Busch fans, and when Montoya shot to the front and led the first few laps with help from Kyle Busch, the four of us were pretty happy. Eventually a tire went flat on Montoya's car, and he was essentially out of the race, but it was still a cool story and pretty fun.

So for the rest of the season, I followed Montoya, and he had a few good races and won on the road course at Infineon Raceway. He ended up as the Rookie of the Year, in 20th place, after spending most of the season around 16th or so and fading in the last few races. He even did a charity event on a dirt track. This year the goal is to get into the top 12 for the Chase (sort of like playoffs). With a driver to follow each week, the races become much more interesting. You follow one driver on the speed and time charts (online) and focus on the best pit and race strategy for that car. All the other cars are doing different things, but you just need to follow your driver. It makes each race interesting, and when after all the passing and shuffling and wrecking and fuel gambling is done, it's really cool when the guy you're following crosses the line in first place.

So if you want to know what all the hootin' and hollerin' is about, pick a car and start watching.

Delegate chart

OK, here's one of my more popular creations. It's an Excel delegate chart that I made while volunteering for the Obama campaign in Delaware before Super Tuesday. I've updated and expanded it to provide all kinds of analysis for the remaining elections in the Democratic Primary.

tjbecks_delegate_chart.xls (167k)