Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Story

I always get presents for the cats at Christmas. I'm conflicted, but not a complete jerk, and frankly it's fun to help Santa out. They get some kind of shiny, chasy toy or some battery-powered thing which moves about by itself and holds their attention for five seconds.

This year have a ferret (long story). This is our Christmas with Lucy (the ferret) and so, of course, she had to be made to feel part of the family. I found some squeezy toys at Target in the $1 bin (I'm sentimental, but, as you may recall, conflicted) — the sort of thing that she instinctively drags around with super-ferret strength and hoards and hides in various places around the house.

Nothing she can grab with her teeth is safe: socks, toothbrushes (the abandoned kind, not those in current rotation), even shoes. Any open dresser drawer is a sanctuary. If only she'd put in the sock drawer ... but instead I find some beanie baby in there, and socks in a corner of an unused closet.

This year I set up my wrapping station in the large, open room where we sometimes let Lucy roam for a while every day.

Last night in my wrapping frenzy I could not find her toys. This sort of thing happens every year. Or often I think I got something, and didn't. But somehow because it was the one thing I had got for Lucy, it seemed a particular shame.

So imagine my surprise and delight this morning. A Christmas Miracle! Well, not really. Lucy had done what children have done since the beginning of time: she had found the stash of unwrapped gifts, located what was hers, and took them out to play.

I found two of the three (uh, I think) toys in my sock drawer (of course). The third is still out there some where.

Lucy was naughty. But it was nice.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lifetime: Now, The Tough Part

I'm not much for Signs from Heaven except, of course, when there are so abundantly OBVIOUS even Mr. Spock would put aside logic and raise his hands and say "D'uh!"

It's Dec. 10, one year to the day from when the picture below (left, if you have any doubts) was snapped. It remains my official bio pic at Wired and though I would love to swap it out for obvious reasons I'm not really working very hard to get that done. It's a good reminder of where I was, and what a difference a year can make.

This is also, as fate would have it, the first day that I weighed in as a Lifetime Member of Weight Watchers, which I joined on Feb. 19 — 80.6 pounds ago. Completing the trilogy (every good sign is comprised of a trilogy, silly) is the fact that my number was 155: my goal weight, to the ounce.

It's a good sign.

My six-week maintenance was a bit of a parabola but I began and ended it within (below, actually) the requisite two-pound leeway which will grant me lifetime membership perks, including free meetings and free access to online tools and the WW app.

To maintain membership in good standing I have to weigh in once each calendar month -- 12 times a year, instead of the 52 when you are losing — and I will never pay Weight Watchers one penny ever again. If I'm more than 157 pounds at an official weigh-in (which is the first one you show up for in a calendar month) then I pay a weekly fee to maintain my membership.

It should be easier to keep at this level, and in short order it will be. But there is something about applying the breaks — and being able to give oneself more breaks, since I will have to eat more than I have been for months to stop losing — that can be as tough to learn and internalize as developing the habit to drop pounds. It could actually be tougher: This is why there are always many more people who have lost all the weight they wanted to than those who have maintained that loss.

Some people find it difficult even to lose a few pounds but among that group whom the TV weight loss ads describe as having lost atypical (but correct) amounts of weight the head-to-the-ground pursuit of losing weight is easier to sustain than a lifetime of keeping the weight off. When we ease up even a little, in all aspects of our lives, the floodgates can suddenly fly open, there being fewer hard-and-fast rules we can blindly follow and the taste of freedoms being so sweet.

So I know I am still battling the percentages, and as good as I should feel about reaching this milestone it's really just a new level, filled with new and potentially tougher challenges. "Lifetime" is like the transition to adulthood: It requires the exercise of responsibility children often can't handle (many adults, too). Forbid an obedient child from having any candy and she won't. Tell her to have some candy, but not too much and, well ... you get the idea.

That's why now comes the tough part. Or why, at least, I am telling myself that it is the tough part. Because I need to replace the rigid approach that served me well with something that will remind me that even though I have more freedom I still have work to do. Lots of it. For the rest of my life.

Of course, there will be pie.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Ok. No more farting around. Well, actually, there is quite a lot of farting. I think it's the fruit. That's another story.

After eight months, almost to the day, I've hit my goal weight and now begin Weight Watchers maintenance. After 37 weeks of trying to lose weight (and the last nine, where I didn't net/net at all), I had a serendipitously successful seven days: Nine pounds lost, three under my target.

Under maintenance, which last six weeks, I get to eat more, to stop losing. At the end of six weeks, if I am within two pounds above or below 155, I get to be a life member: I never have to pay a cent again to go to meetings as long as I stay in the four-pound range, weighing in officially once a month now instead of once a week.

I cannot say that I have fully grasped this yet. So far, this is a typical Saturday, which means that in a few hours there will be gin and more than the usual amount of eating — that's the way it is in the hours after the weekly weigh, the safest time to eat into your weekly and activity allowances.

In a way, reaching goal is somewhat anti-climactic. Each week or five pounds' loss brought new feelings and lessons, rendering a goal-line something important to shoot for, but not actually an end unto itself. And now new skills must be learned, because while losing weight is harder than putting it on, it's easier than trying to walk the balance beam that is neither gaining nor losing ... forever.

Fortunately my eight months has exposed me to big losses, big gains, and periods of inertia — a microcosm of the rest of my life. I know what it feels like to put on even a little weight, what it takes to recover from that, how to lose by eating (even more!) instead of starving.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Week 33: The 2% Solution

It's possible to lose all the weight you want just by eating less, of course. The math is simple: Burn more calories than you consume. Exercise is a force multiplier, and if you do it right it won't lead to a bigger appetite (offsetting the benefit of burning more calories in the course of any given 24 hours) and will self-reinforce staying consistent.

Good news: The "bigger appetite" part almost takes care of itself: turns out that exercise is something of an appetite suppressant. Also, when you are actually doing it, it isn't possible to eat much of anything, so it is an opportunity suppressant as well. The best thing to eat to take the edge off, right after a workout, is protein, which goes directly to the muscles instead of the hips. The best kind of protein is up to you; before I was a vegan I had a ton of turkey bacon and eggs right after a run or bike ride. Now I have prepared tofu or a protein bar.

It's even more important to stay with it. For me, that is staying home to go to the gym (Rule #1) and committing to a particular time of day for one's main workout, which for me is before the workday begins.

Staying consistent also means not trying to do too much, or settling for too little (Rule #3). But how?

I call it the 2% solution. It's easy when you are hovering at that pain/discomfort point to simply stop, back off completely. But you don't have to, and dialing back just a little works wonders. I first learned of this technique during a boot camp class I used to take when we lived in Virginia and I actually was a member of a gym. The instructor would have us do something ridiculously strenuous for an insane amount of time, and then in between we'd jog or do jumping jacks — and she called this our rest/recovery period in what was essentially interval training.

So, rest/recovery isn't doing nothing. It's doing less. But how much less?

Why, 2% less, of course. I made up that number — make up any number you like. Ease back instead of stopping during an intense moment in your workout. Drop your cadence by 10 or 5 or 20 and listen carefully to your body as it recovers while you are still working out. You will feel the energy coming back, and the discomfort receding, when you make only minor adjustments.

