The Older We Get the Faster We Were

I’m using the same line twice in two weeks, but what the hell.

Rowed my first formal 2,000 meter indoor rowing race of 2011 today at the Cape Cod YMCA — the annual Cape Cod Cranberry Crunch sponsored by Cape Cod Rowing:  the local club that rows on Lake Wequaquet in Centerville. I was entered in the men’s heavyweight division — there were eight of us ranging from maybe 15 years old up to the 60s — and there were races through the afternoon for various categories of girls, women, lightweights and heavyweights.

My race — the combined boys & men’s 2K — was first, so I started warming up almost as soon as I arrived, got good and loose, peeling off layers of clothing until I was conspicuously perched on the ergometer in lane one in my stylish Union Boat Club uni-suit, aka according to my wife, “The Dink Suit”

The eight ergs were networked and a lane display was projected on the wall showing little yellow boat icons with our names next to it. I rocked back and forth a couple times, mouth bone dry, and the monitor counted down — Attention. Ready. Row!

I did a series of short starting strokes to get the flywheel up to speed, and then lit up at 36 strokes a minute for ten strokes with an average split of 1:20. I had written out a race plan on an index card that was on the erg between my feet, and even though I felt like Superman on Crack in the first minute, I resisted the dreaded Fly-And-Die strategy and settled down to 26 strokes per minutes at a 1:41 for 250 meters, and then further down to 1:44 for the next 250.

At the 500 meter mark — 25 percent of the way through — I started to breath twice on each stroke — exhaling at the finish and the catch and inhaling on the drive and recovery as my metabolism shifted into oxygen deficit and my heart rate was climbing into the 160 range.

I did a hard power ten at the 500 meter mark and saw the 17 16 year-old kid, novice Andrew Pereira on the erg next to me — a 220 lb., 6’5″ beast from New Bedford Community Rowing who was definitely going to kick my butt — was cranking a lot faster and pulling away. I was tempted to ignore the index card and chase, but a plan is a plan and the whole purpose of today’s race was to gauge my speed three weeks before the world championships and the plan was to break 7:00 and aim for 6:45.

I felt great in the second 500 picking up the pace to 1:43 and rowed a power ten at the half-way mark. I ignored Pereira r and his coach exhorting him next to me, and stayed on plan, rowing the third 500 at 1:42, and the beginning of the final 500 at 1:41. With 250 meters or about 25 strokes left I “emptied the tank” and sprinted at 1:38. Ten strokes in and the junior was done, finishing with a 6:31. I put the handle down at 6:42.2, fast enough to win the adult division, but second to Pereira who won the Boys Division and had the fastest overall time of the day.

I won some schwag for the effort and felt good enough about the race to brag in a blog post. I’m now ranked 22nd in the world for the 50-55 heavyweight men’s class.

Oceanic Libertarianism: The Massachusetts Saltwater Fishing License

Back at the dawn of InterWeb time I started an experiment in what I guess would now be called “long-tail community publishing.” Lotus founder Mitch Kapor suggested I think about creating an Internet news service, and I came up with the name “RealTime” as a play on the potential for constant deadline cycles and instant publishing (this was 1994 remember and everything was new). Then Chris Locke — one of the Cluetrain authors — threw me a contributing editor/columnist gig at InternetMCI (one of the first ballyhooed “portals”) and asked me to write about online journalism. As a stalking horse to prove my points about the potential to focus on micro audiences, I invented a fictitious news service for fishermen, then saltwater fishermen, then saltwater flyfishermen, and finally saltwater flyfishermen on Cape Cod; largely because it was a subject I knew something about first hand, could create content around, and seemed to make the point better than a service about knitting with one’s pet hair.

As it turns out there are people who knit sweaters with golden retriever hair ((but that thought disgusts me so I do not), and saltwater flyfishing was, for me in the early 1990s an obsession of late night surfcasting, prowling the back creeks of the local salt marshes, and learning how to fling a hook covered in fur and feathers 100 feet into the teeth of a howling wind. Thankfully I don’t have that time or endurance anymore, and now take out my frustrations on a rowing machine.

