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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Will Catapults Out-Chunk Air Guns at Pumpkin-Chunking World Championship 2008?

Punkin Chunkin
(Photo by David S. Holloway/Getty Images)

Halloween has never been kind to pumpkins. But in Sussex County, Delaware, this weekend, hundreds of the gourds will meet a particularly gruesome end: Loaded into hulking compressed-air cannons, fired like artillery shells across an empty field, their ground-splattering detonations will be cheered on by thousands of spectators. Other pumpkins will be vaulted into the air by modern incarnations of medieval siege machines, trebuchets and catapults that whip payloads thousands of feet through the air.

To say that the three-day-long Annual World Championship Punkin' Chunkin' competition—now in its 23rd year—is a labor of love is not only a cliche, but a gross misrepresentation. Chunkin' is a feat of obsessive, competitive engineering. According to Frank Shade, President of the Punkin' Chunkin' Association, some of the machines in competition would cost between a quarter and three-quarters of a million dollars to build from scratch. In most cases, improvements have been heaped on through the years; some devices started in the youth classes and eventually graduated to the corresponding adult group.

The reward for all that determination and the hundreds or thousands of dollars some teams spend to repair or revamp their machines? A 3-ft trophy. "Three years ago a sponsor came and offered $10,000 in prize money," Shade says. "It was the only unanimous vote I've seen." But the association's vote was no thanks, and its reasoning was simple. "Money pushes people to cheat. The biggest thing these folks compete for is a 3-ft trophy for the captain, seven medallions for the team, and seven baseball caps. Those caps are a big deal," Shade says.

Punkin' Chunkin' might not be gunning for a collective payoff, but the sport has become a major attraction for Delaware, drawing some 20,000 attendees in 2007, and $100,000 in revenue. The competition occurs between about Oct. 31 and Nov. 2. There are other attractions, such as a Chili Cook-Off and a Pumpkin Cooking Contest, but chunking is the main event. Each machine is allowed three attempted chunks. Provided the pumpkin isn't instantly pulverized by an excess of air pressure or some other mechanical problem, every chunk has a shot at winning the machine's specific class, as well as taking home the trophy for overall world champion. And although the artillery-like cannons of the Adult Air Class, which generate muzzle velocities between 300 to 800 ft per second, are the reigning long-distance champs—Big 10-Inch managed 4211.27 ft last year, and Second Amendment's 4434.38-ft-chunk in 2003 is the current world record—Shade believes that torsion catapults are poised for an upset. "Machines like Chucky II are laying out pumpkins at over 3000 ft. It's only a matter of time until a torsion cat snaps one out that breaks 4000 ft."

The air guns, which rely on a sudden release of pressure to propel pumpkins out of their barrels, may have hit an engineering wall. Torsion catapults, on the other hand, are still benefiting from design tweaks that provide more room for the catapult's arm to swing and a more efficient angle of release.

It's unlikely that a torsion catapult will take the world record away from Second Amendment this year, but the 2008 world championship could be up for grabs. The Chucky II team, which delivered on its 3000 ft prediction leading up to last year's competition (it won in its class, but the 3080-ft shot was disqualified because the pumpkin split in half in midair), is promising a 4000 ft chunk this year. If the catapults, trebuchets and other more traditional seige machines bring an end to the decade-long reign of the air guns, Shade believes that artillery-minded teams might have to explore a new direction: rail guns.

"Down the line, they could conceivably put something together where one of those electromagnetic rail guns could come on board and blow everyone away," Shade says, referring to the high-velocity experimental weapon systems currently being tested by the United States Navy. "The problem right now is that they have to have a small substation at this point. But that will change. Remember the original cellphones? You practically had to drag them around with a handcart."