I take the stairs at work and when I started had to rest, completely stop, at some point along the way. No more. Now I climb with some intensity and take four slow steps in between landings — that is my rest, my 2% solution, and it allows me to power through 15 flights.

Scaling back, in real time, helps prevent giving up.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Week 32: Standing and Snacking

Metro North Station, White Plains
ABOARD THE 7:01 HARLEM LINE TRAIN -- Every rail commuter knows a thing or two about seat etiquette (Example: Real men don't vie for the middle one) and where to position oneself on the platform, factoring in the station and time of day, to maximize the possibility if scoring one.

It's exhausting. And, just like flying, the window seat is good for exactly the opposite of what the aisle seat is good for, and neither are good for everything.
I've always played the game, pleased that when I commute I can almost always score a seat. But it's a flimsy victory.

It occurred to me, as part of my standing campaign, to stand during the 50 minutes or so each way. Like my uncle taught me when I was a lad, I don't lean or support myself in any way (unless there is turbulence), the better to improve balance and burn calories and work on the core.

What a revelation! In addition to the health benefit (small, but cumulative) I realized I can now always ride in the first car, or in one which has a bathroom (um, I drink plenty of fluids).

Yes, this is ... obsessive. But big lifestyle changes can be enhanced and re-enforced with small ones; it's tougher to sabotage and cave if that means retreating on several fronts instead of just one. Now, before I think of not spinning or running every morning, I have to decide to stop standing at my home desk, taking the stairs whenever possible, and now riding the rails in the full upright and locked position.

Related, but random: I also got a bit of re-enforcement of the "de-accentuating the meal" thing from a recent episode of Dr. Oz, who has partnered with Weight Watchers in a million-dollar contest challenge. Turns out that snacking is a medically indicated approach to dieting because eating releases a hormone called gherlin, which suppresses appetite and makes you feel satisfied.

As with any technique the devil is in the details: Snacking on Devil Dogs won't help.

Finally, I was famished today. I consumed maybe 10 servings of fruit and plenty of protein and vegetables. Lots of coffee, too. And, I'm looking forward to dinner.

One of those days ... but all still well within my basic daily Points Plus allowance.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Week 32: Tracking, And Back On Track

My Week 31 post pretty much laid out the unusual week I had, but in a nutshell (strange how many metaphors are food related): I weighed 171 yesterday morning, and 158.8 this morning. That puts me further away from my goal of 155 pounds — from which I had been a tantalizingly-close 0.02 pounds for the previous two weeks.

But it was a fine week, and I enjoyed myself, so much so that I expected the damage to be much worse.

I spent that last 24 hours not starving myself or putting on some other kind of straight jacket, but just sticking with the program, returning to my original course and speed, recovering. This morning I've had my usual bounty of fruit, and started the day with my usual workout routine.

I think I was properly rewarded for that behavior, and appropriately dunned for not tracking much last week, and having a no-holds-barred anniversary dinner for which I have no regrets.

I have a new commitment now for not treating the weekend as a lost cause -- I exaggerate, but honestly I would dip into weekly allowance or activity points just because, and this isn't my practice or desire during the work week. So, no biggie.

I figure I am two weigh-ins away from goal, at worst. You heard it here first :)

Friday, September 30, 2011

Week 31: Oy Vey

Bloated me.
I suspected this week was going to be a challenge, but that's a word and a half.

My Saturday weigh-in was fine: no change, 0.02 from my goal of 155. But a mere six days later I am at 171! That is a gain of 16 pounds. I don't see it. Nancy doesn't see it. I still fit fine in my goal-weight pants.

But, I have been eating a lot this week, and not exercising as much, and that is what happens.

I don't think I'll be tipping the scales at what is my July 9 weight (week 20) tomorrow morning. But I'll almost certainly be in the 160s. So what happened?

  • I was on vacation this week, away from work and at home for an extended period for the first time since I began Weight Watchers seven months ago.
  • Four of these six days I didn't track.
  • Monday we had a no-holds-barred anniversary dinner which included Margaritas, beer, a burrito that could have sunk the Titanic and even dessert.
  • I've been snacking too much on salty things.
  • I've been drinking lots of fluids -- gallons a day.
  • We had a workman in the house and I had lots of chores which made fitting in exercise difficult.
  • I banged up some ribs a little bit doing one of those chores, so exercise of any intensity hurt a little, and I avoided it for that reason too.

This litany of excuses seems to explain the causes, but the scale (no pun intended) of the effect is staggering. I can't wait to see, behaving myself today as I shall, what my settle-down weight will be in a scant 24 hours. At this point anything under a 10-pound gain for the week would seem like a victory, and erasing what's left over the subsequent week would be amazing.

I say it's not a race, and that recovery is the most important skill. But I still am upset with myself and need to channel that into something positive and realistic

But I will weigh-in, and talk about about it, because that's what it's all about.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Saddest Piece of Spam, Ever

I don't know why I was on the 'undisclosed recipients' list this went to, and have no idea who Trev was.

But there was something about the proper, restrained, just plain British-ness of this anouncement which I found very moving:

Just a note to say Trev passed away peacefully on 16 August surrounded by his family.
His services will no longer be available. Should you have  any  questions or issues please don't hesitate to contact myself (niece) or his son via the email  address: [redacted] and we will endevour to help where we can.
I would like to thank those of you for your emails of concern. This is very much appreciated. Trev will be sadly missed.
  All the very best to you all.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Week 30: De-Accentuating 'Meal Events'

I closed my seventh month on Weight Watchers with another unusual week, scheduling wise. It allowed me muy best opportunity to far to test new theory of eating — and the result is a solid loss of 1.6 pounds. My Google Spreadsheet says I've lost 100 percent to goal, but the truth is that I am 0.02 pounds from my goal of 155 pounds (I mean I was, before enjoying myself thoroughly last night, which is my custom on weigh-in day...)

My new mantra is, don't call them "meals," and don't even call them "servings." The nomenclature can be pejorative and can allow one to manufacture a behavioral paradox in which over-eating is unavoidable, or at least easier to justify.

It's not a new problem, this business of having meals versus grazing. Huge numbers of fit and healthy people are in both camps. My judgement is, however, that a substantial number of people who need to learn how to eat properly, again, for the first time, would be better off grazing than aspiring to fixed meals at fixed time.

Like any rule, the point is to illustrate rather than apply a rigid standard. But the outline is pretty simple.

For example, I do have "breakfast," but it is almost never shortly after I get up, and almost entirely always comprised of fruit, which is "free," i.e., is not counted towards one 29 PointsPlus allotment each day. My habit had been to make myself a big bowl, cut up a protein bar, sit down, and have a meal. When I couldn't have "a meal" at the meal's normal time, the semantic conflict bled into the nutritional issue, which is ridiculous.

Master: Is the first meal of the day breakfast, even if consumed at 2 p.m., eight hours after awakening?

The other truism that I have found helpful is to deconstruct the three-meal-a-day paradigm. The purpose of eating at intervals is to ensure one has the right amount of fuel, and to schedule pit stops so one can't forget or skimp, which leads to poor performance and over-eating.

For people like me, skipping a meal isn't exactly a problem. But like many people scheduling drop-dead meals times can be problematic because that means I could very well eat at least three times a day, not just three times.

