Stan’s Obligatory Blog


More limits of artificial intelligence

Filed under: — stan @ 5:54 pm

I was tending to the Earthquake Notification Service admin email today, and I found this in the incoming mail queue:

From: Associate Email Administrator
Subject: Your email has been discarded.

Your email sent to [redacted] with subject line of: 2012-04-05 20:23:55 (Md 3.2) PUERTO RICO REGION 19.1 -65.1 (5121e), contains inappropriate content within the subject or body of the message and has triggered the Aflac Associate message filters. The message was discarded because of the inappropriate content.

So I went and had a look at the message, just to see what it was they might be complaining about. And here it is:

Subject: 2012-04-05 20:23:55 (Md 3.2) PUERTO RICO REGION 19.1 -65.1


Geographic coordinates: 19.142N, 65.070W
Magnitude: 3.2 Md
Depth: 90 km
Universal Time (UTC): 5 Apr 2012 20:23:55
Time near the Epicenter: 5 Apr 2012 16:23:55
Local standard time in your area: %localtime

Location with respect to nearby cities:
88 km (54 miles) NNW (334 degrees) of Little Harbour, Jost van Dyke, British Virgin Islands
89 km (55 miles) N (351 degrees) of CHARLOTTE AMALIE, US Virgin Islands
90 km (56 miles) NNW (328 degrees) of ROAD TOWN, British Virgin Islands
126 km (78 miles) NE (49 degrees) of Carolina, PR



The face of fraud

Filed under: — stan @ 6:27 am

This is a truly pathetic story.

Remember Rosie Ruiz? She was the ‘winner’ of the 1980 Boston Marathon. But after she won it in record time, some investigation showed that she had not run the whole course, and had just jumped back into the race at the end. Further investigation showed that she’d also cheated in the New York Marathon, which was where she did the time that qualified her for Boston.

Competitive stair climbing is an odd little sport. It’s done as a charity fund-raiser. There are no prizes, aside from cheap little medals and sometimes small trophies. There’s really nothing valuable at stake. So I guess nobody ever thought that anyone would think it worth the effort to cheat at this sport. But this time, someone did.

I was in the first wave of climbers, and we were done pretty early. And from the start, it the odds were on Jesse Berg to win. He’d won last year, and he is ranked as one of the top stair climbers in the world. So we were all surprised when we came down and saw the first set of times posted, and there was a name we didn’t recognize in first place, with a time that was 18 seconds faster than the course record. That record was set in 2010 by Javier Santiago, who is also one of the top-ranked stair climbers in the world.

Asking around, we found out that the unknown climber was a guy who worked for the building management company. When we saw him, we all immediately thought that he wasn’t capable of doing a time like that. Some of the guys went to talk to him, to ask him how he trained and to ask if he would climb the building again with them so they could see his technique. He said that he didn’t really train in any meaningful way. He said he plays basketball with his friends. Sheesh. At that point, he claimed he couldn’t climb again, due to having pulled his hamstring on the first climb. And he made a point of limping from that point on.

Needless to say, none of this passed the smell test.

Later on, another of our guys went to talk to him again, and specifically told him that we thought he had cheated. At that point, his friends started actually making veiled threats of physical violence if we didn’t stop saying we thought he’d cheated. And apparently, there was money at stake. He’d made bets with a lot of the other people who work at the building, and if he admitted to cheating, he was going to lose those bets.

When it was time for the awards, he made a point of limping up to the stage to get his first-place certificate and trophy.

This was all brought up with the race organizers, the timing company, and the building management. At first, they defended the guy. They really believed him when he said that he’d climbed the building in record time.

On Sunday, a friend of ours who is a sports writer contacted the guy to interview him about his ‘incredible performance’. We suspect that he figured out that people were on to him. But he still insisted that his time was real.

When the finish line pictures from the race were posted, we saw him coming out of the stairs, and based on where he was and who came out after him, he’s have had to have passed quite a few people we know on his way up. None of them remember seeing him. And anyone going that fast would have been pretty obvious.

