Thursday, December 17, 2009

Search is Dead, Long Live Gourmet Content

Three years ago I founded Dulcinea Media, a human-powered search alternative, on the premise that most Internet users cannot find the information they need online, and that search engines will never match the ability of a human curator to find the best content. At the time, this was a contrarian view. A  report by Pew Internet in January 2005 had shown that 75% of Internet users were satisfied with search engine results, and most pundits believed Google and Wikipedia would dominate the online information landscape forever.

In the past three years, the market has warmed to my view that uncurated, general search engines are a less-than-perfect tool for finding information online. More recent studies from the USC's Center for the Digital Future showed that user satisfaction with search results declined to 62% in 2006, and again to 51% in 2008. A survey commissioned by Yahoo! curiously issued a damning indictment of search engine results: 85% of initial search queries fail to return the information users were seeking, causing the users to try and try again, resulting in "search engine fatigue." A study from the UK exposed as a myth the notion of a “Google Generation” of young people with native ability to find information online.
Next, Nicholas Carr, who famously asked “Is Google Making Us Stupid?", and a number of other columnists bemoaned the reality that most users today read an Internet that is a mile-wide and an inch-deep. The center of their media world is a technology driven algorithm and “the wisdom of crowds” that simply uncover the same recycled headlines and updates from a slew of news sources. Google dipped a toe in the “human-powered” waters to tweak some of its search rankings, although it still accords technology most of the weight in the equation. Roger Schank, an artificial intelligence expert from Yale University, reversed his 30-year-old prediction that we would create machines as smart as humans in his lifetime. Schank came to recognize that "[h]umans are constantly learning. ... [e]very new experience changes what we know and how we see the world." Schank attributed this to "an unconscious indexing method that all people learn to do without quite realizing they are learning it."

Now a growing chorus of observers is acknowledging that search engines often fail the user. The impetus is the rise of “content farms,” which assure that search engines are only going to get worse at delivering quality results on the first search results page. Demand Media, Associated Content, Mahalo, Bukisa, eHow, HubPages and a voracious pack of others are paying freelance writers a modest per-article fee to create tens of thousands of articles each day. These companies excel at getting their content to rank high in search engines, regardless of quality.

The biggest challenge with these sites, paradoxically, is that some of the content is actually good, and most of it reads well. But, as Richard MacManus of ReadWriteWeb wrote after analyzing Demand Media’s content, it “lacks passion and often also lacks knowledge of the topic at hand.” Worse, the quality varies greatly from article to article – these brands stand for nothing other than “we create lots of content cheaply, SEO it superbly, and monetize it well.” Since no flashing neon lights warn “keyword-ridden trash” for weak submissions, the average Internet user does not know that the article was written in 20 minutes by someone with no expertise on the topic.

Many pundits agree that this spells trouble for search engines, but differ on further implications. Michael Arrington of TechCrunch sees the “end of hand crafted content.” In his view, the “fast food content” created by content farms has produced a “race to the bottom situation, where anyone who spends time and effort on their content is pushed out of business.” Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures is more hopeful. He sees search engines being displaced by social media tools, where, “with the help of machines, our friends and trusted sources” will tell users what content matters.

What I see is that this avalanche of fast food content will lead to the “clarion call” that I predicted, in a July 2008 article  would cause a “flight to safety.” Internet users will turn to the "new portal" - trusted sources that consistently deliver “gourmet content” - important, relevant, reliable and comprehensive information, from a wide variety of resources across the Internet. The only sites that will succeed at this are those that rely on a human touch. For all the dismissive talk about Yahoo, its audience is massive - because it gathers content from around the Web, albeit of inconsistent quality across the verticals.  Companies that aggregate and organize content in an elegant way, and combine that with their own proprietary, high-quality content, will inherit the position at the top of the Web food chain that search engines abdicate.

So where is Dulcinea Media in all this ? Naturally, planning to be one of those trusted sources, or perhaps an engine that powers the new portals to which users flock. We are still executing  on the business plan we created three years ago. findingDulcinea now offers Web Guides to the best information alone about more than 700 broad topics, and we’ve created thousands of Beyond the Headlines and Features articles that provide a full context view of news stories. A Spanish-language sister site, encontrandoDulcinea, replicates much of this content in Spanish.

To make all this content easier to access, we’ve introduced SweetSearch, a custom search engine that harnesses Google’s technology and the 100,000+ hours of Web site evaluation that is the bedrock of findingDulcinea. SweetSearch returns results only from a “whitelist” of 35,000 sites that we’ve evaluated and approved. And we are tweaking SweetSearch to ensure that it remains the best search engine for students, and indeed, the only one they can use effectively. We've also introduced SweetSearch4Me, which is the only search engine that displays prominently high quality sites created for younger learners.