My habit, before Weight Watchers, has been to consume an entire meal while preparing a meal. I'd have maybe more spaghetti while cooking spaghetti than I served myself for "dinner." Sound familiar?

Now, since I am counting points and nutrients, the emphasis is on these metrics, and not on what time it is. I'll begin eating hours after I get up if that makes sense for me on any given day, or shortly after I get up. I'll have small amounts of a pre-portioned amount of something over time — grazing — rather than have a meal event. Sure, the family dinner is still an important event. But more often than not these days even this meal has been comprised of this and that rather than a "dish" and "sides." And in this family the dinner hour has always been a moveable feast anyway.

The pitfall of grazing is also well known: the potential for over-eating is huge because you are eating all the time, essentially. The solution is simple and, of course, all about the discipline and self-control which is the necessary if insufficient starting point for every improvement in one's eating habits.

Fruit and vegetables are "free," so they can be grazed with abandon. Other things need to be portioned out, bags closed, cabinet doors closed. So, put that 3 PP serving of chips in a little bowl, and snack on that for hours instead of just sitting down and having them all "at  once."

Yes, you can just have one Lay's potato chip. 12 or so times a day.

Cut up that protein bar and have bits and pieces over a few hours -- a bit is great with morning and afternoon fruit, and as a treat with your coffee or tea (which I drink straight), or as a bit of dessert. You are still getting 20g of protein, and using 5 PowerPlus points (though, actually, having half servings spaced apart general saves you one PP, for some reason.

But by grazing one is consuming food a way which, I fervently believe, will prompt the body to store less of it for later and use more of it for now. This, I am convinced, has a direct connection to fat buildup, maybe even the number of fat cells your body thinks it needs.

Anything can work, of course. The point of a meal event is to monastically avoid eating until the appointed time. For those of us who have learned to eat poorly, this makes it easy to create other meal events -- snacks — and then to over-eat in this way, as well at the main meal events themselves.

Grazing has about it the air of complete anarchy, removing structure which is meant to both provide opportunities to properly fuel in proper amounts at appropriate times and, by default, exclude over-eating.

But rules are easily broken. For some, denying oneself food except for certain windows is the only way to be disciplined. For me, by and large, the perfect situation is to eat when I am starting to feel hungry, and then only in relatively small amounts to sate that feeling. I am finding that topping off, rather than running as far as I can until empty, is the better way to live.

In this vein, someone at my Saturday meeting suggested an idea which I just loved as another device to eat at a good pace, and thus, especially as a grazer, in the right amounts.

So I am now using chopsticks, all the time. Well, as "all the time" as I can without being a total jerk (at least outside my the embrace of my immediate family.)

Think of the scene in Kill Bill where Kiddo is trying to eat rice with broken hands at the table of mentor  Pail Mei. If she tries to use her hands — to "eat like a dog" — he knocks the bowl from her hand.

Using chopsticks is another one of those little life skills that may have no real practical value, especially in the West, apart from projection pretentiousness (hence the jerk issue). But since I have valid lifestyle peg, I'm sticking to my story.

OK, I'm veering into jerk territory. But I am trying to set standard from which I can retreat from jerkiness. So far I am proficient even in slippery melon, and small items like English peas, blueberries and Wasabi.

So, I'm thinking that sticky rice won't be a problem. Not that I eat much of it. Too many PointsPlus.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Week 29: A Stand Up Guy

My home workspace, with makeshift risers under the front legs of my desk.
I've added a new little dimension to my health-kick lifestyle: Standing as much as possible.

I've always had an affinity for standing, although people who stand for a living will tell you that any chance not to is Heavenly. But even U.S. Marine grunts have a rule about this which, from any other outfit, might sound downright lazy:
  • Never stand when you can sit
  • Never sit when you can lie down
  • Never stay awake when you can sleep
I still remember my uncle telling me when I was six or seven that standing while riding the New York City subway was good practice about learning to keep your balance, which, he said, would come in very handy while on a ship at sea. Since our family had no maritime history or prospects I had no idea how this random suggestion could be a practical life skill. But my uncle was/is a cool guy, and it sounded cool, the way the acquisition of almost any skill does.
As it happened, I didn't grow up spending any time on the water. But I don't still don't mind standing on the train even when there are seats available, and I like to stand while eating or watching TV. Standing around the kitchen island doing both simultaneously is my idea of a good time.

I haven't had job which required standing since I was in school — bookstores, movie theaters. My adult occupations have always involved offices, desks, and sitting for hours at a time.

At about the time I started on Weight Watchers in February my wife Nancy pointed out a New York Times article about the benefits of standing at work. These benefits are staggering in their simplicity and effectiveness, but they are hard to do in most corporate contexts because the cubicles and desk units the enterprise generally buys in massive quantities are designed to be in front of chairs. Indeed, even suggesting employees stand at their desks could be actionable or draw OSHA's unwelcome attention.

But at home, it's another matter. I am lucky to be able to work from home from time to time. I am also lucky to have inherited for the moment Nancy's drawing board, so I don't have to make an investment (monetary, mental, etc.) in the sort of thing Ryan Paul at Ars Technica wrote about this week.

A couple of risers (or a makeshift shim at pictured) on the front is all I need, since the desk surface plane adjusts back and forth.

It's working out great. Standing for hours at a time is a bit strenuous, but in a very good way. Like all of these little kick-it-up-a-notch things, the process becomes a mini-competition with oneself. Sitting down to work would be a tiny capitulation, just like not taking the stairs at work.

As the NYTimes article notes, there are all kinds of core strength stuff going on merely by standing up. So why not?

You can sit when you're dead. Unless you can lie down, instead.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Week 28: Up, and Away

Crazy week.

I put on 1.6 pounds, putting me that amount above my all-time low weight. In and of itself, not to worry. That kind of fluctuation is normal, and when on maintenance anything within two pounds is a gimme.

Prior to my last weigh in on Saturday it was the week of Hurricane Irene, and while the storm itself was meh the aftermath was pretty interesting: We had a four-day power outage in my neck of the woods. On the first day even the data networks on my mobile phones were dead, unwiring me off in a new and strange and exceedingly pleasant way.

After Saturday's weigh in I somehow managed to balloon to nearly 168 pounds by Tuesday — 10 pounds above the low-water mark. I was off the reservation  on Saturday and Sunday, but not horribly or more than I had ever been (there was a gin factor, and a bit of Open Bag Syndrome with the Pop Chips, and maybe too much protein bar indulgement.

So, I cut back on portions of free "power" foods. I eat a lot of fruit, which is "free" (Zero PointsPlus Points), but fruit still has sugar, and calories. I also eat a lot of vegetables, which truly are free. But I cut back on added salt, which I mostly add to tomatoes.

After today's somewhat delayed workout, but not on an empty stomach, I tipped the scales at 158, which on a Saturday morning would be a new official low.

A new effect seems to be kicking in. At 16 weeks, you get a trinket because Weight Watchers believes if you have stuck with the program that long it has become a habit — something you do without thinking about it anymore, which in this context means not being terribly conscious anymore that one is eating considerably less, and thus possibly building up a resentment.

Three months later it occurs to me that my eyes are no longer much bigger than my stomach. I find that I've lowered my portioning out of even "free" foods, because my constitution has become better aligned with my appetite sensations. I also tend these days to eating relatively small snacks throughout the day, though dinner still looks like dinner. 