The fictitious fishing site I invented for InternetMCI because a real enterprise called “Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Flyfishing.”  With a partner, we launched the site in 1995 and were pleasantly surprised to see it quickly become the go-to source for local fishing information on Cape Cod and the Islands. Before I knew it I was a quasi-fishing journalist, delivering weekly reports on where the fish were in my local waters.

The bulletin boards for community discussion were very lively affairs — definitely a great example of community building and where I learned my lessons in moderation the hard way.

But I digress, that was a long way of backing into the comment that Massachusetts now requires me and my fishing brethren to pay a small fee ($10) for the privilege of fishing in the state’s territorial waters. This was a perennial pissing match starter at Reel Time

The perennial volatile topic that was guaranteed to start a pissing war was the subject of a saltwater fishing license in the Bay State. Freshwater fishermen have had to cough up $25 or more every year for the right to fish in a freshwater pond or lake, but saltwater anglers were able to roam the bounding seas and Big Briny for free, taking what they wanted from the water without having to pay the Man his due.  You would be astonished at the libertarian vitriol of the fishing fanatics over the subject of licenses.

So listen up friends and family who like to wet a line for the occasional bluefish, striper, fluke or scup: you need to pay your respects to the Commonwealth and go to this website to pay your dues. The governor argues that the state had to require a license, otherwise the Feds would have imposed a more expensive one. Oh well. I’m used to paying for the little piece of paper every time I go fishing in Florida, it was eventually going to happen here.

I Erg, Therefore I Am

It’s the depths of ergometer season — when northern rowers are off the water and on their rowing machines racking up meters and laying down a base of fitness for the spring racing circuit.  Having racked up somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million meters since I started erging in earnest in 1995, I have mixed emotions about a device that I spend an average of 45 minutes a day on, third in terms of device time after my bed and desk chair.  It’s the extreme simplicity of the machine, the fact that I like to take my exercise sitting down, and the unblinking feedback its little computer gives me from one stroke to the next that  makes my rowing machine much more than a way to stay fit.

In some ways my ergometer is a daily test, a check-in between me and my willpower, a place to set goals, to even compete against others, but ultimately a place to zone out in a sweaty, 170 heartbeats and 26 strokes per minute cadence of exertion that leaves me miraculously charged for another 24 hours. Erging is all about goals. Micro goals of getting more than 8,000 meters in 30 minutes, or setting a personal best in the standard 2,000 meter race distance.  Macro goals like rowing 2,000,000 meters in one year, or 200,000 between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Erging is about competing, against the published times of other rowers, sometimes impossible times set by Olympians, but nevertheless times that somewhere deep inside one’s ego reasons is possible to beat if you work hard enough.

Ergs are all about hope and possibilities, the optimism that one can be better tomorrow than they were yesterday. Unfortunately, as my friend Charlie Clapp (silver medal in 1984 Olympics) is fond of saying: “The older we get, the faster we were.”

Alone in the garage, door open onto the village center, watching the runners and strollers and traffic slide by, plugged into some electronica-trance music, stoner rock, or industrial metal,  sawing back and forth, back and forth, the thoughts that creep into my mind as I fight to keep my splits low and my form composed are amazing and nagging like a bad feverish dream. Thoughts of guilt over not trying hard enough, of not working hard enough, of eating that crap the night before, or skipping a day due to some aching ailment or another. But finishing a workout and beating a goal leaves me with a charge of victory that follows me off the erg and stays with me for the rest of the day.

There are moments of transcendence in rowing when everything suddenly goes very zen and effortless, when a flood of power and adrenaline surges and makes you fly. Rowers call this “swing” and it’s a rare but sublime state that only rowers can understand when eight people in one boat suddenly click and the sum of the whole rises as close to perfection as an imperfect world has to offer. The right song, the right point in my training, and the erg can deliver the same brief moments of swing, when suddenly everything is right in the world and my legs, my arms, my back are twice as strong as they were an instant before.

