Friday, February 27, 2009

Now With Extra Coherence!

For whatever it's worth, I just added a paragraph to my Heroism and Failure entry to make it more coherent.

Jumping on the iPhone Gold Rush

While I mentioned this a while back on my Twitter feed, I forgot to mention it here. I've reconnected with an old friend, Bill Monk, who's a fantastic pro guitarist who just happens to also be a legendary computer programmer. We've got some fiendishly clever ideas for iPhone applications (hope we haven't missed The Moment), and are on a crash development program. Wish us luck!

Oh, our company name will, of course, be FretBone, in light of our respective instruments.

I'll have more details later, but if I'm a little scarce in Slogland, that's why!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Changing Unchangeable Flights

I'm about to wing my way to sunny California, using the stupendous fares I wrote about here. It's an opportunity to cheaply replenish some of the frequent flier miles I used up for travel last year.

After booking a return flight on a Thursday afternoon, I realized I'd scheduled my trip so tightly that I wouldn't have a chance to have dinner with Chowhound's long-suffering, saintly patient bone counter, Leslie. American runs a daily late night flight, but wanted to charge me $150 penalty plus fare supplement - $255 total - to change my inflexible sale-priced ticket.

But I've learned something interesting. If you want to get on a different flight, so long as it's the same airport/date/airline, there actually are two other options besides blowing megabucks:

1. Fly standby (less risky than in previous times, because airline web sites will show you empty seats for any given flight), or...

2. A "confirmed flight change". You call in twelve hours before the flight you'd like to switch to, and if they have the seats, they'll switch you over for $50. Cool, no?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Heroism and Failure

Great quote from Kurt Andersen's interview of Philippe Petit (the fellow who tightroped between the Twin Towers back in the day) on his Studio 360 public radio program (download MP3), when Andersen asked whether he ever thought about falling.
"I am incapable of having such thoughts. I concentrate and I live and I walk forward [as] I want to do, which is walk on a cable. The opposite of walking on a cable - flying away from a piece of steel on which you walk - I'm incapable of entertaining that thought because it's in a different world than the one I have created and decided to live in."
The thing is, while Petit has developed this interesting reply to tell interviewers, it can't possibly be something he's "thinking" while he's actually doing his thing. Because to mentally register the non-consideration of failure ("I cannot let myself imagine falling!") is to consider failure! So, articulate though he's learned to be in later reflection, you can bet there's no self consciousness at all at the moment of execution. And I think his real trick isn't to block the notion of failure, but to block self consciousness.

My first reaction when I heard the interview was to suppose that I have the converse of his mindset. At heart, I generally can't imagine things going as I hope. It ruined my childhood basketball career; I'd aim carefully and shoot with finesse, but failure was expected in my very bones, and the ball's trajectory, naturally, followed expectation (invariably spinning multiple times around the rim, dipping enticingly toward the net, and then wafting just far enough to the side to plop towards the floor in hoopless failure).

At another level, I've always been aware of my failure expectation at those moments, and that self consciousness may have been my true undoing. By contrast, my fearless, utterly confident moments have all been so utterly unselfconscious - neither witnessed nor recorded by me - that I hadn't realized until now that there'd even been any. I still can't quite glimpse them. They're the hazy, blurry spots just prior to success. As with trying to make out writing in dreams, they refuse to come into focus.

It's heartening to know that we all are heroic from time to time, but that beautiful, poetic paradox bars us from noticing!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bill Gates on Education: Naive?

The video of Bill Gates at the TED conference has been hugely lauded and virally popular (personally, I found his releasing of mosquitos into the audience incredibly creepy; I guess that's the scary place where Bill goes when compelled to be "edgy"). I asked Deven Black, who teaches special education in the South Bronx, for his reaction to Gates' education ideas:
"Gates is tied to the old-fashioned idea that classrooms are teacher-centered; that effective teachers lecture and those lectures can be packaged and delivered to students who lack effective teachers.

"I'd like to see him visit an inner-city school, like the one I teach in. Good teachers don't lecture; there's not a student around today who'd sit still for that! Good teachers teach, in a way Gates would recognize, for perhaps ten minutes of a 45 minute period. The rest of the time the teacher is a guide and resource as students build knowledge by acting as investigators, creators, instructors, examiners and experimenters. That's the sort of thing you can't put in a bottle, on a dvd, or on a microchip."

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Follies of Self-Negotiation...Again

Don't miss this nicely balanced, well-considered Washington Post article about Hillary Clinton's unusually blunt style of diplomacy, especially regarding her startling admission that she expects to make little progress on human rights in China.