Another option—applying WW II-era German rail-gun technology to compressed-air cannons. Instead of a single release of air pressure, cannoneers could begin with a small amount of air and trigger successively larger releases of pressure once the pumpkin is in motion. That would require longer barrels, and possibly computerized, precision-timed charges, but Shade doesn't put anything past Punkin' Chunkers. "We have said for years, if the knowledge and ability and technology devoted to throwing pumpkins could be harnessed, it could solve most of the world's problems," Shade says. "And win some wars, too."

The chunking is now underway, and the winners will be announced on Sunday. Check back here on Monday for exclusive photos from this year's competition. —Erik Sofge

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Report: China listed U.S. athletes with potential to cause problems

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Concerned about possible demonstrations during the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government produced a list of nine American athletes and one assistant coach it thought might cause problems during the games.

The U.S. State Department knew about China's concerns and made "multiple representations" to the country's government to reinforce the American belief in freedom of expression.

USA Today reported Thursday that it had obtained an internal U.S. Olympic Committee e-mail in which a Chinese official expressed concern that members of the U.S. team might stage some sort of demonstration. USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel confirmed that the list was given to the federation during a meeting July 8 with Shu Xiao, minister counselor for cultural affairs at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, the e-mail said.

The athletes included softball players Jennie Finch, Jessica Mendoza, Natasha Watley, Amanda Freed, and softball assistant coach Karen Johns; soccer player Abby Wambach; cyclist Jonathan Page; paralympic basketball player Jen Howitt; paralympic wheelchair racer Cheri Blauwet; and golfer Laura Goodwin.

Wambach was injured and did not compete in the Olympics. Goodwin did not compete because golf is not an Olympic sport. Page was not selected for USA Cycling's Beijing-bound team. He specializes in cyclocross, a combination of road and off-road racing that is not part of the Olympic program.

Shu was concerned that some of the athletes have been affiliated with Team Darfur, an international coalition of athletes committed to raising awareness about the human rights crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, according to the email.

Asked about the list of athletes Thursday, the State Department issued a statement saying it had seen media reports about the list.

"During the run-up to the Olympics, we discussed with Chinese authorities their concerns about the potential for protest actions by Olympics athletes or others attending the Games," the statement said. "At the time we made multiple representations to Chinese authorities regarding the importance of respecting freedom of expression, and we continue to stand by these views."

It referred other questions to the USOC.

Seibel told The Associated Press that the federation knew of the list but did not pass on the concerns to the athletes because it didn't want to burden them with what it felt was a non-issue.

"We did make clear to the embassy that our athletes would have the same right to free speech and free expression, consistent with what is set forth in the Olympic Charter, that they have enjoyed at previous Games," Seibel said. "We made certain those rights would in no way be infringed upon or compromised."

International Olympic Committee spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said the IOC was not aware of the list.

"Any questions on the matter should be addressed to the Chinese authorities," she said.

Sun Weide, who was one of the spokesmen for the Beijing Organizing Committee, told The AP that he had resigned his position and declined to comment. Much of the committee has been dissolved more than two months after the Games.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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Lewis Hamilton subject of racist abuse ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix

By Kevin Garside and Simon Arron

Thousands have targeted Hamilton on a voodoo style website, taunting him about the colour of his skin in a vile campaign that reprised the abuse he received at the start of the year in Barcelona.

More than 16,000 racist messages using terms like "nigger" and "half-breed" have been posted on a Spanish website.

It encourages visitors to leave imaginary nails for Hamilton on a computer mock-up of the Interlagos racetrack. Spanish fans of Hamilton's rival, Fernando Alonso, are believed to be behind the outrage. One, calling himself David, left a message saying: "---- you -------. Monkey."

Another, dubbed Hamilton a conguito – a type of chocolate sweet with racist overtones – and wrote: "Conguito, you are going to die."

One left a nail out near the finishing line on lap 12. Other messages read: "Half-breed, kill yourself in your car," and "I hope you run over your dad in the first pit stop, Hamilton."

Formula One's ruling body, the FIA, who launched an anti-racism campaign following the abuse that Hamilton received at the hands of fans with
blacked-out faces during the Barcelona test in February, condemned the latest attack.