The monotony of the erg is meditation. Swinging back and forth as if riding the end of a metronome clicking away on top of a piano. 26 strokes a minute. Ten meters per stroke. 500 meters in two minutes means 1000 meters in four. The mind does the arithmetic over and over and over, a Rainman insanity of counting through the stroke (one-two-three-four), the piece, the session, all while the machine blinks out its numbers, making stark judgments and humbling the best intentions and plans laid out at the start.

In two weeks the racing begins. First the Cape Cod championships — The Cranberry Crunch — when a couple dozen local rowers come together at the YMCA to endure the hell of a 2,000 meter race. Then, in late February, the World Indoor Rowing Championships, or CRASH-B Sprints, a wild affair with thousands of rowers from around the world — Olympians to senior citizens — competing in their age groups and weight classes for the coveted Hammer trophy.  Words cannot describe the agonizing anticipation one feels before the start signal is given — the foreknowledge that in just a couple minutes one’s body will begin to suffer an agony unlike anything experienced. Think of surgery without anesthesia combined with suffocation and a beating with a blunt object. The vision goes after a while shrinking into a little tunnel focused on the monitor; the lungs burn, thighs turn into wooden blocks, and the head begins to loll around and strange noises come out of it — grunts and moans as first 500 meters, then 1000 (halfway!), and then the dreaded wall of hell until the final 500 when anything is doable and questions of survival give way to the anticipated joy of stopping.

Finish and look to the left — people are still in agony, sawing away. Look to the right, the same, one after another letting go of the handle in a personal victory of having survived the worst 7 minutes of their life. The scores are posted, the judgment is final.

Erg scores are a modern rower’s badge of honor — exposed for all to see. While ergs don’t float and great ergers don’t always make great rowers on the water, the scores are crucial, grounds for invitation to training camps and college recruiting.  There were no real ergs when I rowed in college. Coaches made judgments and selection based on seat-racing and on the water performance. But as soon as Concept2 introduced the first machines in the early 1980s the sport was transformed.

Now erging is a sport unto itself — Indoor rowing. No one is keener on it than the British, who have turned out some amazing ergers over the last twenty years. From English prisons to the Royal Navy, erging is a big deal in England, and nearly every country on the Continent has its own national championships. There have even been suggestions that the sport become an Olympic event.

I suspect I’ll erg right up to the end. Rolling through the meters, thanking the Wheel of Pain for keeping the pounds off and giving me the chance to eat another slice of birthday cake and not huff and puff when I bound up a flight of stairs.  Today, with on-the-water rowing seeming so far away, I want nothing more than to sit in an actual boat on a sunny day and glide over smooth waters under my own propulsion; but once there I know I’ll miss the stability of the machine, the way it lets me pound away without fear of capsizing or running backwards into a dock.

Is it time to cut the cable on TV?

There has been much buzz building over the past year about moving television away from a satellite/cable delivery model to an IP solution where the viewer pulls down programming from a pay-as-you-go or all-you-can-eat store such as iTunes or Netflix.  Pushing the DVR out of the rack and replacing it with an IP delivery solution such as AppleTV, Google TV, Roku, or even an XBox requires a leap of faith I suspect many won’t take for another few years. But confront a monthly DirectTV bill approaching $200, do some math on one’s digital content expenses (fodder for a future post) and the economics of moving to a new model is compelling except for a couple big stumbling blocks.

First off, as the insightful interactive TV blogger Uncle Fester pointed out recently, while the world is moving to a time-shifted model where programming is recorded and then viewed at one’s convenience, sports will remain a real-time event and as such — given the expensive scale of the broadcast rights — is not likely soon to migrate from Fox or ESPN to MLB.com or a sports-specific streaming provider.

Second is the spotty distribution of high bandwidth to the home — America’s shameful data networks continue to lag other countries (Korea for example) — and without a dependable high speed connection IPTV fails for the masses.

Uncle Fester provided me with a first generation AppleTV unit a couple years ago and it sort of languished in the closet — being connected and pressed into service on a couple of occasions, especially by my offspring who are far more comfortable with consuming their shows on a PC. For them it is fairly natural to decide to watch something then go find it on iTunes or Hulu or even YouTube.  That first generation AppleTV was a challenge to embrace because of the meager DSL rates I was experiencing on Cape Cod (350 to 400 kbits per second) and because my home network was primarily Windows XP machines with an unstable iTunes machine because of my need to switch PCs every few months in my former role at a PC company.

