Social commerce bites the dust, Mobile Rising

Check out this great IBM report on Black Friday ecommerce discovered by Uncle Fester who gleaned it from Business Insider. It yields some interesting takeaways to digest this Cyber Monday.

  • Conversions are way up on online stores at 4.58%. That’s visitors who actually checkout and buy something. Up 9% from last year.
  • Mobile is a significant force. 16% of online sales came from mobile, up from 10% last year. And mobile devices accounted for 24% of traffic.
  • iPads delivered 10% of online commerce traffic. Damn.

How badly does Social media suck in driving commerce referrals?

  • Facebook delivered 0.68% of all Black Friday sales. Less than 1%.
  • Twitter? To quote Business Insider:  “A couple of years ago, people were excited about Twitter’s potential as a commerce platform, too. But Twitter’s impact on ecommerce, it seems, is zero. Not basically zero. Zero.”


The Christmas Tech Fork

A friend asked my advice about a new PC over the Thanksgiving holiday. He had used my Lenovo employee discount code in the past to equip himself and his sons with laptops, but now the time is here to get new stuff, so the question was put to me: what do I recommend?

My daughter beat me to the punch: “MacAir, I love mine.”

I ignored her, having never owned an Apple computer — only an iPod and an iPad (neither of which I use any longer) — and thought for a minute, realizing that two years out of the PC business has left me a little more ignorant than usual when it comes to staying on the cusp of personal platform discussions. Time was when it was an easy debate: PC or Mac. Now, not so much. So let’s look at the options out there this holiday buying season, and try to understand what to ask Santa for.

  1. The incumbent heavyweight in PCs remains the so-called classic Wintel duopoly of Windows on Intel processors. This puts one into the realm of Lenovo, HP, Dell, Sony, Toshiba, etc. etc. etc..  The old Wintel world was defined by corporate computing standards for desktops and laptops running Windows. Now corporate IT departments are losing their dictatorship powers, and opening up their environments to permit iPhones in lieu of Blackberries, MacBooks in lieu of Inspirons and Pavillions andThinkPads, and in some cases telling employees to buy their own crap and run it off the cloud. So, while the influence of the Enterprise Gorilla is probably still huge for most workers, it’s waning a little bit. So, if you want a classic laptop running Windows, good luck. The things are on the way out to be replaced by an entirely new world – actually a big bet to restore relevance — by Microsoft called windows 8. You can still buy a laptop, now pushed by Intel co-marketing dollars as “ultrabooks” — classic laptops made thin to compete against the MacAir. They look nice, and if you are a keyboard heavy person like me, then that may be where to go for a deal right now.
  2. I have never used Windows 8. It is the new text-heavy, tiled touch-oriented user interface that Microsoft has decided is the way forward for both its vision of the tablet/pad computer — it’s first hardware platform the Surface — and its phone, best experienced in the Nokia Lumia. Think of Windows 8 as Microsoft’s last stand against the insane disruption in consumer computing driven by the iPhone, the iPad, Android, Cloud computing, touch interfaces and Amazon’s store and web services.  I can’t help you here. The Lenovo Yoga and Thinkpad Twist are getting semipositive reviews from Walt Mossberg and others. The Microsoft Surface is getting grief for being expensive (two versions to keep in mind, the cheaper RT and the full version which runs legacy Windows apps). Basically this is a cake-and-eat-it-too world of having a heavy tablet with a keyboard if you need it. I can’t recommend or criticize as I haven’t even touched one in a store yet.
  3. Apple. Riding high but probably working through the pipeline of products influenced by the late Steve Jobs. The holy trinity of iPhone, iPad and MacBook/MacAir is what my wife and daughter have bought into. They love the design, struggle with the iCloud, and essentially are happy where they are at whatever price premium they pay to be there. I hate Apple’s closed environment and predatory approach to intellectual property. I suffered in iTunes, resented the lack of portability of the media I bought there, and in general find the Apple software model too …. simplistic. If you have the cash, love design, and are ready to live in the world as Apple defines it, then get a Mac, iPhone, iPad and live long and prosper. The choices are pretty clear: iPhone 5, iPad3, and some variation of MacAir or MacBook depending on the budget.
  4. Android. My preferred world for religious reasons.  I’m on a Samsung android smartphone and a 7″ Google/Asus Nexus tablet. I use Gmail. Google Calendar, and occasionally Google Docs (I am a Dropbox guy when it comes to cloud storage and collaboration). I have an eye on the Chromebook — $250 from Samsung ain’t bad — but still use a ThinkPad for my portable typing needs. That Thinkpad is now more than two years old and needs a refurb with a SDD to get it snappy again. I like Google Play — it’s attempt to sell content ala iTunes or Amazon — but it isn’t anything to fall in love with. If you are a Gmail person, then Android is your world and the design of the smartphones isn’t half bad.
  5. Amazon: The Kindle was (and still is) a nice light e-reader. I loved my very first Kindle, but never use the Kindle Touch I was gifted over a year ago. The Kindle app on my smartphone and the Nexus tablet (and before that the iPad) is all I need. I think Amazon messed up taking Android and forking it into a proprietary environment for the Kindle Fire.  They are cheap, obviously sold at a loss by Amazon as feeders into its vast store. I am a big Amazon MP3 store fan. It is everything iTunes should have been when it comes to music and sharing.
  6. Also rans: avoid Nooks, Blackberries, and other weirdness.