As our audience continues to grow steadily, we’ve also found that our “best customers” – those who visit our site the longest and consume the most pageviews, and thus are most likely to return – are college, high school and middle school students. And thus we focus our content on subjects that would be of interest to teachers, librarians, and students.  We presented at two national conferences in the fall - the AASL conference for school librarians, and the NCSS conference for social studies teachers - and we received an overwhelmingly positive response to our products.  We learned there is a critical need in the marketplace for free products that promotes effective, efficient, safe and responsible use of the Internet, and that ours fit the bill magnificently. And we've also had some very encouraging discussions with forward-thinking media companies about partnering with us to help make them trusted sources for content from around the Web.

We remain steadfast in our principles that (i) we will not use technology to aggregate links for Web Guides or articles; everything will pass through the prism of human judgment; and (ii) we will never compromise on the quality of our product, which will all continue to be created by our full-time editorial staff or subject-matter expert freelancers, and edited by a full-time editor.

To address scaling issues while holding form to these principles, we plan to introduce a program early next year in which we invite librarians and educators to submit content. Practitioners of these professions are trained to find, evaluate and recommend outstanding information resources, and library Web sites have always been the closest comparable to our Web Guides. We envision findingDulcinea and SweetSearch becoming a repository of the knowledge and insight of tens of thousands of librarians and teachers.

And we’ll stick with that vision, for as long as it takes to make it a reality.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

From low expectations, great satisfaction

As I've written before, Marathon Fever is highly contagious. In 2004, two colleagues dragged me to the start of the NYC Marathon. Since then, I've run 5 more marathons, and have recruited a dozen first-timers. Days after my Boston Marathon last April, my very good friend Liz Perlman opened the door: "hey Mark - I've been thinking alot about your marathon shove. Your love of it is really contagious..." Soon I had persuaded her to register for the Philadelphia Marathon, by promising to run it with her. I had decided that I wanted to run only one more serious marathon for time, and then run several each year in a casual mode, with first-timers or people just having fun. So I started to look for an early marathon for my final serious run, to be followed by a casual stroll with Liz in Philly. While I ran 4 half marathons over the summer, my training was not very consistent. In September, a spate of minor injuries that I was too busy to properly address were followed by a nasty virus. In early October, 7 weeks before the race, I ran 5 miles of a half marathon with Liz before telling her to go ahead. I struggled mightily to breathe, and ran finished in 2:34, 46 minutes off my best. The next day, I was in a doctor's office contemplating a diagnosis of pneumonia and a chest x-ray pocked like a shooting range target. My "serious race" was out the window, and even a casual run Philly seemed highly unlikely. Fortunately, I was able to use an elliptical and stationery bike despite my condition, and soon both the pneumonia and x-ray cleared up. But things at findingDulcinea are more exciting than ever; we attended several national educator conferences down south and are pursuing some enormous opportunities, and I struggled to find time for the training I desperately needed, and didn't do a single run over 12 miles, and only about 5 runs of 6-12 miles. The few runs I did get in were ugly, since I didn't find time to stretch adequately beforehand. But two episodes told me I might be able to compete; one was the night before I went to the doctor for a definitive reading of the x-ray; I was so anxious to convince myself I was OK that I put myself through a vicious routine of calisthenics and fast miles, and held up very well. A week later, I ran 7.5 hard miles nearly as fast as I could a year ago, when I set a PR in Philly. Not wanting to leave my new convert in the lurch, I decided I may accompany her for 15 miles and then walk the rest of the way. I set an internal goal of 4:38, the average of my best & worst times so far, but would have been thrilled to break 5:00. A friend told me that when you are undertrained, hydration & nutrition become ever more important. Because I had fallen down on that front in Boston, I spent the past two days eating and drinking lots of good stuff and lining up the perfect breakfast for today. The race weather was utterly perfect. It was very crowded early on, and we ran the first three miles in 10:45, 10:30 and 10:15. I felt great, but worried that this would be as fast as we run. The next 5k was done in close to the same time. Then we picked up steam, running a 9:20 mile. Recalling that running miles 6-9 too fast in Boston came back to haunt me, I reined us in, and we soon were back to steady 10:00s. When we hit 10 miles, I realized I was in less distress than I had ever been at that point in the race, but the 3rd lesson I learned in Boston was not to celebrate too early, since there I very quickly went from thinking I'd break my 4-hour goal by 10 minutes to thinking I wouldn't finish. But our steady pace and stress-free feeling continued till Mile 19, when I was far beyond the distance of any training run and began to worry about running in a quality way for another 70 minutes. I focused only on the next half mile, and took that approach all the way in, never looking ahead more than 800 meters. Around 22 miles, I realized Liz was gaining strength, so I became determined not to hold her back any more than necessary. I realized that at our current pace, we'd just miss 4:30, and focused on that target, a half mile at a time. We finished in 4:28:48, and were utterly thrilled. I realized that the last 10k, which I thought I would largely walk, I had run faster than I ever had before, and our splits of 2:12 / 2:16 were the closest I had come to running even halfs. The realization that I can run decent marathons without adequate training was a big surprise. But fortunately I am focused on the realization that breaking 4:00, which I nearly did in Boston but which seemed remote as I struggled this fall, is very much within my reach if I have a healthy few months, and I plan to go after it hard early next year.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Digital Defense of School Librarians

Books are giving way to e-books; newspapers to news aggregators; encyclopedias to Wikipedia. And that is why we need librarians, especially school librarians, now more than ever.

