Winter Walk in Wellfleet

A long hike in Wellfleet on a frigid late fall day on the verge of the winter solstice yielded some surprises, mostly deceased.

Great  Island is a  long series of dunes, marshes, scrub pine forests and ocean vistas that is probably best explored in the cold because of its long distances relative to most other Cape Cod hikes. The combination of bayside, woodland, and ocean beaches makes it one of the most varied hikes I’ve done on the Cape, with three varying distances depending on one’s destination. My daughter and I did the middle distance segment — not making the full trek out to Jeremy Point because of the short afternoon and waning sunlight.

 

The hike is all within the National Seashore and begins in a parking lot near the end of Chequessett Neck Road at a three way intersection with Griffins Island Road. Trail maps are available at the trail head near the port-a-potties. The trail is well marked in the early going, down a set of steps to the beach inside of the Gut, or head of Wellfleet harbor. Across the hard packed sand to the the southwest is a wide trail that passes by the controversial Blasch House — appropriately labeled the “Abominable House” by one architecture critic. This project caused a furor in Wellfleet as the town tried to stop the construction of the starter castle on such a prominent view. Others hailed it as a triumph of property owner rights.

As the trail curved east towards the old whaler’s taven we noticed a lot of dead eiders, sea ducks that had expired for some mysterious reason in the wrack above the high water line. I guessed some form of red tide did them in, but a quick bit of research revealed they had died from a parasite called a “thorny-headed worm” which they pick up when their normal diet of mussels isn’t sufficient and they turn to crabs and shoreside berries. (update: it appears that source is unreliable and the mystery of the eider die-off continues) I was surprised to find three dead porpoises —  big mummified corpses that looked very eerie with their exposed rib cages and cadaverous grins.

Less morbidly, we did discover a huge expanse of wild oysters sitting on the bottom exposed by the low tide. All instincts to scavenge like paleolithic aborigines kicked in, but were thwarted by thoughts of getting busted by both the Wellfleet clam cops and the federal rangers for a combined felony-rap of clamming without a clue.

Leaving the beach we worked through the woods to the site of the tavern that served the coastal whalers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Aside from a cellar hole in the woods, there was little to see, so we kept ducking under pine cones and branches until the trail widened and this memorial to the last private owner of the island — Priscilla Alden Bartlett — emerged.

We emerged from the woods over another salt marsh strewn with dead elders, walked inside the dune along Cape Cod Bay until we found an acceptable point of passage that wasn’t marked with skull and crossbone warnings against erosion and crossed over to the bay side beach. The arctic wind coming down from the northwest was exhilarating and did a number on our sinuses, but the view of Provincetown to the north, and the blue hill of Plymouth to the west reminded me that early December was when the Mayflower first sailed into these waters and the men of the party cruised the coast in their shallop for their first encounter with the Nauset indians.

The beach walk was easy going and I kept an eye open for cold-stunned turtles, but found none. We crossed back into the gut-side of the trail before the Abominable House and made it back to the parking lot in under two hours. Great Island is definitely my new favorite Cape Cod trek. Bring water and provisions as this is a true hike and not a brief stroll.

Cape Cod Culture

A few posts back I composed a maritime reading list and included a book by a relatively unknown author/adventurer/illustrator, Rockwell Kent, who wrote two great books about adventure cruising in the antipodes — N by E which recounted his cruises around the shores of Greenland and eventual shipwreck there and Voyaging Southwards from the Strait of Magellan. Both are fairly hard to find outside of a library, but are great not only for their writing but Kent’s distinctive illustrations, the art he is best known for, a strong muscular style embodied in his famous illustrations for the 1930 Lakeside Press edition of Moby Dick, the first edition of the American classic since its rediscovery in the 1920s by the critic Carl Van Doren.

This past weekend, the second in December, I was handed a pair of tickets to Verdi’s interminable opera, Don Carlo, and its big screen telecast at the Cape Cod Cinema in Dennis. I went with my wife, not so much for the opera which was fine and amazingly performed, but the cinema itself, an amazing specimen  built in the 1930s at the apogee of the Cape’s bohemian art movement by Raymond Moore.