In the end, I would ask Santa for:

  • A Google Nexus. I love the 7″ form factor. If you want to spend an extra $100 for the Apple Mini, go for it. But I declare the best product of 2012 to be the Nexus 7″
  • A Samsung Galaxy IIIs: great phone, huge screen, nice design. Apple can shove its patent suit up its butt. Innovate don’t litigate.
  • A last generation ThinkPad on discount running Windows 7. BestBuy was touting a black friday doorbuster of a  wimpy Lenovo IdeaPad around $275, that’s almost too good to be true. There are deals in the last generation of WinTel to be found.

I would wait a few months for the dust to settle on the Windows 8 landscape. The Lenovo Yoga, while interesting, is showing some SDD issues with not much room due to bloatware and bad partitioning along with some touch pad bugs. The Surface — ehhhh, too expensive. And again, Apple is a self-selecting decision. You’re either all in or you aren’t and this post won’t do anything to persuade you one way or another. Kindle? Get a Google Tablet and run the Kindle app if you are looking for an e-reader.

I have nothing to say about gaming platforms, you are on your own there.

The erg beckons…..part 2

As part of my annual and irrational race against age, I did the second 2,000 meter test on the erg yesterday, and cut eight seconds from the first a week before.

I pulled a 6:50.1, averaging 1:42.5 per/500 meters, five seconds faster than the 6:55 I set out to row in my quest to break 6:30 by mid-February. I tried to negative split the piece, but as I always do, I started too fast — pulling 1:28 over the first 100 meters before settling down and finishing the first quarter of the piece at an average 1:40 pace.

I settled down more to a 1:44 for the second 500 meters, went into the pain cave at the mid-point and maintained another 1:44, but brightened up and flogged a 1:41.3 to finish the last 500 meters in a grunting sprint of ugliness.

My coach Mark is determined to get these last 20 seconds standing between me and my goal stripped away, and is emailing me nutritional advice. His demand that I start “eating like a man” is duly noted. The pecan pie remnants are in the trash, no more obsessive-compulsive carrot stick crap, just back to the  paleo diet and some common sense.

Thanksgiving Dredge

Thanksgiving. Not my favorite holiday but it is a four day weekend so I’ll take it.

I woke at dark o’clock, did the 6 am Crossfit workout of the day (“Helen” 3xrowing 500 meters, 21 kettlebell swings, 12 pullups), and drove home in the false dawn feeling all virtuous about burning off the worst meal of the year six hours before I even ate it.  As I drove home, past Shoestring Bay and the little ducks paddling on still waters, I vowed not to write a cliche blog post about stuff I was thankful for, my most excellent Brussels sprouts and pancetta recipe, the tyranny of Black Thursday/Friday and rampant materialism, nor the existential silliness of holidays. Hell no. I wouldn’t post a picture of the Thanksgiving sunrise at Loop Beach just because the world needs to see another sunrise picture just as much as it needs to see 250 million Instagram/Twitter shots of roasted wallboard-tasting turkeys today.

I can handle holidays that commemorate dead people, the birthdays of dead people, the anniversary of big days (the Fourth of July commemorates an event that actually took place on the Second of July), and weird pagan-religious rites like Halloween. The Swiss are the biggest holiday takers I’ve ever known. Their best is Sechselauten, or the Burning of the Bööög — when they celebrate spring by burning old man winter in the form of a snowman effigy packed with fireworks. The local burgermeisters and “guilds” dress up in halloween costumes, booze it up on firewater made from distilled cherry pits, play off-key brass instruments and scare the bejeezus out of school kids waiting at the tram stops at the good and healthy drunken hour of 7 am. I witnessed the burning of the Bööög in Zurich and had it explained to me in a multicultural out-of-body experience by an Irishwoman who was as confounded by Swiss eccentricities as I was.

