Archive for March, 2011

Down by the River

March 30, 2011

Lunghu has recently been reading Luo Guanzhong‘s classic novel Water Margin (aka ‘Outlaws of the Marsh‘).   Perhaps the reason he finds this work so appealing has something to do with the simmering scent of imminent rebellion bubbling just beneath the clattering lid of today’s society … or maybe it’s the way that the story’s relentless serial carnage slakes the drought of his own 10th century ancestors’ millenium-long bloodthirst.

In every chapter, the greedy, unjust and  downright evil denizens of Sung Dynasty society are beheaded, pinned to the ground with a mighty spear-thrust, cleft in twain by a battleaxe, sliced to ribbons by razor-sharp daggers or bludgeoned to death with cudgels and fists.   The ever-increasing succession of valiant, generous, and loyal heroes inevitably survive the harrowing perils that conclude each chapter (sometimes only by the skin of their teeth).   There are a lot of reasons to like Water Margin … and every reader can pick his own.

Lunghu particularly likes a couple of repeated catchphrases from Water Margin that have immeasurably enriched his everyday conversation:

Of this we shall speak no more.”  (Used by Lao Luo whenever minor bitplayers in the narrative exit the story, never to return.  Used by Lunghu when a topic is considered closed to further [open] discussion.)

But enough of this idle chatter.  Let us get to the point.”  (Used by Lao Luo when an extended description –usually of a banquet scene– has diverted the story too far from the spellbinding action sequences that the audience eagerly awaits.  Used by Lunghu when smalltalk has become miniscule talk.)

But enough of this idle chatter.   Water Margin is obviously a literary classic that emerged (in multiple written incarnations) from China’s lengthy oral story-telling tradition.   In the 20th and 21st centuries it has been recycled –in whole or in part– as film, television serial, video game and graphic novel.   Long live the heroes of Liangshan Marsh!


From the Shores of Tripoli

March 19, 2011

Reports from Moscow announce that Russian Ambassador to Libya Vladimir Chamov has been dismissed.   Not “recalled”  –dismissed.

In the absence of further information, Lunghu is left to wonder this has anything to do with recorded conversations between Ambassador Chamov and members of the Gaddafi family.   Maybe there were certain bank records and wire transfers that might suggest to uncharitable observers that Amb. Chamov did not always have the interests of the Russian Federation uppermost in his heart.   Or perhaps there was lingering doubt about his past performance as Ambassador to Iraq during 2005 and beyond.  It’s easy to pick up bad habits in a dusty desert oil capital … or two.

One wonders, too, about that missing Russian veto when the Security Council resolution on the Libyan no-fly zone came to a vote.   Some dots are never meant to be connected.   Sometimes they’re just dots.

Lunghu is certain of one thing, though:  the next conversation between two Vladimirs will be a lot more uncomfortable than the one pictured below.



The Long Green … Revolution

March 16, 2011

At the beginning of the month, Lunghu and a colleague shook hands on a sporting proposition in the tradition of Randolph and Mortimer Duke.  As you may recall, the last week in February was not going well for Col. Muammar Gaddafi:  several cities were in the hands of Libyan rebels, and the banner of freedom rippled proudly in the desert wind.  Suddenly it no longer seemed absurd to ask how long Gaddafi could hold on to power.  Could he hang on at all?

More importantly, how could smug American desk jockeys structure a wager that most suitably reduced the complex dynamics of Libyan civil war to a simple binary choice?  A basic yea/nay wasn’t enough —too many variables, and far too open-ended a scenario.   Where would the finish line be?   When would the final buzzer sound?  Revolutions and civil wars aren’t (yet) governed by FIFA, so there are no offside calls, no penalty kicks, and no injury time.   For a wager to work, it had to have a definite expiration date, like a soybean futures contract.  And it had to have some basic parameters that spelled out the conditions of success or failure.

Here’s what we came up with: a 90-day over/under for Gaddafi’s retention of power.   If, after June 1st, Gaddafi wasn’t dead or in exile, and still controlled (most of) Libyan territory, the “over” bet would win.   Otherwise, the “under” wins.