If you think that librarians are archaic, you’re most likely thinking of a 1950s bespectacled stereotype. Librarians are no longer – if they ever were – those hushing and shushing guardians of books. They are media specialists, guiding children and adults through every form of media, from books to databases, newspapers to blog posts, and even from YouTube to Twitter.

In the libraries of old – the ancient days of 1990, say – mastering the Dewey Decimal system was enough to get you started on your research. But there is no card catalogue 2.0. In order to use the Internet as a library, you need 21st-century research skills: the ability to pick out reliable sources from an overwhelming heap of misinformation, to find relevant material amid an infinite array of options, and to navigate the shifting ethics of creative commons and intellectual property rights. As good as your kid may be on Facebook, she is not born with a digital M.L.S. These skills are learned, not instinctive, and the only way for students to learn them is for someone else to guide and teach them.

This seems as elementary as the ABCs – but apparently nobody’s told the school districts. Librarians and teacher librarians, who are double-credentialed, are being driven out of their increasingly stripped-down libraries. Painful as it is, it’s no surprise to come across a tweet like Shankhead’s: “being an engaged school librarian, at least in my neck of the woods, now means being an ‘Austerity Specialist.’ Whatever it takes.”

I’m not sure what it takes to convince the school districts of common sense, but it definitely takes librarians to teach students how to evaluate credibility, create content of their own, and conduct research in their increasingly interconnected world. And it might take the SKILLs Act, a bill in the House of Representatives, to ensure we still have school librarians to train the next generation.

Students will create and consume online content, and even social media will find a way into their research. Should a student trust a blog as a source in a paper? If not, then how about a blog on The New York Times website? A blog run by an online magazine? Can they use collaborative technology, like wikis? Even teachers need help answering these questions. There are no official guidelines to using the Web, and even if there were, they would change by the minute.

As the information landscape becomes more and more complex, why would we abandon our professional guides to it?

Monday, October 12, 2009

A curated search engine for students

Most educators today struggle to harness the potential of technology and the Internet, which have only just begun to change the skills that students need to succeed.

David Ligon's post on "New Media Literacy," is a comprehensive look at the opportunities and challenges 21st century teachers face. It is exhilarating - and terrifying. As Joyce Valenza and Doug Johnson recently wrote in the School Library Journal blog, "School librarians, as we once knew them, may no longer be relevant. And, yet, this is undoubtedly the most exciting time in history to be a librarian."

I agree emphatically. In my school days, evaluating the accuracy of information was rarely part of the mix - if it was in the library, it was accurate. To fully develop critical 21st century learning skills, students will have to be taught how to find, evaluate, use and communicate information gleaned from a dozen credible sources, chosen out of the millions of resources available a fraction of a second after the click of a "search" button, and in countless other places. It is a transformative moment in the history of our education system.

So how do we teach students these critical skills ? When they conduct online research, most students heavily on major search engines, and review only the first few results. Students sense that some results are better than others, struggle to distinguish effectively, and worry about wasting time on the wrong one. So they put their faith in the search engine, hoping it has somehow placed the best results are the top.

This is not something that can be overcome in a 30-minute tutorial. Just as students develop writing skills by reading hundreds of great books, they learn to recognize a credible Web site by using hundreds of them, and learning from the experience. Teachers and librarians should refer students to the best Web resources, and let students devote most of their energies to distilling it and communicating the information they find.

With that in mind, our first product, findingDulcinea, directs users to credible and comprehensive information online about thousands of subjects. It is accessed through both an internal search function and by rooting through the category-driven tree-structure. After we spent 75,000 hours over 18 months creating it, we realized all this information we had amassed could be accessed in a manner that was more consistent with established user behavior.

And thus was born SweetSearch, a custom search engine that is derived from our work on findingDulcinea. SweetSearch only searches 35,000 Web sites that have been evaluated by our staff. It does not include results from the unreliable sites that often rank high in other search engines and waste students’ time. You know those hundreds of bookmarks you have to lists of great sites selected by teachers, librarians and subject-matter experts ? Think of SweetSearch as a giant, searchable repository of all of them.

This curated pool of Web sites allows students to choose, from a list of credible results, which ones are most relevant to their research, rather than spend much of their time deciding which sites are worth their consideration.

We launced SweetSearch in February of this year and have been improving it ever since. We've been gratified to see usership grow dramatically in recent weeks. Most encouraging has been the fact that every day, we see more school librarians linking to SweetSearch from the school library Web site. Some examples can be found here and here.