On Monday, we heard through the grapevine that he’d confessed. That he admitted to using the freight elevator. But it turned out not to be true. But then, on Tuesday morning, we got word from the building management company that they had investigated, and they’d found that he did cheat. He was disqualified from the race, and ‘is no longer associated with the building’, as they said. We all presume that means he was fired from his job.

So here it is. The original sheet of posted results. The faker going up to accept the winner’s trophy. And then the revised results from the timing company’s web site, with the faker moved down to last place at the bottom.

Really doesn’t seem like it was a smart move on his part. And I guess on some level, our insane little sport has lost its innocence.

For another view of this incident, here’s a link to PJ Glassey’s writeup of it:

Addendum: This has made the local news:

Update 4/5/2012: Now it’s on the main MSNBC site:

Update 4/6/2012: Unlike Mr Cheater, this story has legs. Now it’s made the jump across the Atlantic to Britain:

Update 4/7/2012: And now, look at the number one result in Google for a search for Mr Cheater:

Update 4/11/2012: Now he’s made Hispanically Speaking News:


Historic Lafayette Square

Filed under: — stan @ 10:12 pm

Today’s bike club ride was a sightseeing trip to Lafayette Square in Los Angeles. This is a little pocket of old mansions just west of downtown, surrounded by much more downscale neighborhoods.

We rode downtown by way of Huntington Drive and Main St. We had to stop for a train by the L.A. River, but it was moving, and we soon got past it and rode through downtown. On the south end of downtown, we saw a test train on the soon-to-be-opened Metro Expo Line.

After a few miles on West Adams, we turned north and got to La Fayette Square. It’s largely closed off to the surrounding area. Most of the streets are blocked, and there are only a couple of ways in and out. We came in through a sidewalk entrance on the back side of the area. We rode around a bit, marveling at all the enormous old houses.

Our snack stop was at Noah’s Bagels in Larchmont Village. After that, we made our way home by way of Silver Lake and Eagle Rock, and up the Colorado hill back into Pasadena.

It was a nice ride.

42 miles.


More fun times in the stairwell

Filed under: — stan @ 6:10 pm

Today was the 5th Annual Fight for Air stair climb at Aon Center in downtown Los Angeles. This is the fourth time I’ve done this. Oddly enough, it never gets any easier.

Kathleen and Lucinda were also doing the climb, so the three of us went downtown, along with a couple of Lucinda’s friends. It was kind of cold and windy, but for the most part that didn’t matter, since most of the event takes place indoors.

This year, I’d made a detailed map of the stairs, and I’d worked out the most efficient way to climb them. And on Thursday, I’d thought of one more improvement to my method. The middle section of the building, from 24 to 44 is a bit odd. It’s still 22 steps per floor, like the rest of the building, but instead of two flights of 11 steps, it has one flight of 10, a landing and left turn, three steps up to a second landing and left turn. And then 9 steps up to the next floor. As a result of the three steps in the middle, the landings on the floors are wider than normal, and it’s hard to avoid having to take a step on the landing to get across it. But on Thursday, I realized that if I started with a single step with my left foot at the beginning, then I could double-step the stairs, and when I got to the next floor, I’d take a single step onto the landing with my right foot. I drew out a full-sized diagram of the landing on the floor, and I saw that if I made the step onto the landing wide enough, I should be able to stretch and get up the first step of the next flight with my left foot. So that would make a neat little 12-step pattern to climb each floor, and the load would be evenly distributed, with each leg doing 11 of the 22 steps. Being that I thought of this on Thursday, I didn’t get to try it in practice, but I figured I’d try it when I got to 24, and if it didn’t work out, I’d just fall back to my old method.

I started in about the middle of the elite climbers group. I made sure to stay behind anyone who I knew would pass me. And when it was time, I ran into the stairs and started climbing. I got to the main staircase on 4 at about 40 seconds, which was right on schedule. By this time, the guy who’d started behind me had caught up. I kept going, but he didn’t try to pass, and by the time I got to 20 or so, he was falling off the pace. I checked my watch at 20, and I was on schedule. I’d made up split times, aiming to be at the top in 11 minutes.