Designed to resemble a dairy barn, with a Greek classical facade that mimics a Congregational church in nearby Centerville, the cinema is famous for its mural, designed by Kent, which was hailed as one of the largest in the world, bigger than Tintoreto’s Paradise in the Doge’s Palace in Venice. It is one of three Kent murals that remain, but curiously was not painted by the artist who refused to enter the Commonwealth of Massachusetts because of the state’s role in the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti case, a cause celebre that rallied the liberal movement of the time.

The Berkshire Review of the Arts has a great gallery of photographs of the mural, but nothing comes close to capturing the amazing dichotomy between the austere white clapboard exterior of the building and the amazing art deco experience within the theater itself. The seating is comprised on hundreds of fine wooden armchairs designed by Paul Frankl, each with a white seat cover, and the sound system (from the front row where my wife and I were stuck thanks to a late arrival) more than sufficient.

Kent may not have painted the mural directly, but he did show up for the unveiling at the grand opening of the Cinema, breaking his self-imposed exile from Massachusetts. He passed away in 1971.

The opera? I snuck out during the first intermission. I swear my wife and I were the youngest people in the place by at least 30 years and the know-it-all sitting behind us made the experience excruciating. Great way to spend a winter’s late afternoon on the normally barren Cape.

Online coaching: rowing resources

This post is for fellow erg-nerds training for the World Indoor Rowing Championships on February 20th in Boston. With less than 90 days to the worst 6 minutes and 30 seconds (I hope) of physical torture you can imagine, the pressure is building to get going on a training plan designed to make me peak on that chilly Sunday morning when I climb onto my assigned Concept 2 ergometer in Boston University’s Agganis Arena.

Preparing for competition is what coaching is all about, but since I am too far away from my rowing club in Boston to avail myself of the coaches there, I have to train by myself. Because rowing is an extremely quantitative sport — the embodiment of the classic equation Distance = Rate X Time — indoor rowers spend all their time staring at this, the Performance Monitor:

Add a heart rate belt and some software such as RowPro, and the process of training becomes extremely logical and frankly can become very complicated. Assuming a training schedule over a six-day week — with the seventh day taken off for recovery — designing a program to achieve constant improvement without over training or incurring the dreaded lower back strain is very complicated. Fortunately there are a few online options which are very effective — some free, and some expensive.

A popular free program is the Wolverine Plan which was invented by Mike Caviston, coach of the University of Michigan’s women’s crew team. Like all good training programs it begins with a series of tests to establish a baseline, and then spells out, in complex detail, a regimen of varying intensities (watts), paces (strokes per minute), and duration (time and intervals of work and rest) that in theory will yield maximum performance on the day of the race. It worked for Caviston as he holds the world record for his age group and has gone on to be a trainer of Navy SEALS. The Wolverine is very popular, free, and avidly followed by the competitive indoor rowing community, but the most common criticism is its complexity and emphasis on long (60 to 75 minute) workouts at mind-numbingly low stroke rates.

An easier version of the Wolverine Plan which I followed for six weeks — or two three-week cycles — is the Pete Plan, developed by British indoor rower Pete Marston. I achieved some solid improvement on the Pete Plan, but since it feels more oriented to a 5,000 meter distance (under 20 minutes) I went looking for something more oriented to the 2,000 meter, or sprint distance. I shaved 7 seconds off of my average 500 meter times over 5000 meters in six weeks thanks to this plan.

One great online coach is Boston University’s head crew coach Tom Bohrer who, with his wife C.B. Sands, a former elite world championship rower, publish a great training plan at TBFIT.com. Tom was my coach at the Union Boat Club before taking the B.U. coaching job, but his online workouts are very effective and mix in an emphasis on core workouts (abdominal) and weight/strength training not found in the Wolverine or Pete Plans. TBFIT is a subscription model, but Tom’s 2K training plan is very effective and led me to my personal best at the CRASH-B sprints in 2004, a 6:28.7.

I am in the first week of a new online program designed by the former Danish Olympic coach, Bo Vestergaard, called the Rojabo Plan. The first month is free, then it converts to a paid subscription priced at $47 a month (now discounted to $14.99 a month).  Rojabo starts with two tests — six minutes of rowing at specific stroke rates in one minute increments, then an evil endurance test where one tries to maintain a certain watt output over time. Based on those results the system generates a daily training plan which feels very effective and is designed with the specific goal of 2,000 meters on February 20th. How effective won’t be known until I retake the endurance test in a couple weeks to gauge my improvements, but if exhaustion and muscle aches are any indication, it’s working.