I won’t be a scrooge and poop on Thanksgiving. (Actually, in reading this after posting it, I am going to do exactly that). So what if the Pilgrims didn’t sit down on the last Thursday of November and break bread with the Wampanoags?  Who knows what they ate. Who cares? It doubtlessly sucked. There wasn’t a lot of balsamic vinegar and wedges of Stilton hanging around Plymouth in 1620.  They ate bad watery squash, maybe an unseasoned striper which tastes like a fishy newspaper in the best of times, some venison and maybe, just maybe, a wild turkey. Half of the Pilgrims were dead or dying from scurvy, scarlet or yellow fever, dropsy, scabies, etc.. The Wampanoags were there because they needed some allies with guns to protect them from the other tribes that had been kicking their plague-decimated butts. Now the Wamps call it a “Day of Mourning” and with good reason as they eventually had their asses kicked and saw their survivors deported to Bermuda or confined to Mashpee.

Thanksgiving is just another concocted holiday up there with Secretary’s Day and Mother’s Day we celebrate thanks to lobbyists on a mission a century and a half ago. In the case of Thanksgiving that lobbyist was Sara Josepha Hale — author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. She wrote letters for decades to Congress demanding a national holiday of Thanks. Lincoln obliged, making the holiday official in 1863 — when there was absolutely nothing in America to give thanks for — and it wasn’t until the 1870s that the day became nationally observed, coinciding with a revival of interest in the Pilgrims who had been all but forgotten by time, but were dusted off and held up by some ardent patriots like Ms. Hale as the true forefathers of the country.

Give thanks to Sara Josepha Hale for Thanksgiving It’s all her fault.

There are some amazingly weird and ugly monuments from that period in  in Plymouth (a place to definitely avoid on Thanksgiving as ye olde Plimoth Plantation is mobbed with families looking for some authenticity in lieu of the Best Buy Doorbusters). Among the Plymouth monuments to sentimentality is the incongruous Greek temple built over the randomly selected “Plymouth Rock” and another is perfectly captured by the demented Eric Williams at the Cape Cod Times, our friends at Cape Cast. I give you the National Monument to the Forefathers, aka “The Giant Statue.”

No. Instead of pictures of sunrises, turkeys, rants on bogus thanks or beefs about social media douchebags. I give you a Thanksgiving picture of a dredge. This baby is parked at Cotuit’s Town Dock.

The dredge at Town Dock

Dredges are a big deal around Cotuit because we rarely see them. They make our channels deep again. They modify sand spits, pump sand to places that need to be replenished, and improve the flow of water in and out of our dirty bays. Dredges are cool. They made the Panama and Suez canals. They are the great modifiers.

This dredge is a bit of a mystery. I know there is a county dredge — basically the Cape Cod Official Dredge — but I haven’t seen it around these parts for a long time. Hell, the main channel in and out of Cotuit was last dredged in 1944 by the Army Corps of Engineers when Camp Candoit was training Higgins boats drivers to invade Normandy practicing invasions of Marthas Vineyard. Three Bays Preservation, the local nonprofit devoted to cleaning up the harbors had a dredge clean out some of the inside channels a decade or so ago. But this one …. a bit of a mystery that may be solved by looking up the permit posted on the Town Dock.

Indeed, this is project MA DEP SE3-4898, approved by the Barnstable Conservation Commission two years ago. In short, the dredge is going to make things deeper around the Town Dock and pump the muck over to Dead Neck. I noticed on the moon tide a few nights ago that the inner dinghy floats are high and dry and low tide, so this is a good thing. A lot of silting happens under the dock because the storm drains used to dump out underneath it.

"Town of Barnstable/DPW. Maintenance dredging at Cotuit pier and float areas, and beach nourishment at Dead Neck Beach (Sampson’s Island) as shown on Assessors Map 035 Parcel 089 (Cotuit Town Dock) and Map 050 Parcel 002 (Dead Neck Beach). SE3-4898
The applicant was represented by Bob Burgmann, P.E.
Issues discussed:
• Dredging was last done in 1968.
• Dredge spoil to be deposited at Dead Neck.
• Standard conditions will be imposed with regard to keeping within proposed footprint and depth.
• A letter from MA Division of Maine Fisheries was discussed and was noted for the file as Exhibit A.
A motion was made to approve the project with special conditions.
Seconded and voted unanimously."

I am thankful for the dredge and deeper water under my keel when I come in for landing in the sailboat next summer.

Current reading list

I’ve been juggling the usual reading list, relying primarily on my Google Nexus 7 tablet as my Kindle delivery device. Good tablet. I highly recommend it.

BurrI’ve never read any Gore Vidal, and on the occasion of his passing away earlier this year bought a paperback edition of Burr, his fictionalization of the life of Aaron Burr. Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in perhaps the most famous duel in history; was Jefferson’s vice-president, a hero of the Revolutionary War and, in Vidal’s portrayal, a licentious, thoughtful, and scheming political survivor whom history has tarred and feathered while deifying Hamilton. I recommend it.

Proud TowerIf I could write history I would want to write like Barbara Tuchman. Her Guns of August, and Distant Mirror are personal favorites. Taken in the same vein of other historical authors who manage to make history sing (e.g. David McCullough and William Manchester), Tuchman is the best. Proud Tower is a look at the decline of aristocratic power structures in the two decades before World War I – with exquisite cameos of the best and the brightest in Parliament, Congress, and even the anarchist bomb throwers that presage our modern terrorism crisis.

