Reducing Smartphone Abuse with the Dinner Check Game

As part of the 2012 information diet, I like this tip from Gizmodo on how to insure your next dinner with friends is truly a dinner with friends and not another opportunity for people to meet around the same table to stare at their iPhones together.

“Smartphone Roulette” is a simple enough plan. Since everyone already puts their phone on the table to show how important they are, the rule is this: Everyone puts their phone on the table face down, stacking them if necessary. The first person to touch their phone — that’s right: touch the phone — picks up the check for the rest of the table.

No checking to see who texted or emailed or phoned. No exceptions (except prenegotiated exceptions for say future-fathers expecting news of an impending birth).  The first person to succumb to their little digital slavemaster eats the check.


Four words I don’t like: Distal Bicep Tendon Rupture

Silly me, hanging like an orangutan, swinging and touching my toes to a bar at the Crossfit gym and POP! something important breaks inside of my left arm. A big bruise ensues, then deadness, then all sorts of pain. Now the arm is hanging useless by my side.

My selt-diagnosis: a rupture of the bottom of the bicep tendon, causing it to separate from my forearm. I’m waiting for an MRI to be scheduled to confirm it, but right now it looks pretty messed up and destined for surgical reattachment.

So there goes the 2012 ergometer racing season and my quixotic pursuit of a personal record. From what I’m reading in the support-forums the recovery will take four months.

Sucks getting old.

A Mere $28 Million for Perfection

The best piece of property in the Cotuit/Osterville area is for sale — Bunny Mellon’s Seapuit estate is on the market for a mere $28.5 million (which actually feels like a deal given my deep affection for the place).

I row by the place every time I circumnavigate Oyster Harbors. It stretches for half a mile of rolling beachgrass, allegedly man-man sand dunes, and discrete weathered roofs tucked down low to minimize their impact on the landscape. Tasteful doesn’t begin to describe the place, but I know whoever buys it will tear it down and build a hedge fund-fueled Castle of Glass on it. Guaranteed. I just hope they keep the cabana, a fascinating little shed which my Cousin Pete the builder has declared his favorite structure on the planet. (picture to follow eventually).

Bunny, the Listerine heiress, is the widow of Paul Mellon, the banker/philanthropist who’s largesse helped put me through Yale and the Scholar of the House program. As she is over 100 years old, I guess the time has come for a changing of the guard on Seapuit, the pretty little “river” that runs behind Dead Neck.

tip of the hat to Thorne Sparkman for the alert

Up Yours Sprint

I’ve got about six months to go on my HTC EVO, a Sprint “4G” Android phone that was quite advanced back in the summer of 2010 when I chucked my Blackberry and Lotus Notes shackles and went off on my own.

It’s a nice phone, has a battery life on a par with the life span of some hyperkinetic gnat that hatches, mates and dies before lunch, a big screen, and the occasional ability in the right city to get some fast connectivity via Clearwire’s WiMax technology. I can tether my iPad and Thinkpad to it, thereby sticking it to the paid-WiFi thugs at the hotel and airport, and I can get rid of my digital camera, dashboard GPS, and assorted other electronic bricks in my bag.

The biggest bitch I had with the phone wasn’t with the hardware as much as Sprint’s ass-hatted insistence that I would have their stupid NASCAR app whether I liked it or not. The amount of bloatware junk that was burnt into the phone was staggering, and sure enough, after a couple months, the phone started bleating that it was out of storage space, forcing me to pick away and delete photos, videos, and assorted apps, all the while being unable to kill NASCAR, the NFL, and Blockbuster (aren’t they dead and gone?) from the phone all because Sprint’s CMO paid a big check to sponsor the Redneck Eternal Left Turn known as stock car racing.

So I rooted the sucker. Jailbreak. Got medieval on its ass and followed the handy instructions on how to capture the phone for me and only me (while voiding the warranty). In the process I realized that playing around with Android phones at the command line/super user level is just like those wonderful days of exploration in the early 198os when I got my hands on my first IBM-PC and a copy of Norton Utilities.

I followed the magic step-by-step instructions, mindful that I could “brick” or toast the phone if I messed up. A weird volume-button-power-button-rubber-chicken reboot and I had Root, that exalted state of hack bliss where the hardware and me are one, and not kept apart by the evil carrier.

I installed Cyanogen, the aftermarket Android ROM based on Honeycomb, then overlaid that with ADW Ex, a launcher that let me mess with my icons and other GUI goodness. The result, combined with a minimalist icon set, is a wide open phone that is a lot slicker than the factory model, has tons of room, and still has all the functionality it used to.

