Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Unsuperhuman Armstrong

Looking at what I wrote yesterday, I realize the real problem is not Lance Armstrong. On the road, he’s better than all the other cyclists in the field, at least in the Tour de France. In ethics, he isn’t. He’s just as human as the rest of the pack; no better, no worse.

I heard an interview on the radio with another former (French) cyclist whose view of the organizers of the Tour was exactly what I was alluding to yesterday. He said more or less openly that drug use is rampant, but that still, no one wants to admit it. Every time someone is caught, he’s portrayed as an isolated case. At no time has the Société du tour de France had the courage to stand up and say, “Drug use is rampant in our sport. This is very bad for the health of the professional cyclists involved, for our image and for the millions of young people who look up to the riders as heroes. We’re going to stamp out the problem.” That would cost too much in lost sponsorship.

By the way, the newspaper L’Equipe is owned by the same company that “owns” the Tour. The cyclist interviewed found it very convenient for everyone that L’Equipe “revealed” this information a month after the Tour ended rather than before or during it. After all, the laboratory began analyzing the samples at the end of last year. This way, L’Equipe gets to “break” the scandal and attract a lot of attention to its brilliant investigative reporting, without compromising the Tour itself.

For that matter, nowhere in the article was there any indication of who the other six EPO-tainted samples belonged to or how widespread the problem might have been in that particular year. For example, it would be interesting to know the percentage of riders in the 1999 Tour de France who were on EPO.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Lance Armstrong

Earlier this summer, friends, both American and French, often asked me what I thought of Lance Armstrong and his performance in the Tour de France. Among American friends and acquaintances there seemed to be an unparalleled awareness of the Tour de France this year.

Today’s headline in French sports daily L’Equipe was “Le Mensonge Armstrong” (Armstrong's lies). The articles inside tell a disappointing story. The French laboratory that analyses the urine and blood samples of professional cyclists saves samples for a considerable period of time. Using technology not available at the time the samples were originally taken and analyzed, they retested 1999 samples for EPO. Lo and behold, six of the 12 samples that tested positive turned out to be Lance Armstrong’s. Lance won his first tour de France in 1999.

I am saddened but why am I not surprised?

As some of my readers know, I used to be an avid cyclist. I have done some short-distance racing and some long-distance endurance riding, along with lots of touring in between. I’ve seen the Tour de France several times, in the mountains and on the Champs Elysées, in regular stages and in time trials. Once the Tour passed directly behind my mother and father-in-law’s house outside Lyon, and we saw them there. But since the doping scandals of 1998 and 1999, which tarnished the image of professional cycling in general and gave rise to doubts about Lance’s power plant in particular but no real action from the company that runs the Tour and its what-me-worry president, Jean-Marie Le Blanc, my interest in the Tour de France has waned. The last time I saw a stage was on July 14, 1999 at the storied mountainside resort of l’Alpe d’Huez, where I saw Lance go by, less than a mile from the finish line, in his usual, unperturbed state. One of the tainted samples was from that stage.

I have a great deal of admiration for Lance Armstrong, what he has accomplished, his determination, his courage and his generosity. But the doubts I have had about him have never gone away, and they have made me a less-than-enthusiastic supporter. It’ll be interesting to see how this new revelation plays out. Lance Armstrong and the sympathy he enjoys in the US are not to be underestimated. L’Equipe shows him today on a ride last Saturday with his friend George W. Bush.


Saturday, August 06, 2005

Don't sweat the small stuff

I think I was relatively civil. I didn’t shout, and I didn’t resort to name-calling. I did ask for the address for complaints, however, and added that I’d be copying the Fraud Office. I’ve never had an internet installation take place without the phone hanging from my ear for most of an afternoon, while I try to decipher the rapid, polite, but thickly-accented speech coming over the line, and I didn’t expect this one to be any different. I should have suspected something, however, when I put the CD-ROM in the drive and it didn’t even start, not even when I clicked on the file the instructions told me to click on if the CD-ROM didn’t start by itself. I’m not at all sure there’s actually any fraud – I was clutching at straws here – but it would certainly make a good scam.

Here’s the idea: you’re an ISP, and you announce a promotional campaign during which installation fees will be waived. You set up a call-center hotline to help people with the usual installation and other problems. To reduce queuing times, you announce to callers that calls cannot exceed 30 minutes, adding that this is a “telecoms regulation”. When 30 minutes are up, you cut off the call without warning. When the customer calls back, he gets a new person on the other end, of course, who luckily can call up the history of the customer’s previous call. But he decides to take the customer through the last ten minutes of manipulations he just did with the guy sitting at the other end of the room. Repeat ad nauseum.