DeadheadNick Baumgartner at the New Yorker has written a great personal account of being a Deadhead, a compulsive collector of the band’s trove of user-shared bootleg taps of their shows, the fate of the band’s archive and where it stands today in a warehouse in Burbank California. Which reminds me to do something with the two cases of 90 minute Maxell cassettes sitting in my attic.

Readwrite on Outing Trolls: interesting piece in ReadWrite (where the Fake Steve Jobs, my buddy Dan Lyons is now editor in chief) on the use of social media to “out” trolls and racists.  I confess to being a fan of the troll subculture — finding some of the old USENET trolls to be among the more demented disruptors  and jokesters ever known. The rise of 4Chan, Reddit, etc. has given birth to an entirely weird subculture (my favorite being the SecondLife griefers “W-hat”). The example of the Tumblr blog devoted to outing adolescent racists who used Twitter and Facebook to express their ignorance after the recent election is depressing.

Relentlessly Self-Improving

I confess I haven’t rowed on the water once this calendar year. My only excuse is a shitty start to the season with the torn bicep back in January and the five months of rehab. Now it looks like that same arm has a “slap tear” at the top of the bicep, and that means some specific movements are both painful and very weak, including lifting the shell out of its rack and getting it over head.

The winter injury happened just in to time to knock me out of the 2012 CRASH-B sprints (the “world championships” of indoor/erg rowing) and I never got motivatedenough  to wake up extra-early for the calm water and portage my scull down Old Shore Road to the harbor.   Crossfit and the tedium of physical therapy had my full attention and now, with Thanksgiving holiday ahead, it’s time to start hyperfocusing on the indoor rowing season which traditionally begins for me with the Concept 2 Holiday Challenge (200,000 meters between Thanksgiving and Christmas) and ends with the Crash-B’s in February.

This is my last year in the 50-54 men’s heavyweight division. In 2011 I tanked after going out too fast from the start and bonked in the last 500 meters, blowing a nice pace and finishing 14th with a 6:39.9.  I had won the Cape Cod “championships” at the Cranberry Crunch the month before with a 6:42 and was all full of myself and cocky at the Crash-Bs and went out too fast. I learned my lesson and left the arena at Boston University determined to come back better in 2012. I signed up for Crossfit Cape Cod the next week and have been training with an eye towards getting faster on the erg.

Today I did my first 2,000 meter test to set the baseline for my training over the next three months leading up to the race on February 17.  I climbed on the erg, stripped off my shirt, set the monitor for a 2,000 meter piece and decided anything under 7 minutes would be a good place to start. I made it. Barely, with a 6:58.8.  That meant an average 500 meter pace of 1:44.7. Respectable, but a long way from where I need to be in 12 weeks. Ironically, focusing on Crossfit has made me slower on the erg — proof that randomizing my exercise the Crossfit way between metabolic and strength conditioning isn’t as effective as my tried-and-true model of putting in tons of meters and shifting to short sprint intervals as the races grow near.

I logged my time on Concept2’s online ranking page and now stand 39th out of 616 heavyweight men ages 50-59. The winning time in my division last year at the Crash-Bs was a 6:11.4. The world record is 6:07.7 set by Andy Ripley in 1998. The world record — period — for men is 5:36.6.

Breaking seven minutes is a great goal for any guy in good shape, but being the competitive egomaniac I am, of course I am going to obsess on the winning times in my division and have my eyes on the next age group’s record of 6:18 set by Harvard/Olympian legend Dick Cashin.    As for this year. I would dearly love to get under 6:30 in 12 weeks. That means shaving 30 seconds between now and then. It’s improbable, if not impossible, but it is at least aggressive. The question is how to develop a training plan that will get me there while allowing me to do the daily Crossfit workouts, and taper in time for the big event?

If I pull one 2K per week — say every Saturday. I should be shaving 3 seconds off every week if I want to break 6:30 on February 17.  I bet if I were to attack a test piece now with the same intensity a race requires — “emptying the tank” — and leaving nothing to spare at the end, I might get to 6:45 with a superhuman effort. The question is how shave the last 15 seconds knowing full well the law of diminishing returns that sets in as one gets closer to the goal.

Developing a training plan to get from here to there is not a simple matter of plotting a line from 7 minutes on November 15 to 6:30 on February 15 and hoping a miracle will happen somewhere along that line. It won’t. Physiological adaptation doesn’t work that way.