Money quote:
"Within foreign policy circles, Clinton's remarks on human rights have stirred consternation that she is giving up possible leverage with China before any dialogue has begun."
This strongly recalls my quote of Paul Krugman in the Slog entry on Obama's negotiating tactics re: the stimulus package:
"[Republicans] probably would have demanded that $100 billion or so be cut from anything Mr. Obama proposed; by coming in with such a low initial bid, the president guaranteed that the final deal would be much too small. Such are the perils of negotiating with yourself."

I never thought I'd find myself quoting John Bolton, but he's quite right in saying:
"The issue with whatever she says, candid or not, is whether it has an objective in mind, or whether she is just running at the mouth."

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I'd thought that all the ruckus about steroids was overblown. When President Obama was asked that (inappropriate) question about Alex Rodriguez' scandal at last week's press conference, I found his reply tired and cliched (influencing young people, etc etc, setting wrong example, etc etc).

But I've changed my mind. I was in a gym locker room today, and overheard two suburban teenaged kids discussing the amazing improvement a third friend of theirs had made; how "six months ago, he looked like just a regular guy, and now he looks like somebody out of a magazine!" The other leaned close and whispered "yeah, of course the steroids helped". He said it with the same tone of awe and prurience as was once heard among young jazz musicians whispering about heroin. They knew the drug's stigma and pitfalls, but couldn't disregard the fact that so many of their heros used it. And hero worship is real, for better or for worse.

These were neither derelicts nor competitive athletes. They're shopping mall kids. This is a bad scene.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

TV on Web

For those over the age of fifteen, here are some ways of catching TV shows and other lengthy quality video (as opposed to skanky little YouTube-ish clips) without resorting to the hassle/peril of torrent or the expense of paid streaming:

Hulu is the go-to aggregator.

Guba gets video from Usenet newsgroups, so items are constantly arriving and disappearing. Tame the over-eager search engine by enquoting phrases, e.g. "family guy".

Graboid Video costs, but there's a free trial.

Watch great documentaries and educational programming at, TED, and, especially, Annenberg Media.

Torrent based, but more convenient and intelligent than standard P2P, TVShow and ted allow you to subscribe to episodic TV shows. TVShow finds higher quality versions, but is stalled in completing a 1.0 release.

Also, BOXEE is huge right now. Here's a lifehacker article about it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

YouTube for Audio

I wondered here whether there was a YouTube for audio files. Others - lots of others - have asked the same question. Diving in a little bit deeply, I've found that several have tried and died, and others exist and charge you for the bandwidth (how 1998!). But while it's not perfect, Entertonement seems to work pretty well.

I used Entertonement here to present a report I'd done for the Canadian broadcasting system. And, per my promise in the top-linked entry, here's the higher quality version of my chowhounding-by-remote-control experiment with Dean Olsher in St. Paul on public radio's "Next Big Thing".

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 8

Previous installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

Just because people keep proposing really bad solutions doesn't mean there isn't a problem!

What the woozy mogul and the slimy schemer were both saying, in their respective ways, could not be disregarded. To attract corporate interest, Chowhound needed to be more inviting to the corporate eye. Indeed, this was why we'd had so few previous biz nibbles. It was surprisingly hard for businesspeople to fully grasp the value of Chowhound's data, its unique audience, or its brand as-is. Our vibe of earnestness and authenticity, which had powerfully attracted a huge crowd of independent thinkers, was, like some sci-fi space shield, equally effective at repelling corporate types. But wasn't that the whole idea?

Say you've created an operation whose entire reason for existence, whose very aesthetic, was anti-corporate (or, at least, anti-the-usual-soulless-corporate). Everything about the operation is so unwavering in that perspective that no one - not even the most vicious hater - could ever suspect it to be a mere pose. And say a huge crowd had been attracted, eager to join in communal backlash against plastic, buzzy, spiritually empty consumer products. You've created a red pill: an antidote to corporate marketing hypnosis, encouraging consumers to shake off the trance. To put down the Kool-Aid and make free choices. To actively seek out unsung treasure rather than walk the well-worn path of passive capitulation to the shiny seductions of the pandemic mediocrity.

Hey, good job! this point, could you possibly be so daft as to imagine that this cockamamie, kooky, flimsy-seeming and vaguely threatening movement you've created with your co-freaks - with its homegrown look and rant-ish anti-corporate message - is going to appeal to the very suits you revile? Are you, perhaps, smoking crack?

Well, Craigslist, with its similar vibe, managed it. But we didn't quite have Craig's numbers or brand recognition. Beyond a certain point, the execs bring along their own crack pipes.