At 24, I tried out my new step pattern, and it worked. It was a little bit of a stretch, but after a few floors, it felt natural and smooth. And I could tell that I’d achieved my goal of avoiding a load imbalance between my legs.

At 32, I looked at my watch, and I was a few seconds behind schedule. I think that not having that guy on my tail took away part of my incentive to go faster. One guy did pass me at about 38 or so. He was breathing hard and loud, and I just stepped aside and let him go by. It didn’t cost me any wasted steps, so that was all right.

When I got to 46, I saw that I was about 20 seconds off my pace. Oh well. I kept on going, and got to 60 at about 25 seconds behind schedule. Then it was into new territory, on up through the last two floors and up to the roof. I came around the last turn through the roof door and somehow managed to put on a little sprint to the roof. I stumbled over the timing mat and then did the traditional face-plant on the roof. I stayed like that for a couple minutes to catch my breath. And then got up and had a look around. It was overcast, and the clouds were very low, so there wasn’t much of a view. I waited for few minutes until Lucinda came out. Then we both waited just a few more minutes for Kathleen. I also made a point of looking down at the final flight of stairs and counting the steps. This was the final piece of information I needed to finish my chart of the Aon staircase. And when Kathleen got to the top, I knew that she’d done very well this time, going something like 10 minutes faster than last year.

After resting a bit, we walked down the second staircase to 60 and got the elevator back down to the ground. They were already posting results, and I was reasonably pleased with my time of 11:31. I really do think I could have gone faster, but it’s still faster than any of my previous times in this race, so I really can’t complain. I figured that since both Mark and Michael were there, I was racing for third place. And my time put me in third. Then I looked a little closer and saw that I was only three seconds behind Michael. I guess he must have been having an off day. But if I’d known it was going to be that close, I would have gone a little faster.

A bit later, I was talking with a reporter from the L.A. Times. He said that he was assigned to write an article about stair racing for publication some time in the late summer. They want to publish it to help drum up interest in the U.S. Bank Tower stair climb in September. I told him about my charting the stairs and working out the most efficient line. He was going to climb the building in the last group, so he took some notes about proper methods for doing the turns on the landings, and he wrote down my time as the time to beat if he wanted an award. When I saw him later, he said that he didn’t beat my time, but that my pointers helped him a lot. So there’s value in being a stair nerd.

Since I finally got the count of the final flight up to the roof, I can now definitively state that the published step count of 1,377 is wrong. The true count is 1,391. This makes the second race where I have made a detailed study of the stairs and found the published count was wrong.

In the end, I got a certificate and medal for third place in the 50-59 age group. Even when it’s 50-something degrees and cloudy, being on the podium for an award just brightens up one’s day.

Full results are here.

Addendum: I’m not going to go into the controversy about the first place overall award. Let’s just say that it doesn’t pass the smell test. Shades of Rosie Ruiz.


A brief look back

Filed under: — stan @ 9:58 pm

This coming Saturday is the Aon Center stair climb, so today is the last day I’m planning on going there for the practice session. So as an exercise in look-how-far-we’ve-come, I decided to try a little experiment. The first time I did this, I averaged 12 seconds per floor, and I felt like I was gonna die! Now I’m averaging about 10, still feeling like I’m gonna die!. So I wanted to try going up at the same pace as my first time, just to see what that would feel like now.

I made up a split time card, with the aim of doing the 56 floors in 11:20. That’s pretty slow by my standards now, but it’s the same pace that I did the first time I did this climb.

Right from the start, I was having to hold back and deliberately go slow. When I got to 20, I was way ahead of schedule, so I slowed down a bit. At 32 I was a little ahead, but not much. And at 46 I was ahead again. I took it easy at the end, not really trying to sprint the last few floors, and I came out on 60 at 11:00. So even trying to go as slow, I still ended up going faster than I did at my first race.

In any endeavor, it’s useful sometimes to stop and take stock of the progress one has made.


Tut tut, it looks like rain

Filed under: — stan @ 5:44 pm

The weather forecast for today was grim. It was supposed to start raining any minute, and when it did start, it was supposed to be hard rain. So of course, I went riding. I pulled out my Metro Rail Tour. That’s the route that travels around Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley, but never goes more than about two miles from the nearest Metro Rail station. That way, if it starts raining, we have a bailout plan.