Combined with Concept2’s annual Holiday Challenge where the goal is to row 200,000 meters between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my daily hour of indoor rowing (technically outdoor as I do it on the deck or in the garage) is keeping me both fit and sane.

Do Not Track: The Death of Metrics or Catalyst for Innovation?

It was a matter of time before the winds of regulation blew over the mysterious world of digital advertising and behavioral targeting, just as they blew out the telemarketing-junk call industry in the 1980s, email spammers in the 1990s, and pay-per-post blogola two years ago. I think it’s inevitable that the government will regulate online tracking and I believe the result — counter to fears it will decimate digital advertising — will be a much needed catalyst for innovation in online advertising.

From the 12.6.10 New York Times: “If the vast majority of online users chose not to have their Internet activity tracked, the proposed “do not track” system could have a severe effect on the industry, some experts say. It would cause major harm to the companies like online advertising networks, small and midsize publishers and technology companies like Yahoo that earn a large percentage of their revenue from advertising that is tailored to users based on the sites they have visited.”

Nothing gets the public’s libertarian hackles up like a threat to their privacy, even though 99% of them have no clue what constitutes identity and personal privacy in the digital age. The declared intentions of the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on online advertising use of tracking beacons, pixels or cookies is inevitable and has been brewing since 1995 when Mark Andreesen and  Netscape first introduced the cookie to great consternation and misunderstanding.

This is an old issue, one that tracks back to the mid-1990s and was embodied by the famous comment by Sun Microsystem’s CEO, Scott McNeally: “You have zero privacy. Get over it.” McNeally uttered those words at a time when the technology and media industries were trying to head off government regulation by forming the Online Privacy Alliance (OPA). Evidently self-regulation hasn’t been enough, and now the industry is on the brink of having some new regulations to conform to.

Let’s look at what the issue is and how things got to the point that the issue officially was blessed as the most significant story of the day in early December by the front page of the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal’s Julie Angwin gets the most credit for raking the privacy muck in a shrill series that is encapsulated on this page on the Journal’s site which is actually a very comprehensive and chilling catalogue of news about the state of digital privacy in modern America. While some critics like Jeff Jarvis have accused the Journal of being breathlessly alarmist and turning the practice of cookie-based advertising into the modern equivalent of Reefer Madness, the Journal has persisted, making it an inevitable outcome that sooner or later some bureaucrats and Congressmen would take up the  call and file a bill.

Let me attempt to simplify the issue in lurid terms: Web publishers and digital advertising companies are colluding to sneak  invisible tracking devices onto your computer which report back personal information about you so they can deliver targeted advertisements to you and share your personal information with marketers, and other interested parties.

The issue comes down to whether or not a web user has the right, by default, to ban the placement of  cookies or “invisible tracking pixels” on their PC when they visit a website or click on an ad. These cookies are  the digital equivalent of a tracking device snuck under the bumper of your car so your whereabouts can be tracked by the cops or enemy spies.

One of the most prevalent digital bugs or tracking cookies is the Adobe-Omniture 2o7.net tracker.  Omniture is a very powerful web metrics tool that web publishers and corporate web sites use to analyze traffic patterns and user behaviors.  Most major e-commerce sites use the tool and I’ve spent a lot of time in its dashboards analyzing metrics at CIO.com and Lenovo.com. This is an expensive tool, not something a typical Internet scam artist would use to hatch some evil plan, and it never reports back any personal information about site visitors. Your name, your address, your phone number, your social security number …. none of its transferred back to the analyst.

Yet the 2o7 tracking cookie it classified as spyware and a threat by most spyware scanners. Why?

Privacy is becoming a matter of degrees. While your name may not be passed without your knowledge, your IP address is. And someone with a subpoena and some diligence can, in theory, track you down to a specific geographical address. Your personal information — from your online medical records to your bank account numbers — all of it exposed and can be stolen by a criminal clever enough to trick you into parting with that information on a fake site or through so-called “social” engineering.  Identity theft is a very real threat online, and tends to trick the nontechnical, unsophisticated users the most.