In fact, to be more geeky about it. The best way to look at the challenge is not by gross finishing time, but the specific pace that has to be maintained to get there. For that I turn to the Concept 2 online pace calculator. The rowing machine has a monitor that counts down the meters, notes the strokes per minute and most prominently displays a big bold number — the erg’s equivalent to the speedometer on a car — the current pace for 500 meters. In Saturday’s baseline piece, my average split was 1:44.7. I didn’t row a a flat 1:44.7 every one of the 200 or so strokes it took to tick off 2,000 meters. I started with a 1:33 and gradually degraded to as slow as a 1:50 at one point. Fortunately, the monitor also displays an estimated finish time that one can improve by pulling harder, so having sat down with a sub-7 minute performance as my goal, I was able to keep the predicted time under 7 minutes and not let things decline and get out of hand.

Split strategies are essential to a great 2,000 meter performance. Using the Concept2 calculator and entering in 2,000 meters as the distance and 6 minutes, 29.9 seconds as the goal. I hit pace and it tells me that I would have to maintain a 1:37.4 pace on every stroke. Alas, I am not a machine so I start strong, fade, and then comes back to sprint to the finish. Hence my splits are all over the place. The experts say the trick is to pull negative splits — meaning go progressively faster every 500 meters and not do a “fly and die” and rush out of the start and go like mad until something goes very wrong (which it always does in a fly or die situation). The discipline required, not to mention the conditioning, is massive.

As Mike Tyson said, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” All of my pre-2k battle plans go out the window the second I start whipping myself back and forth trying to get the flywheel up to speed and realize the adrenaline is pushing me way too fast out of the blocks. After I settle down to my planned pace, and do my power-tens on the 500 meter marks, the dreaded visit to the pain cave begins about 750 meters or three minutes into the race, then comes what my friend Dr. Dan calls the “talk with Jesus” in the third quarter following the half-way point. All sorts of bad thoughts creep into the mind in during the 500 meters when the lactic acid is flaming, tunnel vision begins, and one’s head starts to roll around. This is when the debate between survival and simply continuing and just stopping and puking happens. In a boat you can’t stop. If you stop it is a disaster like an eight car rear end collision on a foggy highway. No one stops in a rowing race. It just can’t happen. Rowing is all about the inner debate between the survival part of the brain and the more noble “because it’s there” part. To hell with winning. The third quarter of a 2K race is about continuing. The last quarter is the realization that in 50 strokes the agony ends and the realization that anyone can do anything for two minutes.

I just need to figure out a practical path to get my numbers down in what should be an interesting test of the “quantified self.” It is a very profound psycho-physiological-spiritual question to ponder: if hope springs eternal as the cliche says, and if one is a “relentlessly self-improving” man (to quote Doctor Evil in Austin Powers), at what point does the aging ego accept the fate of all flesh and realize that the wheels have started to come off and indeed, as we age, the rower’s adage of “the older we get, the faster we were” is the bitter awful truth?

A 18-year old, prime-of-life specimen of immortal perfection can look at next year and rationally expect, with hard work, training, supplements, steroids, whatever …. to go faster. Athletes peak in their 30s. Most Olympians are in the 20s, some in their 30s, (depending on the sport of course. )The oldest successful Olympic rower is Sir Steve Redgrave, who won five gold medal in consecutive Olympics. He won his last in 2000 at the age of 38 and then retired, was knighted, and was the guy who ran the torch from the motorboat into the Olympic Stadium during London’s open ceremonies this past summer.

The best way to show the reverse parabola of progress would be to plot all the erg scores from the Crash-B’s against the age of the competitors. It would show a quick improvement from the teens up through the 30s, then a steep decline that accelerates through the 50s.   Masters rowers — 40 years and up– are  generally Type-A personalities, well funded, and obsessively competitive on and off the water.  I suspect not one of them accepts the truth that they are going to get slower next year, and most, like me, are throwing themselves into training plans, double-session workouts, expensive fish oil, post-workout protein supplements, weight regimens, and new boats (a new high end single scull costs well over $10,000 for 18′ and 35 pounds of carbon fiber). Speaking for myself — we’re fighting the clock.

To end this disquisition on age and improvement …. there is nothing like an ergometer to give one the naked lunch* truth that in the end, everybody has to slow down and stop some day. Eventually everybody runs out of water, has to check oars, and back down before slipping over the spillway and cascading, lifelessly over the foaming precipice. To that I call bullshit and hope to be the toothless cackling codger who walks out on the floor of the Agganis Arena in 2052 at the age of 94 and pulls a sub-ten minute piece and gives time and deterioration the middle finger.

*: defined by the William Burrough's novel Naked Lunch, where "Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.""

New York Again

I write from my midtown office in New York after a forced two week sabbatical from the city brought on by Superstorm Sandy and last week’s northeaster.

There was no way I was going to attempt the drive from Cotuit in the days after the storm as Mayor Bloomberg had banned cars with fewer than three passengers from cross the bridges, the office assistants needed a place to stay with lights and heat after their places in Hoboken flooded, and in the end with the digital means to telecommute, why beat one’s head in just to make an appearance.