A spokesman said: "Discrimination and prejudice have no place in sport and society. Everybody in our sport will join us in condemning these abusive, hateful comments."

A spokesman for Hamilton's team, McLaren, said: "McLaren was one of the earliest supporters of the FIA's 'Every Race' campaign. We echo the position of the FIA in response to this latest episode."

Hamilton was booed and racially abused as he tested a new car in Barcelona in February. England's footballers were subjected to racist chants during a friendly against Spain at Real Madrid's Bernabeu Stadium in 2004. Sections of the Spanish crowd made monkey chants when Ashley Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Jermaine Jenas touched the ball.

The same year former Spanish coach Luis Aragones was fined more than £2,000 for making racist remarks about Arsenal player Thierry Henry.

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Will Ferrell saves the day at USC practice

I'm glad I was prepared.

While watching USC football practice on Thursday, the Times' Gary Klein gave me a heads-up. As he notes in today's paper, a prank involving a stuntman falling from a platform and another running across the field on fire happened to provide what Trojans Coach Pete Carroll called “just a little Halloween spirit” during practice.

If Gary didn’t tell me beforehand, I may have reacted with the same terrified look as some other onlookers. They gasped when the stuntman fell from a mechanical lift outside a fence surrounding Howard Jones Field.

The mood quickly changed, though, once actor Will Ferrell burst through the gate carrying the man and people realized he landed on a cushion out of view of the practice field. Ferrell, a USC alum, is no stranger to oddball antics, including taking part in Carroll’s various efforts to lighten the team mood. Such as this tribute to USC strength coach “Chuck Berry.”

See more Will Ferrell videos at Funny or Die

-- Mark Medina

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For Ex-N.F.L. Star, a Dream of Sports in Space


GREENBELT, Md. — The game would be called Float Ball. It would combine elements of basketball, football and the Lionel Richie video for “Dancing on the Ceiling” into a sort of free-for-all, compelling weightless players to bounce off walls, obstacles and one another while herding weightless balls of various colors to either end of the playing space, which would be placed inside the cabin of a zero-gravity plane or, possibly, on the moon. Eventually, one day, if all went well, some sort of custom arena would be constructed. On Mars.

Zero Gravity Corporation

Ken Harvey, a former Washington Redskins linebacker in a zero-gravity plane.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

Harvey is promoting a project he calls Space Sportilization

“There’s a bonus,” said the game’s promoter, Ken Harvey, speaking to an attentive audience of National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineers, technicians and scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center here recently, “where you have to pick up a person holding a certain ball and throw them through a hoop as a sort of extra point.”

The football analogy seemed to come easily to mind. Ken Harvey was that Ken Harvey, No. 57 in your Washington Redskins program for much of the late 1990s. Playing linebacker during the largely highlight-free interregnum of Coach Joe Gibbs, Harvey made four appearances in the Pro Bowl.

Now 43, he has not played a down since he dropped out of training camp in 1999. This year, he took a day job in the front office, where he has been charged with serving, according to Redskins management, “as a resource and adviser in the development of responsibility initiatives.”

With two sons nearing college age, Harvey has taken the steady, earthbound gig as an anchor while training his restless imagination on a high-concept project he has called, somewhat risibly, SpaceSportilization.

“I did things the hard way getting to the pros, and I’m doing things the hard way now,” he said during an interview in a back room of the space center, where a disused model satellite served as decoration. “But sometimes you’ve got to believe the unbelievable.”

For Harvey, the hard way had included dropping out of high school, working in a fast-food restaurant and rising through the junior college circuit before starting his career with the Phoenix Cardinals. After his run with the Redskins, there was talk of additional millions, then there were injuries and then there was talk of hundreds of thousands. He walked away from a shrinking pile of money into the booby-trapped netherworld of N.F.L. retirement.

