Monday, May 26, 2008

Go Fast Turn Left!

The final scene of the 1968 Planet of the Apes (Rod Serling script, starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall) is worth enduring the tortuous acting. It's a very different ending from the 2001 remake with Mark Wahlberg, and distinguishes the original Apes as true science fiction. Marky Mark's version is a generic action film.

Briefly: After his escape as a prisoner in an ape society on a distant planet, Heston discovers a damaged Statue of Liberty half-buried on a remote beach. He realizes that his inter-planetary voyage had in fact kept him on Earth all along. Humanity had destroyed its own civilization, paving the way for a Planet of the Apes.

Planetofapes I had a more mundane version of this vision recently: a post-petrol world where combustion engines were a memory and pedal-power had reclaimed the Earth. I like apes, but they didn't play a role in this particular fantasy.

Embrace your inner redneck

Sound advice, perhaps. Not for me though, at least in this lifetime. My inner redneck will have to wait—I’m still recovering from my past life as Pavlov’s dog. But last weekend I had the opportunity to embrace that inner redneck in my first close encounter with the apotheosis of modern redneckdom--NASCAR. This was the Southside Speedway in Richmond Virginia, one of the sport's earliest professional tracks, in use since 1959. NASCAR fans hail Southside as ‘the toughest short track in the south’, and I quickly learned why.

Thing is, I wasn't there for the roaring engines or burning rubber. I came for a day of bicycle racing. These were track bikes primarily but a couple of road bike races were also scheduled. I arrived late and over-caffeinated to find the speedway grounds completely empty except for a hundred or so cyclists in the circle inside the track. Most were either preparing to race or recovering. I had not missed my start time, and ran over to get registered.

Under a gray sky and spots of rain, the place had the mournful feel of a fair ground or circus site after the festivities had ended, the cheers and laughter now gone, the animals and rides long departed. Here too, on the ground were crushed candy wrappers, gluey traces of melted sno-cones, tufts of cotton candy stuck to matted patches of grass where crowds had stood and cheered.

But absent any NASCAR fans and the roar of the spectacle itself, the quiet speedway also had the distinct feel of anachronism, of future-past. I gazed out at the empty bleachers and imagined the speedway as a relic of an extinct civilization, a NASCAR ruin in a post-petrol world. Art_gofast_turnleftbox_2

'I can't control my fingers, I can't control my brain'

Founded by a band of track bike racers without a local velodrome, the Sprint Club (think 'Fight Club') created its own race series called Go Fast Turn Left, in deference to Richmond's long history of stock car racing at Southside, where many GFTL races are organized.

The Sprint Club ethos is a direct descendant of old school punk rock's DIY spirit. That means, in no particular order: (1) Appropriating a found environment, making it one’s own, at the expense of appropriate norms and behavior that belong to that environment; (2) In spectacle or performance, participation trumps consumption. Passive, polite observation is replaced by direct participation, eliminating the distance between spirit and seer, artist and viewer; 3) The ‘do it yourself’ mentality is self-explanatory--there are no experts, only students and practitioners, and all are welcome.200pxamerican_hardcore_ver2

After getting my race number and quickly inhaling assorted carbs and sugars, I steered out onto the ragged tarmac to warm up with the other racers. A banked, tight oval track, Southside is only a third of a mile long. My group would race for 25 laps. From the previous night’s NASCAR event, there were fist-sized chunks of black rubber from exploded car tires, random nuts, bolts and metal fragments scattered everywhere. The racing surface itself was gritty, pock-marked and scarred from crashes and the elements.

Ass on fire

I didn't win the race or even come close, but I learned a few things. First, cycling is a cruel muse. Glorious bouts of smoking and drinking never got in the way of my marathon running, years back. Marathons permitted me the dubious luxury of being a hedonist and a masochist at the same time--usually such joys cannot coexist. But competitive cycling is different than long distance running. Marathons require stamina and effort sustained over hours, as does cycling. Unlike marathons, however, cycling involves regular spikes of acceleration, troughs of radical energy depletion and periods of recovery within the course of a single race.

My fantasy of riding on a post-petrol, futuristic ruin of a NASCAR track was shared, I learned, with other riders, some of whom complemented me on my 'sweet ride' before the race (have a look, it really is an amazing bike). These were the same guys who slammed into me as the peloton whistled forward at a bruising 31 mph. 'Keeping the rubber side down' was more challenging than I thought. At one point, I heard a crash behind me, but rubbernecking was not an option.

Img_1074 Competitive cycling is a contact sport, I also discovered, with lots of intimidating banter between riders. Kind of like a mosh pit, I thought and smiled, as I managed to keep pace with the breakaway pack for much of the race. Surely I would finish in the top five, I thought. But with two laps to go, my legs turned to lead and a handful of leading riders pulled away from me. I hadn't the strength to stay with them, or even maintain a spot in their slipstream. I crossed the finish line and thought, 'Time to kill my inner Marlboro Man'. Alas, it appears my inseparable companions hedonism and masochism will finally be parting ways.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

'Shove the money out the door' ....

... and into some local politicians' coffers.

In 2006 I evaluated the $200m DDR program funded by the World Bank and referred to in the WSJ article below. I found a rotting corpse. To my surprise, the people who hired the evaluation at the Bank were not receptive to my findings, and promptly sat on the report for a year. In the end, they released an anodyne 20pp version of my 150pp report. Talk about deliberate obfuscation -- I've never seen it so shamelessly flaunted.

Read the Wall Street Journal article on the Bank's new anti-corruption efforts...
Bits and pieces here: "On April 21, the bank released the findings of a corruption probe into a $100 million "demobilization and reintegration" scheme in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which uncovered "sufficient evidence to substantiate allegations of fraud, corruption and disallowed expenses." The very next day, April 22, the bank announced that it had approved an additional $50 million grant for – drumroll, please – the same "demobilization and reintegration" scheme in the Democratic Republic of Congo. [...]

There has also been no change to the shove-the-money-out-the-door mentality that lies at the root of the bank's endemic corruption problems. When the bank first initiated the Congo project in 2004, it had just been burned by a similar demobilization project in Cambodia, where by its own later admission it showed "a lack of realism," a "need for greater political awareness," and a "lack of understanding."

Yet none of these lessons were so much as mentioned in the bank's internal project proposal for the Congo. That proposal contains page after page of written promises of external financial and technical auditing, competitive bidding and other anticorruption bells and whistles. None of it seems to have made much of a difference in preventing the scheme from sliding into the same morass that is the frequent endpoint of World Bank projects."

Friday, May 02, 2008

Carbon Footprints in the Rift Valley

Somewhere down in this amazing valley, around Lake Naivasha, Chris and I had a wonderful day's ride...

Waterbuck and wildebeest in the background, also zebra and giraffes...