When pirates divide the spoils, one man arranges the portions and the other gets first pick.   Lunghu chose the over.   At the time, it seemed the contrarian choice, and Lunghu added a caveat:  Gaddafi would fail only if the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries sought to curry favor with their restive domestic populations by invading Libya in support of the rebels.   Didn’t seem likely, since they’re plenty busy at home.

Here was the thumbnail analysis behind Lunghu’s pick:

1]   The United States won’t intervene.  At this point (and for the foreseeable future) it would be a huge strategic mistake to attack or invade yet another Islamic country.  Team Obama seems to understand this, and the Joint Chiefs definitely do.  Republicans are trying to goad Obama into making exactly that strategic mistake, but their gambit is unlikely to succeed.

2]   Despite France and Britain’s fervent wishes, the Europeans won’t intervene because they don’t have the financial capacity to sustain the required military operations.  Germany won’t participate and won’t foot the bill.

3]   Arab states won’t intervene because they need their troops to guard their own palaces.

4]   Sanctions won’t work.  Never have.

5]  Libyan rebels are on their own and overmatched.  The endgame won’t be pretty.

Still, it’s early days.   Things could change yet again in the next 2 ½ months.   With diplomatic cover from the UN Security Council, Arab petrodollars  could finance French and British  air operations and Arab troops could act as the mop-up boots on the ground.  We’ll see.

Oh —what were the stakes in this wager?   Just a couple of hundred thousand lives.  This is one bet where there won’t be any winner, because bragging rights won’t be worth bragging about.

Please Release Me

March 13, 2011

No one has ever asked me what I consider to be the key to consistent, high-quality rowing, but I’ve thought about it and prepared an answer just in case anyone ever does.  Best of all, as a blogger, there’s no need to sit around waiting for anyone to actually ask.   Unprompted and unbidden, I can freely opine  –on a whim, on a lark, at the drop of a hat.

So what is that key, the pivotal phase of the cyclical rowing stroke?   Quick “hands away” at the release, that’s what.

In plainer English, this means that the rower (after completing the stroke and pressing the oarhandle down slightly to extract the blade from the water) should immediately extend the arms away from the body and initiate the motion of pivoting the trunk forward at the hips to swing into “body over” position.  One of my (many) coaches described the hands-away motion by drawing an analogy to the path of a bicycle chain around the sprocket:  the chain approaches the sprocket in a level, horizontal path, drops down the diameter of the sprocket as it rounds the bend, and heads back in the opposite direction.  The key is that the chain never stops moving as the cyclist cranks along.

This is also what’s important about the rowing stroke:  the hands should never stop moving because a cascading series of bad things will result if they do.

1]  The rower will be a fraction of a second late (relative to the rest of the rowers) in getting to the “body over” position.   This will disturb the dynamic momentum of the moving boat, and will contribute to lateral instability.  The boat will/may begin to dip to one side or the other.

2]  If the rower is late with both hands-away and body-over, he will often try to catch up with the rest of the rowers by starting up the slide before arms and body are fully extended toward the stern.   However, he will then have trouble getting the oarhandle past his knees when they rise as he begins to move up the slide:  the oarhandle will be trapped between his body and his rising knees.   When he raises his hands to clear the knees, his oar dips closer to the water surface and often strikes it, further destabilizing the boat (and disconcerting the rower).

3]  Being late with hands-away and body-over also means that the rower’s slide recovery is out of sync with the rest of the boat.   When he senses that he’s lagging behind, the rower may try to catch up by increasing his speed on the slide toward the catch position.   This will also disrupt boat momentum, because the rower’s body weight is accelerating toward the stern faster than that of the other rowers:  the boat’s forward motion (the glide or “run” between strokes) is immediately reduced by this counteracting rearward thrust.   This is the infamous “stern check” that gives cox’ns sore backs.   Worse, since the rower’s moving body weight is almost always slightly to one side or the other of the centerline, the boat will dip down to one side just as the crew is preparing to catch for the next stroke.

