Archive for October, 2011

Which Witch Is Which?

October 31, 2011

Quote of the day:

“It’s good that the witches are going to church,” said the senior Catholic priest on the island.  “But when they go back into the mountains, we have no control over what they do.”

That’s probably best for all concerned.

Happy Ursa-ween!

October 29, 2011

Rowing.  In the snow.  Really, can it get much better?  Lunghu doesn’t think so.  All the same, he’s kinda glad he elected not to row in Philadelphia today.  It’s not so much the snow –or the 3 mile race–  but more the interminable wait for dock space once you’ve finished the course.  Your body has finished pumping out the massive amounts of energy needed to sustain maximum effort for umpteen minutes plus, and then your boat paddles back upstream to sit waiting in line with more than a dozen others while your muscles cool, tighten, chill and cramp.  By the time you’re back at the trailer, your fingers are numb and your lips are tinged with blue.  Hypothermia is never far away.

No thanks! Yes, the weather will be cold on Sunday, but it should be sunny, too.  Much better for rowing.  And very picturesque!


October 25, 2011

Over the long haul  –-in a head race, for instance–-  it’s your crew’s power-to-weight ratio that pushes the boat through the pack to the top of the standings.   More power moving less weight with each and every stroke means that your boat travels faster through the water, sustains its momentum, and saves energy for the final gasping sprint to the finish line.

That point was proven a few days ago by an athlete who may have one of the highest PtW ratios in Division I women’s rowing right now, as she led her crew to a school-best finish just seconds short (or is it long?) of an outright win in a 3-mile head race some readers may have vaguely heard of.  You know who you are.

It was an impressive achievement, maybe but not entirely surprising to those who’ve seen her row.  So it was a bit of a disappointment to hear the coach say “...if we were just a little bit faster maybe we could have finished first.

I know it was intended as motivational, to help the rowers realize how close they came to truly stunning glory, but the remark also can be interpreted (by sensitive souls) to contain an undercurrent of reproach –-implicitly suggesting that not everyone gave it their all every stroke of the way.   It’s one thing when rowers feel that way about their own performance (and they often do), because anyone who’s raced knows that there have been moments when concentration lapsed, when fatigue whispered seductively in the in-most ear, when anger born of agonizing pain diverted effort from the task at hand.  But …  that’s for you to know within yourself, and to guard against next time out, or for the coach to emphasize in the training room.  You don’t want to hear it in the media.  In front of your parents and friends.  Because that suggestion diminishes the achievement, and sours the sweet, sweet taste of unexpectedly coming oh-so-near.

But they will row harder next time out on the big stage.  And maybe they’ll even be faster, too.

All Animals Are Created 3Qu4l

October 24, 2011

I have two ways of discovering that Haruki Murakami has published a new novel in English translation:

  • I see several copies on the shelf at a bookstore  –either in the ‘new fiction’ section or nearly at the end of the M’s in the fiction/literature section of the store.
  • I stumble across a book review in a newspaper or online –and then avoid reading the review so that my approach to the new work isn’t tainted by the reviewer’s opinion.

Option ‘B’ is in effect this time around.  The Los Angeles Times splashed a large link to David Ulin’s review on its home page, and then left little to chance by illustrating the piece with a Murakami portrait photo.  I have to confess that I read just enough of the review to learn that the novel is titled “1Q84” and that it’s 962 pages long.  The title appears to indicate that Murakami has finally come to terms with the existence of l33t (although it’s difficult to imagine how l33t would work in Japanese kana/kanji).

One of the things that have drawn me back to Murakami’s work time and again is the way that themes in his novels often reflect developments occurring in my own life at the time I read them. But sometimes that very aspect of Murakami’s writing is what becomes immensely frustrating about him: he (through his protagonists) often seems to be teetering on the brink of an insight that just barely eludes him  –or escapes expression.  More than once, that missing insight has been one that I believe (or delude myself in thinking) I have myself attained.  On the one hand, this could be the mark of a truly gifted writer: the most masterful persuasion is that in which the subject convinces himself he’s known it all along.  But on the other hand, Murakami is a genuinely humble guy, so he’d undoubtedly insist that neither he nor his protagonists ever have any insights at all –they just stumble through life’s mysterious reality and keep on keepin’ on no matter what happens.