This all changed last week when I killed off Verizon DSL and replaced with with a much speedier Comcast connection and then ordered the second generation AppleTV device — for a mere $99 — and plugged it’s very straightforward HDMI out into the flat panel over the fireplace. Two things drove me to the new device — first was AirPlay, the ability to push video from an iPhone or iPad onto the television with amazing ease, and second was the integration of Netflix.  At this point I’d declare that AppleTV is providing at least half of the content consumed, especially spur of the moment video on demand via iTunes, or “channel surfing” through Netflix’s instant offerings.

The ability to stream movies stored on my ThinkPad into the unit and onto the screen via the home Wifi and the Home Share capability in iTunes is more than convenient and holds big possibilities for sharing home digital video, etc. Installing Apple’s remote control app on my iPad makes text entry into search boxes a hundred times easier than moving a cursor around with the AppleTV’s little remote (itself a nice example of Apple design engineering). All in all, I can’t recommend the new AppleTV highly enough.

For more on the cord-cutting phenomenon I recommend the New York Times‘ series on the topic.

Information Sovereignty and Data Havens

Overlooked in the news about WikiLeaks and the sexual escapades of its founder  is the fascinating issue of data havens: secure  “places” where data may be stored and accessed  out of the legal reach of any government or plaintiff.  The concept has interested me for over a decade, and perhaps the best presentation of the concept was in Neal Stephenson’s 199 novel, Cryptonomicon, in which the modern day protagonists try to establish a data haven in the fictional Sultanate of Kinakuta with the objective of providing a platform for anonymous  banking, censorship-free hosting of content, and eventually an online “gold” standard for a virtual currency.

Wikileak’s travails in finding a host are well reported, but to recount, the site was booted off of Amazon Web Services. It’s instructional to read Amazon’s explanation for why they dropped the site from its servers:

“There have been reports that a government inquiry prompted us not to serve WikiLeaks any longer. That is inaccurate.

“There have also been reports that it was prompted by massive DDOS attacks. That too is inaccurate. There were indeed large-scale DDOSattacks, but they were successfully defended against.

“…. AWS does not pre-screen its customers, but it does have terms of service that must be followed. WikiLeaks was not following them. There were several parts they were violating. For example, our terms of service state that “you represent and warrant that you own or otherwise control all of the rights to the content… that use of the content you supply does not violate this policy and will not cause injury to any person or entity.” It’s clear that WikiLeaks doesn’t own or otherwise control all the rights to this classified content. Further, it is not credible that the extraordinary volume of 250,000 classified documents that WikiLeaks is publishing could have been carefully redacted in such a way as to ensure that they weren’t putting innocent people in jeopardy. Human rights organizations have in fact written to WikiLeaks asking them to exercise caution and not release the names or identities of human rights defenders who might be persecuted by their governments.”

In sum, AWS invoked its Terms of Service clause in which it reserves the right to not provide common carriage to data of suspect ownership, e.g. the  stolen diplomatic cables,  banking records, emails, etc. that WikiLeaks serves up.

There are precedents for WikiLeaks — Sweden’s The Pirate Bay is a classic example of a service that was disrupted when the site’s servers were seized by police on a judge’s order  (one server is apparently enshrined in a Swedish computer museum). The fact that a judge could order a seizure that would then be executed by police led to the very interesting attempt by The Pirate Bay to purchase The Principality of Sealand — a former WWII  “Maunsell Sea Fort” sitting a few miles off of England’s eastern coast. Sealand was abandoned after the war, then occupied in 1967 by a pirate radio broadcaster who took advantage of the structure’s placement outside of England’s three-mile territorial limits. The Pirate Bay was unable to pull off the transaction, and one has to marvel at the technical logistics of building a data center far from power sources and fiber optic cables. Pirate Bay now has mirrors in Russia and Belgium in the event another seizure takes place.