Also, Craig's "play" was clear as a bell: a classified ad model ported online. Chowhound's play was more convoluted: trading chow tips...but wait, really good chow tips...but wait, no, really intrepid, iconoclastic, cutting edge chow tips. Ferreting out, evangelizing, and cataloging unsung treasure. It takes some mental agility to fully grok, especially for those parties who obliviously scarf drek from Blimpies. And, remember, their brother suits had perpetrated Blimpies culture in the first place, and deemed the lock-stepped hypnotic consumer trance not an abomination but a utopia. Hmm...impasse!

While the present day feels like a new corporate era - one where a CFO might play bass in a punk band and vote Democrat, and the encubicled set deems themselves cool and creative - make no mistake about it: corporate attitude remains 1956ishly square. Deep-down, these guys are all still crewcuts-and-tie-clips.

Of course, it would be wrong to blame the corporate world for missing our value. After all, we were the ones who'd installed the force field. Ways could be found to polish up our look and scale up our traffic without seeing Chowhound dilute into a lowest-common-denominator Olive-Garden-hugging, focus-group fellating resource. But there was a Catch 22: such changes would require corporate support, but corporate support would evade us so long as we remained all vibey/hippy/wavy/gravy. And there was also Catch 22a: a makeover sponsored by unhip parties, even with the best of intentions, would destroy the vibe.

While "vibe" is the term I've been using here, the dynamic is actually quite explainable in MBA-speak. Chowhound has two unusual points of value: 1. the premium quality of its data, and 2. its tightly-focused audience, which is uniquely discriminating and knowledgable. The data and the audience, the audience and the data, are like chicken and egg. Dilution of one would result in immediate dilution of the other, and entropy can never be reversed. Chowhound required sensitive management by people with a deep affinity for subtle cultural issues of tone and values, and those factors couldn't be faked, because our audience's most inherent quality was its ability to sniff inauthenticity.

That's not so hard to understand, is it? Well, Vrtha and Mogul didn't really get it. Why? Because, like all corporate honchos, they're geniuses, smug with their proven abilities to build and manage big things, all molecule-thin. They deemed Chowhound just another wafer-thin branded widget, and wouldn't stop flexing their gigantic cerebral lobes long enough to grok its unique and fragile qualities. They were gut-ignorant there, and ignorance is a dark, scary place. What's more, truly understanding us would mean calling deeply into question some bedrock assumptions, and, obviously, these were not red pill people.

So whom would I paddle toward, if Chowhound was, essentially, a three dimensional pencil pushing up through the ground of two-dimensional corporate Flatland, confusing to the inhabitants and ill-suited to their tools and mechanisms? If we were going to be acquired, I needed to find a company that not only appreciated and valued Chowhound's unique attributes, but whose very operation hinged on making hay with premium quality information, opinions, and audiences. Mere statement of appreciation wasn't worth much (the likes of Vrtha and Mogul could spit effusive praise on cue). But a company whose bread and butter involved painstakingly high-quality content might remain sensitive to Chowhound's unique and fragile dynamic. They wouldn't alter the recipe as heedlessly as Mogul and Vrtha had proposed.

And, indeed, the pig needed serious lipstick. The best, biggest, broadest, deepest, savviest trove of food news and tips ever compiled in any media, and its loyal national following, meant nothing to the business world so long as there was no cleanly definable "there" there. We'd likely miss out on this bubble, as we'd missed the previous one, if we didn't repackage, slickly framing Chowhound's cultural aspects. We needed to telegraph that we were "Anti-Corporate" - with quotation marks, as a winking corporate tactic - rather than remain flatly anti-corporate, the term simmering in insolent unquoted lowercase. Y'know, Indie Rock. Betty Crocker Homestyle. Sanctioned edginess.

Even if I were at the peak of my energy, the task would have held little appeal for me. But I hung on. And I did take a deep breath and rang one corporate doorbell, making a cold call overture to the good folks in charge of a large east coast media conglomerate.

Read the next installment (#9)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Stephen Colbert at the White House

I continue to wonder whether Stephen Colbert's legendary (and controversial) performance at the White House Correspondents Association dinner in April, 2006 will one day be seen as the tidal turning point for public opinion of the Bush presidency, much as Joseph Welch's resounding "Have you no sense of decency, sir?" retort demarcated the beginning of the end for Joseph McCarthy.