In my case I had to call four times. At €0.34 per minute, my approximately 100 minutes of call time cost me €34. I would have preferred the installation fee if it might have avoided this hassle. In fact, maybe I can hire a consultant next time, say a university student, to come over and call my ISP for me while I do the work I’m more qualified to do. This service must exist, no? If the average DSL subscriber out there is no more computer savvy than I am, there must be a big market for it.

After my four calls, the connection still didn’t work. Then I realized that on a previous call a week ago, the ISP technician was in the middle of fiddling with the network settings in my control panel when the 30-minute bank-vault door came crashing down. So I’ve probably also won a call to Dell to fix the network settings.

Oh well, all of this, related lovely tasks (and blogging about it all) will have to wait for my return from vacation, which starts tomorrow and ends two weeks later. Hopefully, by then I’ll be a little more tolerant and philosophical about it all. If I were to try to resolve it in my current, enervated state, I’d be reduced to sobriquets and epithets, some of them not too flattering.

I should also have lots of other stories to tell, provided our gentle, charming hosts don’t mind being grist for a mill ….

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The summer ritual

The French traffic forecasters labeled Saturday, July 30 as “black”. The scale progresses as follows: green, orange, red, black. Only a handful of days in the year qualify for the dubious distinction of "black", and the day that traditionally signals the return of the July vacationers (“les juilletistes”) and the departure of August vacationers (“les aoûtiens”) is one of them. The traffic gods were not kind to the French motorist on this particular black Saturday. In all, there were 800 kilometers of traffic jams on the nation’s highways on July 30, just a little short of the distance from Paris to Marseilles.

Saturday is the heaviest traveling day during French vacation periods because most holiday rentals begin and end on a Saturday. If you rent your studio/apartment/villa from a real-estate agent, you generally have to get to the agent’s office before closing time, at say, 7PM or 8PM if you’re lucky, to get the key. If you don’t, you’ll have to make other arrangements for Saturday and Sunday night, because the agency won’t open again until Monday morning. Even if you don’t need to pick up the key, you don’t want to sleep in a hotel en route (although Lyon is a nice place to do it if you have to!) and miss a day you’ve already paid for. Great way to start your vacation, especially if you have the misfortune of having to do it on a tight budget.

The government has dreamed all kinds of schemes to encourage people to stagger their departure and arrival times. Color-coding is the most visible and audible system. Alternate routes are also recommended. The tolls, astronomically high from an American point of view (but the roads are in great condition) are lower at “off-peak” times.

This is my personal favorite: on the radio, announcements drone on about how motorists should wait until, say, 3 or 4PM before getting behind the wheel. This is great advice if you own your own apartment or villa on the Côte d’Azur and can wander in at any time of the day or week. The peak/off-peak toll system is just another added benefit for this needy minority. For the masses, however (see vacation rentals, above) this is not an option. Instead, the barrage of warnings simply encourages them to leave even earlier than they might otherwise have planned. Instead of leaving Nantes, Nancy or Nanterre at 9AM, they’ll leave at 7 or 6 or 5AM. And the result is the same, year after year after frustrating year.

To alleviate the situation and reduce driver stress and road kill, palliative measures are taken. Most trucks are prohibited from using the motorways on “black” and (I think) “red” days. Toll-booth operators distribute water, candy and other goodies for the back seat, plus an avalanche of documents dispensing advice. At the motorway rest stops, entertainers are on hand to help pass the time and take your mind off of how many hours you have been on the road and how many more you will need if the traffic stays as it is.

Now I must be ignoring some constraint so obvious it would hit me in the face if I would only deign to go out there rather than blog about it from the safety of my keyboard. Nevertheless, I humbly submit my proposal to solve this nagging, perennial problem. Furthermore, my proposal is right in line with French tradition, as it involves solving what is essentially a market inefficiency with a government decree. At worst the government would have to get a new law passed, but that shouldn’t be too much of an obstacle, now that Nicolas Sarkozy is interior minister. I’d trust him to think of some catchy phrase that would stir up lots of animosity and media attention. The government could introduce the bill shortly before a Parliamentary recess, have it be debated until the MPs go on vacation, then declare the law enacted (If the French constitution doesn’t have a provision like this, it really should get one; it’s very useful, but I digress, again!).

My proposal is this: firstly, require that half of holiday rentals in the most popular tourist destinations start their week on Sunday and end their rental week on ... you guessed it ... Sunday. Secondly, require that all holiday rental offices and real-estate agents that must deliver keys to arriving vacationers stay open not until 7 or 8PM but until midnight on both Saturday and Sunday. Simple, right? Is this brilliant or what?

Possible objections: 1) Labor law prohibits opening on Sunday, the day of rest, or staying open late. That’s why stores are all closed on Sunday, with rare exception. Get over it; hotels are all open on Sunday. 2) It would be too complicated to administer. Bakeries do it, pharmacies do it (I hear music), why not real-estate agents? 3) National security. Bingo, that must be it.