Friday, April 30, 2010

First Ride Of The Season

I rode to work for the first time in 2010 yesterday. It's a 22.78 mile ride each way - downhill going to work, uphill coming home.

Temperatures were cold yesterday. Some parts of New England got snow. We experienced temperatures in the low 30 F range. I bundled up before I left. I had a hat under my helmet, gloves, tights, a t-shirt, a sweatshirt, and a windbreaker over the top. You can only put on so many pairs of socks before your shoes won't fit, so I was limited to a single pair.

I pumped up my tires to 100 PSI and pushed off at 5:55 AM. It was light enough to be safe, but I hedged my bets by hanging a strobe light on my seat post.

There's a slight downhill just beyond my driveway, so it's easy to build up some momentum right out of the gate. That 15-20 mph breeze sure felt cold! I started pumping my pedals to build up some heat. Soon my torso felt comfortable, but my fingers and toes stayed cold through the whole ride.

The plan calls for me to meet my friend at a pre-arranged corner at 6:30 AM. We have the timing down pat, because he was standing at the corner as I steamed down the road. He said he'd been waiting for less than a minute before I came into sight around the bend.

The ride was a pleasant one, as always. I love the riding, especially since I get to do it with my best friend. We kept up a steady stream of conversation as we made our way down the bike trail.

We parted ways after ninety minutes. I continued alone for the short distance to the Founders Bridge that takes me over the Connecticut River and into Hartford. It was a great feeling to ride into town under my own power in just 1:40. I parked my bike in the garage and made my way to the place where I swim to get a hot shower. That warm water was essential - my feet were numb! I needed a little heat to walk naturally.

I felt good all day long. My legs felt fine when I went up and down stairs - a good sign. When my legs aren't strong I groan with pain on stairs.

I made sure to eat a salad for lunch. Later in the afternoon I bought a bottle of Gatorade that would fit into my water bottle cage and two Cliff Bars (chocolate chip) for a snack. I ate the first one just before I left to make sure that I had some fuel in the tank.

I did something different when I left my desk to ride home. Last year I'd leave my biking clothes in the locker room, which meant having to cross the street to dress and then come back to get the bike. I carried my stuff in a backpack and changed in the bathroom down the hall from my desk in order to save some time. I was able to be on my bike in ten minutes after leaving, which makes a big difference.

I rode back across the Connecticut River and met my friend on the east side. Going home is always harder than the morning ride: it's uphill and the fatigue from the morning hasn't dissipated. The wind was gusting out of the west when we left, but temperatures were much more comfortable. We made good time, but I was starting to feel tired by the time we parted. My left knee felt sore, too. I ate my second Cliff bar and finished the last of the Gatorade. After a few minutes I was able to push my biggest gear without difficulty. I made it home in 1:46, which is a pretty good time for the first ride of the year.

My knee felt a little tender that night, but the soreness wasn't too bad. I went for a swim before work the next morning. I did the usual 5x200 pull warm-up, a 5x200 IM set, and finished with 5x100 alternating kicking with a board and one-arm drill. My legs felt great when I was done. My left knee was fine. I did a little downward facing dog to stretch out my lower back. I felt energetic and strong all day.

I haven't had my best April for swimming. It was only slightly better than an average April, so my string of "best months" starting 2010 was ended.

it'll be good to mingle swimming and biking together. I enjoy riding so much. As long as I can stay upright and avoid getting hurt, this is a fun time of year for me. All spring and summer are ahead of us. This year it'll last forever and never end.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"The Big Short"

I've taken advantage of my local library to do a fair bit of reading on the cheap lately. I'm interested in the details of how our most recent financial debacle happened. Any book that sheds light on the subject is on my list.

"The Big Short" by Michael Lewis fits the bill perfectly. It's the true story of a cadre of individuals who saw what was going on, well before anyone else did, when the conventional wisdom said they were fools. They put their money where their mouths were, too. They bet millions on shorting the mortgage market, knowing that the rate of default didn't have to reach historic proportions for the bet to pay off. It took great courage, because they were either betting with their own money or that of investors. They were certain that the crash would come, but they couldn't predict when. They didn't know if their funds or courage would run out before the payoff would arrive.

Michael Lewis knows something about the terrain. He worked for an investment bank back in the 80s. He wasn't a great success as a financial adviser, but it did start him on the writer's path with "Liar's Poker". How fortunate for the rest of us!

It's a great read, very entertaining. I recommend it highly.

There was a lot of negative discussion about short selling when the market came down and Lehman Brothers failed. CEOs hate short sellers. They complain about their company being hurt by rumors and whispers, implying that the short sellers are merely manipulating the market for their own benefit.