We invite the educational community to help us curate SweetSearch; please send any suggested additions or deletions to

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Gallop for the Great Grete Waitz

I had an "I'll never wash this hand again" moment today. I didn't merely touch greatness, I high-fived it, wrapped my fingers around its fingers and stared into its eyes. As I crossed the starting line of "Grete's Great Gallop," a half marathon today in Central Park, enthusiastically greeting and high-fiving as many runners as possible. was the Great Grete Waitz. Yes, the word "Great" is misplaced in the title of the race. Wayne Gretzky is called "the Great One" because he annihilated the hockey record books. Similarly, the Great Waitz laid waste to world records in women's marathoning in the 1970s, and to the notion that women could not compete among the top men in the marathon.

In 1978, Fred Lebow, founder of the New York City Marathon, invited Waitz to participate as a "rabbit", pacing the top runners and dropping out. But fate had other plans. After setting the early pace, Waitz decided to complete the entire 26.2 miles. Despite not having done any training runs beyond 12 miles, she won the race and set a women’s world record of 2:32:30.

The following year, Sports Illustrated's cover story was about an epic duel in the men's New York Marathon; it noted that, shortly after the men finished "all of them were near the finish line, and Rodgers, at least, was cheering when Grete Waitz, the Norwegian schoolteacher who insists she has always been, is now and ever will be a track runner, not a marathoner, crossed the finish line in 2:27:33, almost five minutes faster than the world record she set last year in New York, and 11 minutes faster than any other woman in the race."

SI reported that Rodgers said admiringly, "She's pretty outrageous. I saw her come across the line, and, well, she's inspirational." SI also noted that, the prior year, nobody, including the announcer at the finish line, knew who she was, but that "this year she spent hours signing autographs wherever she went."

At the starting line today, they rattled off a list of Waitz' accomplishments, including her winning the New York City Marathon an unprecedented nine times and a litany of other records.

What can get lost in her long list of stunning accomplishments are two particular points worth noting:

Over the course of 7 years, Waitz lowered the women’s marathon world record by more than 9 minutes. In the 25 ensuing years, despite great advancements in training methods, nutrition, etc., today's women have managed to lower Waitz' record by only 3 minutes.

And most importantly of all was Waitz' influence on all the women who followed her. In 1979, she was the only woman to finish in the top 100 overall in the New York City Marathon, and the notion that a woman could do such a thing was staggering. In the 2008 New York City Marathon, 12 women finished in the top 100 finishers.

In the spring of 2005, Waitz began battling cancer. Throughout her treatment and recovery, she has been a tireless promoter for many charities, particularly around children's health, and of course a great ambassador for the sport of running. It was because of the latter role that I will never wash my right hand again.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Teaching Kids Web Research Skills

Dulcinea Media has a lot of ambitions for a little company. And we madly pursue them all at once. And thus we take great pride that all of our initiatives have gelled together in a single endeavor: findingEducation's On This Day Challenge.

Our mission is driven by the fact that most people cannot find online, evaluate, and put to use the critical information they need in their daily lives. This is true even of students, who facilely use the Web for social purposes, but can’t effectively research online. They rely heavily on major search engines, and review only the first few results. They can’t discriminate between a credible resource and a suspect one, can’t locate primary sources and, above all, don’t know how to digest what they’ve learned and communicate it to others.

Our company mission is to help educators change it.

In furtherance of our mission, our first product was findingDulcinea, a content Web site that helps users find credible and comprehensive information online about thousands of subjects. Its most popular feature is "On This Day," which each day details an important event in history, including the preamble and the denouement. In November 2008, I explained the genesis of our On This Day.

The second site we launched was EncontrandoDulcinea, a Spanish language sister site that offers much of the content on findingDulcinea, translated into Spanish. Its traffic has begun to boom in large part due to the popularity of the On This Day feature in Spanish.

The third site we launched was SweetSearch, a custom search engine that is derived from our tens of thousands of hours of work on findingDulcinea. SweetSearch only searches 35,000 Web sites that have been evaluated by our staff. It eliminates results from the junky sites that rank high in other search engines and waste students’ time.

Earlier this month, we introduced findingEducation, a free tool that serves as a meeting place for educators to share insight and outstanding links, assignments and lesson plans with each other and their students. We have seeded the links library with hundreds of links contributed by the teachers and librarians who created findingDulcinea's Web Guides on education topics, and SweetSearch is available to help find other high quality links. Our hope is that teachers from all over the world come to view findingEducation as their community site, one whose continued development they largely direct.

And the endeavor that arises from all of our years of hard work on each of this products is findingEducation's On This Day Challenge. Through this Challenge, students, working individually or in teams, will learn to find and evaluate quality Web sites for online history research, learn how to organize and write a research article about historical events, and gain an appreciation of how historical events have shaped the world.

Drawing on the plethora of material on findingDulcinea, we provide extensive guidance to teachers and students on how to find and evaluate Web resources and organize them into an article about an important historical event. SweetSearch can be used to search all of these resources at once. All articles in the Challenge will be published to the teacher's public page on findingEducation, and a broad range of impressive entries will be highlighted in our newsletter and on findingDulcinea.