Either way, it’s particularly encouraging that …

“1Q84” deploys its strategies in the service of what becomes the most traditional sort of story: the one in which love wins out over all.


It’s Baaack!

October 19, 2011

Just when you least expect it, and just when you’d much rather have an update on the Viktor Bout trial [not much happening there], those pesky Finns resurrect ancient history by making wild, implausible claims about the storied 2009 voyage of the MV Arctic Sea.  This from Sunday’s edition of a leading Helsinki newspaper:

According to two Finnish crisis security experts, Timo Hellenberg and Pekka Visuri, the Arctic Sea … is likely to have been carrying raw materials for use in chemical warfare … [when it] was hijacked in 2009 while en route from Finland to Algeria.

Visuri and Hellenberg believe that the ship was empty when it arrived in the Finnish port city of Pietarsaari to take on its cargo of lumber.  It is their theory that material that could be used in nuclear technology or in chemical and biological weaponry may have been loaded onto the ship at sea in Swedish waters. …

Hellenberg and Visuri do not believe that the ship carried heavy anti-aircraft missiles, as was suggested [at the time]; such weapons would not have fit in the ship because it was full of lumber loaded in Finland.

These Finnish “experts” conclude that “the action was the work of professional criminals, and the probable destination was the Middle East. … They do not believe that the Russian government would have been involved, simply because it would have had easier ways of delivering such goods.

Here’s Lunghu’s assessment of this Finnish pastry puff-piece:

  • These “crisis security experts” are seeking deflect potential criticism of Finland’s border/port security protocols by asserting that the contraband never transited Finnish territory  –it “may have been loaded onto the ship at sea in Swedish waters.
  • The Finns are bending over backwards to avoid offending their next-door neighbor Comrade Bear, who will soon (once again) be Comrade President Bear.  Hence the rather implausible claim that “they do not believe that the Russian government [was] involved.”   This despite the fact they concede that “the MV Arctic Sea had been in Kaliningrad, where such materials are stored … [and] such (chemwar) goods were under the control of the [Russian] state.
  • Visuri and Hellenberg base their exoneration of the RF government on the facile assertion that the Russians “would have had easier ways of delivering such goods.”   Really?  Even if plausible deniability happened to be the single most important feature of this particular transaction?  And what if those “easier ways” of delivering contraband customarily involved the logistics networks operated by a certain guest of the Kingdom of Thailand —Viktor Bout?   Not quite so easy anymore.
  • There’s not much (if any) evidence presented by these experts, and more “believing” than a Bible Belt tent revival meeting.  But that’s because they’re not really seeking to prove anything –they’re running a minor information operation on behalf of Finland.

The researchers find it mysterious that the hijacking of a ship did not cause a major stir in any country.  Why didn’t the EU and NATO do anything? [Oh, they definitely did something, all right! In Spain. For a couple of weeks!]
“There is a tangible possibility of a conspiracy there,” says Pekka Visuri.

At least we can agree on something.

Sitting Out, Setting Up, Shifting In

October 4, 2011

At some point in every sweep rower’s life s/he will be in a boat that’s running through drills to work on bladework and rowing technique.  Often, the coaches work on technique as part of a regular warmup routine at the beginning of each practice session.  The idea is to remind oars[wo]men of the small things that make a big difference in efficiently moving the boat, and to reinforce good rowing habits that may have eroded a bit since the last practice.

Usually, working on technique starts out with rowing by fours or pairs (depending on whether an 8+ or 4+ is involved).  This means that –at first, anyway– half the crew is doing something other than rowing.  What they should be doing is setting the boat:  making sure that their teammates are working from a stable, level platform so that they can concentrate on the rowing stroke without being distracted by a lurching, listing, rocking vessel.