Walking around the Googleplex last night after a meeting with YouTube I saw very little evidence of the storm’s effects. An awning lay on the sidewalk, ripped off a store front. And lots of trash bags piling up on the cross streets awaiting the garbage trucks. Other than that — the only real evidence was on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut where there was a lot of downed trees in the Westport-New Canaan area.

Hard to imagine the third-world conditions in the Rockaways and parts of Staten Island where things are still very deplorable according to the New York Times.  I heard the PATH trains from New Jersey may be out for a year, meaning hell for commuters. But all in all,  New York this sunny November morning is nothing like the terrible months following 9/11 when the city was so sad and wounded by the attacks.

Wild Oysters

A reader of Mark Kurlansky’s excellent history of the New York oyster fishery knows the hardshelled bivalve (Crassostrea virginica) was an important piece of  19th century cuisine and commerce during the earliest years of the nation’s history. Vast “reefs” blanketed the shores and bottoms of the bays and inlets from New Jersey through the southern New England coastline, offering a plentifully cheap protein source that was the mainstay of most American diets.

Those reefs were once so extensive and played such an important role in the health of the estuarine systems that one writer, Paul Greenberg bemoaned their absence in the New York Times as a contributing factor to the devastation wreaked by Superstorm Sandy. A frightening 85% of the world’s oyster reefs have vanished since the 1800s. Oysters’ role as a stabilizer influence, but most encouragingly as a very effective water filtration system, makes them not only a delicacy but a necessity in the rebuilding of a sick coastal embayment. Greenberg wrote:

“Just as corals protect tropical islands, these oyster beds created undulation and contour on the harbor bottom that broke up wave action before it could pound the shore with its full force. Beds closer to shore clarified the water through their assiduous filtration (a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day); this allowed marsh grasses to grow, which in turn held the shores together with their extensive root structure.”

Yesterday I took an old friend and his wife for a brief oystering expedition. The boat had been parked in the yard for last week’s three-day northeaster. I pulled out handfuls of maple leaves from the bilge. Returned the gas tanks, and launched her back into the bay on the morning tide.  Being sunny, a veritable Indian Summer day* with no wind, sparkling sunshine, and a light haze on the horizon covering the beaches of Popponesset and beyond, it was a good day to take a break from the raking and the housework and get on the water. My friend is working on a photojournalism project about oystering, and she has been filming the various sources for the clams: fish markets, the Cotuit Oyster Company, and the town of Barnstable’s annual oyster season where the Department of Natural Resources lays out its crop of cultivated oysters on the bottom around a couple local beaches and turns loose the wadered permit holders to perform what Cousin Peter and I deride as “shopping” and not “clamming.”

Peter and I discovered a clutch of wild oysters in a never-to-be-disclosed location about ten years ago, and have been careful not to over-harvest from there, making one or two visits during the fall and winter months to pick up a dozen or so for the table. Reluctantly I took my friend and wife out yesterday in the name of journalism, imploring them to maintain some secrecy as the oysters are very tenuous and scarce compared to the wild abundance of oysters around the flats of Wellfleet’s Lieutenant Island. Put another way, when I was a kid, and the harbor was healthy, we never collected oysters. Steamers and quahogs were it. Oysters were nowhere to be seen (or we weren’t looking in the right places) and could only be bought from Dick Nelson at the oyster company (always with a reminder not to do something stupid like cook with them, since Cotuit’s are to be savored raw, on the half-shell, with only a squeeze of lemon juice if you must.)

I took along the dog (see the canine below in the dinghy and the halloween costume) as she is manic about “go-ride-boat” and beach walks. I dug out and pinned my shellfish license to my Kettleer’s cap, pessimistically brought along my leaky waders, Ribb rake and wire basket, and met my friends at the town dock on the afternoon’s low tide. It was an extraordinarily low one that exposed an extra rung of slippery ladder, but we boarded safely and put-putted across the deserted harbor, all boats gine but a few doughty fishermen’s, the field of white and blue-striped mooring balls replaced with winter sticks, giving the place the appearance of a military cemetery in Normandy. The channel cans were gone, prudently pulled by the harbormaster in advance of Sandy and the northeaster, so I was navigating by the seat of my pants, assisted by the completely clear water that revealed some of the dead, dead bottom below us.

