Lab Rats

I’m finishing Lab Rats by Dan Lyons and feeling thoroughly depressed but laughing about it. The feeling is like a go-to-bed-pull-the-shades-suck-my-thumb level of depressed while watching the Three Stooges. I was laughing before I finished the foreword.

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Lab Rats follows Lyons’ 2017 best-selling Disrupted, and as a bit of a sequel, it takes a horrifying look at the peculiar culture of contemporary companies which he experienced first hand at Hubspot, a successful Cambridge, MA marketing software company. Disrupted landed with a bang in 2017, largely because a few executives got fired or censured by Hubspot’s board of directors for some weirdness involving the FBI and an investigation by the company’s law firm amidst rumors of extortion against the publisher, Harper-Collins.* It also is a very accurate and very funny account of what it feels like to be a fifty-something disrupted by transformation and reduced to going to work at a modern company that fires people and says they were “graduated,” invites a teddy bear to attend meetings to represent the customer, and substitutes wages for benefits such as a beer garden, candy wall, ping pong tables and bean bag chairs.

Dan, who was a writer on HBO’s Silicon Valley for two seasons following his misadventure at Hubspot, is a great humorist, but also a great reporter, and his experience at Hubspot hit a chord with readers who flooded his inbox with confessions of their own workplace despair inflicted on them by incompetent managers, unscrupulous venture capitalists, and bullshit management theories that combines to make their office feel more like the Stanford prison experiment and less like the world-changing adventures the corporate mission statements, principles, values, DNA wall plaques and culture codes proclaimed they were.

So in the aftermath of Disrupted Dan went on the road and headed back to Silicon Valley, which he’s covered since the early 80s for PC Week, Forbes, Newsweek, the New York Times, Wired and GQ (and lampooned for two gloriously funny years when he anonymously gave the world The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.)

He opens with a lunch meeting somewhere in Menlo Park. He’s seated with a woman who uses Legos to train employees to reveal their secrets and fears and gel together as a “team.” After trying to hypnotize him, the Lego Lady asks him to make a duck out of the pieces. He hands her a single piece and declares that’s his duck.

From the sweatshop conditions imposed by power-crazed venture capitalists who commit smash-and-grab public offerings by taking unprofitable startups public on the strength of a business model that essentially comes down to selling dollar bills for $0.75 cents, to Orwellian companies that plant moles amongst their employees and encourage snitching while reading those employees emails and instant messages, Lab Rats is about the perversion of modern work into a series of two-year tours of duty where the rank and file are subjected to a barrage of bizarre management theories ranging from Agile and Lean Startup, to Legos and the Holacracy.

Having ended my own 3.5 year tour of duty in a software startup last March, I guess the book is picking off some scabs that I had left unscratched for the past few months while I recovered from the trauma of the open office, buzzword bingo, constant Slack interruptions, fights with the CEO over “purpose statements” and bullshit marketinglessness words like “Digital Experience.” The insanity of the modern startup, with its founders’ lemming-like drive to hustle their way to riches like their heroes Gary V., Travis Kalanick, Elon Musk, Eric Ries; the infliction of new “productivity apps” that aren’t productive at all; the constant surveys from the HR department to gauge morale; the team-building exercises, the meetings about meetings …..Dan writes in a target-rich environment tailor made for his are-you-shitting-me? sense of humor.

Goodbye to all that. All I can say in my old age is thank God I’m not 23 and saddled with a lot of college loans and dragging my butt into an office that looks like a day care center where nothing gets accomplished and the only certainty is getting fired.

I now work at a place with no instant messaging, no interruptions, no quarterly morale surveys, no ping pong, no bullshit and everyone has the sanctuary of their own office. I’ve never been happier. There are no meetings to plan meetings, no cheery emails declaring some co-worker is a “Super Star,” no reboots of the corporate strategy every quarter when the next management fad comes along to hypnotize the boss.

I’ve never been happier, but I’ll also never forget the utter despair of modern digital marketing in an industry where “culture” comes down to reducing people to disposable beings who are measured, monitored, and berated into suicidal despair.

Dan doesn’t dwell on the outrageous excesses of corporate culture emanating from the Valley. He shows some companies that actually subscribe to the old theory that “contented cows give more milk” and that employee happiness — starting with their compensation — actually makes for a better company, a true culture, and ultimately better products.

* All’s well that ends well for those Hubspot execs — the stock went public at $30 and now trades around $130 — and one wound up as CEO of another hot company.

**Dan and I were colleagues at publications ranging from our high school newspaper through The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, PC Week, and Forbes.