I have also officially reset my goal weight, to 155 pounds, or 80 fewer from where I started on Feb 19, 2011. That is my second, and last adjustment. My first goal weight, 190 pounds, I knew was tentative; I had been that weight once before when I was in great shape and wasn't sure anymore how much I would really have to lose at that level.

When I hit 190 this time (previously, in 2005), it was clear to me that the charts which said a 5'6" man should be no more that 160 pounds is correct. So, I re-declared to 160. Then it occurred to me that the symbolism of working so hard to lose just enough to be as heavy as I could be was another cop-out.

So, I am copping out a bit less, aspiring to get and stay five pounds below the top of the chart.

Just between you and me, I may still choose to lose more than that. When you reach your goal in Weight Watchers you begin maintenance, which recalibrates your food intake so that you stop losing — suddenly, not as easy as you might imagine. After about six weeks of that, you become a lifetime member, as long as you neither gain nor lose more than two pounds every month (not week). The chief benefit of this is that you can remain a full member — attend meetings, keep your online account, etc. — and never pay Weight Watchers again: about $14 a week.

But — and don't tell corporate — here is the thing. The purpose of penalizing a lifetime member for losing more than two pounds from goal is so that s/he doesn't game the system by declaring a high goal, meet that and then stay on program for free while they lose all the weight they actually want to lose.

But if you are willing to, say, keep losing, and are willing to pay the occasional penalty and then declare that new low as your new goal weight, then, nobody loses. If a member is stupid enough to declare at a ridiculously low weight s/he was able to achieve through extreme measures, then s/he would be paying a lot of unnecessary money trying to stay there.

So I'll be happy at 155, but will also be listening to my body to understand if I should shed even a little more. And I will be happy to pay the piper.

But, hey — I am getting ahead of myself. Saturday is two days away, and 155 is probably further than that.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Week 27: A New Beginning

It was a triple witching Saturday: I reached by goal of 160 pounds, hit the 75-pounds-lost milestone and attended the first meeting with a new leader after having gone six months with the same one.

But, for a number of reasons, I've decided to re-set my goal for the second and last time, to 155. The least silly of those reasons is that 160 is the highest acceptable weight for my height (5'6") it the highest, and it strikes me that shooting only for that would be the sort of cop-out I've been trying to vanquish.

It seems like a blur, and that it hasn't take very long to get here. And that makes me wonder how hard I will work to protect my position. A big part of the reason that I have tried to be so transparent is so I couldn't retreat very easily.

I'm at 158.5 as of this morning, another new decade and the last I intend to crack.

I'm told that maintaining can be tougher than losing, as you learn to adjust to eating more — but not much more. I'd say that's a rich man's problem

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Week 26: Losing, and losing.

Joan says goodbye.
First, the good news ...

For my weekly meeting weigh-in on Saturday I tipped the scales at 160.8: a frustratingly 0.02 pounds away (relatively speaking, of course) from the 75-pound, trinket-level milestone  and 0.08 from my goal weight of 160 pounds.

It was the usual nutsy Saturday morning on the scale: Despite a very tame Friday and not eating terribly late the night before, my wake-up weight was 164.8 — more than two pounds above my previous weigh-in despite an entire week of behaving myself, and nearly four above my best weight during the previous seven days.

With my usual morning workout, perhaps a bit heavier on the cardio, I shed four pounds of what I can only assume was water weight. Sheesh.

This means that I am likely to hit my goal next week about six months after I started Weight Watchers in as winter waned. It marks the end of a beginning in what our leader describes, without a hint of the schmaltziness it must seem in print, a "journey."

And now, the bad news ...

Our leader, Joan, has been re-assigned to a different location, and won't be my leader anymore. This has had an impact on my mood and behavior for the past 24 hours. I hope it reinforces the positive, but so far it has proved negative.

Saturday was unusual for other reasons too, which played into things. Nancy and I spontaneously went out for breakfast with another Weight Watchers meeting attendee, so I had the fruit portion of my first meal, but no protein. When we got home, we had to turn around quickly and I forgot to take a Clif Builders bar (20g of protein, 7 PointsPlus). By late afternoon I was feeling undernourished and woozy and tired, setting up an evening where I could be tempted by sub-optimal choices.

The choices I did make were not absolutely terrible. I has my usual crudité combo of tomatoes, crimini mushrooms and shallots. I had hummus and some lentils. But I did go over points for the day, eating into my daily activity points wallet -- no biggie, because that are what they are for. And I had more carbs than I've been allowing myself lately, mostly from a variety of chips and raw peas.

And then, late in the evening, I got an enormous sweet tooth and thought it would be great to satisfy that and get some needed protein with an aforementioned Builders bar. Or, as the case may be, three of them ...

On Saturday, which is the one day I'll allow myself much latitude from Weight Watchers tracking, I often eat more than on the other six days of the week. But it's usually by design, with something -- one thing -- special: an Indian meal, a footlong Subway sandwich and chips, a real treat like Jolo's Kitchen.

Yesterday was, relatively speaking, chaos. Joan's sudden announcement got me in the gut, literally and figuratively. It's difficult to convey the importance of the leader; she is part therapist, part confessor, part AA-like buddy. Weight Watcher leaders are members who entered the program as customers and are lifetime members who have kept the weight off for many years, and the also have the certain-something motivational air about them.

And WW leaders have real skin in the game: When they gain weight, they lose their jobs.

But all leaders are not created equal. I was in Weight Watchers once before, less than half-heartedly, about 20 years ago. I recall that the leader was listless, and I attended no meetings, lost no weight and gave up within weeks. That was entirely my doing, because I had no real desire to be there, unlike now. But an engaging leader might have at least made it much more difficult for me to decide to shut down.

Joan -- we only know our leaders by first name -- was a draw. A big draw. I learned yesterday, as we commiserated with others, that some had been with her for as many as 10 years. She had personal friends in the room, coming to her meetings. She was being reassigned as a business decision by corporate, and the reason she did not exactly share was inescapable:

Joan is a star, a rainmaker, and was needed in another parish.

Today I am already back on track, starting slowly with just some coffee to continue to continue to digest the fruits of yesterday's debauchery. I am about to begin my workout, and then there will be a fruit salad and one (1) Builder's bar. And life will go on. (Update: post-workout, I am a pound up from Saturday's weigh-in, which is normal for me).

I have lost about 75 pounds, and Joan was a huge part of the reason that was possible for me. But the lesson is, staying on track is on you — not your family, your friends, the world, or your Weight Watchers leader. In a way, continuing this journey without Joan is a poetic reinforcement of this underlying truth that Joan herself stressed.

It's a lovely thought, and I will cling to it. But, of course, the best poetry ever written was — Greek tragedy.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Spam Gold: Can't Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me

Wired colleague Dave Mosher shared this on Google+ this morning, and graciously granted reprint rights to Planet Abell.

We are choosing to believe this was spam, and not a perfectly-targeted solicitation ... 
Hey Dave, 
I'm reaching out to you because ******* is getting a lot of job leads for clowns, and I'm looking for another clown who is interested in taking on more clients. 
After checking out your website [Here is Dave's web site: Ed]I think you are a great fit for ******* and I'd love to start sending you job leads. Please fill out a few details about your skills and rates, and I'll start forwarding you potential new clients.