As it turned out, the weather scared everyone else off, but I still went on the ride.

When I got to the L.A. River, the road was blocked by a freight train parked across the road. The train showed no sign of moving any time soon, so I backtracked a bit and went over on a street where the bridge went over the railroad tracks. When I was passing the park where the old railroad yard used to be, I stopped to get a picture of the towers in downtown. Now that I’m intimately acquainted with several of them.

I rode through downtown and west into Hancock Park. Still no rain. I skipped the snack stop in Larchmont, since I didn’t need to stop for anything, and I headed over to Silver Lake for the route home.

I decided to try an experiment to see if I could find a new way to get from Benton Way in Silver Lake to Riverside Drive. So I turned down one of the little streets that led east into Echo Park. I just sort of noodled around and looked for a way through that didn’t involve riding up and truly scary hills. In the end, I found a way, but I’m not sure it’s an improvement over the regular way we go. But I came out on Alessandro St in Echo Park. So while I was there, I figured I’d go see how the Fargo Street Hill Climb was going. The guys riding the Elliptigos up the hill were pretty impressive.

Coming down onto Riverside Drive, I turned and headed for Figueroa St. That basically parallels the Metro Gold Line, and I rode that up into Highland Park before turning off to go to South Pasadena. Going up El Molino, I saw Kiera riding the other way. We stopped to talk for a bit, since I haven’t seen her since before her baby was born.

By now, it was really looking like it wanted to rain. So I made a break for home. But then I got a flat when I was riding across the Caltech campus. So I sat down and fixed it as fast as I could, and then took off for home again. I got to about one mile from home when the rain came. It wasn’t too bad at first, and I was only out in it for about five minutes. But I still hate getting rained on when I’m riding.

Still, it was a nice ride.

42 miles.


(Humming)bird is the word

Filed under: — stan @ 7:05 pm

I was outside this evening firing up the barbecue, and I saw this little hummingbird coming around to the feeder. There are usually a lot of hummingbirds around here, but this is the first time I’ve seen one this color.


Coming down to the wire

Filed under: — stan @ 10:25 pm

The Aon Tower stair climb is a week from Saturday. I’ve been coming to the practice climbs since the beginning of January. And now we’re in the final stages, getting ready to do the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s funny, because the first time I did a skyscraper stair climb, I went into it thinking, “how hard could it be?” And by the time I got to the 20th floor, I knew. Stair racing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I’m reasonably good at it, so that makes it fun.

I rode the train downtown after work, and I got to the building and signed in. There were a few other people I knew there, and we chatted a bit while we were going up to the staging area on the 4th floor. I’d decided to try an experiment tonight. Since the beginning in January, I’ve been dreading doing this every time I do. So I’ve been going into it each time with the idea that I’m just going to go at a comfortable pace, and not try to push myself too hard. And I’ve been consistently doing times that I would have thought unimaginable last year. So tonight, I wanted to try to push, to see what I could do if I tried. So I made up a card with split times for the 20th, 32nd, and 44th floors, and I attached it to a velcro band I wrapped around my arm, just above my watch. I wanted to be able to see both at the same time. I’d done this before, but this was the first time I tried it with times calculated to get me to the top faster than before.

My first goal was to get to 20 by 2:34, and I was there at about 2:27. Then I was supposed to make the halfway point at 32 by 4:45, and I was spot on. The next goal was the 44th floor by 6:56, and I made that right on time. But those last 16 floors up to 60 were a real slog. I was able to keep going, but I could feel I was slowing down. I’d been aiming to get to 60 at about 9:40 or so, but when I came out and face-planted on the floor, I saw my watch had 9:53. So I didn’t make my goal of going faster. But on the other hand, I’m still consistently doing times under 10 for the practice climb from 4 to 60, and that’s still about 30-40 seconds faster than I was able to do last year.

Still nothing to complain about here. It was a good outing.