4]  Following this rapid succession of disheartening events, the hapless, disoriented rower will be hard-pressed to time his catch with the rest of the crew, or cleanly release the blade at the end of the stroke.   He’ll pause to collect himself … and the vicious cycle continues.

Concerned oarsmen might well ask; how can this deficiency be corrected?

Some coaches try an almost subliminal approach, enlisting the implicit psychological power of language and word choice.   These coaches go so far as to avoid use of the term “finish” to denote the phase of the rowing stroke when the oarblade has concluded its sternward motion through the water.   Instead, they emphasize “the release;” the extraction of the blade from the water.   The idea is that the rower never (subconsciously) thinks he’s “finished” rowing, and continues moving his hands to prepare for the next stroke.

But the power of mere suggestion only goes so far, and is almost never enough.   Where there are coaches, there must also be drills for reinforcement.   Oh, joy!

Arms-only drill: In this exercise, the rower sits at the release in the layback position (with shoulders toward the bow of the boat).  At the cox’n’s command, the crew begins a continuous, arms-only rowing stroke at light pressure while remaining in the layback position.   This drill is usually done by sixes (in an eight) or pairs (in a four), so that the boat can remain stabilized by the pair sitting out.   This drill puts a premium on two aspects of the rowing stroke: a quick, decisive catch at the beginning of the stroke and constant motion of the hands following the release.   Since the arms alone don’t have a lot of strength to drive the oarblade through the water during the stroke, the whole drill can and should be done at a relatively low stroke rating.  The idea is not to rush the hands around the back end of the stroke, just to keep them moving.   Coaches often use this drill to work on getting the crew’s timing into sync, and sometimes emphasize this aspect of hands-only rowing while the drill is underway.   Synchronous hands-away is a big part of boat timing, so even if the coach isn’t explicitly talking about it, that’s part of the purpose of this drill.

Arms-and-Body rowing: This is a customary intermediate drill in the progression from arms-only rowing (or legs-only rowing, for that matter) to drilling the full rowing stroke.   The transition from arms-only rowing adds the body swing and greater stroke length to the exercise, but keeps the premium on a quick catch and smooth hands-away at the release.   Here the coach can make sure that “the hands are leading the body out of bow” after every stroke.   Usually the coach is also looking to see that the oarblades aren’t diving too deeply under water during the drive, being lifted by rowers who are heaving their hands up as their backs swing toward bow during the drive.   Level hands through the drive = level blade through the water = level boat on an even keel.

Quarter-slide rowing: Now it’s time to add leg power to the stroke – but only a bit, because the idea is to maintain quickness with the hands rather than trying to gain speed on the slide or during the (extremely short) leg drive.  Now that the knees are rising slightly as the rower uses only one-quarter of his usual slide length, it’s more important than ever to ensure that the hands are out front and forward body angle is established before travel up the slide begins.   The cox’n should remind rowers not to bring up the stroke rating just because they’re (finally) using the slide.   Quick hands, sloooooowwwww slide.   Quick catch, sloooooowwwww slide.   Meanwhile, the coach is watching the crew’s catch timing and release.   Quarter-slide rowing is also a drill that works on quick catches just as much as it emphasizes the importance of hands-away.  Rowers can’t use their recovery time on the slide to prepare for the catch because there just isn’t much time on the slide.   The only way to be ready is with quick hands away leading into forward body angle  –the rower is fully prepared to catch even before starting up the slide.

These drills are generally performed in succession while rotating pairs of rowers into and out of each drill.   Usually, with a pair sitting out, each set of six rowers will repeat the drill for twenty or thirty strokes before the cox’n switches in a fresh pair.   Once the entire boat has participated in the drill, it’s on to the next one in the progression.   By the time the boat moves from quarter-slide rowing into half-slide and full-slide rowing, the coach is probably working on something other than the hands-away motion and a quick catch.   That doesn’t mean you should forget what you just learned.

Your very own rowing coaches may have used these very drills without ever explaining why.   Now you know:  quick hands away.