Sure, there were moments of debugging — the GPS wouldn’t work until I patched it — but there’s something about getting intimate with one’s hardware to restore my faith in the technical world. Don’t be afraid. Stick it to the man.

The End of the World as Debunked By My College Roommate

Professor John Hoopes and I shared a room our senior year at Yale. He is now an archaeology professor at the University of Kansas and the leading expert/debunker of the Mayan 2012 calendar myth.

I found this FAQ he wrote on the whole nonsense. It is remarkably clear and cogent; in keeping with his brilliant research and fine writing style. It may be of use to you when some wingnut starts raving about the end of the world scheduled for Dec. 21, 2012. I found myself in the difficult position of having to try to persuade (unsuccessfully) a friend’s frightened sister in 1999 who had quit her job, sold her condo, and moved to the Rockies to survive the end of the world brought on by Y2K.

It’s also an interesting critique of the New Age movement and the pseudo-spiritual-science that seized onto some random facts, amplified some distortions, and wound up marketing a very popular niche in terms of books and film. You’ll be undoubtedly hearing a lot more from John as the year goes on. He’s been waging a quiet battle with the tin-foil turban crowd for a couple years now.





Physical and mental diets: my resolutions for 2012

Nick Bilton blogged at the New York Times yesterday about the experience of trying to photograph a San Francisco sunset with his iPhone and realizing that he had squandered a sublime experience trying to capture that it by messing with filters and settings and watching the dramatic fireball through a 3.5 inch screen.

On Sunday morning, the first day of 2012,  I woke to this front page:

Look closely at the photograph across the middle four columns: a mob of New Year’s Eve revelers experiencing the ultimate NYE experience — the drop of the ball in Times Square — and how are they seeing it?

Through their screens, like little computerized periscopes our grandparents used to see over crowds at parades, everyone “capturing” the moment and then selecting “share” to send it to FourSquare, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Flickr, Google +  and on and on. I’m happy for them. Everyone is smiling and having a great time.

But it’s gone too far.

In 1988 I wrote my first cover story for Forbes Magazine on the topic of information overload. In the course of researching that piece I came across the work of the MIT professor, Ithiel de Sola Pool (the man who coined the term “convergence”). He tracked the growth of information over time — the massive explosion of media brought about by what the critic Walter Benjamin called “Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  The net impact of this is, to quote Wikipedia, that “the modern means of production have destroyed the authority of art: for the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.”

Edward O. Wilson, the renowned Harvard professor of biology, wrote in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge that a man of letters in the late 18th century — the age of Franklin, Jefferson, Priestly — could reasonably consume most of the published information in any given year across all fields. It was expected that an intellectual in the 1700s would not only be familiar with the classics, but would also have an interest in the sciences. The result was an amazing consilience of knowledge, with the concept of a “renaissance man” exemplified by the leaders of the era. Today? We’ve fractured into specialists and all we hold in common is some familiarity with the latest pop star, blockbuster movie/tv show, or world news event.

To state that there is more information available today  than could ever be consumed is trite and obvious. Just stating the fact is existentially depressing as I’m engaged in the very act that I’m bitching about.  I’m referring to so-called authoritative information produced by experts, not my nephew and neighbor who suddenly have, in theory, the same means of production that the Sulzbergers had to themselves 100 years ago when the New York Times was truly dominant.

I found an amazing list on time management, by Dr. Donald Wetmore (I guess the “Dr.” means he’s an authority. It’s an interesting and depressing list. Here’s some highlights:

  1. The average working person spends less than 2 minutes per day in meaningful communication with their spouse or “significant other”.
  2. The average working person spends less than 30 seconds a day in meaningful communication with their children.
  3. The average person gets 1 interruption every 8 minutes, or approximately 7 an hour, or 50-60 per day. The average interruption takes 5 minutes, totaling about 4 hours or 50% of the average workday. 80% of those interruptions are typically rated as “little value” or “no value” creating approximately 3 hours of wasted time per day.
  4. 95% of the books in this country are purchased by 5% of the population. 95% of self-improvement books, audio tapes, and video tapes purchased are not used.
  5. The average worker sends and receives 190 messages per day.
  6. The average American watches 28 hours of television per week.
  7. 78% of workers in America wish they had more time to “smell the roses”.
  8. 49% of workers in America complain that they are on a treadmill.

Hence one of the more popular memes in contemporary life is “lifehacking” or the art of “getting things done.” I won’t point to the obvious manifestations, but check out David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” or the excellent for examples.

Being early January, it is resolution time.  I sense the rising meme in resolutions isn’t quitting smoking or losing weight (although the new mob at my CrossFit gym would suggest the new year is indeed a cliche in terms of gym memberships), but in “Information Diets.”