FWIW, here's a previous Slog reference to Colbert's performance.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Compiling a "Best of" List

I've been trying to pick out twenty especially original Slog entries to throw into a "Best of" section for the benefit of newbies. 26 candidates I've come up with can be read (in reverse chronological order) here, or those same 26 are listed below with direct links.

I could use your help winnowing these down (or suggesting entries I passed over). I'm not looking for the funniest or most useful entries, or those most relevant to your personal interests, but the overall most original and interesting pieces (insofar, of course, as any of them can be considered original or interesting).


Ballasting Happiness
The Monks and the Coffee
How to Enter Sensitive Passwords on Public Computers
Climbing Ladders
Aztecs in Austria
How to Smuggle in Cuban Cigars....Legally!
Always Talk to the Mask
Exercise Workouts: The "Wuss" Strategy
The Route of Escalating Conciliation
Milton Resnick: Ecstasy Made Visible
We've Gone Completely Jungian
Consistency, Niche, and the Art/Biz Dichotomy
A Muslim Writer's "Open Letter to Obama"
Ad Blocker Exceptions Are the New Online Tip Jar
How to pick out shill-reviewed places on Trip Advisor
God As Dude
Eating by the Numbers
Indie Filmmakers Won't Let Me See Their Films
Ten Terrific Films You've Never Heard Of
Ten Terrific Films You've Never Heard Of
Hillary, Sexism, OJ, and an Apology to the Right Wing
Salesmanship in Love and Politics
Why Things Suck
Devil's Advocate on Gay Marriage
Transcending Tom & Jerry
Brazilian Bus Driver Syndrome
...and the 'Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out' series

Friday, February 13, 2009

Dance Move Tutorials

His production values are unswank, and he may not be the most efficient teacher in the world, but this guy on YouTube has posted tons of great instructional videos explaining hip dance moves that are otherwise very difficult to learn about. He also teaches some really creative, unique steps he's figured out. And he's not promoting anything; it's all out of pure generosity.
"I'm not making these videos for fun...i am making for people to become sick dancers."

I find the sentiment really touching. And, most impressively, he hardly shows off at all. Each video consists almost entirely of his patiently slowing things down, breaking down steps to clearly explain them. For the most part, he declines to demonstrate the finished step for more than a couple of seconds. Just when one begins to question his expertise, he'll do a complete step full-out for the briefest of moments, clearly proving this dude really knows his stuff. Imagine that: a slick dancer patiently offering all his moves to all comers for free, without even looking for ego satisfaction.

Even if you're not someone who hangs out in dance clubs, the tutorial on how to airwalk and moonwalk will have you gliding around your living room.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Morse Code Chic

Google's interface is available in many languages, including Klingon and a tongue called Bork, bork, bork!. Why, I wonder, is Morse code not available? It's poised for a resurgence, following artist An Xiao's Morse code blogging on the Brooklyn Museum's Twitter feed.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Temperature Swings

It's 6 degrees where I am right now, at 9:30am. And it's going up to 43 degrees today. I'm curious as to how this can happen by 3:30pm, when the sun starts heading down.

But, the time it's taken me to arrange my browser and write this entry - a minute or two in all - the temperature has gone up to 13 degrees. Well, suppose that's how it's done! 

Whenever outdoor temperature swings widely, in either direction (but worse when it decreases), a large number of people get sick. Some cold or bug or malaise will go around. Surely this effect is as old as our species, yet no one seems to notice the correlation. Apparently doctors and scientists are unaware of it (in fact, I feel slightly "woo-woo" for even mentioning it). 

How is it possible that the correlation isn't popularly noted? We're genetically configured to notice such trends (we learned to farm and do many other useful things by our ability to spot cycles and correlations), and you'd think we'd be extra sharp on factors affecting our health. My guess is that we once knew, but lost that knowledge when we started living in insulated housing, and felt we needed to pay less heed to the effect of outdoor cycles on our physical health. Our conviction that we're divorced from such things exceeds our psychological inclination to scan the horizon for health-affecting factors.

Ten minutes later, it's still 13 degrees. 

Esoteric Truths About Cellphone Reception

You, my friend, are a Faraday cage - though some people are more conductive than others. So don't hold your iPhone from the bottom, where the antenna is.

I learned this, and more, from an amazing comment by a guy named Michael replying to David Pogue's 
NY Times blog entry about disappointing reception on his iPhone's AT&T network. Michael's offering appears on page four of the comments...but I'll paste in the best stuff below (love the part about the buses). Geeks will enjoy the following soulfood:
"Cell phone signal strength is tested, but I don’t know how the results are used. Nor do I know who tests the carriers’ networks - the carriers or a contract company.