The number of early sign-ups to the Challenge has been gratifying, and we eagerly look forward to sharing reports about its progress throughout the school year. We believe that, for students who participate in the Challenge will learn critical life skills of finding online, evaluating, organizing, using and communicating information.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

May their love give us love

Last year, I wrote about how, when I think of 9/11, I choose to remember the love.

The love shown by thousands of rescue workers and ordinary citizens, in NYC, Washington, D.C. and on Flight 93, when they knowingly put their lives at grave risk so that others may live. The love expressed by the many victims who lived for a desperate hour or more after their fate was sealed, and used the last precious minutes of their lives to call loved ones; all that mattered at the end of their lives was the love they created along the way. The loved expressed by victims’ family members, many of whom spent weeks desperately hoping that their loved ones had somehow miraculously been spared. And the love that I witnessed when I emerged from my office building in midtown Manhattan in early afternoon, and indeed throughout America and much of the rest of the world, for months afterward.

And so tomorrow, I will once again think about the manner in which so many people responded to the certain end of their lives by calling their loved ones. Though I hopefully won’t be imperiled myself, I will call or email many of my loved ones that I have been meaning to get back in touch with, and with that small gesture let them know how I feel about them.

I will also recall my Aunt Eileen’s comment to my post about how the heroes of 9/11 and the ensuing months (and indeed years) saved us “from having that day be remembered as one of being simply victims, totally demoralized…. and turned the story into one of great pride in our values as a country and in the bravery and devotion to duty that our people can show.” And I will beam with pride about our values as a country, and how brave and devoted to duty our people can be.

And recalling the timeless words of firefighter Mike Moran, who in October 2001 declared that his brother and his many close friends and crewmates who perished “are not gone, because they are not forgotten,” I will recall all of those ordinary people who lovingly did remarkable things that day so that others may live.

May their love give us love.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tips for Enjoying Saratoga Race Course

Tomorrow is my favorite day of the year – it’s when track announcer Tom Durkin and the entire crowd at Saratoga Race Course join together to announce “And they’re off at Saratoga” as, for the 141st time, the horses spring from the gate for the first race of the meet, which runs 36 days through Labor Day.

The mere fact that you’re reading this means I probably don’t have to explain to you why so many horse racing fans of all stripes consider the Saratoga race meet to be heaven on earth. So instead the focus of this blog post is to provide some tips on how best to enjoy it, from someone who has visited Saratoga every summer for 34 years.

Where to Stay

For many, the only place to consider staying is in the city of Saratoga, and there are many fine, though expensive, choices there. For those willing to drive a little bit to and from the track each day to save $100 or more per night on a room, you will find outstanding, moderately priced lodging at each of the Hampton Inn at Clifton Park (10 miles south), the Century House in Latham (15 miles south) and the Desmond, (north of Albany, about 20 miles south of the track).

The Crowds

Some people love big crowds and packed restaurants; others prefer to attend when things are more staid. While Saratoga is never really quiet during the racing season, the town and racetrack are most crowded on Opening Day (July 29), and during the ten days preceding and including Travers weekend (August 19 to 30). The quietest weekends are the first one (August 1 & 2) and Labor Day (Sept 5 to 7).


Saratoga is famous for its picnic tables in the backyard, which offer a terrific view of the horses entering and circling the paddock where they are saddled. However, it is a long walk to the track to see the horses race. Arrive very early and stake out a spot on the picnic tables at the top of the stretch, where you watch the horses duel at the most critical juncture of the race.


You can buy general admission to the grandstand or Clubhouse at the gate. If you want reserved seats, they go on sale at 8 a.m. at the booth at Gate A on Union Avenue. But to get the best reserved seats, buy them on eBay, where they are usually available at a reasonable mark-up.

Parking at the Track

Savvy baseball fans park near the exit to the stadium lot, so they are first out after the game. So it is with Saratoga, where on a crowded day, a five-minute walk will save you 25 minutes of fighting traffic afterwards, and a few dollars as well. Many of the homes near Nelson Avenue let you park on their lawns for $5 - $15; the closer to the track, the more it costs, and the longer it takes to escape. If you are driving to Saratoga from the south, take exit 13N from the Northway (Rte 87) rather than Exit 14, and take a right on Crescent Avenue up to Nelson.

Breakfast / Backstretch Tour

What they say about this is really true – for the novice racing fan, there is no better way to experience Saratoga than eating breakfast at the rail and watching the morning workouts, and taking a tram tour of the backstretch.


Saratoga’s main street, Broadway, is bustling most nights of the week during the racing meet, and has dozens of fine restaurants and lively nightlife establishments, with something to suit everyone’s taste, and always a slew of new openings each season.

The Starting Gate Sports Bar, the Ole Bryan Inn and the Parting Glass are three of my favorites.

Must Visits

On every visit, I drive ten miles out of town on Route 29, in Greenwich, NY, you’ll find The Hand Melon Farm, which grows and sells the best cantaloupe melon you will ever find. It also sells other fruits and vegetables grown on the property. A short distance further up the road, you’ll find The Ice Cream Man, which sells outrageously good ice cream made in the shop.