A final few words on the topic:  in rowing competition, whether at 2K or in longer head races, fatigue eventually becomes a factor.   When you’re tired, pushing the oarhandle away from your body begins to seem like the most exhausting thing you could possibly do at that particular moment.   Psychologically, it’s useful to tell yourself that it’s best to get it over with quickly so that you can relax on the slide during the recovery.   At 30+ strokes per minute, that one second on the slide can be as close to heaven as you’re going to get for the next few hundred meters.

Improved fitness can help, especially if you’ve been working on upper-body conditioning.   I hate pushups and avoid them whenever possible, but they work most of the muscle groups that come into play during the hands-away motion.   Aerobic capacity helps, too.   Better a little pain now than a lot of suffering later.   After all:  pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

These Bouts Ain’t Made For Walkin’

March 10, 2011

Certain well-meaning folk have counseled Lunghu to let the Viktor Bout story run its natural(?) course, but that’s easier said than done.   All in all, there’s been little recent substance to the Bout saga anyway, so it’s not as though temptation to comment has been overwhelming.   However, a recent flurry of non-news has swept through the metropolitan media in the past week, so Lunghu is passing it on down the line with minimal editorializing.

The sole mention of the Bout case in U.S. media came in a (March 4th) N Y Times article that spilled a lot of ink emphasizing the purported inadequacy of the vegetarian diet provided for Bout at the MCC.   After complaining that his client was insufficiently nourished, Bout’s attorney petitioned the judge for more time to prepare for trial and was granted an extension to October 11th.   Alla Bout was quoted as telling (Russian) reporters that her husband spent his time in solitary confinement translating Hindi and Farsi texts (presumably into Russian) and rising at 5AM to exercise. Lunghu can relate to that.

Not to be outdone, Russian media also devoted some news coverage to Viktor Bout:  RIA Novosti published two articles within twelve hours on March 10th.   First, Bout was quoted as saying in an interview that his repeated requests to Russian authorities for assistance have never been answered.

“I have not received answers [to any of these requests] yet,” he said, adding that he would be happy to get help from any Russian politician who is sincerely interested in defending the rights of Russian citizens.   [Who wouldn’t?!]

In a second article later that same day, “the Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed rumors on Thursday that it is planning to repatriate alleged arms dealer Viktor Bout through a swap deal with the United States.”

“All the variants [in the Russian media] of the so-called swaps are no more than idle speculation,” ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.  He added that Moscow would help Bout regardless of the charges against him.

… Lukashevich said that Bout had never been a state service official and had never fulfilled any state assignments, that is why “the question about his swap with anybody had never been considered.”


Ah, how soon they forget!

La Voga Corta

March 5, 2011

A compelling image from the 2011 Regata de Carnevale  –apart from the weather, can rowing get any better than this?   I don’t think so.  For lots more photos, visit the Settemari (Seven Seas) Rowing Association.


the i’s have it

March 4, 2011

Lunghu wants to know:   howza guy supposed to evaluate the finer points of Hyundai’s latest Euro-styled automotive technology when gorgeous Swiss spokesmodels are standing around in shiny little black dresses, perched on 5″ stiletto heels?   No need to actually answer that question –it was strictly rhetorical.

source: Hyundai Motors

Meanwhile, somewhere south of Geneva…

If you can’t wait until September to watch traditional-style rowing in the lagoon and canals of Venice, plan to spend your Pentecost Sunday (June 12th) in La Serenissima viewing the spectacle that is the Vogalonga.


Vogalonga was born in 1974 as a regatta between friends in “mascareta” (light and narrow boats for 1 to 4 oarsmen, measuring between 6 and 8 meters long) on St. Martin’s Day.  At the time, passionate Venetian oarsmen were far from numerous, in a world increasingly oriented towards the internal combustion engine.  Thus was born the idea of a regatta without competition, in the purest Venetian tradition, in order to link all people who wanted to fight against the degradation of the city caused by motorboat wakes.  And so the adventure of Vogalonga was begun spontaneously, a course of 30 km through the canals and the most picturesque sections of the lagoon city.

It’s no more likely that I’ll be in Venice on June 12 than it is that I’ll be there in September, but ya nevah know.

You got to have a dream/
if you don’t have a dream/
how you gonna have a dream-come-true?
Dizzee Rascal