"One way that network strength is tested is in the back of Greyhound buses, on a fairly continual basis. I don’t know much more than that, except the test guy and his recording equipment gets the rear seat. This method tests signals along major USA corridors - like Interstate highways.

"DJH’s comment is correct - some carriers oversubscribe their networks. This was true of Sprint in 2000 in major metropolitan areas. You had a minute or two to discuss the core of your message before being dropped. [ Comcast was noteworthy for this same practice around the same time for Internet/TV subscriptions. ]

"Another issue that appears to have been changed between the iPhone 2.5G and 3G is the chrome decoration on the case. It’s a very good Faraday cage (signal hindrance), as is your car, and most buildings (with metal lathe, steel roofs, steel ductwork, metal skins, and energy efficient [metallized] windows. These conductive paths present a barrier to RF signals, as well as producing an echo chamber effect.

"The 3G iPhone seems to have removed much of the chrome decoration that acted as a Faraday cage. Unfortunately, the cell phone antennas are located at the bottom of the phone, right where most people hold them. People are conductive, and make pretty good Faraday cages. Interestingly enough, some people are more conductive than others. Maybe David Pogue’s electrolytes are stronger than other cell phone users? :-)"

Friday, February 6, 2009

Aren't You Glad They Didn't Privatize Social Security?

As I survey the smoking wreckage of the brokerage account holding what I once thought of as my "savings", which is currently down over 40% (I only beat the market in failure), I recall President Bush's initiative to privatize Social Security. It was a major part of the Bush agenda just after he declared himself mandated to spend "political capital" he'd earned via his devastating 50.7% landslide in the 2004 election.

If the initiative hadn't failed, and Social Security moneys were rising and falling with the stock market, I'd imagine that a whole lot of retirees might be eating cat food right about now.

Of course, the plan was never about enlightened management of public funds. It was a tactic aimed at giving more voters a personal stake in the stock market, hopefully propelling them into a more pro-business, pro-Republican perspective.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

What Bernanke and Paulson Have in Common With Soccer Goalies

Wow, this is great stuff. The NY Times reports on a study showing that soccer goalies almost always dive to the right or the left when intercepting penalty kicks, even though their odds of stopping the ball are best when they simply stay put in the center.

So why do they jump?
"Because, the academics theorized, the goalies are afraid of looking as if they’re doing nothing — and then missing the ball. Diving to one side, even if it decreases the chance of them catching the ball, makes them appear decisive. 'They want to show that they’re doing something,' says Michael Bar-Eli, one of the study’s authors. 'Otherwise they look helpless, like they don’t know what to do.'"
..."And it may not be just goalies that operate in this fashion. Bar-Eli suspects the behavior erupts during financial crises too....the same goes for presidents and politicians, who face enormous pressure to “fix” the economy even if they haven’t got a clue what to do."
This perfectly articulates a deep-seated feeling I've had lately that the fiscal powers that be are simply flailing in order to seem authoritative.

Per the old Zen joke, "Don't just do something...stand there!"

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Cheney's Latest

Politico reports:
"'When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry,' [Dick] Cheney said."
I understand his point (though I disagree with it). My question is: how can such an intelligent man, who I'm sure has read more history than I ever will, appear to so utterly lack awareness that this same sentiment, with different specifics, has been put forth for time immemorial - and often leads to the sort of tyranny our Constitution boldly sought to prevent?

There are, and always have been, really bad people trying to do really bad things. But the protections of the Constitution don't come with asterisks. They are what America is, not how it acts in Good Times toward merely moderately bad people (though...were Charles Manson and Ted Bundy any less evil than Khalid Shaikh Mohammed?).

I'm loathe to quote Jon Stewart, a mere comedian, to rebutt Dick Cheney, who, agree with him or not, is an erudite man. But, as Stewart said,
"If you don't stick to your values when they're being tested, they're not values, they're hobbies."
Torture, for one thing, doesn't work.

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 7

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

I started shaking trees. As I said a couple of installments ago, the only solution that seemed to make sense was out-and-out acquisition. But things had turned so surreal with the dawn of this Web 2.0 bubble that I figured it wasn't a good time to disregard options. So I made the rounds of old contacts, and found them all taking Chowhound's prospects far more seriously (though I'm unsure whether it was because they'd spotted the impending bubble, or because my tone had acquired a newly confident gravitas). And there were a few strafing runs by some scary biz sharks, easily enough identified and deflected. One stood out particularly.

I'd long been friendly with a well-connected young online media businessman who'd quickly risen inside a couple big-name Internet companies. I called him and discussed our situation, and he introduced me to a shadowy dude who I'll call Vrtra.

