Countdown to agony

The indoor rowing season’s first race happened this morning — Cape Cod Rowing’s Cranberry Crunch — and I am glad to have that behind me. Nothing personally compares to the pre-race dread I feel about the 2,000 meter distance. It’s short enough to demand a maximum effort sprint but long enough to punish the rower foolish enough to go out too fast with the dreaded “fly-and-die” strategy.

I finished under 7 minutes — always the big threshold — with a 6:53, coming in second in the master’s division to a beast of a man, Rick Martin, who smoked me by ten seconds with a 6:43. This was not my best shot — I rowed a 6:50 after Thanksgiving — but since excuses must be made I’ll blame the flu that knocked me out during the holidays. I’ve been underwater ever since, fighting to regain my lung capacity.

Now I have a month to get it together for the Crash-B sprints in Boston. I’ll buckle down on the paleo program, keep throwing some interval work into my usual Crossfit regimen, and hopefully come closer to the increasingly dim goal of breaking 6:30 in my last year in the 50-54 heavyweight class.



Fog horns on a snowy night

When it snows in Cotuit something happens to the acoustics and I can stand outside in my driveway, snow flakes falling on my hair, and hear, every thirty seconds. the plaintive lonely hoot of a fog horn somewhere off to the south across the waters of Vineyard Sound.

I’ve heard it every winter I’ve lived in Cotuit. It is a remarkably lonely sound — commonplace for a San Franciscan accustomed to that city’s orchestra of fog horns — but rare to hear here in Cotuit, only possible when the horns are activated during low visibility and then only heard when the wind is still and the conditions are just right.

I used to assume there was only one horn and that it was in Woods Hole at Nobska Point, but two nights ago, as three inches of snow fell on Cotuit, I heard not one, but two horns, almost simultaneously but one fainter and a bit behind the other. So I turned to the navigational chart of Nantucket Sound and realized the louder horn, the one I hear most often, is from the lighthouse on West Chop on Martha’s Vineyard, at the promontory north of the Mink Meadows golf course. The second horn is most likely Nobska, site of a grand classic lighthouse that was the highpoint of my occasional bicycle ride around the western half of the Cape and where the famous Falmouth Road Race passes by every summer.

Fog horns can be deceiving, tricky things to pinpoint in the murk because of the way water droplets in the air bend the sound and distort their apparent source. While my theory of why the Vineyard horns are only audible here in Cotuit (about ten miles as the crow flies) during snow storms, I think it less about the snow in the sky than the calm waters of the sound. Sound travels very well at night over calm water — ask any teenager trying to sneak across the channel to Sampson’s Island for a midnight party how quickly the locals flip on their bedside lights and call the police — and indeed I can only hear the signals when there is no wind at all. If you’re interested in geeking out on the physics involved, one John Tyndall wrote a paper on the effects of snow and fog on the audible distances of fog horns in 1875.

Navigating in pea-soup fog or snow by sound is amazingly difficult, but the rules of the road demand that any vessel obscured in the murk must blow a horn or ring a bell or blow a whistle on a regular basis. When I was a deckhand on a ferry running between Hyannis and Nantucket foggy days (generally in the late spring) were very tense times, with the captain sitting beside the helmsman, face stuck in the rubber eyepiece of the big Raytheon radar set, pulling the horn’s lanyard with a bowel-rumbling honk every minute, and me usually stuck in the prow, peering into the wet cotton, looking out for errant sailors and fishermen we might run over. I was supposed to point at whatever object I saw and raise and lower my hand slowly, turning back to the pilothouse to confirm that the helmsman or Captain had also seen it. Given my coke bottle thick glasses, I generally was the last person to spot things like 100-foot long draggers or our 150-foot long sister ship steam on a parallel course in the opposite direction. I’d wipe my glasses, squint, see something, point and then turn only to be given the middle finger by Captain Ellis who saw the boat a good ten minutes earlier on the radar.

I’d rather stay at the mooring and rebuild a winch than try to dead reckon my way through the fog.

Anyway, hearing fog horns on Martha’s Vineyard during snow storms is another on of those  Cotuit “things” like high tide on full moons at noon and midnight.


The Cost of Latency in eCommerce

In the 1980s and 90s during the early years of the PC industry, there was alot of discussion of the economic impact of slow computers on user productivity.  This was driven by some IBM research out of its Thomas Watson center in 1982: The Economic Value of Rapid Response Time by Walter Doherty and Ahrvind Thadani.

“When a computer and its users interact at a pace that ensures that neither has to wait on the other, productivity soars, the cost of the work done on the computer tumbles, employees get more satisfaction from their work, and its quality tends to improve. Few online computer systems are this well balanced; few executives are aware that such a balance is economically and technically feasible.