They should also be intently watching the people who are rowing, and actively listening to the coach’s comments or corrections.  That way, when it’s their turn to row, they’ll know what mistakes to avoid making and which aspects of the stroke to make sure they get right: the ones the coach is emphasizing.

When setting the boat, the idea is to keep the flat of the oar blade firmly pressed against the surface of the water, providing “outrigger” resistance to tipping on both sides of the boat.  Using the oar as a lever against the fulcrum of the oarlock, relatively little pressure at the outside end of the oar handle will translate into proportionately greater pressure at the blade end. When ports and starboards are applying equal downward pressure on their blades, the boat will stay (nearly, mostly) level.

Every coach is (slightly) different, so just as different coaches take different approaches to teaching the rowing stroke, so too there are different ways of teaching the proper way for rowers to set the boat while their pair or four is sitting out.  As a rower who has suffered through some appallingly inadequate sets over the years while working on drills, I’m here to tell you that the only right way to set the boat is my way:  it invariably works, and some of the other techniques do not.  First, a description of one commonly-taught method for setting the boat that is often ineffective (and the reason why).

  •  The rower comes to half slide with the torso leaning forward, but without the arms fully extended.  The oar handle remains between the rower’s torso and raised knees.
  • The inside hand comes off the oar handle and s/he reaches forward to grasp the rigger strut, with the upper arm above the oar handle.
  • Using the outside hand to position the oar handle, s/he braces the oar handle and loom against the top of the thigh beneath the inside arm.  The inside arm prevents the oar handle from rising and helps brace the handle against the thigh.
  • In this position, the outside hand can increase (push up) or decrease (push down) the pressure on the oar handle in order to adjust the pressure the oar blade exerts on the water’s surface.  In theory, the boat will now be set up and will remain that way.

Why and how does this method fail?  I’ll tell you: the grab-the-rigger approach doesn’t always work as intended because it relies on constant application of muscular force by the outside hand and arm to maintain upward pressure on the handle/downward pressure on the blade at the water’s surface.  This will work when your rowers are strong, physically fit collegiate rowers in their late teens and early 20’s who warm up with a few dozen pushups every practice before they even set foot in a boat —the crew has the arm and shoulder muscles to effectively use this method for setting the boat.  Their outside arms and shoulders aren’t going to get tired pushing up against the resistance of the water if  the boat tips to one side or the other when the rowers aren’t completely in sync.

But if your crew is one of novice juniors or slacker masters rowers, it’s a completely different story.  All each rower has to support their side of the boat is one scrawny, puny bicep and forearm:  it’s usually not enough to hold the boat level or push it back up once the gunwale has lurched down to their side.  Even worse, reaching forward to grab the rigger strut leaves the rower’s body “closed-off” in a relatively weak position; leaning far forward, stretching out the lower back, hunched up with few options for movement.  Add four drilling rowers whose technique and teamwork isn’t (yet) all that polished, and you have a rolling, crashing recipe for near-certain frustration.  Even if their teammates can set the boat for a while, eventually they’ll tire and boat stability will start to suffer.  But it doesn’t have to be that way …

X marks the spot

There is a better approach.  This method uses the inside arm and thigh as paired components of a bracing system that provides firm, passive support for the oar handle, and uses the stronger muscles of the leg to adjust pressure on the oar.  Much easier, maybe even much simpler.

  • As before,  the rower comes to half slide with the torso leaning forward, without the arms fully extended.  The oar handle remains between the rower’s torso and raised knees.
  • The rower’s inside hand comes off the oar handle and s/he reaches forward under the oar to grasp the boat’s gunwale alongside the ankle of the inside leg.  The upper arm (bicep) extends under the oar handle:  viewed from the side (the coach’s perspective), the arm forms an “X” against the angled thigh at half slide.
  • The rower’s outside hand is only used to position the oar handle fore-and-aft, rather than up-and-down.  Upward pressure on the oar handle is provided by moving slightly up the slide, changing the angle of the thigh as the inside arm maintains support from below.  The crossing point of the “X” (the crux) shifts up or down as the thigh angle changes.