Building a boat

I want to build a boat as an antidote to the pernicious effects of digital devices on my soul. I live in a house with a boat shop attached to the back of it, a place where my grandfather turned out a dozen Cotuit Skiffs in the late 40s, the lofting plans carefully scribed and painted on the floor by my grandmother who went to art school.

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This is an old urge, a genetic thing, a type of compulsion I can’t and won’t resist but still try to conceal from my wife Daphne who regards the shop as a place to hang raincoats and store rarely used kitchen appliances like rice cookers and deep-fat fryers.  She came back home after two weeks of travel to find I had proudly built four old-school saw horses. “What are those?” she asked. Knowing exactly what they are. “You aren’t going to build a boat,” she commanded, but there’s no way to hide the fact that over the past few months I’ve been cleaning the place out, purging it of a lot of accumulated crap and spider webs, poring over WoodenBoat magazine’s forums for advice on what tools to buy, to get ready for my first project.

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The house has no basement to speak of, so the shop has served as a  lazy storage area ever since we moved here in 1991. In the early 1960s, when I first came on the scene and my grandfather Henry was still alive, the shop was a boat shop, with drawers filled with templates and cast bronze boat fittings. There was a lathe, an oak  Gerstner machinist’s tool-and-die set, huge wood vises, and tidy little wooden drawers filled with silicon bronze screws. The tools were still all there then: an electric Miller’s Falls drill, a razor-sharp spokeshave, a collection of handmade wooden block planes, whet stones to sharpen them, boat maker’s bevels, wooden folding rulers, jars of boiled linseed oils and cans of Woolsey marine paint. The smell was of marline, that sailor’s twine that reeks of Swedish pine tar and Lapsang Souchong tea.

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A pot belly cast iron stove stood in a wooden box filled with sand, the chimney pipe curved into a brick chimney that exited the roof of the sail loft on the second floor. Working out there in the winter must have been cold, but in the age before temperature sensitive two-part epoxies were a necessity they just slipped on a faded denim shop coat, stoked the fire, and went to work.

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The ceiling was filled with scrap lumber in racks except for one big section where the trap door to the sail loft is located. My great-great grandfather, the whaling captain, after retiring from the sea,  made and mended sails up there, plying his trade on a sailmaker’s bench with a leather sailor’s palm, linen thread waxed with beeswax, three sided sail needles, big wooden fids for splicing ropes and hawsers, and all sorts of grommets and gasket. Heavy blocks with lignum vitae sheaves — blocks being the nautical term for “pulleys” — hung from the rafters, and above them, in the warmest, driest part of the room are still four immense rough sawn baulks of white Atlantic cedar, just waiting for me to take them down and turn them into a boat.

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Over the years the shop lost a third of its floor plan as we renovated that end of the house and turned a section into an  entry-way, or mudroom. Now, as I contemplate building an 18-foot long rowing wherry on a 20-foot long frame. I am reaching the limit of how big a boat I can build indoors.

What remains is the big double shop doors, the main workbench overlooking the flower garden through ten big glass windows speckled with fly poop and saw dust suspended in the spider webs, the paint rack with all the scrapers and mineral spirits, turpentine and cans of boat paint, the ceiling racks for battens and scrap wood, and a lot of antique tools that call back to the time, not so very long ago, when everything was done by hand. Holes were drilled with a bit-and-brace. Screws driven with wooden handled screw drivers.

Lots of the tools are gone, lost by me and my brother as plundered the shop after my grandfather’s death in the mid-60s to repair our boats, build fences, or fashion bongs out of whatever bong-like material we could filch — like the long bamboo pole used to roll up the porch rug every fall and which we sawed into three-foot lengths and drilled out to make devices to smoke the evil “love weed” as our zero-tolerance father called it. The lathe went to Bob Boden, because he’s a salty guy and a distant relative. The hand saws, the planes, the wooden handled chisels and block planes, the band saw, the screw drivers — all were lost or wrecked over the years.

But now I’m replacing that stuff one tool at a time. One favorite new tool is a Lie-Nielsen block plane. Planing wood with one of these tools is an immensely rewarding experience as the thing is so sharp, so perfectly engineered, that wielding it gives me a feeling of being one with the wood, understanding the first time the true spirit of wood grain and a deft touch.

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Now I’m getting ready to order the lumber and the various fasteners and adhesives needed to build the Petaluma wherry — an open boat with a sliding seat,foot stretchers, and stainless steel riggers I plan on rowing around the three bays next spring. But first I’m practicing not cutting off my fingers with my new Makita skilsaw, and not ruining a couple hundred dollars worth of Sitka spruce by building things like saw horses. I’ve also become addicted to a few wooden boat building channels on YouTube, especially Tips from a Shipwright by Wickford, Rhode Island skiff builder Louis Sauzedde; Acorn to Arabella, in which two young men in western Massachusetts are building a 38′ wooden ketch designed by William Atkin in the style of Colin Archer; and Sampson Boat Company’s restoration of the 107-year old Albert Strange English racing yacht, Tally Ho.