Another example of digital activity “beyond the law” would be the  Penet “remailer” established in Finland in the 1990s to make one’s email anonymous — a useful concept for whistleblowers, or people concerned about retribution for their content. Anonymizers such as Tor are another case in point of an attempt by users to mask actions which might be grounds for a lawsuit or criminal charges …. including deplorable uses such as child pornography, but also commendable ones such as the exercise of freedom of speech in a repressive regime.

The concept of legal “venue” — the jurisdiction in which a trial is held or suit is filed — must be remarkably complex in a digital age.  I recall one lawyer telling me, during her law school education, that the course that fascinated her the most was the one of venue. The question of which laws apply when, to cite a pre-digital example, a passenger on an airplane commits a crime at 30,000 feet going 500 miles per hour over several states. The notion of cross-border legal venue is complex and is, in the end, why the world used to enjoy anomalies like Lichtenstein and Andorra.

My short unforgettable stint in the world of online private banking in 2001-2003 placed me in Lichtenstein, the tiny principality between Switzerland and Austria renowned for its uber-secret banking laws and the concept of the treuhand, or trust, in which, to seriously simplify matters, an individual or organization transfers ownership or custody of an liquid asset such as cash or intellectual property such as music copyrights to a trusted person or entity for safekeeping or storage outside of the borders of a tax authority or the legal subpoenas of a plaintiff.

The “trust” part is essential. Do you trust that banker in Lichtenstein to safeguard your assets and return them to you when you need them? For some uber-rich or criminal clients, the issue is one of privacy — do you trust the trust officer to keep your assets and their location secret? Banking secrecy is useful when the resident of one country moves money out from under that country’s tax regime into a country such as Lichtenstein where the tax man can’t touch it. This worked for a long time until 2008 when the German government, fed up with German citizens hiding their cash, paid an employee of LGT Bank, one Heinrich Kieber, more than 4 million Euros for a CD holding the names of German account holders.  Combine that scandal with the post-9/11 Patriot Act in the U.S. and it has become very difficult to hide money offshore without getting exposed.

Will the concept of a datahaven ever be truly realized? Some argue they already do, and yes, to an extent, there are many examples of data that is illegal in one country being housed and permitted in another. But the concept of a truly secure haven seems impossibly far away.

If you accept that serving sensitive or illegal data is, inevitably impossible in the long run because that data can be physically seized, shut off, or blocked, then the solution is to go extra-terrestrial — serve the data from space via satellite. Other than a space seizure out of James Bond,  a satellite server could, if privately launched and maintained, cause quite a ruckus. The possibilities have been explored and may, in fact, be already operational.

As for Wikileaks — the site is currently hosted in Sweden by PRQ — who also hosts The Pirate Bay.

The Last of His Kind

I just finished reading The Last of His Kind, David Robert’s biography of Bradford Washburn: the esteemed American mountaineer, founder of the Boston Museum of Science, and accomplished alpine photographer and cartographer. While I’m a fan of maritime adventure writing, I do have a passing interest in mountaineering, driven I suppose by Jon Krakauer‘s Into Thin Air, and a couple of other books, but a fear of heights that emerged in 1968 on a Cub Scouts field trip to a firespotter’s tower in Georgetown, Massachusetts has condemned me to a life of sea-level adventures.

Washburn was the last of a certain breed of Bostonian — Harvard-educated, Brahmin to some extent —  part of  the “greatest”  generation of Boston WASPs that included Tom Winship, the esteemed late editor of the Boston Globe; David Ives, the driving force behind WGBH public television, and many other Yankee names who marked the passing of a certain era in Boston. This was a generation that served in World War II, were progressive in their politics, loyal to their institutions, and quietly accomplished without celebrity.

Washburn’s story is fascinating in that he progressed from a childhood spent roaming New Hampshire’s White Mountains, to learning the ropes of classic Alpine climbing in Chamonix as a teenager, then on to media celebrity as a lecturer and author published by GP Putnam, the National Geographic, and Lif e Magazine — all while attending Harvard as an undergraduate in the 1920s. He never climbed an Asian peak like K2 or Everest — preferring to blaze his trails in the wild mountains of southern Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, notching many “firsts” and making the glaciers of North America his specialty.  His photography is his legacy, detailed aerial studies that are art in their own right. His maps of Mount Washington, Everest, and McKinley are works of art in their own right, projects undertaken long after he hung up his crampons and focused his career on transforming the New England Museum of Natural History from a dusty anachronism into the state of the art Boston Museum of Science.