Saratoga State Park is stunningly beautiful with its tall pine trees, and offers a great place for running, walking or biking.

The Saratoga Performing Arts Center offers an eclectic calendar of artists, including Bruce Springsteen on August 25. Spots on the lawn offer a decent view at a bargain price of $41 for the rock concerts.

To see how the other half lives, be sure to drive by the mansions on Broadway, out past Route 29/50.

Web Links

Visit the official Web sites for Saratoga, as well as for the local newspapers, in advance to get a sense of the local flavor.

The Saratoga Chamber of Commerce has info on where to eat & stay and what to do.

Saratoga Race Course is operated by the New York Racing Association; visit its official Web site.

The Saratoga Special is a terrific, free publication available ubiquitously in town, and also available online for (free) registered users.

The Albany Times Union offers some of the best coverage of all aspects of racing at Saratoga. Here are links to its blogs about the Racing, the town from the perspective of shop and restaurant owners, and a newsy blog about goings on in town.

The Saratogian is the local newspaper.

My favorite Web site is Equidaily, which offers a great roundup of horse racing coverage and advice about Saratoga.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Well Blog Fail: One PB&J Doesn't Fit All

The New York Times Well Blog recently hosted a conversation with a fitness guru about eating before a run.

Anyone who read this, and who has read my “Ten Tips for First-Time Marathoners” should have immediately thought, “uh-oh.”

Leslie Bonci, the sports nutritionist consulted by the Times, gives some good advice. As my Tip #9 says, you should think of food “as part of your equipment,” or to put it another way, as fuel that powers your body. But as to her detailed advice on exactly what, and when, to eat…

Re-read Tip #1 (this time in caps): BEWARE OF ONE SIZE FITS ALL ADVICE.

Bonci instructs Times readers to eat “a peanut butter and jelly wrap cut into little pieces” an hour before exercise. That might work well for Bonci, but I recently ran the Fairfield Half Marathon three hours after eating a peanut butter sandwich. Suffice to say that I was repeatedly reminded of what I ate for breakfast as I plowed through the hills of Fairfield. And visited a porta-potty for the first time ever during a race. Three times. And struggled to breathe up the steep hills because of gooey peanut butter lining... you get the point.

The comments section of the Bonci post particularly concerns me – and proves my point. Commenter Sharon writes, “Wow, I do everything wrong!” and then describes a routine that doesn’t fit Bonci’s advice. But it may well work for Sharon, and now she’s going to change her routine to what works for Bonci. Amazingly, Well Blog editor Tara Parker-Pope replies, “You’re not alone… I’m doing everything wrong too!” So, the writer of Well Blog and the bulk of its readers, have suddenly discovered they’re “doing everything wrong” after years of successful exercise, because they don’t do everything exactly like Bonci does? Well Blog Fail.

Everyone is different. You need to trust your own body and experience, not the word of experts. A few years ago, a fitness guru sent me and 600 other first-time marathoners an email saying that stretching is all but unnecessary for long distance runners. This may be true for him, but if I don’t stretch for two days, I can’t even walk without intense pain, and I stretch for hours in the 24 hours leading up to a race.

To take another example, once I was advising two small-framed women on their first marathon, I asked an experienced small-framed woman marathoner to give them advice on hydration. Why? Because I perspire heavily and weigh 200 lbs., and so I consume 1.5 gallons of fluid during a marathon, as repeated experience has told me this is the right amount for me. If these women followed my routine, they might drown, and I can't begin to guess what amount of fluid was proper for them.

I have some recommendations on eating for a race – I eat continuously the night before, and snack lightly on granola bars and orange slices as I run – but you need to test out different strategies when you train. You’re the only expert on your own body.

 If your body chokes up when you chew granola, or orange slices, or peanut butter, ditch them and try something else, and when you find what works, stick with it, no matter what I, Ms. Bonci, or the Well Blog may say.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Assassins and their Fatal Fictions

FindingDulcinea's "On This Day" for July 2 contains several fascinating, little-known facts about the assassination of President Garfield. One that struck me was the defense asserted by assassin Charles Guiteau at his trial: “Some of these days instead of saying ‘Guiteau the assassin’, they will say ‘Guiteau the patriot.’”

Guiteau believed that the murder was an act in the public interest. This belief is hardly exceptional as assassins go. Self-delusion of a noble, heroic purpose is a common thread connecting murderous lone actors of history.

What convinces an assassin that he’s a national hero? How does one man, out of so many millions who might share similar political beliefs and passions, conclude that it is his destiny to commit murder for the greater good?

Guiteau defended his action as “a political necessity,” and was so confident of general approbation that he instructed General William Tecumseh Sherman, “I am going to the Jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the Jail at once.”

A prior findingDulcinea “On This Day” about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln reveals a similar theme, as John Wilkes Booth was shocked at the public’s grief and failure to applaud the murder. His letters provide disturbing insight into his motivations, such as this excerpt printed by the New York Times: “When a country like this spurns justice from her side, She forfeits the allegiance of every honest freeman, and should leave him untrammeled by any fealty soever, to act, as his conscience may approve.”