A quick jaunt up the stairs

Filed under: — stan @ 10:25 pm

This weekend was the San Diego edition of the Lung Association’s “Fight for Air” stair climb. It’s only 30 stories, hardly worth showing up for. But it’s an excuse to go visit my father and go see the baby seals at La Jolla. So we all went down there for the weekend. Because this is a short one, Lucinda even agreed to do it.

We spent Saturday going to see the seals and visiting with Grandpa. And on Sunday morning, we headed downtown to the Omni Hotel. Our assigned start time was with the 12:00 group. There was some kvetching about this from the other West Coast Labels people, and most of them agitated for and got an earlier start. So they were all done by the time we got there. But I figured that as long as I started at the front of our wave, it would be all right. They allowed several minutes between waves to clear the stairs, and as it turned out, I didn’t have to pass anyone on my trip up.

Last year, I did this one in 4:03. I knew I could go faster, so I was aiming for 3:30 or better. So I figured I’d look at my watch at 11, after 10 floors. My goal was to do that first 10 in as close to a minute as I could. So when I got to 11, I looked at my watch, and it said 1:15. My immediate thought was,

“Crap! I need to go faster!”

So I turned up the heat, and I didn’t look at my watch again. When I came out at the top on 31, my watch said 3:27. So I knew I’d managed to increase my pace significantly for the last 20 floors. And when we went back down, I saw that my time was 3:23, which I was pretty happy with. It was good for 7th overall, and 3rd in my age group. The only guy older than me who went faster was Mark, and that’s normal. And both Kathleen and Lucinda improved their times from last year. Sadly, Lucinda missed getting third place by 4 seconds. Still, it was a good outing.

While we were waiting for the awards, I talked to a group of cute tattooed girls who were doing the climb for the first time. I’m always a fan of cute tattooed girls, and if they’re wearing bunny ears, so much the better. And I thought that the “Breath Takers” team name and logo were very good. The girl I talked to said that she was a lung transplant recipient, which I thought was very remarkable on many levels. She had done the climb, and she was very chipper for someone who had undergone such a major procedure.

At the end, I got a medal for 3rd place in the 50s age group. And the West Coast Labels team pretty much swept the awards. And in general, any day that includes time up on the podium for an award is a good day. So it was a good day.

Results are here:


Good fortune

Filed under: — stan @ 11:53 pm

It’s Thursday, and that means yet another trip downtown to run up the stairs at the Aon building. Fortunately, I’ve done a study of the stairs there, and I’ve worked out what I believe is the most efficient way to climb them. And the stepping pattern I have to do in order to do this is a useful distraction to keep me from dwelling on “OMG What the HELL was I thinking coming here to do this again?”

Since Lucinda has art class tonight, I had to go downtown at lunchtime to do this. I rode my bike over to the Fillmore St Gold Line station, and I rode the train downtown. The Metro Rail trains really are quite good here. They’re comfortable, quiet, and pretty fast. When they were building them, I didn’t think I’d have much use for them, but it’s turned out that I use them quite a lot now.

When I got to the 7th St/Metro Center stop, I climbed the 79 steps from the subway platform to Hope St. Then I walked over to the Aon building and signed in. The guards there pretty much all know me by now. I got changed and headed up to the stairs. There were a few people who’d started ahead of me, but I caught and passed them pretty quickly. When I got to 48, I knew there hadn’t been anyone by there much before me, since I triggered the motion detector to turn on the light on the landing. At 54, I looked at my watch, and it said something like 9 minutes. So I turned up the heat for the last few floors to make it to the top in less than 10 minutes. I stumbled out of the stairs on the 60th floor and did my now-traditional face-plant on the floor. When I opened my eyes, I saw a fortune cookie fortune right in front of my nose. And when I read it, it was completely appropriate to what we do here in the stairwell. So I took the little plastic badge-holder that I’d used to hold my split times note on my glove, and I used that to clip the fortune to the fire hose pipe on the 60th floor landing so that the other stair climbers could see it, too.

In the end, I did another 9:51. Not my best time, but only 3 seconds off my best. And I’m consistently doing times under 10 minutes, when I was struggling to get under 10 1/2 this time last year. So there’s nothing not to like about this. It was a good day.

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