If you have any questions about what ******* can provide, please don't hesitate to ask. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Spam Gold: Dear Escort / Masseuse / Dancer

Quote unquote. Only the contact info is redacted

Dear Escort / Masseuse / Dancer
My name is ... and I’m a Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer.

If you ever encounter unexpected trouble with undercover vice, for not having a city license, prostitution or drug possession, you will need a skilled and experienced lawyer, not a public defender to present your side of the story in court.
Los Angeles escorts, masseuses and dancers like you, whom I defended in court over the past fourteen years got their charges  dismissed and reduced, and received no jail time. You will usually not need to attend court as I handle your matter from beginning to end. When the court case is completed,  I will expunge your case, clearing this incident from public view.
If an unexpected situation with undercover vice ever arises, I respectfully invite you to call my law offices for a free consultation, so that we may confidentially discuss the best course of action for your case.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Week 25: One Of Us

I'm down four pounds this week — two away from 75 total and my goal weight of 160. It feels as though I am tracking correctly again after a month of gaining and losing the same 4-5 pounds in a see-saw session that rivaled last week on Wall Street.

But the biggest deal is that my daily PointsPlus allotment has been reduced to 29 — the fewest that Weight Watchers allows anyone. When I started this six months ago, at 235.6 pounds, I had 43 PointsPlus to play with every day.

That amount was significantly higher than most around me (I learned and inferred from those occasions when it came up in a meeting) and gave me great latitude. That, in turn, made it much easier to stick with it — how can you find fault with a weight loss program under which it is possible to have a Massive Martini every day and still lose at a pace of more than three pounds a week?

Forty-three points was high, but far from the highest, which is 89 points. But 29 is the fewest: It is even the amount allotted to life members, who get to enjoy every benefit of Weight Watchers without paying a dime as long as they remain within two pounds of their declared goal weight.

Theoretically, I am a week away of hitting my goal since my average seven-day loss for these past 25 is less I need to lose by next Saturday. We'll see — it's not a race. And I am also going to re-assess what my goal should be once I reach 160, since that figure is the top of what the medical charts say is the fit range for my height. At 160 my BMI will also be in a healthy range.

At that point, it becomes an exercise in being as fit as I can be without being obsessive. I think I listen to my body extremely well now, and won't abuse it on the up or downside. My annual physical is in two months and by then I am sure that I will be exactly where I want to be, and will then be able to medically reality-check all of my assumptions and lock in to a WW-guided program that keeps me there.

And that will be one hell of a great early Christmas present to myself.

Before then, maybe even next week, I get what will probably be my antepenultimate Weight Watchers trinket: a key chain charm 75-pound "barbell."

After that, it's a star for making goal, and then the lifer's key!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Spam Gold: Vera Desmond — or Desmond Vera?

We all get tons of spam, but I'm double lucky in the personal e-mail department because a) GMail actually stops tons of it and b) a good friend run my incoming through a whitelist server at a secret and undisclosed location before anything reaches my inbox.

At work, I'm not so lucky. Entourage does absolutely nothing useful to deal with even obvious spam, and trying to manipulate junk settings and rules is pointless. So I do a lot of deleting. And almost no reading beyond the subject line.

I don't know why this particular piece of spam caught my eye, but the horrible bot-like translation and gibberish in this common come-on is almost poetic -- title and all:

 How are you today my love?
 My name is Vera Desmond, her 23-year-old romance of Rwanda in Central
 Africa, I want to make friendship with you, I believe that age, race and
 language. Distance has an impact on. A good relationship does not exist.
 I was very happy to see your response.
 Thank you for accepting me. Is your friend.
 From your new friend.
 Desmond Vera.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Week 24: Give A Penny, Take A Penny

Another gain for me, my second, and slight -- i.e., within the range that would not have jeopardized a lifetime Weight Watchers status if I was at goal. But it's my second gain in three weeks, and basically I have maintained for a month, with two gains and two losses and no movement in either direction.

This is fine, of course, except ... I am working harder than ever on the exercise front, and had no "excesses" this week. It is still fine because I am probably trading some fat for some muscle and because muy body is probably making another one of those larger adjustments as I settle into a range with which it is entirely unfamiliar.

And it is fine just because it is fine: it isn't demoralizing, and this isn't a race. And it feels as though I am solidly in the 160s, poised to declare a new goal somewhere in the 150s.

New this week: I rediscovered my joy of running, and ability to do same. The occasion was a business trip which took me to DC and a fabulous boutique hotel with an awesome gym with state-of-the-art Precor treadmills. I did five miles in an hour — my first run in six years — and was finally able to calibrate my Nike+ app.

There was a lovely sweet desert last night, and there may be a bit more tonight. But I feel entirely on track, and am about to hit the bike.

Friday, August 5, 2011

In Social Media, Just Like In Presidential Elections, It's About A Choice

Someone added me to a group on Facebook yesterday -- which I didn't even think was possible, since my privacy settings there are akin to "I was never here." Very annoying. So annoying that I not only left that group, but the small handful of others I had joined, for one reason or another, primarily fellowship for whomever was the admin, because I don't participate in any FB reindeer games anyway.

But that transaction clarified one of the important, deep philosophical differences between FB and G+ (and all the other non-FB's I venture to say). And my own relationship with FB -- indifference, but a "need" to be there -- may not be as atypical as I imagine. Throwing more and more water on little fires that crop up here and there spotlight what could be fundamentally different dynamics at competing social networks, and over time that can have a material negative impact on what had been a monopoly.

One of the interesting aspects of the G+ era is that Google is unlikely to walk away, even if signups level off. We'll only know where the tipping point was (not when it is), but clearly this can be the un-Facebook in pointed and in subtle ways. It is inconceivable on G+ (I hope it is) that anyone, even someone in your most trusted circle, could associate you with something unilaterally. Shoot, there isn't even anything generic to join or be part of on G+, since every connection and group and gathering is ad hoc, and controlled by the participants 100%.

On FB, when you are committed, that becomes part of your identity. So the inevitable ramification effect of (say) doing someone a solid by saying you like their silly little fan page is to nail your signed confession of heresy to the church door, John Proctor-style. And if someone -- how, I still wonder? -- can say John is a member of this or that group, what control do I actually have on my persona?

That's just unacceptable.

The big battle in social media is over online ID. The winning entity has to allow people to control that in every sense of the word. It isn't rocket science, and being fast and loose around the edges won't cut it in a world where people have real choices.

Is this on the radar yet for hundreds of millions of people? Remains to be seen. But multiply identity crises x10 or x100 and it could be.

For the next year or so it would not surprise me if the social paradigm is broken if only an incremental way, given FB's momentum: We could very well have two viable, "all purpose" social networks co-existing for the first time in internet history. And the dividing line won't be over internal communications, sharing, apps, games or any other commodity features.

It will be over who gets to decide what on the most important thing about your online life. Which means, the most important thing in your life.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Week 23: Losing That Last Five Pounds

The dreaded weigh-in table

It is a bit surreal, but I am now that person who can say, "I'm trying to lose five pounds" and not sound delusional. It does sound pretentious, which isn't better, but it's true.