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The Petaluma wherry: project #1

All of this reading, watching and practicing is giving me enough confidence to be dangerous, but until I actually drive up to Boulter Plywood and start ordering pounds of copper nails from Jamestown Distributors, it’s all just an excuse to perform a kind of nautical puttering.

After the storm

Three of us walked Sampson’s Island with a garbage bag on Sunday afternoon. The storm the day before blew from the southeast so the berm of island was chiseled down flat, the wet sand black with old wood ash from some ancient fire that cut a thin black line across the face of the base of the dunes.

We stuffed the heavy duty bag with Dunkin’s cups, mylar birthday balloons, Fireball nips and lost lobster buoys then drove it over to Crosby’s where the accomodating barman at the Chart Room let us sling the bag into his dumpster.

A cup of chowder, a beer or two, and back to Cotuit at full speed into the honking breeze with the trees in their glory and the clouds scudding out to sea.

Shark Risks

The sad and violent death of a young surfer last weekend in Wellfleet was the first death by shark in Massachusetts since the 1930s and  has everyone I know here in Cotuit wondering about the risks of going into the water in the future. I can act the know-it-all and give them the usual reassuring statistical probabilities about lightning and air crashes being a more likely way to die, but there’s something so primally awful about the thought of being attacked by an unseen apex predator that I imagine the most improbable odds are enough to keep some people from taking the chance. Even the latest victim reportedly scoffed at his grandmother’s warning and told her he was “Superman.”

Would I have gone swimming this summer given the earlier, non-fatal attack of a New York neurologist in Truro, and the constant news reports of shark sightings and beach closings? Of course not. I won’t go swimming  anytime unless I’m thrown in the water by a capsize or pushed in by a jerky friend.  I just have a thing about other critters in the ocean, ranging from jellyfish to spider crabs, not to mention 20-foot long sharks.

Do I blame people for ignoring the warnings? Nope, because I live in the IdiocracyOw! My Balls! era of GoPro recorded self-injury and if people think jumping off cliffs wearing batsuits is entertaining, then people are going to go bodysurfing in the waves with sharks. I guarantee people are going to try to get selfies of themselves with sharks just for the likes and shares.

When I am in or on the water I don’t considered myself at any exceptional risk of a shark attack, but the thought has crossed my mind, especially in the early  70s when Jaws was  being filmed across the sound around Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t do the sort of things that get people eaten — kayaking in a boat shaped like a seal, boogie boarding, skinny dipping, abalone diving, etc. — but I have spent a lot of time wading in the water at night, especially twenty years ago when I was into surfcasting and taking stupid risks in the surf along the outer Cape from P-town to Monomoy. I gave that pastime up when the seals started to be a serious nuisance, stealing stripers off the line just because they could.  Nothing gets a heart rate up like getting one’s legs bumped by a playful seal in the surf off the beach at Chatham Light at 3 am. Now the seals are all over the place out there, massive shoals of the mermaids-for-dogs blanketing the beaches around Nauset and Monomoy Island. There’s so many of them — more than 50,000 according to the Boston Globe — that they can be seen from space.

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Monomoy  seals as seen on Google Earth

This past June I saw a seal pop up inside of the drawbridge in Osterville, right in the channel across from the gas docks. That’s a first — I’ve seen seals in the spring, swimming around the Wianno Cut and out in the Sound during squid season, popping up and looking like a curious scuba diver from a distance. But June? When the water quality isn’t very good and there isn’t a ton of food in the water like the April herring run or the late summer menhaden schools …. I guess the seals are heading into the estuaries and bays to avoid swimming in the open water where they can get picked off.

So the question to ponder is: what are the odds a great white shark has entered the bays around Cotuit looking for something to eat? Great whites are pelagic fish — open ocean creatures — who cover lots of miles in their migrations and range everywhere from Cape Cod to South Africa to Australia to the Farallon Islands off of San Francisco . It makes sense they would hang around inshore if their favorite food happens to be a big ball of seal blubber and that blubber is laying by the thousands on the sandy strand.

There was a big to-do in Hadley’s Harbor in 2004 when a big female great white swam around  in that little harbor for a couple of days. That sighting drew a lot of attention to the fact that  there were great whites swimming in Cape Cod water. Around the same time the seal population in Chatham went crazy, flourishing in the decades since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act which stopped the rumored practice of commercial fishermen and lobstermen to carry hunting rifles on their boats to keep the seals from raiding their traps.  These seals didn’t just appear from nowhere. Apparently they are part of a big herd from Canada’s Sable Island who decided to relocate to the Cape’s clement shores.

