Archive for July, 2008

Narragansett Bay Swim

July 27, 2008



If you’ve visited my swim page lately,

you’ll see we raised $612 for the Narragansett Bay.  I have no idea how much the Bay earns on its own, but I do think it lives frugally.  You don’t see the Bay at the mall, in designer bike shops, or taking advantage of the summer special at Ruth’s Christ, whatever that is.  So I’m guessing for a Bay, $612 is a lot of money, even with the weak dollar.


Swimming across it was a lot of fun and conditions were excellent.  Which brings me to the other reason I think the Bay really appreciated the money.  She coordinated with the Sky to provide perfect blue cloudless conditions, and the Atmosphere, which kept relatively calm, resulting in at most a light chop.


There were about 600 swimmers, about a third like me going, in the lingua franca of short sellers, naked, meaning in our case without an accompanying kayak.  Not meaning without plenty of neoprene, though there were a few hearty New Englanders in just a Speedo.  I was impressed but not tempted.  The swim begins at the Naval War College so we had the benefit of a couple of Naval helicopters watching over us, naval ships keeping the big barges and other boats out of our stretch of water for the 2 hour window, plus an accompaniment of coast guard boats.  My only real worry was bumping into a boat.


Unlike the Ironman crowd I’m used to, the swimmers were mostly casual and friendly, not focused on their zones, and the experience was collegial and low key.  A few young Turks raced it and finished under 40 minutes.  I was (and am) somewhere in the (my) 50s, but who knows if official results will get posted.  And while like Ironman they provided orange slices and bananas at the finish, I’ve never been at an Ironman finish catered by the local Thai restaurant.  Amazingly, they gave away a lot of Pad Thai, even at 9 AM…


It was fun to escape the surly bonds of the shoreline and cross the deep shipping channel between the two main bridge supports.  And the conditions in the Bay near the bridge are much calmer than my practise venue in the water off Charlestown which is exposed to open ocean, the next land being Bermuda.


 I’ll definitely plan to do next year.  It will take me that long to psyche up for waking up early enough – the hardest part, displacing what’s usually the hardest part – stretching the wet suit on, followed closely by the 2nd hardest part of an open water swim – peeling the wet suit off.


Would I have woken up before 4 AM without the motivation of making good on all my sponsors’ overly generous donations?  I guess that depends pretty much on the biorhythmic mysteries of Lulu, my hospice cat (like me, she’s shamefully but gratefully underemployed these days).



 – Rick


Saying du jour

July 20, 2008

the day I left on my latest long trip, A Word A Day carried this quote of the day:


Too often I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of

what they had seen. -Louis L’Amour, novelist (1908-1988)

Single Secret of Successful Cycling – and Science

July 18, 2008

Maybe my whole premise isn’t right – that aerospace engineers and cyclists have an affinity. The only examples I have are myself, the Wright Brothers and Professor Dan DeBra.

If I were an HVAC installer who happened to ride a bike, chances are I’d know other HVAC guys who were bike riders, and think there was some mystic link between HVAC and cycling. And in fact, only a small percentage of all the aerospace guys I know do any exercise at all, let alone biking.

But I know in my own psyche the two go together.

I used to think it was a fascination with minimalism. Aerospace engineering is all about ridding the thing of mass. A 100,000 pound rocket has a payload of a few hundred pounds maximum. If the rocket comes in 1% too heavy, it can’t carry anything into orbit. A good bicycle comes in less than 10% the weight of its rider. Grams count.

But there’s something much more fundamental.

A scientist is constantly striving for a result – a definite link from smoking to lung cancer, a measure of how much water is on the moon, evidence of a new subatomic particle. Yet the key to successful science is to gather minute elements of information while drawing no conclusions – or drawing every possible conclusion and eliminating only those that systematically do not jive with the data.

This means only two types of people can succeed as scientists.

Either they have to be disinterested in a conclusion, content to gather data forever – they would be science bureaucrats. The pressure to publish tends to wash this element out. Or they are comfortable being fixated on a goal, but never rushing the process to reach it.

This dissonant tension was most evident in one of my mentors. At the end of each 12 or 14 hour day of tedium doing high precision thermodynamic measurements, Bill would light up his 20th or 40th cigarette of the day and say “I think we’ve pushed the frontiers of science back today – maybe 1 millimeter”. Then he would recant “but probably not.”

Exhausted and now frustrated I’d ask – why not?

“Because a millimeter is detectable, and I don’t think we’ve made any discernible progress.”

My mentor was taming his desire to make progress and reach important conclusions in favor of doing careful, impartial work which could be spoiled if we became too sure of what its conclusions might be.

It isn’t just scientific research that frustrates the natural desire to reach a conclusion. A radio engineer cannot build a complex transmitter and receiver in a day or a week. Despite the strong desire to realize the cool new product, the engineer’s mind every day is on just the circuit element being designed, doing that piece of the puzzle just right, and not rushing to achieve the final goal.

The ability to have a goal, and be content not to make much progress towards it, is what links scientists with long distance cyclists.

The longest day of your life on a bike is starting a ride in order to conclude it – whether it’s 15 miles or 150. Ticking off tenths of a mile and calculating how many remain and how long that will take at current speed is maddening and mind-numbing. Better to focus on keeping the pedals going around, navigating a straight, safe path, and becoming a cyclist in the Zen sense.

Don’t think about progress or goals, think about process and the present. If you think about destinations, not just boredom will defeat you. You’ll tend to rush, believing that higher speed equates to less time en route. All else equal, that is true, but the result of speeding up is tiring out more quickly, more rest stops, and the possibility of a serious bonk – which can lead to quitting the attempt.

Rushing is not a good thing over a week of 100+ mile rides. Faced with over 3 weeks of racing, even the superhuman riders of the Tour de France take most of its days relatively easy, riding in the peloton and striving only not to lose ground to the day’s leaders.

The dissonance is between the desire to get to the hotel, a shower and food vs. the reality: turning the pedals, ensuring you’re on the right road, and keeping the wheels rolling at whatever rate is possible as the sun moves from East to Zenith to West, as the rains come down, as clouds and wind cool you and sometimes buffet you to a near stop.

I have met a few long distance cyclists who are as lean and muscular as Olympic marathoners.

But I’ve met many more who are overweight, physically unimpressive middle aged men and women riding ordinary equipment. Their talent is not to climb an 8% grade at 16 mph. It is to be content to climb that grade in their lowest granny gear at less than walking speed so as not to tire out. They love the process of cycling, they are content to live in its eternal present. And they understand the power of patience. No matter how slowly those wheels turn, if they are turning, eventually, days, weeks, or months later, a goal will be reached.

Which is more than you can say for science.


July 12, 2008

Rick Fleeter | | | IP:

Spread over a few occasions, some in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and others in the US, I had the good fortune to spend a few days with Arthur Clarke. He was an impressive figure, and even very late in life, one of the sharpest minds on the planet (and possibly off). About 10 years ago in his office at home in Colombo, I asked him what he was currently writing and he said, oh, I don’t write books anymore, I just answer emails.

I took the wisdom of his quip to heart, and have avoided blogging as yet another threat to valuable writing time. And here I am – maybe the times they really are a’changin’, or my defenses were too weak…

If we’re doing it, let’s have some fun with it. So please, tell me something shocking so I’ll say – I’m glad I’m blogging, or I would never have heard _that_.

I’ll try to make good use of your time. Watch the site for announcements of new postings on the web site:
book promos. and, of course, more. Much More. Heavy Duty. Extra Strength. Maybe Maximum Strength. Buckle up.