The recent assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller once again echoed this same sad, deluded tale. Although many tried to link the murder to the heated rhetoric of our cable news culture, only one man translated this passion into violence.

FindingDulcinea Senior Writer Shannon Firth analyzed Tiller's murder and explored the motives of assassins, detailing the three types categorized by author Kris Hollington. There are “wolves,” who seek notoriety, “jackals,” who are hired hands, and finally “foxes,” who are “novices hoping to make a political statement.”

According to Hollington, these foxes are intensely passionate, but are also “ordinary, unremarkable people, often failures: the antithesis of the men and women they try to kill.” Although they justify their actions in political and often religious language, “it’s all within the troubled mind of the lone individual… almost a movie in their mind.”

Do their personal failures, then, prod them towards an alternate reality, in which they can play the film-star heroes? John Hinckley, Jr., possibly inspired by the movie Taxi Driver, believed that by shooting Ronald Reagan he could win the love of actress Jodie Foster. He later explained himself, according to PBS, with this rumination on fiction: “The line dividing life and art can be invisible. After seeing enough hypnotizing movies and reading enough magical books, a fantasy life develops which can either be harmless or quite dangerous.”

I suppose heroism, and even history, is always something of a fiction, a combination of reality and the myths built around it. But I can’t stop wondering what it takes to push an individual into a myth so fatal, so extreme, and so disconnected from the society he believes he is saving.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Parenting, Not Lecturing

Reading findingDulcinea’s recent article on what parents should know about teen dating reminded me of Otto Frank's remarks when he first read his daughter Anne Frank’s diary in the 1960s:

“For me, it was a revelation. There, was revealed a completely different Anne to the child that I had lost. I had no idea of the depths of her thoughts and feelings.”

Isn't this what every father reading his daughter's diary would think?

So, short of reading a diary, how do fathers (and mothers) learn the depths of their children’s thoughts and feelings? And how can parents use this knowledge to safely steer their teenagers past the risks that confront today’s teens?

I don’t want to set myself up as a parenting guru, out of fear that my Internet-savvy daughters will post a counterpoint in the comment section. But that findingDulcinea article confirmed many of the strategies and insights I’ve stumbled upon while raising kids.

First off, I’ve found that an “open dialogue” is, as the article says, essential. Don’t do all the talking. Or even most of it. Ask questions – their answers might surprise you. More importantly, behave as if there is no "right" answer, and no repercussions for the "wrong" answer. Listen to and reflect on their responses, and then act on them.

Heatedly lecturing them about drugs or sex, for example, is often counter-productive. Before you try to scare them, ask about the landscape they encounter and how they feel about it. For all you know, your kid may be struggling not with drugs or alcohol, but with fitting in as someone who doesn’t use them. In that case, she’d need support, coping strategies, and a sympathetic ear more than a threatening harangue.

And, having felt invincible myself at age 16, I always attributed reckless teen behavior to illusions of invulnerability, but a recent study found the opposite can be true. A shocking number of teens simply don't care about their safety because they believe they will die by age 35. Imagine shouting at an irresponsible teen that she wasn't invincible, only to discover that her recklessness stemmed from hopeless fatalism. Ask about the problem before you try to solve it.

Another way to build trust with your teen is through “ground rules” – for both child and parent. Your kids should understand what you consider unacceptable behavior, but should also feel they can come to you when there’s a real problem. Everyone makes mistakes, and your son or daughter is not only a human being, but one still very much developing. Who survives adolescence without a crisis or three? And when that crisis comes, they need to turn to you, without worrying about the repercussions, or else you may only found out about the crisis from someone else, and when it’s too late to do much about it.

For instance, if they’re stranded somewhere drunk or high or just in a troubling situation, it’s more important that they get home safely than that they get grounded for a month. Let them know that they can call you with immunity. The very act of picking up the phone to ask for help is an admission of wrongdoing, and, for their safety, you need to accept it as their apology.

That said, they should still take such situations seriously. If they’re calling you for help often, then there’s a bigger problem to address, and one that requires both vigilance and consequences. Some parents even make contracts with their teens, so that each party acknowledges its own responsibilities.

I don’t have all of the answers, and neither do you. But, as another article stresses, a strong family support system can make the difference between a healthy and a troubled teen. That support system can only be built through great communication with your kids. Your role is not simply to impart wisdom learned from "when you were a kid." Things change, teens change, and things likely never were the way you remember them anyway.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Casual Marathon: It's Relay for Life Season

You’ve read about my running, but you may not know that my passion for marathons was born in a tent on my local high school football field. Long before the Boston Marathon, I walked/ran the Relay for Life, and currently teams across the country are running and preparing to run in support of the American Cancer Society.

I love the challenge and rigor of a full-fledged marathon, but I know how daunting it can be. The Relay for Life is the perfect first step for people looking for the community and exhilaration of running for charity, but not prepared to abandon their hot chocolate by the fireplace for a grueling regime of winter training.