While casting about as a motivational speaker, Harvey struck up a friendship with Allen Herbert, a fellow congregant at Grace Covenant Church in Chantilly, Va. Herbert, a consultant who studied aerospace engineering in college, encouraged him to consider the outer reaches of the tourism business.

In recent years, the space industry has turned increasingly to private sources of finance and inspiration. The Office of Commercial Space Transportation, a unit of the Federal Aviation Administration, has started licensing businesses for suborbital flights. One company, Virgin Galactic, has collected more than $25 million in deposits from about 250 prospective passengers.

Seeking his own role with some degree of skepticism, Harvey met with Eric Anderson, the president of Space Adventures, a private company in Vienna, Va., that has delivered six paying customers to the International Space Station.

“I’ve always been protective,” Harvey said, “because everyone’s always trying to use players.”

Anderson, whose company also operates suborbital flights providing five minutes of weightlessness for $5,000, said in an interview that a Float Ball league would require a couple of decades of significant reductions in the cost of space travel. In the meantime, he said, thinking big can hardly hurt, least of all when the big thinker is a famous football player.

“Ken is a friend, and someone who has the ability to make things happen,” Anderson said. “It just helps get people excited about space.”

In the end, Harvey’s inner Star Trek fan guided him away from the steakhouses and car dealerships of traditional N.F.L. retirement. Taking Herbert as a business partner, he set to work developing a futuristic movie, promoting envisioned athletic offshoots of extraterrestrial tourism and designing Float Ball. He has been invited to address the Global Space Technology Forum in Abu Dhabi next month.

Upon arrival here at the space flight center, on an invitation from the National Society of Black Engineers, Harvey excited a stir of autograph seekers in the security checkpoint.

Inside the campus, a collection of low-slung brick buildings dating to the 1950s, he was escorted on a tour of communications centers stranded in time, working rooms behind glass replete with mainframe computers, heavy phones and framed portraits of astronauts. The only thing missing seemed to be sweaty guys in thin neckties leaning over smoldering ashtrays. His guides spoke of long-ago flush times for space exploration in the cold war.

“You had somebody to compete against,” Harvey said, “like Redskins against Cowboys.”

When the time came for his presentation, Harvey descended the steps of a flag-decked auditorium. Stocky and bald-shaven, dressed in a patterned tie, gray suit, brown loafers and interlocking silver bracelets, he stood before a projection screen that displayed grainy images of the SpaceLab scientists performing gymnastic routines.

His audience, about 40 NASA specialists, fell silent. Harvey ran through a series of slides covering the troubled economy, the promise of space tourism, citations of sports in the work of science fiction novelists and precedent-setting events like Alan Shepard’s lunar golf shot. He cracked jokes, digressed liberally and quickly won over the group.

“You may say, what the heck is all this?” Harvey told his audience. “You’re talking about sports and entertainment complexes on the moon.”

Advanced concepts like the Float Ball league, he argued, would develop in time from astronaut fitness programs, virtual reality games, zero-gravity flights and educational efforts designed to instill post-space age children with new interstellar dreams.

“Sometimes,” he said, “it doesn’t happen in your generation, but you plan to see it in the next generation.”

Then the NASA employees quizzed Harvey on his strategy for making money from space sports, a goal that has largely eluded him so far. From the fifth row, Rosalyn Nelson, a thermal blanket technician, asked how the general public could afford games like Float Ball.

“Great, great, great question,” Harvey said. “Next, please.”

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Happy Halloween: The Top 10 Scariest Players in NBA History

Disgustingly frightful. But no way he cracks our list.

ust got home from Rockets 112, Mavs 102 at American Airlines Center. Plenty of ghouls, goblins and freaky occurences at the joint tonight. To wit, Jerry Jones at a basketball game. And the ManiAACs performing a dance routine to Michael Jackson's "Thriller". Perfectly synchronized, I might add.

Now, admittedly, I'm not the cutest button on the shirt, but I couldn't help but take note of some of the night's scary faces. Duuuude. I looked over here and there was Yao Ming's ominous mug. And over there was Mavs' assistant coach Popeye Jones and his frightening ears.