In fact, at one time it was thought that a relatively slow response, up to two seconds, was acceptable because the person was thinking about the next task. Research on rapid response time now indicates that this earlier theory is not borne out by the facts: productivity increases in more than direct proportion to a decrease in response time. This brief describes some of this research and the implications for increasing productivity and cutting costs that are among the chief challenges of business today.”

Then ten years ago Eric Horvitz at Microsoft started looking at the impact of interruptions on PC users and how long it took them to get back on task. The entire science of interruption is interesting,. especially for the lifehacker movement that tries to deliver great productivity via various hacks and techniques to reduce interruption.

Delays and interruptions are arguably related. While you wait for a slow site to load in your browser your mind seeks something to do rather than stare at the screen, a buffering warning, or some icon of an hourglass. You switch tabs, change screens, or just give up on the poky site or service and move on to the next thing, subconsciously annoyed at your old laptop, bad internet connection, or the general crumminess of the pipe between you and your destination.

My partner Ben shared this interesting fact buried in a five-year old presentation by Amazon’s Greg Linden on the economic impact of “latency” on ecommerce. This blew me away. In a presentation he claimed “Every 100ms delay costs 1% of revenue.”

You can get the presentation at Strangeloop, a vendor in the site optimization space. Here are some other impacts of site speed on key performance indicators:

I’ll take the liberty of extrapolating that from Amazon’s most recent reported revenue of $48 billion in 2012 to mean that 100ms of performance is equivalent to half a billion dollars a year.

In my experience CTOs and  CIOs at web-centric companies have tended to give more weight to availability than performance, stressing fault-tolerance and uptime over site performance.  While they may be driven by how many “nines” their infrastructure is rated at, I wonder how many are making the investment in monitoring services and tools to determine their site load times. For ecommerce operations focused on converting browsers to checked out carts, I would argue response time as valid a function of success as A/B testing and strong content marketing and audience development.


Cotuit Project: The Santuit River

I spent an hour roaming the woods of Mashpee off of Newtown Road before yesterday’s football games and discovered the headwaters of the Santuit River, the stream that forms the border between Cotuit and Mashpee.

This inspired me to return to the Cotuit project I started earlier this month and begin a work in progress on the Santuit River. That post can be found here on the Cotuit blog. The Santuit is more stream than river, but then again the Cape is known for calling its streams “rivers.” My first memory of the Santuit was as a youngster when my father took me to see the herring migrating upstream one spring near the intersection of Routes 130 and 28 where Cotuit/Santuit bumps into Mashpee. The torrent of alewives fighting upsteam to spawn in Santuit Pond was unforgettable, as was the tale of my father’s cat Willy who would disappear every April to camp out by the river and gorge on the fish. Today the river is a sad memory of its former glory, done in by over-development along its banks and the befouling of Santuit Pond by the many subdivisions that abut the waters that now turn a bright pea-soup green every summer.

The area I traipsed around is now conservation land, snatched from a golf course development scheme, but rich in Wampanoag lore and history. I highly recommend it to any one in the area who wants to experience one of the more remarkable wilderness areas left in the area. I also scrambled around in the brush at the culvert on Sampson’s Mill Road (also known as Old King’s Road) where a grist mill once operated grinding the locals grains into flour. The only evidence remaining is the old mill’s foundation stones used to build the bridge over the stream.

Hall of Infamy

Mike Albrecht is a good buddy and fellow baseball fiend who called me out yesterday for not ranting over the fact that no was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. I don’t put much stock in the Hall and am not much of a baseball historian, but the news comes down to this: the voters decided not to put anybody up for immortality on a bronze plaque because so many of the candidates were admitted dopers from the Steroid Era. Will some of the big names eventually find redemption and get elected? Sure. Forgiveness comes with time and they 15 years to find it.

Baseball players aren’t known for being the paragons of athleticism. You can be a fat f%&k and have a successful career swinging the bat and ambling down the base paths like a bear chasing a cart covered with cookies. A few mediocre players discovered the wonders of steroids in the 1990s, went from skinny to ripped, knocked the cover off of the ball and made the American Pastime a joke. When Barry Bond’s baseball that broke Hank Aaron’s home run record was put up for auction, the buyer gave the fans a choice of possible fates for the souvenir, one of which was to brand it with an asterix of infamy, or blow it up. I was a blow-it-up vote.