As we motored away from the dock we talked about the recent kerfuffle raised by some of the town’s shellfish activists who donate their time and backs to relaying bushels of quahogs from “dirty” areas high in the tidal rivers to cleaner spots lower in the bays where recreational clammers get can get their limit without fear or picking up some nasty sickness. A crew of local commercial clammers have been flouting the laws and exercising their native-American aboriginal riparian rights to shellfish on any day of the week in any water of their choosing without a license. They allegedly wiped out the volunteers’ efforts to manually repopulate one or two local clean beds. I’d seen the Indian clammers in question working off of Lowell’s Point during winter beach walks this past winter. Their pickup truck had bumper stickers pledging their allegiance to the Wampanoag Nation, but I thought little of it until a family member active in the Barnstable Association of Recreational Shellfishermen ranted about their depredations over dinner a few weeks back. Now a big sign forbidding commercial shellfishing adds to the over-signification of the Cotuit waterfront (another rant for another day) but I doubt it will do much to deter the Indian clammers.

I am of a mixed mind when it comes to aboriginal fishing rights as I am solidly pro-Wampanoag to the point that I am sort of pissed off by the whole “kettle and a hoe” thing that defines Cotuit’s local waterhole, baseball team, and an ugly sign across the street in the park (yet another rant for another day). The connection between Wampanoag culture and shellfish is organically intertwined, with ancient “middens” or shell piles still to be found along the pine bluffs and beaches of the Cape’s harbors. Wampum, the woven currency of the tribes, is made from the purple part of a quahog shell; and the tribes used to move their encampments between an inland winter camp up near Hamblin’s Pond (according to local historian Jim Gould) and summer coastal camps generally picked based on proximity to shellfish. It has been often said that the bravest man in the world was the first man to dare to eat an oyster, and doubtlessly that man was some long passed Wamp who watched a gull drop one from a great height onto a boulder to crack it open and then sagely wondered what morsel lay inside that could be eaten. Anyway, more on the Indian clamming issue later, I am not that ardent a shell-fisherman to contribute my time to the relays and in fact, will use this post to make a controversial contrarian statement in favor of encouraging the comeback of our wild stock as a harbinger of healthy waters, rather than promote more aquaculture and its veneer of health and well being.

Back to the hunt for the wild oyster. We anchored, we went to the beach where they have been found in the past, and lo and behold, despite my pre-expedition pessimism that we would be lucky to get one or two, we found an abundance tucked on the verge of the beach grass along the rockweed and the horse mussels, sticking up plain as day in their  glued embrace to the allegedly inedible mussels. Pictures were taken, video videoed, and within half an hour my friend had his fill, and we had ample opportunity to marvel as the health of the wild oysters.

Our theory is these are refugees from the Oyster Company’s owner Chris Gargiulo’s cages of cultivated oysters laid on the bottom of Cotuit Bay in the company’s grants , arguably the oldest brand name in American clams, a holdover from the days when the bilious gourmand Diamond Jim Brady would tuck into three dozen Cotuits at Rector’s in belle epoque Manhattan before settling in for a full meal. I still feel a pang of homesick pride whenever I meet a friend for a bite and a drink at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar and see Cotuits on the menu. The Oyster Company represents all that is good and all that is lost from Old Cotuit, and no one is more devoted to the bay than Chris.

And, I like to think thanks to his seeding efforts, some microscopic spat** have escapes from the cages on the floor of the harbor and make their way on the currents to the mussel beds, where they glue themselves on and flourish. Oysters are unique clams in that they can live exposed to the air and do not need to be submerged all the time. Tropical oysters festoon mangrove roots, wild Cotuit oysters like the very verge between grass and water — submerged half the time and exposed the rest.

The foodie fad that has gives us “locavores” would put a premium on these wild clams. The fact that Cotuit’s wild oysters are thriving — there must be ten times the abundance there was when Cousin Pete and I first discovered their existence — is good news of a sort in a time of very bad news over the bad quality of the coastal estuaries. I continue to maintain that change and action to restore the bays to their former perfection are doomed unless those who remember what we’ve lost are able to share that picture of what could be to the new wave of residents and washashores who look out at the pretty vistas and see nothing but twinkling waves and picturesque sailboats. These oysters are there, they are visible. They aren’t under a foot of sand, masked by algae blooms or turbid waters churned up by weekend propeller parades, they are right on the water’s edge, waiting to be picked up, volunteering their siphons and gills to filtering the mess we’ve managed to make over the last 50 years. And I have no idea what the place looked like before the Army trashed North Bay with Camp Candoit in World War II. I imagine the shoreline was a very very different place 100 years ago.

The clam activists are on the forefront of the outrage of what is now called our “beautiful dirty waters.” They were able to put in place a ban on private piers (with the extraordinary backing of Cotuit’s former town councilor Rick Barry). They wade the muddy waters, they tote the bushels and lobby for the equipment and budgets to keep the clams going strong. I propose they also push for wildness — and use the presence of healthy, wild shellfish as a sort of litmus test for their efforts. Want to “vista prune” your bluff so your starter castle can have a water view? Then you better be able to prove a healthy intertidal zone with oysters that test out pure and clean. Need to truck in a couple barges of boulders to build up a groin or some riprap to keep the next superstorm from eating away at your Chemlawn? How are those wild oysters doing? Need to drive some toxic “pressure-treated ” wood into the sand to form a tidy bulkhead? Not so fast.