I was told (and have no reason to disbelieve) that Vrtra had founded one of Richard Branson's operations, though none of it Googled at the time. In fact, the guy hardly showed up in Google searches at all, except for his creepily charming blog about his drab outer boroughs neighborhood, which he painted as alluring as the French Riviera (he owned prime real estate there, and was using a multi-pronged approach to create "buzz" in order to pump up property values).

After some preliminary emails, I asked to meet him, and he reluctantly agreed, showing up in a local diner in silk shirt and snotty attitude, actually uttering this impossibly Pacino-esque line: "You wanted to meet me. Ok, fine; here I am, you've met me."

He didn't much want to talk about Chowhound. He certainly didn't want to hear my ideas or concerns for its future. He wanted to shove food in his face, give me his slimy wet fish handshake, wipe said slimy wet fish hand disdainfully with antibiotic wet-nap, and hastily return to his sports car and pampered, rarified life.

Though we hadn't discussed any arrangement, much less negotiated terms, a "letter of agreement" was sent for my signature, and it was an astonishing document. Vrtra had intended to give its language the veneer of crisp, business-like equability, but his sneering derision rang out from each obnoxious line. It went something like this: he'd essentially seize Chowhound, make design and tech changes without input from me, and then he'd do with the company as he damned well pleased; selling, dumping, or pimping it out at his sole discretion. Oh, and he'd take a very fat share of the proceeds (though, kindly, there'd be no fee for his services if he failed to squeeze any lucre from the thing). I'd not be contractually obligated to "crawl up and die", specifically, but the suggestion was clearly implicit.

So...waving goodbye to Larry the Liquidator, Little Red Ridinghound continued his merry romp down the forest path, hoping to find Grandmother's House (while still desperately straining to keep the damned site up and running).

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"No Pain, No Gain" Follow-Up

Thinking more about the previous post, which noted the mounting evidence that merely grinding out aerobic exercise may not help much,. Painful all-out sprinting, even for a few short minutes, brings far greater weight loss and cardiovascular benefits than long stoic sessions of merely heighteened heart rate (if you haven't read the post yet, you may want to take a look, below, before continuing here)...

I'm wondering how much of the effect is psychological. You may have heard of the mega-bizarre recent study where hotel maids were simply informed that their daily work routine was fairly strenuous...and subsequently lost weight and reduced blood pressure, apparently via the psychological shift alone, without any actual changes to their activities (here's an article with more info).

Could it be that it's not the sprinting itself that causes the benefit, along with a side effect of pain and fatigue....but the pain and fatigue themselves directly cause the benefit? There's no better way, after all, to psychologically hammer home to yourself the realization that you've really exerted yourself than panting uncontrollably and suffering stabbing pains to the sides.

I wonder if there's some way to create an experiment where subjects performing their normal exercise routine are caused to simply feel as if they're exerting themselves much more...

"No Pain, No Gain" After All

For years, I was one among many pear-shaped denizens of my gym, forlornly marking time on our cardio machines without much result. We'd been told that by working out just below the pain point, diligently maintaining heart rate in the proper range, and grinding out 30 minute sessions three or four times per week, week after week, health and weight would take care of themselves. But recent research indicates that the old, unfashionable "no pain no gain" saw may in fact still apply.

Fast, hard sprinting has been shown to be the most efficient exercise for cardiovascular health, for weight loss, and for athletic performance. That's why athletes have, some time ago, shifted to high-intensity interval training...and gym rats like me are following suit.

The first link, above, points to a brand new study demonstrating that just just seven minutes per week(!) of flat-out sprinting can achieve "a sizable fraction of the cardiovascular benefits from the recommended seven-hour-per-week aerobic exercise." The weight loss link points to an older study comparing interval training to more traditional endurance training. In that study, the duration of both types of exercise were more or less equal, and the interval training brought tremendously better results. But I'd bet anything that if you halved the duration of the interval training, much of that benefit would be retained.

Poll on Republicans' Conservatism

According to this Salon article analyzing polling data from Republican voters about their party's future, 43% say the party's been too moderate, and 55% think Palin should be the model for the GOP

The writer's trying to make the case that in spite of this, a large number of Republicans realize the party needs to move more to the center.
"For evidence, look no further than that same Rasmussen poll: Overall, 42 percent of respondents believe the Republican Party has been too conservative. 56 percent of self-described moderates gave that answer."
Ahem. Only 56% of self-described Republican moderates believe the party has grown too conservative? Yeah, that's a narrow majority, but it also means (and the poll's data confirm) that fully 45% of Republican moderates find the party too moderate (or just moderate enough). Nearly half the moderates think that!

