The Underbelly

The New York Times has an excellent expose in its Sunday business section about a Russian-emigre scamster who has turned Google’s algorithms to his benefit as he rips off customers with counterfeit designer eyeglass frames; proving in essence that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all, the scheme uses well intentioned customer advocacy sites like GetSatisfaction and RipoffReport to build Google juice through mentions and backlinks — things Google likes in its opaque rankings.

After years of flogging the theme that Google defines brand more than anything, and pushing a “customer is always right” posture on customer service relations as the best way to influence a brand online, I found the Times piece frighteningly propheti about how the underbelly of the Internet, primarily the dim world of domain squatters, virus writers, search engine optimization consultants, affiliate marketing weasels and pay-per-post bloggers, has come to insidiously eat away at good intentioned promises of sentiment and influence to make negative commentary a good thing thanks to robotic search results.

Staggering but true and hence I won’t fall into the scamster’s trap of goading outraged handwringers like myself to mention his site or name.

Huang Hua: 1913-2010

Huang Hua, the former Foreign Secretary and Vice-Premier of China passed away on Friday at 97. I said my farewells to him last winter during a visit to Beijing, and wish I’d had more opportunities to get to know him, having had one wonderful evening with him during my first trip to Beijing in 2006 when his wife He Liliang and he welcomed me to their hutong for a roast duck dinner. Any conversation that ranges from the negotiations of the end of the Korean War to life in New York City in the early 1970s as the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations (where he served as president of the Security Council) is a dinner conversation that comes along but once in life. He was a true witness to history, having been with Mao from the very beginning, acting as China’s window to the west in his role as friend and translator to the journalist Edgar Snow who’s Red Star Over China is regarded as the book that brought the Communist Revolution to the attention of the western world. From his role in negotiating the  Nixon-Mao talks to his influence over the massive reforms that led to the modern Chinese miracle, he will be remembered as a founding father of the Chinese state.

My condolences to his widow, my brother in law Huang Bin and my sister Deidre Nickerson and the rest of his family. A state funeral will be conducted next month and his obituary in the New York Times can be found here.

What I’m Reading: The Hard Way Around

I just knocked off Geoffrey Wolff’s biography of Captain Joshua Slocum, the first man to sail alone around the world: The Hard Way Around. Wolff wrote a great memoir, The Duke of Deception, and so, based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s strong review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review I had to download his latest onto the Kindle.

Slocum wrote about his voyage in Sailing Alone Around the World, a familiar book to most fans of nautical writing and a classic in the circumnavigator genre that includes Pidgeon, Moitessier, Chichester, et al.. Wolff connects the rest of Slocum’s life to his great accomplishment, bringing together a complex portrait of one of the last great mariners from the Age of Sail, a man consumed with wanderlust, who lived from ship to ship most of his life, bringing his wife and family with him as he sailed, traded, and survived a life as a bluewater man.

I wrote a novel in college based on Slocum — it was terrible and an embarrassment that taught me that I would never be a novelist — so it was an interesting experience thirty years after that exercise to read about Slocum from his hardscrabble boyhood on Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy to his disappearance at the age of 64 in the hand-me-down boat that carried him safely through the adventure of a lifetime, the Spray. Slocum was an extraordinary sailor who rose “through the hawse port” to the command of some great clipper ships in the late 19th century. He was also an accomplished ship’s carpenter, building his own boats on several occasions, including a strange canoe-like craft he sailed from Brazil to New York City with his wife and children aboard after being shipwrecked and stranded.

In his 50s, his career in ruins and with no sailing ships left to sail, Slocum was offered an old oyster boat by a whaling captain he had met in the Okhotsk Sea off of Siberia. He found the sloop, built almost 100 years before, in a meadow in Fairhaven’s Poverty Point, and decided to renovate her as his own.

He then sailed the Spray alone around the world at the age of 52. Talk about mid-life crisis.

Great book, quick read, and essential for anyone who has been captivated in the past by Slocum’s story.

Paleo Pete

With indoor rowing season under way, I’ve adjusted my exercise  and training routine around the magic date of February 20, 2011 — the date of the 2011 C.R.A.S.H.-B sprints, aka the World Indoor Rowing Championships. Getting ready for this ugly seven minutes of agony is a long process entailing lots of time on the ergometer and weight and stretching work to protect my back.

Since September I’ve been logging steady paced distance pieces: 20 to 40 minutes at a stately pace of 2:00 minutes/500 meters at 26 strokes per minutes (spm), with a shift last month to interval training designed to build endurance and lower my splits to the sprint levels I’ll need to do well in late February. I’m on a training model called the “Pete Plan” which mixes short intense interval work with long distance pieces six days a week. The Plan follows a three week cycle that repeats itself over and over — giving me an indication every 21 days of progress and improvement.

Ergometer training is  brutally boring – a distance piece lasting an hour can accumulate 1,500 strokes, back and forth, like a metronome, with no variation or change other than the feedback delivered by the performance monitor — the computer that indicates effort, time and distance. Following the Pete Plan provides some measure of variation — a sample workout might consist of eight short hard sprints lasting 500 meters with two minutes of rest in between.  The next day might be a leisurely hour long piece.

The key is a good iPod.

While indoor rowing does a good job at working a varied set of muscle systems it can breed bad habits, especially in the lower back region. To compensate one has to stretch a lot and focus off the ergometer on the core.  I spend a lot of time stretching hamstrings, doing situps, and evil medicine ball exercises called Russian Twists. A little weight work a few times each week, and one day of full rest to recover and then it’s on to the next week in the Pete Plan cycle. Everything is logged on the Concept 2 log book, but I’ve pimped my erg with a program called RowPro that interfaces off of my ThinkPad via a USB cable plugged into the performance monitor. I could, if I wished, compete virtually against other indoor rowers over the internet via the Oarbits server, but I use the program to build the custom interval workouts in the Pete Plan, and then upload the results into my Concept 2 log book.

Diet is a big issue — I want to lose weight but not do something goofy that will leave me low on gas for the machine. Thanks to the example set by a good friend, I’ve moved pretty religiously to a “paleo” or “caveman” diet that eschews grains, legumes, dairy and sugar and focuses on lean protein (chicken, fish, eggs), carbs from vegetables (broccoli, sweet potato, cauliflower, etc.) and fats from things like olive oil, avocados and nuts.  Paleo is big in the Crossfit community (which I still subscribe to, but less ardently due to rotator cuff issues) and there is a ton of material and recipes throughout the web. I bought The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf. The science is a little tedious — as it is in most diet books — but the concept is very simple.

The primary secret to training diets is to log what one eats — obsessively — and to aid in that task I use the Livestrong “MyPlate” app for the iPad, using it as a calorie counter and goal tracker.

The results so far:

  • Weight is down 22 pounds since June
  • My rankings are decent, but not great:
  • My splits are dropping dramatically, especially for the benchmark 5,000 meter piece.