There might be some truth to this, especially for naked short sellers who don't have to risk their own money. But people who put up their own money and take a real risk are providing an alternative information source to the market. If short action is lively, perhaps there's something to it. It's the sobering other side to the happy talk pumped out by CEOs and the sellers of their stock.

With congressional testimony going on, it's especially timely to answer a few questions about how this happened to us:

1. Was this a "perfect storm" of circumstances that no one could have foreseen?
2. Were the financial instruments so inherently complex that they couldn't be understood by anyone?
3. What did CEOs know, and when did they know it?
4. Was it merely the latest example of an Enron-style theft?

All four contributed, but I think the fourth option is one that will win the day.

The news from the New York Times today says that Goldman Sachs was offsetting losses in the mortgage market with their own short action. They can't claim perfect storm or too complex or not knowing what was going on.

There are lots of great sources for reading about what happened. "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb spells out the dangers of over-reliance on lovely mathematical models and normal distributions. (Note to self: There's a second edition available.) Mark Chu-Carroll's "Good Math, Bad Math" blog has a fine entry on the matter.

What will we do about this? There's legislation being crafted right now that claims to reform our banking system. This will be Chris Dodd's last hurrah, but I fear that it won't be at all effective. There will be too many amendments to water it down. Lobbyists from the banking industry will lend their "expertise" to craft the laws. Senators and representatives on both sides of the aisle have taken too much money from banks and financial services firms to be objective anymore.

I've maintained all along that the biggest mistake was repealing Glass-Steagall and replacing it with Gramm-Leach-Bliley. That was done on Bill Clinton's watch, with Goldman Sachs principals Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers running things. Goldman Sachs is embedded far too deeply into our government today. I know I'll be watching the hearings very closely.

In the meantime, I recommend that you go out and read "The Big Short".

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"City Of Thieves"

A friend in my swimming group recommended "City of Thieves" by David Benioff. It's set in Leningrad during the Nazi siege. How cheery!

I was surprised to find that it was the best work of 'fiction' that I've read in a very long time.

I put fiction in quotes because it was difficult to separate truth from fiction. The prologue describes the author's visit to his Russian grandparents, who have retired to Florida. The grandfather has never spoken about his experiences during the war, but the trip inspired a weekend with a tape recorder. After three straight days of stories, the author says he'll need another session to fill in the details. "You're a writer, David - make it up!" says the grandfather.

And so the book begins.

It's a wonderful page turner that I couldn't put down. The language was so vivid, the weaving of details so artful, that after I finished it I had to re-read the last chapters to take it in again.

I expected horror given the setting and time period. Horrible things did happen, and the author didn't shy away from them.

But it was the humor and human connections between characters that took me by surprise. The characters were wonderful.

I'm recommending this book to everyone I know. I read a lot of technical and non-fiction stuff these days. It felt good to enjoy a work like this so much.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

First Competition

I took the next step in my Toastmasters competition last night after winning our club contest: the area contest. I was up against two winners from other local clubs. The prize? The chance to move on to the district competition and, perhaps, the international.

Contests are run very much like regular weekly meetings. Everything is very formal. I've been an observer at AA meetings for years. Toastmasters meetings remind me of them. They're structured and formal, with lots of applause and encouragement. The contests have judges and rules, prizes and protocols. There are two competitions: one for tall tales, where contestants speak for 3-5 minutes about the wildest imaginary stories they can think of, and another for international, which require 5-7 minutes talks on more serious topics.

I was one of three contestants in the international competition. I came in third, but I was happy with that. The other two speakers were both far more experienced that I am, and it showed. Their writing, rehearsal, and delivery were top-shelf. I had heard (and evaluated) the winner's speech a month ago, so I knew what I was up against going in. She didn't disappoint. It was a most impressive performance. I would have voted for her as the winner if I were a judge.

The second-place finisher at my club entered the tall tales battle and won, hands down. He's an incredibly accomplished guy and a great speaker. He has an instrument-level pilot's license. He went to the Caribbean on vacation with his family, piloting a 40 foot sailboat. His story described how he tied up the boat and went with his family to head into town on a windy day. They were strolling along the beach when they saw their $750,000 chartered boat had torn free of its mooring and was gliding into the harbor without a pilot. My friend jumped into a motorboat, climbed aboard, and stopped the vessel just a few feet short of shoals and a wall. He would have had an embarrassing call to a charter company and their insurance company if he hadn't acted so quickly.

The name of the boat? "Vela Via", Italian for "Sail Away". Delicious irony!

I enjoyed the competition very much, but it tells me that I can do much, much better. I have to work harder at improving my writing, rehearsal, and delivery. My inclination towards procrastination will be the death of me.