Never trust reporters trying to make points with polls. Even better, never trust polls. It's all in the wording. This one grinds against the ambiguity of the term "conservative". Conservatism means different things to different people (and the Republican coalition has long hinged on that very ambiguity). For libertarian conservatives, the party's recent contraction of civil liberties was non-conservative. For economic conservatives, its enormous deficits were anything but conservative. And for social conservatives, Bush's relatively pro-immigration stance and lack of movement on issues like school prayer were insufficiently conservative.

The data I'd like to see would question rank-and-file Republicans about neo-conservative values: general hawkishness, American exceptionalism, heightened executive power, and all that. While some Republican voters were lulled into accordance with these precepts thanks to Fox News, Bush's pulpit, etc., I doubt they were ever core to their value system. A couple dozen pointy-headed neo-con intellectuals pulled us all into all that, and I suspect the other 303,824,616 Americans are either staunchly against or else slowly coming around.

Exercise Workouts: The "Wuss" Strategy

Following my previous posting about establishing a workout regimen with an eye toward sustaining it for the long term, here's a counterintuitive trick: start out like a wuss.

If you've never been a worker-outer, or if you've lapsed, it's really helpful to do the most half-assed workouts imaginable for the first three sessions. Under-load all weight machines and work only to the point of light fatigue, rather than grunting exhaustion. Walk on the treadmill, don't jog. Break a light sweat, no more. Reasons:

1. You won't get as sore. Soreness at the beginning is a downer that can can make you skip sessions, interfering with the creation of a consistent regimen (though soreness eventually will come to feel'll crave it!).

2. Many of us have psychological baggage about exercise, and those issues can derail a regimen. So you must pay as much attention to your mind as to your body. Easing in to a regimen ensures a positive experience. Pain, tiredness, and exhaustion may feel good once you're in the groove...but less so when starting out. It's hard enough to establish a regimen without having to deal with dread, so keep things light-and-breezy in the beginning. No pain, no exhaustion, no feelings of futility that may stir up deeper aversions and make the gym come to feel like a place to stoically endure, or even skip outright.

3. On days when you're feeling cranky and not in the mood to work out, it will be harder to blow off the session if you know it's not particularly demanding. Don't give yourself an easy excuse to drop out!

4. After the three (or so) easy workouts, you'll have begun to initiate a habit. You'll be used to going to the gym, and your body will start to yearn for exercise. Establishing this habit is vastly more important than the workouts themselves. Your job, in the beginning, is less about building muscles or losing weight, than about building a consistent regimen.

5. Workouts are like brushing teeth. Any one brushing, no matter how protracted and diligent, can make only scant improvement in the health or appearance of your teeth, but twice daily brushing will, over time, reap huge rewards. People often launch workout regimens with lock-jawed Prussian determination, but by intentionally ratcheting back at the beginning, we establish a longer-range perspective toward gradual steady process. When you exercise with that perspective, surprisingly good results sneak up on you when you're hardly looking for them.

The same applies if, after having established a regimen, you miss a few workouts in a row. Resume like a wuss. Drop all your weights, speeds, and timings. Don't heed the natural impulse to "make up for" missed sessions. You can't do yourself much enduring good from any one or two sessions, anyway, so you'll only disrupt your effort to reestablish the habit.

At a certain point, you'll hit a groove and your body will happily accept tougher workloads. The trick is to ease into it! But bear squarely in mind that consistency is everything. 200 relatively modest workouts per year will do much more for you than 30 or 40 punishing workouts. Intensity can always be ratcheted up later, once you've cultivated a firm gym habit. At that point, go for it!

Finally, some paradigm-shifting perspective from master yoga teacher Ramanand Patel. While having us execute some particularly grueling and uncomfortable maneuver, eliciting peals of grunts and moans around the room, Patel quietly noted that at that very moment, while we enjoyed our yoga class, countless millions of our fellow humans were engaged in the most back-breaking labor in hope of putting some food on the table for their families. The moaning ceased immediately.

It's a wonderful image to call to mind during those gym moments when you deem yourself to be "suffering".

Monday, February 2, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 6

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So this was what it felt like to be smack dab in the center of a bubble! Laws of physics no longer applied. Nothing made any sense at all. Up was down, in was out. Michael Brecker was dead while Kenny G lived on.