I am within five pounds of my goal of 160. I'm down 70 since I started on Weight Watchers 24 weeks ago.

At this week's meeting the subject of maintenance was front and center. We have several life members in our group, and they all say that as tough as it is to lose it's at least as tough to stay at a given weight.

Lifers at WW only have to weigh in once a month -- not weekly -- to retain their status (which includes the fantastic benefit of not having to pay for meetings) and need to stay within two pounds of their goal weight. That is two pounds up or down, btw: a means of ensuring that you don't declare higher than you intend to lose and cheat the organization out of dues.

My trip has been pretty rapid, and I have not really entirely come to grips with the fact of my loss. I may yet lower my goal again, because I am trying to be in that BMI range which is considered medically "normal", and at 160 I'd still be above that slightly. And, of course, there is the full-length mirror test which does not lie.

If you can remain determined and focused and motivated losing weight becomes a personal challenge that is difficult to compromise with at those moments when one is weakest. But what about when one has to actually begin eating more again, when judgement day is as many at 30 away, not 7?

That will be unchartered territory and, to listen to the lifers, an entirely new challenge.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Week 22: What Goes Up Must Come Down

It was a good run, but every good run must come to an end: After losing something every week since I joined Weight Watchers one Feb 19, I gained weight last week.

It felt good.

I spoke up at my Saturday meeting -- during the "scale and non-scale victories" portion at the end -- and got a nice reaction. "You're one of us!" one of the lifetime members kidded me. "Do you think it's bloating?" joked another lifer, who reached her goal after losing 187 pounds -- 87 with WW after she hit a wall dropping 100 on her own.

Our leader asked how I felt about it. My first reaction was, "Damn, I lost a week!" I replied. But then, I told her I had realized, "I lost a week from what?"

I confess, the losing pace has been a game for me. I have wanted to lose something — anything — in an unrelenting race to a finish line that I have moved further away once and will push away again. Along the way, I've come to many new understandings with myself. I have grown indifferent to some foods that were once staples for me, no longer equate quantity with satisfaction, and now realize that (Patton and mathematics notwithstanding) the shortest distance between two points isn't necessarily a straight line.

The ability to veer from the straight and narrow and then recover is one of life's most important all-purpose skills. The ability to leverage a lapse or a even a failure into an opportunity is the point. Education is at least as much about learning to learn as it is knowing how to diagram a sentence or what was wrong with the Articles of Confederation.

As weeks go, this was a good one to end my run. I had a birthday on Tuesday, and had cake (homemade vegan orange) and Soy Delicious Turtle ice cream. I have also worked out every morning, and incorporated a new exercise: taking the stairs at work (14 flights) at least twice a day, both directions.

It's possible that some of the 3.8 pounds I put back on were in part muscle weight -- booster and friend and GeekMom Jenny Williams has encouraged me to believe this, and I am inclined to agree, for what it's worth, since I have only introduced regular cardio and weight training in the past couple of weeks.

It has also been extremely hot, and our leader suggested that we are all retaining a bit more water because of that (Hey: I AM bloated!)

But none of the explanations matter, because the gain doesn't matter, this week, next week or in the grand scheme of things.

I had another blowout day Saturday, the day my family celebrated my birthday. We went to Jolo's Kitchen, I had two (2!) more servings of the cake and ice cream back at home, I snacked on pop chips.

And then, today, and tomorrow, it's back on the horse.

No regrets.

PS: After an incalculable amount of food Saturday, and my morning workout, and no breakfast yet, I was another pound up Sunday morning -- which is less than my typical gain on a Sunday. So a) go figure and b) this is a great way to begin Week 23.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Week 21: A New Decade

Twenty-one weeks on Weight Watchers is no particular milestone, but for me it's huge: I cracked through the 170-pounds barrier, and am now in a new "decade."

My official weigh-in was 166.4, and I partied a little on Saturday (that means an extra veggie burger, three servings of chips and enough sugary desert to fit in the palm of my hand) so my weight is up today. But in the 160s I will stay.

I continue to obsessively weigh myself, a bit of advice that isn't for everyone (number 4 in this post) but which is, if you can stand it, the best way to keep on top of things and not become depressed as you get in touch with how your body gains and losses inexplicably during the course of the week.

My personal trajectory has been extremely fortuitous. I have lost weight every week, 21 in a row, for my official Saturday morning Weight Watchers meeting weigh-in. Seemingly no matter what I do the rest of Saturday, I will have "gained" by Sunday. I "lose" 2-3 pounds after a morning spin (see number five in this post). I am generally above my previous registered weight as late in the week as Thursday. But I've lost at least 0.4 pounds every week, and am averaging 3.3 still. Two weeks ago, close enough to my goal that I expect only incremental losses, I dropped 7.6 pounds in seven days -- probably because I significantly increased the proportion of protein on my diet and had my first unbroken string of high-impact mornings cardio workouts.

I don't know when I was last in the 160s. My current target weight is 160, but I am seeing how that will still not be as good as I can get, without even trying to be an ironman triathlete. "Correct" weight is difficult to guage, but if you look at yourself in the mirror you know it when you see it.

My plan is to crash through 160 in the next 2-3 weeks and get an annual physical that will include a clinical BMI assessment for the first time. Consumer-grade scales report BMI, but I have no idea how accurate mine is. So with a properly-assessed number I can gauge at least progress and trends at home, and shoot for that number which is the best indicator of correct weight.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Joke Is, I Don't Wear Shoes Unless I Have To

During my 2-1/2 years+ between jobs a while back I discovered two very important things about myself.
  • I would have no trouble keeping myself happy and occupied in retirement
  • I hate wearing shoes
I mean any shoes. The most comfortable sneakers. Hush Puppies, if I could get away with not getting beaten up. Terry bath slippers. I shed them all and discovered the joys of bearing my feet, walking, running and doing nothing at all.

To accommodate polite society I did develop an affection for flip-flops. I wore out my first pair in two years and in 2007 bought a pair of Rainbows for the outlandish price of $45 on the advice of a kid I should not have trusted. I wear them constantly, to this day. Excellent value prop.

But I digress. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of dining with an eclectic group of people including Shane and Shawn Ward, the shoe entrepreneurs. We stayed in touch, and one day they graciously, and with zero warning, gave my wide-eyed daughter and I a backstage tour of the store at 238 Mulberry Street.

As we were saying our goodbye's and thank you's and as I awkwardly tried to figure out exactly what sort of handshake slash hug thing was going on (I can only imagine the fun the brothers had at my so-unhip white boy expense after we left) I reached into my pocket for a business card and also pulled out my money clip -- which probably also dates me, though it an accessory truly popularized about 5 generations before my time.

I had a few bills that day, and Shane started calling me J-Money. I am sure that this was only the leading edge of the fun they had at my expense moments later (see above). My daughter was mock mortified, increasingly so as I attempted to work my new, proud moniker into conversation after conversation.

And now, it all comes full circle.

I don't wear shoes unless I have to, but I have shoes named after me, by Shane and Shawn. And they are called J-Money.

Four Months, and a New 'Decade'

I didn't have my greatest weight loss this week but I (knock wood) continued my unbroken string of dropping something every week, and 1.8 pounds is good by any standard.
But the real headline for me is that I've entered a new "decade" -- the 170s. Barely, but I'll take it.