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The Hadley’s Harbor Great White of 2004

Seals equal  great whites. It’s just the way it is. No seals. No sharks. But no one is seriously considering getting rid of the seals, which means the sharks are here to stay, There were no seals around Cahoon Hollow Beach last weekend when the most recent attack occurred.

The question about shark attack risk is as much historical as it is about probabilities. The last victim, 16 year old Joseph Troy Jr. of Dorchester*, got picked off by a great white while swimming off the beach north of Mattapoissett on Buzzard’s Bay in the summer of 1936,  why weren’t there other attacks reported from that time, before that time, or in the 82 years that followed?  Where were the seals hanging out in 1936? Why were there very few seals in the late 1980s and 90s and suddenly a bazillion at the turn of the century? Did they vanish because of some cyclical trend or were they being hunted to the point they weren’t a feature of the local fauna?

Spring Gathering Of Seals On Cape Cod

Let some marine mammal expert answer that question, but the prevailing local wisdom is either kill  all the seals and repeal at the Marine Mammal Protection Act (the fisherman’s solution) or let Mister  and Missus Jaws do their thing and let nature sort it out. Something tells me we’re closer to the historical balance in the food chain now than we were at any point in the last 50 years.

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Shark about to take out a mermaid-for-dogs

But in the aftermath of the fatal attack the press is now talking about solutions. I think the local officials on the outer Cape are biting their knuckles and acting like Mayor Larry in Jaws, worried about tourist season and summer dollars if beaches get closed and no one can go for a dip. My favorite elected wingnut, a Barnstable county commissioner, wanted to adopt the solution used in South Africa — a thing called a drum line which is essentially a set of baited hooks that intercept the sharks before they find someone’s leg.

Shark nets are used in Australia — I saw one next to the ferry terminal at Manly Beach on Sydney Harbor — but I can’t see how they would last very long in the pounding surf of the Atlantic. Maybe around Cotuit and the more protected waters, but even then I bet the expense is crazy and the effectiveness is limited. All it takes is one unlucky paddleboarder to fall off outside of the net and there goes that false sense of security. There are ankle bracelets one can wear which emit some electronic repellent that keeps sharks away, but if you’re wearing electronics to ward of man-eaters then you need to reassess your choice of pastimes.

As I tell my worried friends — the Mattapoissett attack happened a little more than 15 miles away from Cotuit. Hadley’s Harbor, where the 2004 sighting took place is 14 miles away. And Monomoy Island, where the seals are, is 23 miles from Cotuit. So do the math. Are great whites swimming around Cotuit? Probably not on a daily basis — it’s shallow, kind of murky and nasty in the summer, and not stocked with a huge number of seals — but I wouldn’t declare the place shark free by a long shot.

 

*: the definitive account of the 1936 Mattapoissett attack was published in 1950. Online version at Jstor (registration required) https://www.jstor.org/stable/2421830?loggedin=true&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

See, Gudger, E. W. “A Boy Attacked by a Shark, July 25, 1936 in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts with Notes on Attacks by Another Shark Along the New Jersey Coast in 1916.” The American Midland Naturalist 44, no. 3 (1950): 714-19. doi:10.2307/2421830.

 

 

 

True Rowing – the “Peloton of Ergs”

Rowing machines have been around for a while, but most people are familiar with the Concept 2 made in Morrisville, Vermont and used in the annual C.R.A.S.H.-B sprints — the putative world indoor rowing championship. In the last decade the ergometer has broken out of the boathouses and basements where they were alternatively ,loathed and loved by their users, largely due to CrossFit’s embrace of the machine for its high intensity interval workouts.

Since first appearing in the late 1970s as the Model A, the Concept 2 has become the standard rowing machine used by rowing teams to train and score rowers. There’s also a big following amongst non- and former-rowers, who used Concept2’s online logbook to log their workouts and compare themselves to other rowers around the world. Every winter — usually smack in the middle of the worst of the ice and slush — indoor rowing races like the Cranberry Crunch held here on Cape Cod give people like me a chance to compete against other people and not go slowly crazy cranking away listening to the same heavy-metal playlist I’ve been listening to since 1995 when I bought my Model C.