Roberts  was Washburn’s protege,  and follows in the tradition of Harvard Mountain Club climbers. He wrote a fine biography that interestingly — in the paperback version I read —  omits the tragic events involving Washburn’s son and daughter later in his life, events I only became aware of while Googling the subject and uncovering an earlier, different version of the book archived by Google. I won’t go into the details, but I do respect Roberts’ decision to omit the incidents in later editions, but that decision does force the question of how comprehensive a biography needs to be. My sense is that, in the context of Washburn’s long and esteemed life, that omitting details of his personal life and family is the sort of benign protectionism that the press displayed towards say John F. Kennedy’s sexual escapades, or FDR’s polio, as not being germane to the business at hand.  Emphasizing the salacious and sensational is a regrettable by product of our current celebrity-scandal driven media, but still I am curious about how Roberts, as biographer, first made the decision to include the details and then redacted them.

All that aside, The Last of His Kind, piqued my interest in mountain hiking (note I don’t say climbing) that I was introduced to in Switzerland ten years ago when I spent my bachelor weekends traversing some Swiss weg, or walk, up the likes of Mount Tendre in the Jura (5509 feet) and the Hoher Kasten in Appenzeller (5,886 feet). Something in my rower’s legs makes climbing up steep inclines a semi-enjoyable activity, just as long as I stay away from sheer precipices, ropes, and pitons. With some shame I will admit I have never climbed Mount Washington, the third tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River — tallest in the northeast — and thanks to the book  have ordered a copy of Washburn’s famous map of the 6,288 foot peak as well as the Appalachian Mountain Club’s hiking guides. My good friend and former biking buddy, Marta, has done several Presidential Traverses — a marathon effort to hit the peaks of all the mountains named for presidents in the White Mountains in a single day.  This 20 mile effort is usually undertaken on the Summer solstice to get as much daylight as possible on one’s side in completing the effort. I definitely will need to train a lot more than my typical ergometer work to get in shape at my age for the effort, but the story of Washburn’s herculean exploits traversing the glaciers of the Yukon is providing some inspiration.

Tree Turds

Some ancestor had a thing for trees that drop crap on the ground. At one corner is a black cherry about 100 feet tall, pruned and ravaged by too many hurricanes but still hanging in there enough to drop a crop of inedible black gooey cherry-like things on the ground every fall. In the other corner is a chestnut tree — pretty in the spring when it blossoms into big white splendor that reminds me of Paris — but evil in the fall when it drops spiked nut casings on the sidewalk where I walk barefoot with my scull on the way to the water for a morning row.

In the back corner is a honey locust — a tree that by all rights should be dead given its gaunt and splintered appearance, but which throws off a prodigious number of seed pods that for lack of a more delicate simile look like big brown curly tree turds.

These things have been a fact of life around the old homestead my entire life — laying on the ground, feeding an occasional squirrel, rolling like maracas across the yard during a strong blow, but useless somehow, stiff, leatherlike, foot-long curlicues of tree feces with no discernible function other than to insure the spawning of more honey locusts.

I can think of no more unattractive tree for a family back yard than a honey locust. My friend Dan has one in his yard down the street and has hung a tire swing from it. Nice except for the satanic spikes that bristle from the trunk, waiting for some nine-year old kid to swing in and impale himself like a gore scene from Omen 666.

The turds are tenacious, and hang onto the branches long past the usual leaf-fall in October and November. They hang there still, rattling in the winter winds, cascading down at the rate of one a second during wet snow storms, littering the landscape as if a pack of neighborhood dogs convened and decided to use my lawn for a mass defecation ritual.

Yesterday I drafted (against his will, but bribed with a cheeseburger club sandwich) Junior into helping me rake up yet another cubic ton of tree poop. Of course it snowed last night and another bumper crop has fallen, but it was semi-nice to do yardwork in January and find an excuse to escape the stifling indoors.