Now, when the boat begins to roll to one side, the oar handle increases pressure downward against the crux of the arm/thigh “X” … but can’t actually move.  The boat remains stable, and rowers don’t curse.

Shifting In

Using the “X” method, setting the boat is the easy part of rowing drills.  Eventually, pairs and fours will switch, and it will be the setters’ turn to row.  Ideally, everyone involved will make the transition a smooth one, so that the momentum and equilibrium of the boat are disturbed as little as possible.  Here’s how to make that happen, starting with the pair of rowers that is shifting in to join the drill.  Even when drilling by fours in an eight, coaches usually only switch in/out one pair of rowers at a time (to minimize the potential for disruption).  The coach will designate which pairs to switch, and it’s the cox’n’s job to make it happen in a coordinated manner.

  • The cox’n will/should provide advance notice of the switch, using call “In two [strokes]: five and six out, three and four in. One! … Two!”  The two strokes are counted off at the catch, at the beginning of each stroke.
  • As the active rowers approach the catch for the second stroke, the incoming pair should prepare to release the inside hand’s grip on the gunwale and be ready to place both hands on the oar handle.  But don’t let go just yet!
  • Once the active rowers are approximately halfway through the leg drive (as the boat is stabilized and supported by their oars pressing through the water), the incoming pair can release the grip on the gunwale and place both hands on the oar.  Simultaneously, they should straighten their legs and move back on the slide toward bow while keeping the oar blade flat on the water, following through with the motion of the stroke (shoulders swinging to bow, hands in toward the torso) so that they arrive at the release position with the other rowers at the conclusion of the second stroke.  Because the flat of the blade is still on the water as they slide toward bow, their oars are still providing some lateral stability and support.
  • The incoming pair’s hands are already close to their bodies at the release, so they’re in perfect position to swing arms away, bodies over, and come smoothly up the slide toward stern to take the next stroke in time with the other rowers.  A seamless, smooth transition is a beautiful thing.

However, a smooth transition isn’t solely the responsibility of the incoming pair:  the pair that’s about to sit out also have an important role.  At the conclusion of the second stroke, they’re the ones who have to provide the boat’s outrigger training wheels.  Once again, the regular sequential progression of the rowing stroke can assist the transition. Here’s how:

  • As their blades release from the water at the conclusion of the second stroke, the outgoing pair have their hands close to their torsos and are pressing down slightly on their oar handles to clear the blades from the water.  
  • If the drill includes rowing with the feather, their blades are almost immediately parallel to the water once the stroke has been completed.  This is especially convenient, but if the drill has involved rowing with square blades, they should now feather.  In either case, they should let their hands rise slightly so that the blades drop down to the surface of the water, stabilizing the boat.
  • Then, following the body motion of the active rowers, the pair now sitting out should swing their torsos toward stern into the bodies-over position (but without extending the hands away).  They are now able to move up to half slide, reach down with the inside hand to grab the gunwale, and create the “X” brace with thigh and bicep under the oar handle.  The outside hand keeps their oar blades in contact with the water throughout the transition, so the boat remains firmly set and rowing practice continues without a hitch.

It’s useful to remember that the coach isn’t just watching the pairs that are rowing through the drills: s/he’s also watching the pairs that are sitting out, the way they set the boat, and the way they make the transitions to and from the drilling sequence.  It’s an indication of how much the rowers are paying attention to every aspect of the boat’s performance.  From a coach’s perspective, evaluating a rower’s skill set doesn’t begin and end with the size of the crater s/he puts in the water on each stroke –crew is a team sport, so it also matters how well the individual rower is able to contribute the little things (like setting the boat) that can make a big difference.

On your mark, get set, row!