All those satellite indoor rowing regattas culminate with the C.R.A.S.H.-B’ Sprints in late February — a couple hundred ergometers on the floor of the Boston University hockey rink — with a digital leaderboard and an announcer and all the trappings of an actual sport. Those sprints are 2,000 meters and can take an Olympic gold medalist as little as five-and-a-half minutes to complete, to somewhere north of eight minutes for less endowed mortals. It’s an ugly experience marked by anguished expressions on red faces followed by involuntary vomiting int a trash can. The sound of the flywheels and the fan blades is Pavlovian for anyone who has logged a lot of time on an erg. My buddy Charlie who has a silver medal, used an erg on the balcony of his apartment in Arizona while he studied for his MBA and got in shape for the ’84 LA Olympics. He says the sound makes his stomach churn. yet he still climbs onto the machine every so often.

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By the CRASH-B’s

There have always been other rowing machines to pick from. A college teammate, John Duke, designed and marketed the Water Rower — which uses a clear plastic tank filled with water instead of the Concept2’s use of air pressure  and a damper to simulate  the drag of an oar through the water on the internal flywheels. Kevin Spacey rowed a Water Rower in House of Cards. I’ve never tried one.

Then there are the horrors that hotel chains used to buy and stick in their fitness centers. Those things were bad and led to Concept2 offering an “Erg Locator” on its website so addicts could book themselves into hotels with the real McCoy when they traveled on business. Those knockoffs weren’t nearly as bad as the “rowing machines” sold for $29.95 that used two screendoor pistons, and a squeaky seat on wheels to give grandma something to ride while she watched General Hospital.

There have been some software programs that have tried to enhance the monotony of indoor rowing.  Because the Concept2 display has an ethernet port, I could plug it into my laptop, set that on a chair next to the machine, and row against virtual conpetitors or a computer-generated paceboat. Those programs would upload workout results to the Concept2 Online Rankings, and had options to show one’s power profile, and other super geeky statistical functions that did nothing to improve on the bleak truth that rowing is about as dynamic an activity as being a human metronome approaching cardiac arrest.

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590 Hours on the Erg and nearly 10 Million Meters Later and I’m still fat

Stationary bicycles, treadmills, stairmasters — all of them are boring because they don’t move. The view never changes, there’s no wind rushing, no splashing, no risk of capsizing or getting taken out by a Cape Cod nailbanger in a Ford F-250 with a bag full of Fireball nips. Peloton is viewed as the digital exercise company that cracked the boredom issue by networking high quality stationary bicycles with online classes. I tried to ride one in LA last spring, but I was too tired to figure it out and missed the full Peloton experience.

Now a Cambridge company, True Rowing, is about to introduce a new indoor rower, the “Crew”  with a 22″ flatpanel display and the promise of real time rowing workouts broadcast from the Thames, the Charles, the Schuykill ….. There will be instructors, and from what I can read from the press release and early coverage, an opportunity to row in synch with the rower (s) on screen.  That’s a big deal because a lot of the trick in rowing is learning how to perfectly coordinate oneself with seven other people in a round-bottomed, 60-foot long boat that’s a little bit wider than your butt in lumpy water and waves.

The Crew is a good looking machine – a little too “Jetson” for my tastes — and has all the expected pieces such as an oar handle, a place for the feet, and a rolling seat for the butt. Resistance comes from magnets.  I’ve towerd on ergs that used a basket of weights (the Gamut circa 1976), water, air, and even magnets to put some resistance behind the flywheel. Magnets were the worst and the method favored by one of the early makers of health club and hotel rowing machines. But no judging until I actually get on a Crew and pull a few strokes.

Crew

The obvious difference with the Crew is the monitor. Concept2 uses a display that gives the most basic feedback — split times, elapsed time, strokes per minute, calories, watts , etc, — so the rower can stare at a little square of grey LCD numbers and do constant arithmetic, calculating how many more strokes will be needed before the agony will end.

I wish True Rowing the best, and I signed up for a first look. At $2,000 for the machine and $40 monthly subscription, the machine is priced exactly the same as a Peloton bicycle. That prices the Crew at twice the cost of a Concept 2, signalling that True doesn’t have delusions of eating into Concept2’s base in the rowing and CrossFit markets, but is going after the rich guy with the same pitch the Water Rower used — rowing machines should be beautiful and capable of hanging out in the living room.

Dick Cashin is one of the investors in True Rowing, and that more than anything is the best endorsement for the Crew as he is a rowing legend who rowed in the USA eight in the 76′ Olympics, won the Worlds,  a medal in the Pan American Games, and consistently wins his age group in the C.R.A.S.H.-B’s. I interviewed him for a story I wrote about indoor rowing for Forbes in the early 90s and he’s still active competing on and off the water. If Dick thinks its a machine worth investing in, then it’s a machine worth checking out when it starts shipping next year.