I took water samples for the Three Bays Preservation Society during the summer months (I was Test Station #19), driving them to the County Lab in Barnstable Village. I do so happily, but something tells me that seeing an oyster peeking out of the mussels and rock weed at Ropes Beach would say more about the health of the harbor than a parts-per-million bacteria test.




*: “Indian Summer” is technically any day when the temperature reaches 70 degrees following the occurrence of a killing frost.

**: “Spat” is the oysterman’s term for oyster spawn. Oysters grow incredibly quickly and achieve maturity in one year.

Random irritations

The current use of the word “Really?” as a verbal raised-eyebrow said in an ascending, ironic, mock way to express indignation. This is obnoxiously Valley Girlish and will go the way of the ironic “Not” as so well lampooned by Borat. Hearing Soledad O’Brien chirp a “Really?” on MSNBC the other morning on her reaction that ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner was returning to Twitter was the last straw. I am not alone.

“Coozies:” Those closed cell foam sleeves used to keep canned beverages cold. The utility of these devices is fine. I like a cold beer as much as the next drinker, but the slogans generally printed on them are usually groin oriented “How About a Nice Cup of Shut The F^#K Up” or that classic “Smile If You Aren’t Wearing Panties.” What kills me is my inability to utter their name in polite company — “Coozie” — which doubtlessly is an attempt to employ the word “cozy” emanating from the British tea drinkers use of a padded cloth cover to slip over a tea pot to keep it warm, the “tea cozy” which one imagines to be an important part of the Monty Python wardrobe of silly hats. “Coozie”, to my mind, is derived from “cooze,” an archaic reference to female genitalia. Hence I now vow to refer to all closed-cell foam beverage coolant sleeves as “canginas.” I will submit that word to the Urban Dictionary now.

Ukelele music in television commercials to denote carefree blithe days. This awful trend was savaged a couple years ago when a couple Madison Avenue creative directors launched a now defunct web site to implore their fellow advertising industry colleagues to stop using the Train song “Hey Soul Sister” in television ads.  That site, “Stop Advertising from Pulling a Train” got the point across and was dead on, but it failed to purge the ukelele from other ads, where it tinkles away like some goddamn wind up jack-in-the-box tune. I own a ukelele (won it at a ukelele recital on Kauai years ago) and I can’t play it. I know George Harrison loved the little guitar. It can be a beautiful thing in the right hands. But keep it out of advertising, it gives me cavities.

““Everyone is sticking the tinkling sound of ukulele under their commercial,” said Jim Beloff, who wrote “The Ukulele: A Visual History.” “It’s shorthand for lightness of tone. It says, ‘We’re good guys at heart.’ ””

“Lean Forward“: I don’t watch the usual bullshit television news and so I watchthe PBS Newshour if I must get edification from the boob tube. The storm and election season exposed me to MSNBC (see above, re: “Really?”) and my mind was blown. Putting aside the presence of the newly-skinny Rev. Al Sharpton as a quasimodo anchor man (two words: Tawana Brawley) let me focus on the new MSNBC tagline, “Lean Forward.”  This meme du jour first hit my radar during the Hurricane Sandy aftermath when it was reported that President Obama told his staff to “lean forward” and give all Federal support to the devastated communities in the northeast. Then it seemed to me MSNBC immediately seized it and made it their tag line — I guess as an implied pro-Obama election exhortation — and I found myself puzzling over what the hell “Lean Forward” means.

  • If you’ve ever stood on a beach during a hurricane and tried to stay on your feet during a gust, you lean forward. When the gust stops you stumble and fall down. This isn’t what is meant, but given the appearance during the super storm …..
  • The term has been applied to digital media to denote content that you have to lean forward and stick your face into to read. Like this blog. You don’t read stuff like this slumped on the couch wiping orange Cheeto dust off your fingers on the shag rug. This isn’t what is meant either.
  • An alternative direction to partisan tendencies to lean to the liberal left or lean to the conservative right, and an implied exhortation in these days of deadlocked politics to put aside our difference and lean in an upright, neutral moderate position in the direction of the future, not the past. I think this is what was meant.
  • Vote for Obama because MSNBC is not a news channel but a counterbalance to Fox and therefore the news source for people predisposed to want their news to actually lean left as opposed to the Murdochian right lean of Fox. This is what was meant.

Whatever it means, it pissed me off that the airheads who have inherited the broadcast airwaves from Murrow, Cronkite,  et al are wasting my brain cycles trying to puzzle out their latest memetic slogans. And I have wasted 15 minutes of my time and yours ranting about these irritations to no effect and could keep going with more things that get under my skin like Kobe Beef sliders, pumpkin-flavored anything, and Apple products but I have work to do.