I’m getting on the Information Diet bandwagon. My life of screens — this laptop, my iPad, the television, the Android phone — is driving me closer to a state of attention deficit disorder than any prescription for Adderall or Ritalin could ever cure.

It’s time to become a Stoic again and starting doing more with less. Time to cowboy up, spit on my palms, and get tough.

For the past year I’ve been engaged in a physical transformation through two “primal” committments. The first was adopting a so-called “paleo diet” in the fall of 2010  following the embarrassing mime attack outside of the Duomo in Florence. I weighed 280 pounds, felt like shit, none of my clothes fit, and I was beset with aches, pains, and prescriptions.

I read some stuff by Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, and Loren Cordain and came away convinced by their theory of dieting that basically agreed with the controversial hypothesis that my body is the result of 2 million years of evolution, yet my diet is the result of 10,000 years of modern agriculture. Too much processed food, grains, dairy, sugar, etc. and I was going to get fat no matter how hard I exercised.  In a year of totally going organic, cutting out all grains (no bread, no pasta, no rice), legumes (no beans), dairy (no cheese, no butter), and sugar I lost 35 pounds without “dieting” in the sense of going hungry. I basically exist on chicken, fish, beef, broccoli, tomatoes, lettuce and good fat like nuts, avocados and olive oil.  I eat, in essence, like a caveman.

With nutrition follows exercise and I renewed my commitment to CrossFit, the “open-source” school of functional movement and exercise that was started by gymnast Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz in the early 2000s.  As the t-shirt says, I am the only machine at my gym (except for the ergometer). I do short, intense burst of work lifting up heavy things and putting them down again, and lifting my own weight through sit ups, push ups, pull ups, rope climbs, handstand push ups, box jumps …. etc. The Crossfit method is, in 150 words:

“Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, clean & jerk, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouetts, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.”

Now to do the same for my mind.

I talked to a former colleague this morning about attention deficit disorders and he said he manages his through a combination of prayer and exercise.  Since he is a man of faith, I can see how prayer fits in his life, but for atheistic me, where is that period of nothingness in my thinking? When do I simply watch the sunset and don’t photograph it? Or sit in a chair and stare into a fire with only my thoughts for company?

I’m hanging some things up this year. Here’s my information diet:

  1. No phone in the car. If it rings it goes to voicemail. If I must call I will pull over. I am strongly in favor of an outright ban on phone use in cars. Every moron motorist moment I’ve experienced is inevitably made by an oblivious idiot with a phone held to their head.
  2. News once a day, in the morning, over breakfast. From the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Cape Cod Times.
  3. One hour of moving pictures per day. That includes YouTube, Netflix, network television or sports (with the exception of baseball)
  4. One email check in the morning. Another in the evening. No emails longer than 100 words. Anything longer: phone call or memo.
  5. Instapaper all articles and read them in one sitting at one prescribed session. No aimless “surfing.”
  6. Two three-hour periods of focus per day.  One in the morning. One in the early afternoon. Writing and thinking. Making, not consuming.
  7. Books dominate. I will make a list of 100 books I need to read before I die and start tackling it.
  8. No games. I’ve outgrown them. I’ll play Words With Friends once a day, not on every notification.
  9. Face to face trumps email every time. Phone call is second.
  10. No PowerPoint in 2012. It is the Blackberry of our times: doomed, terrible, and pointless.
  11. Learn something new in 2012. A language? A skill? I am open to suggestions.

2011 in review @

Predictions, reviews, resolutions …. such a cliche. But here goes some rear-mirror-ego-blogging:

  1. January:  I won a local indoor rowing race, making me the fastest old man ergometer rower on Cape Cod. I was very self-impressed. Good start to the year.
  2. February: I placed 14th in the Crash-B sprints (world champs of indoor rowing) and was disappointed. I then joined CrossFit Cape Cod which was one of the wisest decisions of the year. I started a 6 month consulting project with a large PR firm to study options around social media metrics.
  3. March:  renewed business travel for the consulting job — Washington, NYC and Chicago. Planted my peas on St. Pat’s.
  4. April: clone of March. The person who contracted me for the PR consulting job quits, thereby sealing the fate of the engagement.
  5. May: clone of March, launched my sailboat, planted my garden. Didn’t fish. In fact, didn’t fish once in 2011 which is a bad thing that must be rectified. My daughter graduates from the University of Virginia, proud doesn’t begin to describe how I feel.
  6. June: I climb my first White Mountain (Mount Madison) and wind down the consulting gig with the PR firm which runs through August. Start my first year as president of the Association of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club, confirming to myself that I need to volunteer my time more.
  7. July began new job as an ecommerce/digital strategy advisor with two partners out of New York. Begin commuting to NYC and working out of midtown on an interesting project that cannot be discussed.
  8. August: slow month, lots of boat time, end of a terrible Cotuit Kettleers season (there is always next year, and 2010 was awesome) lots of headhunter inquiries for various marketing, ecommerce jobs.
  9. September: Hurricane (almost) Irene hits and the boat survives. The commute recommences to NYC. Our long-time and beloved pet, Ned the Skye Terrier falls sick with cancer and has to be put to sleep.
  10. October: clone of September, project begins to accelerate. After some soul searching pass on the marketing ecommerce jobs and decide the advisory life is the life for me. Boat is out of the water.
  11. November: to and fro from Cotuit to Manhattan, help youngest son with college applications.
  12. December: last visit of the year to NYC, great X-mas holiday in San Francisco with my in-laws. All children together for the first time in over a year.

Analysis: 2011 was a year of focus on trying to get in shape, reading some great books, getting my head into the impending empty-nest space, making a decision not to return to corporate life after four bureaucratic, PowerPoint-driven years of stifled creativity inside of a Fortune 100 company and being very zen and invigorated by the good will of two extremely smart business partners, a wonderful wife, and three children who suddenly have turned into three adults, the eldest two in California living on their own which is no small feat in a terrible economy for the 20-something generation. I also found myself drifting away from the technical noise of modern life, backing off from television, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, email and all that digital noise and focusing instead on this blog, good books, and more introspection versus the extroversion of the past. In all, I feel stronger thanks to CrossFit, and more relaxed about my place in the world than ever before.  Complacent? I don’t think so. 2012 is when my wife and I are going to be childless for the first time in 25 years, when Cotuit becomes more of an option and less of a must and the possibility of relocating to NYC or California increases.

Predictions?: Romney wins. Euro zone collapses. US unemployment eases 1 percentage point but the economy remains bogged down by the real estate collapse and lack of manufacturing jobs. S&P finishes 2012 up slightly. No PC maker makes any headway against the iPad. Facebook plateaus as more social media fatigue sets in. Some backlash against living life in front of screens, complete car phone usage bans begin to take hold nationally, e-books take off, print publishers consolidate and fight for relevance in the face of direct-publishing model, cable and satellite TV connections begin to decline as cords are cut and people go to IPTV. NYT reports increased earnings due to pay-wall success.

My favorite posts of 2011 out of the 120 I wrote:

January:  Erg racing, Data Havens

February: Mountain climbing books, Why My Next Tablet Won’t Be an iPad

March:  NYT Paywall (most read post of the year due to MSM pickup), Norman Hobday: RIP

April: Ad-Supported Hardware, on CrossFit, The Boat Shop

May: In which I buy a new/used outboard engine and tell you about it. (May was a slow month)

June:  My annual anti-McMansion rant. Climbing Mt. Madison, on local citizenship

July: 100 Days of Burpees (which I did not complete)

August: How to Fix Yourself, Irene

September: The Art of the Note,  Goodbye Ned, The Worst Board in History, Beach Bridge, Borges

October: Head of the Charles, Steve Jobs

November: The Wreck on Horseshoe Shoal, Zombies, Novels of Charles Pendexter Durrell

December:  Mola Mola

A supposedly stupid thing that wasn’t too bad after all

The tradition of a New Year’s Day swim has grown in popularity year after year until it has become as common a calendar celebration as the Boston Marathon or Opening Day at Fenway. Thirty years ago the act of hurling oneself into the Atlantic Ocean from a New England beach on New Year’s was restricted to a bunch of organized lunatics in South Boston: the famous L Street Brownies who started their New Year’s swim in 1904, and as far as I know, a bunch of rowdy miscreants  that included myself and were affiliated with the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club.

New Year’s swims are classic photo opportunities for the local newspaper,  and I would guess there were probably 12 swims around Cape Cod today, all competing for front page placement tomorrow in the Cape Cod Times. You know your swim has made it when the television cameras show up, but in days gone past the Cotuit swim took place at night, ostensibly at the stroke of midnight (but usually around 3 am when the party started to stagger and someone got motivated to lead the way), with no one around to spectate and marvel at the insanity but those brave enough to do it.

My first Cotuit swim was in the 1970s at Oregon Beach at the very end of Main Street. Oregon is a very shallow beach — about a quarter mile of foot-deep water before it drops off to any respectable depth. The rules of the swim were simple. First: your swim didn’t count unless your hair was completely wet, so wading in up to the knees and splashing a little was a definite failure. Second, if you were over 30 the swim was optional. And third, he who made it back to the host’s house first, was the only person to get a hot water shower.