The concept of clean sport is a joke and went out the window when the English Etonian concept of amateurism died with the death of WASP establishment in the 1970s.  Sailing used to have a rule that no logos other than a little sailmakers badge was allowed on a boat.  Today the America’s Cup boats have big BMW and Red Bull logos on their synthetic sails like luffing billboards. Rowing kicked Grace Kelly’s father out of the Henley Royal Regatta because he was a bricklayer and it was thought that blue collar rowers  had a manual labor training advantage. Baseball is just a pack of good old boys who were late to the drug party and decided to ass some growth hormones to their steady diet of Chick-Fil-A and Burger King. Any one who looked at cycling before Lance came along, and thought it was a clean sport in some romantic Greek Olympian ideal of pure competition is a romantic stoner. The Tour de France has a noble history of cheating, lying and stealing with competitors hopping trains, throwing tacks on the road, and taking The Cocaine to get themselves up and over the mountains.

Doped vs. clean classes of competition is the only way to go. Let science and Big Pharma sponsor the Tour of California (oh, wait, that’s right, Amgen, the makers of EPO already sponsors the Tour of California) and put their best chemicals on display and let the no-logo, my-body-is-a-temple crowd have their own pure competition.

But for baseball, a sport of inches, let me point out that the miracle of Red Sox in Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS between the Sox and the Yankees came down to a matter of inches when Dave Roberts stole that base and beat Posada’s throw to second. The timing, the distance, the margin of error could easily have been influenced by any dope in Posada’s arm or Robert’s legs and yet, those inches, the most miraculous inches in the history of the game, a margin of miracle so tiny that it’s a wonder the people of Boston don’t march on City Hall and demand a statue of Roberts be erected in the Common, will always carry a question of whether they were delivered by man or materials.

The Music with Talking Thing has to end

I listen to a lot of ambient music during the day while I work — I’ve always listened to something in the background while writing — generally instrumental stuff streamed through which I can tune out but which gets rid of the bleak silence of my office  hereon the Cape or in Manhattan. I’ve noticed over the last six months a lot of music incorporates people speaking  — not singing — fragments of everyday conversations over the music. This is not singing. This is talking. Thank god has a “ban” button so I can banish this stuff forever. But I swear there’s more of it and it keeps coming.

I give you “Little Fluffy Clouds” by The Orb.

And finally, “Close Your Eyes and Daydream” by Obfusc. This one was the last straw and forced this rant out of me.

It wasn’t about the Bike after all

I admit I was a fan of Lance, getting on the bandwagon in 2003 when he and Jan Ullrich were battling down to the wire for the Tour de France.  After watching Armstrong win that Tour I got back into cycling after twenty years away from the sport, a love affair that started in the late 7os with the movie “Breaking Away”, kicked off with  the purchase of a Raleigh 10-speed with some college graduation money from my grandmother, racing around eastern Massachusetts in my early 20s (and crashing), grinding up the hills of San Francisco and illegally across the Golden Gate at 2 am after tending bar  in the city, and on and on — a feeling like no other, a true love for what has been called man’s noblest invention.


I turned off the Tour and went out and built up an awesome bike that summer in ’03, bought a classic Colnago steel frame off of eBay, and found myself riding obsessively around Cape Cod by myself and with my cycling buddies Dan and Marta.  Drafting, fighting headwinds, racking up major miles every week, 12 months out of the year. All the while the Lance legend kept growing. The book (I have an autographed copy of “It’s Not About the Bike”), the helmet, the yellow jersey replica. I owned it all, including the yellow Livestrong wrist band. I drank the Lance Kool-Aid.

I believed and kept believing, even as his lieutenants and competition all got caught and fell by the wayside, were stripped of their trophies and eligibility: Landis, Ullrich, Hamilton …. after a while it was obvious that the sport was completely dirty, but I still managed to keep a small shred of belief smoldering inside that Armstrong was different, that he had been superman, that somehow he was the exception to the rule, the one who really made it up those hills and cranked through those time trials like a man driven by the fire inside.

Marta knew from the beginning that he was a fraud. Her conspiracy theory tied in Thomas Wiesel (co-owner of Lance’s US Postal team) as the money man and uber-connected benefactor with the ties in Silicon Valley to keep the most-drug tested athlete in history from failing. I tried to argue, then I tried to shrug off the doping as just part of the sport  …. but the romance of the peloton, the simple mechanical grace of an Italian steel bicycle outfitted with Campagnolo parts was gone, dashed under a mess of pharmaceuticals, conspiracies and carbon fiber soul-less cycles.  The sport I fell in love with in 1978 pre-Lance was now a cesspool. Not that it was ever a clean sport to begin with. If it was EPO in the last decade it was amphetamines in the 1960s … one of the world’s most grueling sports seems impossible to survive without drugs, let alone win.

I crashed and gave up the bike in 2006. I haven’t looked back. Yes I miss it, I miss it a lot, but the close-call, the nasty recovery from a head injury, the perils and remembered close calls on the road just made the benefits dim in comparison to the risks. Wear your helmet. They work.