But there was logic within the greater absurdity. The guy smelled money, that's all. Again, Murdoch had just bought MySpace, Web 2.0 had dawned, online communities were on the brink of investor heat, and my eager exec, exquisitely well-connected in the media world, was in prime position to see the new bubble forming, and determined to get in early on this one. Chowhound was run by a couple of shmucks sitting on a brand with far more potential value than they realized. Their content was primo, their brand far-reaching, and the food niche would certainly be pivotal in Web 2.0. Chowhound was, in other words, a fast and easy way in.

He was offering to tap his life savings to make over the site, replace its software, and generally give Chowhound the veneer of corporate acceptability. He'd do the shmoozing and handle the deals. He'd surely want a great big slab of equity, though we never got to that level of detail. It seemed like he might solve all our problems. More than anything, we needed another hand on deck, and this was certainly one heckuva hand!

Or was he? During our meetings, he'd shown only a vague comprehension of what Chowhound was about. He didn't much appreciate the credo or understand the culture. His mind was feverishly spinning, and the unique qualities of the operation itself were nowhere in that mix. This was the peak of the housing bubble, and I had the distinct and unpleasant sensation that his intention was for Chowhound to be "flipped", to use the real estate term for a property speculatively traded for a quick buck.

Which wasn't necessarily a deal-ender. If I could retain some control regarding what was done and where we wound up, this new development might represent a lifesaving pathway to an endgame where I'd go write books and the community would flourish. But as we discussed his gameplan, my hope withered. Mr. Honcho's idea was to tear it all down and build up something new, using, ugh, focus groups.

Chowhound had a vibe, and that vibe was the nucleus of attraction for (at the time) nearly a million unique visitors per month. With no publicity budget, our success was entirely due to that powerful and singular vibe, which extended in subliminal ways into all aspects of the operation. The vibe was seamless because it was real. Everyone running the site was sincere and cared deeply, and perfectly mirrored the sensibilities of our audience. You just can't beat Love as a unifying principle. If, say, Coca Cola or Union Carbide had such synchronization of the heart, there'd be no limit to what they could achieve. Instead, the corporate world has created a vast array of mechanisms to simulate that - and to hypnotize various parties into sniffing it when it's not really there. Comparatively shoddy workarounds, all.

The standard corporate mechanisms can't attract a million smart, engaging, generous people to chip in expert, honest, savvy tips. Such a crowd hung around Chowhound because the place intuitively felt right, and, by definition, these were not folks whose sensibilities could be cynically manipulated. If they were, they'd be dining in chains and buzzy restaurants, obediently following conventional wisdom rather than intrepidly ferreting out unsung treasure. Not only weren't they lemmings, they were the loyal opposition to lemminghood. We'd gathered the un-gatherable. We'd herded cats! And this guy was talking about using focus groups - focus groups!! - as if that was a step upward!

There were ways to tighten up our appearance and to scale up our traffic without losing all that value - without losing our cultural vibe. But corporate types, enmeshed in their processes of emulation, don't comprehend, much less value, authenticity. And they don't trust the concept of "vibes", except insofar as it can be broken down and craftily wielded as a tool of manipulation. What they trust is metrics - focus groups and other brass tacks, stone-cold, depersonalized numerical tools and guidelines. My would-be new partner's idea was to gut the operation, and swap in an instant-on mega-mass-market web site, aimed at the lowest common denominator, to leverage our established brand name.

Amid all the confusion and craziness, I knew two things for sure. First, nobody was going to gut Chowhound - to forsake its hard-won value, alienate its loyal audience, and erect ditzy shiny crap in its place. And, second, if this hotshot exec was willing to quit his lofty day job to come work for us, that meant we clearly had more pivot room than we'd imagined. So I didn't quite dismiss the proposal, but neither did I lead him on. I expressed my concerns....and I began to explore other options. 

Thinking back on it, my perplexingly tepid response must have sparked for him the same bemused observation his offer had sparked for me: "So this is what it feels like to be smack dab in the center of a bubble!"

Read the next installment (#7)....

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Online Education

Khan Academy is an amazing storehouse of tutorials by a brilliant, amiable, and very very clear instructor - the eponymous Sal Khan. He's versatile, too, as you'll see. If you have children, it'd be tantamount to parental neglect not to turn them onto this fantastic resource. Man, how I wish I had this when I was in school!

There's plenty for grownups, as well. Have a look at the extensive series of explanations of the current economic crisis. This is just the guy to dissemble and explain the complexities.

This sort of thing is exactly what the Internet's good for. Not enough people are honing in on online education, and it's poised to be the next big thing (I have a highly creative biz plan all written out for an online educational portal, but am too permanently charred from Chowhound to take it on).

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