Got me to thinking. Some NBA talents are attractive. Others, not so much.

If you're scrambling for a last-minute Halloween costume sure to scare the Trick-or-Treaters plum out of your neighborhood, I got you covered.

The Top 10 Scariest Players in NBA history:

10. Bill Walton

9. Marquis Daniels

8. Keith Closs

7. Larry Bird

6. Dennis Rodman

5. Sam Cassell

4. Ha Seung-Jin

3. Tyrone Hill

2. Joakim Noah

1. Gheorghe MuresanRichie Whitt

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Macha gets two-year deal to manage Brewers

Ken Macha Named Brewers Manager

MILWAUKEE -- Ken Macha gets to manage again. That's because Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin is a big believer in second chances.

The 58-year-old Macha was hired Thursday as the manager of the Brewers, taking over the role from Dale Sveum following the team's first postseason appearance since 1982. He agreed to a two-year contract.

"One of the things I'm going to enjoy here I think is the relationship with Doug," said Macha, who spent the last two years as a television analyst. "He's been very honest with me, straightforward. He's more of a delegator. He's going to let me go out and do my job as a manager and I'm going to be very grateful for that."

That's a far cry from Oakland, where Macha took the A's to a pair of AL West titles but had an odd relationship with general manager Billy Beane and lost his job after the 2005 season for a week only to return in 2006.

"The four years in Oakland I learned a tremendous amount of baseball, don't get me wrong," Macha said. "I can be nothing but a better manager now that I come here to Milwaukee."

Melvin said Boston manager Terry Francona, once Macha's bench coach, strongly recommended his former boss. Melvin cited Francona, Joe Torre and Charlie Manuel as managers who got another shot and won titles.

"I got let go myself. I'm a big believer in second chances," said Melvin, who was GM in Texas from 1996-2001. "This isn't someone who has had three chances, four chances, five chances. This is someone with a winning background who is a baseball lifer."

Macha replaces Sveum, who became interim manager when Ned Yost was fired with 12 games left in the regular season. Sveum is expected to return to the coaching staff in some capacity.

Both Melvin and Macha reached out to Sveum, who was dropped from consideration Oct. 17, and Macha encouraged him to keep his dream of being a manager one day.

"I really feel that Dale will be a plus to this staff," Macha said. "I'm hoping that he stays."

Macha also tried to dispel the notion that he'd lost touch with his players in Oakland, including Jason Kendall, now the Brewers catcher.

"I've got a couple things to say about that. No. 1, the job of the manager is really not to be buddies with all the players. You have to make very difficult decisions over the course of the year," he said. "Sometimes players get a little personal and think it's personal. It really isn't."

Macha led Oakland to a 368-260 record. He was fired two days after the Athletics were swept by Detroit in the 2006 AL Championship Series, a result that frustrated players.

"I think if you go back and talk to those players now, they might have a little bit of a different take," Macha said.

Melvin said the common theme of all the candidates he interviewed was that each felt there had been a communication breakdown. Willie Randolph and Bob Brenly also were finalists for the job.

"It's pretty ironic that every one of them felt that was the reason that they were let go and these were managers that had winning records," Melvin said.

Six years ago, Macha was considered a leading candidate to become the Brewers manager when Doug Melvin became GM, but Macha was promoted from bench coach to manager in Oakland and Yost was hired.

Milwaukee went 90-72 last season and won the wild-card berth on the final day. The Brewers then lost in four games to Philadelphia, the eventual World Series champs, in the first round of the playoffs.

But even with a deep core of young players, the Brewers will look much different next season because of 12 potential free agents, including aces CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets. Melvin said it will not be fair to judge Macha based on the team's recent success.

"I have no idea what this team is going to look like in January," Melvin said. "He can't be judged on what we've done in the past because the team's going to be different, he's got to be judged on the team that's been given to him."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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