So this is one of those “say it ain’t so Joe” moments, kind of a pitiful one for a man in his 50s to have t confess, a sad day for idealism and a happy one for skepticism and cynicism. Let the circus begin as Oprah airs her interview. I suppose I’d still shake his hand if I ever met him, more out of pity for a life ruined so spectacularly than admiration for a truly tragic and completely fallen hero.

Update Jan 18

I watched the first half of Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey last night and remain semi-sympathetic to the guy and fascinated by the utter scale of his epic tragic hero’s fall-from-grace.  I had Twitter open throughout to see what rest of the mob was saying and none of it was worth  wasting my time on, just banal babble and snark.

My opinion is worth squat as well, but here it is anyway.  Good interview. Oprah prepared herself, hit him hard right from the first question, but frankly lost her edge thanks to the commercial breaks for Swiffer,  deodorant and promos for her bizarre OWN network.  Armstrong’s handlers picked Oprah for a reason and it was the right way to go.  It will have to suffice as the court room for public opinion, although I suspect Lance is going to be spending a lot of time in courtrooms and in front of lawyers given the perjury, the messed up lawsuits, and the complete disregard for jurisprudence and decency he displayed over the past decade.

All the venom and disgust over his lies and hypocrisy are deserved, but this is still the guy who sat on the bike and suffered up one mountain stage after another, a very competitive athlete with the stamina and the mindset to win at all costs, no matter what wreckage he left in his wake. The cancer, the broken home, the hard won success and carefully crafted myth …. it was the result of hard work, lots of lying, cheating and bullying, and played into what we all wanted: a handsome Texan hero on his mighty carbon fiber steed showing the louche Europeans how we can get up from the floor, nearly dead, and do the impossible.

Well, it was impossible. But if the mob on Twitter with their fingers all orange from Cheetos expects him to perform a believable act of contrition, forget it: he’s not going to break down in tears. He’s not going to rehabilitate his image, regain his sponsors, limp back into our good graces like Tiger …. he’s just another Type A asshole who flamed out spectacularly, in prime time like so many before him and so many to follow.

Randomness on a Sunday in January

In the great tradition of three-dot journalism as exemplified by two newspaper columnist legends, the late George Frazier of the Boston Globe and Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle, here’s a dumping of random stuff rattling around in my head this morning:

1. The Longform Renaissance: I spent an enjoyable hour yesterday curled up with a tablet and the recently departed Richard Ben Cramer‘s 15,000 word Esquire profile of Ted Williams. “Longform” isn’t my favorite term for the genre of big important essays and magazine articles, but it has stuck and seems to have a following.  A combination of Instapaper‘s “read it later” functions, the website, Flipboard on my phone and tablet…..and I’ve had a great time settling into the kind of writing the internet and our short-twitch attention spans were supposed to make extinct.  These are good times to be a reader.

2. The Flu: in high school I stumbled onto the story of the great 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic that decimated the planet and ever since have been obsessed in a negative way with plagues and pestilence. Don’t get me going on buboes, Ebola, hantaviruses, Legionnairre’s  disease. Some people freak out about parasites, I freak out about plagues and germ warfare. Anyway, I had the “flu” over the holidays — though I called it a “cold” and still don’t know the difference between a common cold/rhinovirus and the flu. Whatever: sick is sick and thanks to Mayor Thomas “Mumbles” Menino declaring a public health emergency and the Times for publishing the most awesome phrase in the English language — “explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting” — I gave in and got my first flu shot ever yesterday in the company of a dozen other panicked sheep at the local CVS.

3.  A Tale of Two Computers in Two Cities: after throwing in the towel on my old Thinkpad and trying to upgrade it one last time with more memory and a SDD (utter failure for tedious reasons), I have decided to declare that life is best lived in the cloud, in Dropbox and Google Drive, where nothing important in terms of data or files are enslaved on a single hard drive, where nothing in synced, or copied, or worried about — but where my “stuff” just IS, existing here and there and everywhere. This means a renaissance of the desktop form factor — one in Cotuit that I built myself and which is awesome and a true battle station, the other an aged Lenovo K-series Ideacentre under my desk in New York City. Now to figure out some nagging points for sharing and my computing platform will come down to two Windows desktops, and an Android tablet and phone.  Screw laptops. Feeble, non-upgradable traps.

4. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:  for the last nine months I’ve been easing the tedium of the four-hour drive to and from my New York office by listening to a “book-on-tape” via Audible on my Galaxy IIIs through a bluetooth speakerphone that in turn tunes into the car’s FM radio. My one and only (and first) audio book experience has been the delightful reading of Edward Gibbon’s classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as narrated by Bernard Mayes. I have the print edition and tackled it in the 1990s when I was obsessed with Byzantine history, but this time it is a delight to have it read to me. It isn’t for everybody, but then again, if you have an interest in great historical writing, this is the mother of all histories.

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