It's been exactly four calendar months since I started Weight Watchers and I expect these 20-ish pounds to go to be the most difficult. Transparency is the most powerful inoculation against poor progress.

Also, here is some weird psychology: When I was at my heaviest, I knew I was fat, but seldom felt that way. Now, 56 pounds less, I know where every ounce of excess poundage is -- and I feel every bit of it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Weeks 16: Habits

When you have been with Weight Watchers for 16 weeks your leader gives you a charm in the shape of clapping hands. It's one of several charms you earn as you reach significant milestones. Losing 10% of body weight gains you a keyring which will hold future charms. When you drop 25 and 50 pounds you win a silver and gold barbell, respectively. I got the unusual 5K charm pictured to the right by participating in a group walk one recent Sunday.

These carrots are an effective way of getting members to stick to  carrots (metaphorical or not) in the same way game designers (and Foursquare) have discovered that bestowing even a virtual prize can be a powerful incentive to someone to keep moving forward.

What's the 16 weeks about? It is to acknowledge some conventional wisdom that if you do something for that long, it becomes a habit.

Habits can be broken, however. I broke the toughest one a quarter century ago when I finally quit smoking for good. At various times I've also been very overweight, and in excellent shape — the former far more often than the latter. So I know that I can abandon good behavior that I have grown to love, and end bad behavior that might kill me, that I thought would kill me to give up.

In 16 weeks I've lost 54 pounds, and I'm 21 from goal. Which is why now is good time to double down on transparency.

I've been pretty open about my dieting (you're welcome, internet), influenced by Brian Stelter's stunningly successful and public weight loss. Being public is more about behaving myself than showing off, as it was for Stelter, who on the one occasion I saw talk about it responded to a question about how he had done it as laconically as was humanly possible.

I've Tweeted out my current weight and weekly and total loss after every Saturday official weigh-in, and built a spreadsheet tracking my progress that I also decided to share -- all to make it hard to face the prospect of ever having to explain "What happened?"

So this is part confessional and part due diligence and part some observations about what has worked for me. I hope none of it sounds preachy even though it is all about me.

Here are a few simple rules I have found very helpful:

1) Travel to the dangerous food. Stay home to go to the gym.
I have to admit, I have an advantage over most dieters because I've been a vegan for six years, so I already don't eat a lot of the things that are classic temptations. But the things I can eat without taking a breath include some pretty fatty things: chips, peanuts, pasta, beer. One of the great things about Weight Watchers is that every food has a computed value, so every food is "legal." That means you can indulge -- and are encouraged to as a way of making the diet easier to stick with long term. But one of the great strategies is going out to indulge, so you never have a reason to keep "bad" food in the house. With exercise, it is the same principal in reverse: I do all my formal workout stuff at home, with minimal equipment (a $150 bike trainer I've owned for years is the most expensive item I use) because traveling to a gym means that I won't.

2) It's not how you binge. It's how you recover.
Many diets are focused only on effective but short-term strategies to lose weight, which you are then on your own to keep off. About 10 years ago when I was as overweight as I was a 16 weeks ago my doctor (who was the definition of rotund) advised to get on the Atkins diet. It worked fabulously, and I eventually developed a very active lifestyle. I abandoned the diet in 2005 when it stopped working for me (completely changing course from eating meat and dairy to going vegan) and shortly thereafter gave up on the exercise thing. But with any dieting there is something to be learned from cardio training: It isn't that you get tired, it's how quickly you recover. The eating analogy is starting right over when you have overdone it -- not next Monday, or next month or next year.

3) Do what you can, but don't mistake discomfort for pain.
The U.S. Marines say that pain is weakness leaving the body. Trainers have drilled into me that you need to work as hard as you can without being in pain — and that discomfort isn't pain. Effortlessly fit friends have taught me that if you can't run as far as you want, walking part of the way is the thing do to. The point is to always move forward, and not to let two polar opposite excuses -- doing too little isn't worth it, and doing too much hurts -- get in the way.

4) Obsessively weigh yourself, unless you shouldn't.
The best advice you will usually get is that you shouldn't weigh yourself every day. One of the core rituals of Weight Watchers is a weekly weigh-in, which can be at any meeting you choose to attend but for most people is the same one at the same place. Many people consider this non-public (only you and the person weighing you know the number) though public spectacle the single most motivating aspect of the program. But one's weight fluctuates due to forces not always in one's control, especially for women. Some people would find it discouraging to see evidence of little or no progress on a daily basis — like most sanctioned diets, WW is designed to lose around a pound a week. Watching yourself lose one pound over seven days as you're "depriving" yourself can be like watching paint dry, and discouraging. But weighing yourself several times a day is a good way to understand how your body reacts to things -- how much you put on after having a big salad, how much you loose after spinning for 30 minutes, how much you lose from when you go to bed to the moment you wake up. Like any data, it's indifferent. If you can be as indifferent, getting that data is a huge motivator. If you can't, then keep it to regular intervals — which might as well be on the morning of that day every week you'd like to take a little break from the regimen.

5) Everything is a game
WW gives you trinkets, and makes you check in. Get it? Exercise is boring, but anything can be made into a game. This works for me, and it's minimalist: I have a playlist of songs, some fast, some slow. It doesn't matter. On my bike+trainer, I spin for one song, sit up and do reps with a curling bar for another — various curls, crunches, presses; anything, mixed up, so different parts of the upper body are working while you are still pedaling -- and for the third mountain climb on a low gear standing up. I rarely look at the clock, but check my HRM frequently. Before I know it I've done 32-35 minutes, most in the 150-164 range (optimal cardio rate [220-54] for me is 166).

At my current pace I should be a weight I haven't been in I-don't-know-how-long sometimes this summer, which is a great time to be in good shape. Why don't I know when I weighed 160 pounds? Because most of my life I have obsessively not weighed myself. So for extremely long periods of my life there are no pictures, or any weight data — and for exactly the same reason.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Catch-22 of Google Books

It’s almost a Zen Koan: How many books does a library make?

For Google the answer is: “All of them.”

As of last August that particular number was about 129 million, and since then probably tens of thousands have been added to the world’s shelves, even if you exclude Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s A Shore Thing.

Some tiny fraction of that immense number is good enough for nearly every library in the world, be it the Library of Congress, the world’s largest, or modest locations which are no less devoted to the preservation and dispensation of the world’s collected knowledge.

For Google, though, it’s all or nothing: The Google Books Project — “one company’s audacious attempt to create the largest and most comprehensive library in the history of the world” as correspondent Ryan Singel put it — began nearly a decade ago.

The initiative has seen its up and downs over the years. But it hit a serious roadblock last week when a judge ruled that a difficultly-forged agreement among Google, authors and publishers was simply unfair to a particular class of writers: those who cannot not be located to be given the opportunity to choose to allow their copyrighted works be included in the project.

Read on at Reuters MediaFile

Libya, Obama and the Politics of Rationales

I take as a given that it is impossible for sovereign states to be consistent in any meaningful way, and that there are degrees of pretense to projecting consistency.

What interests me here is that there isn't any particular US interest in eradicating the world of Gaddafi, and apart from the bluster of attacking his own people bent on attacking him (a peculiarly internal matter, one might even argue) no new one from a month or so ago.

