December 21, 2008

The Virtual Vendée farce

ONE OF THE of the biggest yacht races in the world has turned into a French farce.

The tactics of more than a quarter million skippers participating in the Virtual Vendée were thrown into confusion last week when the French organizers' computers were overwhelmed. The Virtual Vendée is an Internet computer game that mimics the real Vendée, a non-stop race around the world for singlehanders sailing 60-foot sloops.

The overwhelming number of free entries for the virtual game — which offers prizes worth 10,000 euros — obviously caught the race committee by surprise. At first they were ecstatic that 100,000 virtual skippers were competing. Then the tally went up to 200,000. Now it's way over 270,000.

Entrants are able to choose the best course for their boats and select the most efficient suit of sails for prevailing wind conditions, which change every 12 hours at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. EST.
In addition, those with money to spare can buy "advantages" such as automatic sail changes and autopilots to aid their progress toward the finish line in France's Bay of Biscay.

But last week's computer failures sewed doubt and confusion about the rankings and performance of all the boats participating in the race. The organizers say they will need two weeks to put things right.

One American skipper claims to have lost 6,000 places because he thought he had missed a mark of the course and had to double back to validate it. The next day he discovered that he had, in fact, passed the mark correctly in the first place. The position of the mark had been incorrectly changed by the computer.

Another American claimed to have lost 1,000 places in the ranking while maintaining "a pretty good average speed toward the goals. Unless thousands of boats ahead of me are doing 25 knots, I should have been able to keep up." In almost all cases, incorrect winds were shown for the areas in which skippers were operating.

I took part in the race for two weeks, during which I advanced 18,867 places in the rankings, but I abandoned my boat and hopped ashore when, last week, I became skeptical of the ability of the race committee to cope with the heavy data flow. For instance, I lost 80 places in 10 minutes while I was doing 21 knots to the southeast — a very doubtful scenario. Furthermore, as I approached a mark of the course, the computer showed me 9 miles behind a French boat I'd been competing with fiercely day and night for nearly two weeks. Ten minutes later, when the screen automatically refreshed itself, I was 50 miles behind.

The thought comes unbidden to the mind: do skippers who sign on to the French-language game get better treatment than those who join its English-speaking counterpart? Unbidden or not, there is some evidence to support this theory. A French "professional" called Destremau, equipped with all the advantage-giving gimmicks, was depicted on screen as being quite a way behind an American amateur, but was still ranked several hundred places higher.

Apart from my mistrust of the fairness of this competition, and the disturbing aspect of being able to win places for cash down payments, I am totally amazed that so many people chose to take part. I had no idea there were so many sailors were out there. You don't have to be a sailor to take part in the Virtual Vendée, of course — I'm sure that many of the thousands who get passed in the night are landlubbers obsessed with computer games — but even so it's an astonishing number.

I mean, this has to be the slowest, dullest computer game ever invented. It takes from November to April, for goodness' sake, and you can't even see your boat move on the screen in real time.

Come to think of it, it's more of a mind game than anything else. Who knew that so many people had minds?

Today's Thought
Fickle in everything else, the French have been faithful in one thing only,—their love of change. —Sir Archibald Alison, History of Europe.

I was talking to a sailing doctor about boat names the other day, and how difficult it is to get exactly the right one. He told me that the medical profession has a similar problem with new drugs.

In pharmacology, all drugs have a generic name. Advil, for example, is ibuprofen. Tylenol is acetaminophen. Aleve is naproxen, and so on.

Apparently the FDA has been looking for a generic name for Viagra. After a long search, they have settled on Mycoxafloppin. Also considered were Mydixadrupin and Mydixadud.

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