The most memorable swim for me happened in 1978 (the winter of the infamous Blizzard of ’78). There was a foot of snow on the ground and the dirt road to the beach was filled with frozen potholes and ruts of frozen slush. The edge of the water was frozen and cakes of frozen saltwater paved the beach down to the water. Oh, and it was dead low tide so it would be a challenge finding enough water to splash in let alone actually swim in.  There were maybe a dozen or two of us planning on swimming/wallowing that year, and the fact that midnight came and went with no move at the raging party to get the swim over with was an indication of how much we dreaded heading outside to meet the 15 degree night. These were not leisurely swims that involved undressing on the sand and carrying towels. We nuded up at the party, ran barefoot down the road, and returned naked.  Nothing about it was smart or good.

Around 3 am my step brother and a good friend, Phil, decided it was time to swim and use the cold water to sober up and thereby breathe a second wind into the party. So we stripped — men and women alike — and off we went down the road to la plage.

My bare feet immediately turned into frozen, totally numb pegs, so I was slow arriving at the beach. Most of the crew was in the water, shrieking and flailing in about six inches of water, rolling around to get their hair wet before ricocheting out and past me on their way to the single shower back at the house. So much for the hot shower. I didn’t wait and consider the consequences, I just went into the water, crunched through some skim ice and starting forging out into the darkness, looking for enough water to flop down in and finish what was quickly becoming the worst thing I had ever done to myself.

I dropped. Hit the bottom. Rolled around. Screamed and stood up. The world went blurry. Had my head shrunk from the shock of the cold water and given me brain damage? Was I that drunk on the Green Death (Haffenreffer Ale) and DeKuypers Peppermint Schnapps?

I had gone swimming with my glasses and they were gone.

I was truly completely Screwed with a capital S. I stood up and looked at the smeary flashes of the lonely navigation buoys out in Nantucket Sound and the orange loom of the lights in Hyannis to the east.  I had to return to college the next day, had no extra glasses, and these being the archaic 1970s, there were no Lenscrafters same-day-glasses places to get a replacement pair.  I couldn’t drive without them. So my initial instinct to just say f%$k it and rejoin the party wasn’t going to work. I was going to stay in the water and find them, my lost pair of gold wire framed John Lennon wanna-be spectacles.

I started clamming around with my toes, but couldn’t feel anything. They were too numb. My hair froze. I leaned over, dropped to my knees and started crawling around in a foot of water feeling around with hands. Clump of sea weed.  Oyster shell. Rock. There was no one else in the water with me by this point and I started to think about the hypothermia tables but gave up because I had no idea what the water temperature was.  Ten minutes? 30?

Success, improbable, but needle-in-the-hay stack success.  I ran from the water and started down the dirt/slush road back to the house, hit a frozen pothole and flew into the air, breaking the ice with my left buttock and covering myself with muddy water. That same ice gave me a nice cut on the butt and the mud, well, it was not taken for mud when I returned to the party one minute later, crazed and bloody, naked and smeared with brown goo. The elder non-swimming contingent was impressed.

The scene in the bathroom was total chaos with six people wedged into the shower stall and the rest shouting at them to hurry up and let them in. I was last in line but at least I could see.

There were many other swims. None of them were exactly pleasant, but all of them were memorable. As far as tribal rites for my circle of friends, the New Year’s Eve midnight(ish) swim was a big one. Wherever I am on New Year’s Eve, I think of my friends back in Cotuit screaming and splashing out of the water in the darkness.

After a decade-long break from the swim (rule 2, optional for anyone over 30), I decided to swim today at noon, in balmy 50 degree sunshine, participating in a mass swim organized to benefit the Mashpee Food Pantry. Essentially I donated $20 to dunk myself. We were blessed by the village minister and a photographer from the Cape Cod Times was there to record the hilarity. I wore an actual bathing suit, had a towel, and was completely sober. While my son and a hundred people watched I threw myself off the deep side of Loop Beach in a nice shallow dive,  screamed underwater, and emerged babbling to thrash my way back to shore where the towel was handed to me and I could say in all honesty: “That wasn’t so bad.”


Phil on the left, me on the right.

The Official Cotuit New Year's Swim

It was not an extraordinary swim to tell the grandchildren about, but it definitely was a brisk way to mark the beginning of 2012 and I’m glad I did it and I probably will do it next year.

Thanks to Marta, I have my new favorite hero.

Alcohol was involved? No way!

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