Saturday, July 21, 2007

sadler's ultra challenge

Lately I have become a bit of an armchair cycling fan. (No, not cycling IN armchairs — that would be absurd.) I have been catching stages of the Tour de France on TV, but lately I have turned my attention to an equally exciting race: the Sadler's Ultra Challenge. This is an eight-stage, 267-mile endurance race for disabled athletes, run every summer for 22 years from Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska. There are divisions for wheelchairs and handcycles, but in recent years the handcycling category has come to be far more popular and competitive. This year the race, like most elite handcycling races over the past few years, has been dominated by the Mexican-American Alejandro Albor. This guy is really amazing; I've seen him ride and he makes it look so effortless, which I assure you it is not. A double amputee, Albor has a built-in advantage since he's not dragging any dead weight, but he also has a unique style of movement, sort of rolling back and forth over the handcranks of his bike. (He is one of the few handcyclists I've seen who uses alternating cranks, like a regular bike, rather than double/simultaneous cranks.)

You can read Ian Lawless' blog entries about the 2007 Ultra Challenge here and view complete stage-by-stage results here

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

the sentence dictionary

If I may brag just a little bit, I am really excited to have just been hired as a freelance lexicographer for Oxford University Press. They — no, we! — are beginning a new collaborative online project to compile something called the Sentence Dictionary. Essentially it will be a web-based dictionary based on the already-existing New Oxford Dictionary of English (NODE) and New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD), Oxford's major single-volume dictionaries of contemporary (British and American, respectively) English. As I understand it, the Sentence Dictionary will include headwords, pronunciations, definitions, and etymologies identical to NODE and NOAD, but will include much more thorough documentation of each word's usage "in the wild," as it were — in a list of real-life examples for each headword. This will be particularly useful for foreign learners of English, and for native speakers looking up unfamiliar words that they wish to use idiomatically in their own writing.

The examples are to be culled from a corpus of contemporary English, the billion-plus-word Oxford English Corpus, which contains many thousands of books, web sites, magazine articles, stories, journals, blogs, and the like, all of which have been hand-selected and tagged for their country of origin and vetted for quality to some degree. Oxford's corpus software is able, in many instances, to tell when a word is being used as a particular part of speech and in a particular sense; for example, it can tell with reasonable accuracy when ground is being used as a noun meaning "earth," a past participle of "grind," or a verb meaning "stop (a plane, etc.) from flying." But the software's accuracy is far from 100%, and even when it does make the correct choice, a human is needed to determine which are the "best" examples. An example sentence that disparages a particular politician, for instance, is undesirable both because it expresses a strong opinion that may distract from the sentence's illustrative function and because it contains a reference that could soon seem dated or obscure.

This is where we freelance lexicographers come in. In a test exercise I did for Oxford as part of the application process, I went through hundreds of potential example sentences (all for words beginning with adv-) and determined which were the most suitable. (Let me say that I have a much fuller appreciation for the subtleties of the word "adventure" than I did before!) Apparently my soon-to-be bosses agreed with my decisions in enough cases that they want me to do more such work for them. It's not the most dynamic sort of task, but it is kind of dorkily influential. I am now a lexicographical taste-maker of sorts, however anonymously. How exciting!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

the first russian winter games

The big news in sports yesterday, as far as I was concerned, was the awarding of the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics to Sochi, Russia. By all accounts, Vladimir Putin's presence at the IOC meetings in Guatemala City (!) did wonders to secure the choice of his country's bid over Salzburg, Austria and Pyongchang, South Korea.

I'm pretty happy with the result. Although none of the three cities has ever hosted an Olympics before, Austria has done so twice, both in Innsbruck (1964 and 1976). Obviously, Austria is accustomed to, and well-suited for, hosting winter sports. Most of the facilities they would've used for the Games were already in place, a major selling point for their Olympic bid. But picking Salzburg would have been a safe yet boring choice. Athletes in most of the winter sports already compete in Austria all the time, and with the exception of Switzerland it is essentially the only country where alpine skiing is a major, front-page sport. In short, holding another Winter Games in Austria would do little to boost the popularity of winter sports by creating new fans.

Neither Russia nor Korea is known internationally as a winter sports destination, and yet both would desperately like to become one. Both Sochi and Pyongchang have invested millions of dollars to attract skiers and snowboarders, even hiring top ski-resort managers from the Alps and Rockies to oversee their operations. Putin himself is known to enjoy skiing at Krasnaya Polskana, the mountain range near the Black Sea that will host all the snowsports for the Sochi Games, and when I visited Pyongchang last year for disabled World Cup races, the slopes were crawling with wealthy business people from Seoul and beyond. Pyongchang's major ski resort, Yongpyong, has taken things to a typically East Asian level of excess, installing amusement-park rides at the base area and providing skiers with high-pressure air hoses outside the lodge to clean the snow off their equipment.

I guess that's part of the reason I favored Sochi over Pyongchang: the Koreans just seemed to be trying too hard. It's certainly a plus that they'd already hosted well-organized World Cup events in alpine and disabled alpine skiing, and they'd already put in a runner-up bid for the 2010 Games (they lost out to Vancouver). But to some extent the Koreans were trying to pass off cubic zirconium as diamonds. From my experience, Korea is just not a world-class winter wonderland. It's cold, but not particularly snowy. (When we there, in January, the only snow to be seen was the manmade stuff on the ski hill.) The mountains are no taller than the Appalachians. And the host city they'd selected is not so much a city as a collection of villages, full of tacky new brass-and-marble hotels, not charming chalets. And as tasty as Korean food can be, the stuff they fed us athletes there was pretty sub-par.

Sochi, on the other hand, is terra incognita for most winter athletes outside Russia. To my knowledge, it has never hosted a major international ski or snowboard event, although I'm sure hockey is popular there. But my impressions of the place are pretty favorable. The city of Sochi itself is a resort town on the Black Sea, with palm trees and a mild climate year-round. But the surrounding mountains, which are less than an hour's drive from town, are snowy and huge: Mt. Elbrus, at 18,000 feet, is taller than any other in Russia or Europe. In footage from ski movies I've seen, the Krasnaya Polskana range is a powdery paradise, with some of the most extreme lift-serviced terrain anywhere on the planet. In short, the only reason Sochi is not already known outside Russia as a winter sports destination has to be economic or political. Russian democracy is still new, and negative stereotypes about the country still abound. In deciding as it did, the IOC has given Russia a huge opportunity to show the world how far it's come and to transform its Black Sea region into a true international tourism destination. Let's hope the Russians take advantage of it.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


"Spilled pig parts shut down Edens"

"Northbound lanes of the Edens Expressway were closed for more than seven hours Sunday after a dump truck carrying greasy pig parts toppled and splattered its load across the highway."