So given that world leaders pick and choose their rationales like fruit at a Middle East market, we can only judge (I think) the intent by how far today's rationale is from self-interest. As I see it, Obama's failure here is entirely in the realm of domestic politics, which as these things go is exactly the right place you want to weak when lives are at stake.

Which has no bearing on the creation of a new precedent that cannot possibly be consistently adhered to without new conditions to tomorrow's rational for action, or inaction.

[Libya and selective US intervention | Bernd Debusmann | Reuters Analysis & Opinion]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The New York Times Pricing Scheme: Dumb, or Brilliant?

Among the harsh criticism heaped on the New York Times for having the audacity to introduce a digital subscription model is that the pricing tiers are confusing, or self-defeating because they leave gaping holes for readers to game the system and thus make anyone who doesn't feel like an idiot.

I'm normally sympathetic to this kind of argument. It's why I avoid roll-your-own fixed priced restaurant menus, convinced I will get screwed because I won't be able to reel in the best value from that sea of possibilities.

In other words: Complex pricing blocks the road to assessing value.

Daring Fireball's always insightful John Gruber puts it this way:
One thing many companies — in any industry — can learn from Apple is the importance of simple pricing. If you make it easy for people to understand how much they’re paying, and what they’re paying for, it is more likely that they’ll buy it. Or perhaps this is driven more by the converse: if people are confused about how much they have to pay, they’re more likely not to. The decision to purchase and the act of paying are part of the experience for any product or service, and should be designed accordingly.

Not paying is always simple.
Correct. But this is true only at the moment one is confronted with a decision to buy or not to buy. For the vast majority of the people who read the New York Times -- online and off -- the moment of truth will not come on March 28, or maybe ever.

So, with three pricing tiers, a "giveaway" web site and an all-access pass for print subscribers, is the Times making it impossible, or easy, to close the deal?

Most people will delay a decision on what to buy, or if, as they encounter impediments to their normal Times-reading lifestyle. A huge swath will never even know there is an online paywall.

The Times of London (no relation) stops you the first time you click on anything. The New York Times won't pester you until you have accessed a link on their property at least 20 times -- probably more, since a lot (if not most) traffic will come from search referrals which aren't counted against that total, rather than from a landing page (front page or section). Count in the five free clicks per day via search engines and you're talking 170 accesses a month.

So the big change for the vast majority of people will be to encounter some unexpected request for money in a month or so, or never — and only at that point will those people decide if paying something is what they want to do. In other words, the change will be invisible to many.

Those of us who routinely use Times apps will face this music sooner, of course. I have already mused on this dynamic in a couple of ways: arguing that the Times has undervalued its online storefront, and that media apps aren't really a good way to dispense and consume breaking news anyway, however potentially good they are at collecting tolls.

But if you want to use an an app, you'll use an app, or walk away in disgust. And there are only two choices here: If you don't have an iPad, you won't buy the iPad sub. And if you have an iPad and want to stick it to the man to the tune of $5, Gruber points out, you'll get a $15 iPhone subscription and access using your browser.

Fine. There are workarounds and hacks, and some people will always gleefully take advantage of them. But as it happens very few people actually use Skype to avoid a phone bill or jailbreak their iPhone so they can tether without paying AT&T a monthly free. This is only ever one slice of the customer base, and not a very impactful one.

I mean, is this the way you want to read the New York Times?

Rather than focus on that the Times seems to be looking for a sweet spot which:
  • Find some samplers who will now pay something on the theory that these people are so inclined, always would have and just need to be asked
  • Don't make current paying customers regret and resent
  • Allow ample social access so that participation in the link economy isn't disrupted — which is not only great branding, but good for the ad CPMs the Times will still need.
There this notion that nobody will pay for something when a version of it is free. And yet plenty of money is spent on things that are also available on bittorrent or sharing sites. That's because nothing is truly free, and sometimes inconvenience is a heftier price to pay then some coin.

It is only when the inconvenience cost is close to free that paying customers flee.

I don't know if the Times plan is nuanced enough, or in the right ways. But that it is nuanced — and porous — is necessary, and far from dumb.

The Web Isn’t Dead: Newspaper Edition

For all the talk about whether apps could be the salvation for newspapers, one little question has been glossed over: Are apps actually a disservice to readers of what, for lack of a better description, we still call newspapers?

The key advantage of the Internet over radio or TV is immediacy. Stories fly straight from pocket-sized devices to a great discussion in the sky with no friction being heard. Short bursts of information — as much or even less data than traders on the exchange floor use to make snap, million-dollar decisions — are what drive the conversation now.

Newspapers all have, or could have, vibrant web sites. Web sites are exciting because they are immediate, hamstrung only buy the stupidity of servers, how much traffic they can handle and how fast the Internet is working today. You share a story, and BOOM, there it is: Waiting to be discovered by random travelers, spotlighted by RSS, Tweets, Facebook updates and shared by a geometrical progression of friends you didn’t know you had.

The metaphor is: If you build it, they will come.

What is the metaphor for an app? Turns out it is exactly the same as the original newspaper paradigm: Here we are, come and get it.

(Read on at Reuters|MediaFile)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What to Make of the Machine? It's Elementary, My Dear Watson

I missed the first day of IBM Watson's assault on humanity, played out innocently on a game show. But Tuesday's edition of Jeopardy was as demoralizing for my human side as it was exhilarating for the android in me.

Part of the fun is what the IBM Language Team came up with to make humans comfortable in Watson's presence. The supercomputer has inflection, and a tone which puts one in the mind of Hal9000 before, well, you know. Watson mixed it up once with a "Let's finish out ..." the category, instead of just naming the category and amount. There was also some frailty on display when Watson gives the same wrong answer as another competitor — I have seen humans do this, so why not a supercomputer?

With Watson, though, weakness isn't seen as something with which to commiserate but rather a way to cling to a small hope that we aren't sowing the seeds of our own destruction, as predicted in countless Sci-Fi stories and screenplays.

Watching Watson is remarkable in many ways. It proves that there are still some companies where pure R&D matters. It continues a very important entrepreneurial tradition of showmanship to dramatize science and technology in a way white papers can't. It lets us all imagine what practical applications there are for the kind semantic computing power Star Trek fans have always known is the future.

Watson's success (so far) has also unleashed all manner of man versus machine humor. But I'm not worried. Machines that do one thing well don't frighten me. Watson is a Kindle, and humans are iPads.

Here are some of my favorite Watson Tweets:

Wired: For those not watching @ on Jeopardy, we won't spoil it, but you might want to stock up on provisions.

Ken Jennings: @, I'm-a let you finish, but homo sapiens is one of the smartest species of all time.

Larson O'Brien: @ Nice job on Jeopardy last night, though if you turn on humanity, we now know airports are safe havens

Justin McCammon: I wish @ could bring some of the intelligence from @ into Lotus Notes. It feels like using an abacus compared to modern email.

Amir Blumenfeld: The final question on jeopardy tonight "What does true love feel like?" Which is totally unfair for WATSON. And also for Ken Jennings.

Greg Wyshynski: I'm just watching until WATSON unmasks to reveal that it's actually been Sean Connery this entire time.