But what does a ban on tracking cookies do to online advertising?

First, it will have an impact on re-targeting. This is where a site like Lenovo.com or Filson.com (two online retails I happen to visit occasionally) plant a tracker into your browser and then use it to trigger ads for their products when you visit other sites. So, if I go to Lenovo’s ThinkPad store and check out a T410S, I can usually expect to see a lot of Lenovo ads as I surf around to CNET, PC Magazine, and any other sites that Lenovo’s advertising agency deems appropriate to display the client’s ads on. Do these ads greet me by name? No. Are they intelligent enough to distinguish my interest in one product over another? No. Do they get progressively more aggressive in offering me a better price as time goes by? No.

In some regards, re-targeting is somewhat pathetic. It sounds semi-intelligent to follow a visitor around and throw more ads at them, but in reality you have to keep in mind one very real fact: online advertising is, for the most part, completely ignored by most users. Click through rates have been declining on most display (graphical) ads since they were introduced in the mid-1990s, and only so-called rich media ads featuring video or some form of dynamic multimedia are getting higher CTRs. We’re talking click rates under 1%.  Digital ads remain noise for the most part, and the only stuff that seems to have legs — witness the phenomenal one-trick pony known as Google — is contextual search advertising (which does not use tracking cookies).

As tracking and re-targeting comes under fire a few things will happen. First, advertisers will lose insight into the buying patterns or behaviors of customers, and selecting media for their advertising will become more difficult. Will advertisers regress to what is known as last-click attribution, where credit for a sale, registration or other “success event” be credited to the last ad or link the user  clicked before arriving in a store to make a purchase? Perhaps, but I think what will happen is the 2011 equivalent of New York City’s solution to the threat of being buried under too much horse manure in the late 19th century — technology (in NYC’s case the automobile) will simply cause the problem to become moot. Advertisers and agencies have been lazy and deceiving themselves that they have some semblance of intelligence in their metrics — which they laud as “behavioral targeting” – when in fact it’s ad insertion based on cookie triggers, nothing more. Take away the cookie and I guarantee some motivated entrepreneur will rush to the table with a new ad format that performs without them.

So, bottom line, bring on the era of regulation, punish the most egregious offenders, and stay tuned for the online advertising industry to evolve into a more intelligent form of advertising which has been overdue since the invention of contextual search ads by Bill Gross.

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Groupon? Riddle me this ….

Sorry, but $6 Billion for a service that sends a daily email containing a coupon to a local restaurant or nail salon?  Has Google lost its mind? Is its $33 billion in cash burning that big a stupid-hole in its pockets that it feels compelled to pull the 2010 equivalent of Time Warner  buying AOL? This may be the deal that signifies the shark jumping of the social networking craze. Especially given that Groupon shows absolutely no social tendencies that I can determine other than a call to action to share the spam with a friend.

I signed up for Groupon — the Chicago local online social coupon whatever service — last month, and every morning get an utterly useless email containing a spammy offer to get a plate of cheap BBQ or a pedicure for half-off the list price somewhere in Greater Boston. Sorry, call me dense, but I just don’t get the secret sauce that makes this deal worth $6 billion.

In other words: Sign up to receive a daily deal. Receive the deal. Maybe share the deal. Then redeem the deal.  What am I missing here? The NYT goes for the jugular when it questions the payoff for the merchants.

Not all small businesses are sold on the golden promise of Groupon. Ina Pinkney, the chef and owner of a cafe called Ina’s, in Chicago, said she was curious about Groupon when she first heard about it a couple of years ago. She ultimately decided against using it.

“We did the math up front when they first started coming around to us and I said, ‘No, it really doesn’t make much sense,’ ” she said. “If we were to offer a $25 coupon for $50 worth of food, it doesn’t work.”

Groupon’s cut is half the dollar amount of the coupon, so the average amount of money Ina’s would collect for each Groupon customer was around $12.50, she said.

“I would never produce that much food for such a small amount,” she said.”

As this deal is questioned by analysts and investors, the most plausible explanation appears to be the most insane: Google bought Groupon to keep Facebook from buying it.

This could go down as one of the dumbest deals since Yahoo paid a billion for Mark Cuban’s Broadcast.com.