The 24-hour event requires no experience, and participants only have to keep one team member circling the track at all times. The rest of the team can cheer the others on or, of course, recharge in tents with vital doses of sugar and caffeine. The money raised supports cancer research and awareness, while the experience itself promotes community for cancer survivors and their supporters.

I can’t promise, though, that you’ll be able to stop there; as I’ve written before, marathon fever is surprisingly contagious. After the Relay for Life, I – along with five other findingDulcinea staffers – ran an incredible twelve-person, 181-mile, 26-hour Ragnar Relay. This amazing event may seem, well, miles beyond the Relay for Life, but it also welcomes novices and offers training programs for the beginner and the experienced runner alike. Take a look at their website, and, if you still need inspiration, read our reasons to run.

You can find your local Relay for Life here, along with other ways to get involved on the event’s main website. And just in case, you may want to check out our Web Guide to Running. Who knows? Maybe next year the Boston Marathon won’t seem quite so far-fetched.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ten Tips for First-Time Marathoners, from a Former Fat Guy

Most marathon advice is given by tall, thin people who run 3,000 miles per year. It sounds great in theory, but can be unrealistic for mere mortals to follow. I do not fit the prototype of a marathon runner. When I began training for my 1st marathon in 2004, I was significantly overweight, and even on race day, I was 30 pounds overweight, walked a lot, and struggled on severely cramping legs to barely finish, in 5:12. The next 2 marathons were similar - started training way overweight, was too heavy even on race day, and improved modestly each time. Last year, I again started training way too heavy, but this time I lost 31 pounds for my November race, improved by 36 minutes, and have since trained steadily, losing more weight and nearly breaking 4 hours in the Boston Marathon in April. I’m still a normal person, leading a normal life with a normal diet, but I’ve figured out how to do so and yet compete successfully in marathons. And how to guide others through the process as well - I now count 15 people, including three brothers, who have successfully completed their first marathon with my encouragement and advice. If you’ve ever thought about running a marathon, but don’t want to trade your social life and family time for an austerity diet of bird food and daily three-hour runs, I have the top ten tips to get you safely across the finish line.

1. Beware of One Size Fits All Advice

The universe of people training for their first marathon includes men and women, teens and seniors, gymnasts and linebackers, athletes and couch potatoes. Beware the gurus who think they have The One Approach to training for a marathon that will work for all. And what worked for your friend may not work for you. Always test advice, even the advice found in our Web Guide to Running, and adjust it to fit your body and circumstances.

2. Create a Detailed and Realistic Plan

You won’t become a marathon runner overnight. I’ve covered before the difficulty of keeping resolutions, and a plan, created with reasonable expectations in mind, is essential to staying on track. Writing down incremental goals and planning how you will gradually intensify your training will help keep you going. Each tick-off of the check list will be one further encouragement to conquer the next un-ticked goal. Besides, it’s easier to rationalize laziness in your head than to make excuses to a piece of paper.

3. Include Cross-Training in that Detailed Plan

I owe one of my biggest running breakthroughs to a pair of boxing gloves. As I’ve mentioned before, an early-morning boxing boot camp revolutionized my marathon training, and helped me knock off 31 pounds and 36 minutes. Varying your exercise routine can improve your overall fitness and flexibility, while giving your running muscles a break. And, in addition to strengthening different muscle groups and reducing the risk of injury, the image of you in boxing gloves should do wonders for your reputation. For more, see findingDulcinea’s article on cross-training.

4. Make Training an Integral Part of Your Life

A marathon is not a throwaway task, done after the dishes are washed and the kids are asleep – and the training for it can’t be treated that way either. You don’t have to make running your life, but you should make it a habit, an essential part of your daily routine. My life is busy, even chaotic, and I would never get in shape if I only exercised when everything else was done. You sleep, you eat breakfast, you go to meetings, you shower… and you run. Don’t accept excuses to skip your run; does a bad day at the office excuse you from brushing your teeth?

5. Find Training Buddies

From Don Quixote to the Wizard of Oz to the Lord of the Rings, any classic quest film will tell you that all great journeys require companions. Although my friends are fully equipped with hearts, brains, and courage, they see me to finish line after finish line as surely as Dorothy’s friends escorted her to the end of the Yellow Brick Road. I’ve written before and I’ll say it again: running partners are essential. Friendly competition with co-workers at my previous company first coaxed me back into the running habit. One findingDulcinea writer first encouraged me to try boxing and kept me going back, and another kept me, quite literally, on my toes during my weekly long runs. And as proud as I was when my brothers called me to announce better and better training times – after I had personally lured them into the contagious running craze – I could not help becoming competitive with them. Without sharing our accomplishments, we would never have achieved them.

6. You Will Be Frustrated, Then Astounded, by Your Progress

The first part of your training will be discouraging. When you first push yourself to run further than you have before, your body will push back, and it won't get much easier for several months. You'll doubt that you’ll be able to complete your long runs, never mind the race itself. And then, about 8-10 weeks before the race, the clouds will part, the sun will glint off of your newly-sculpted legs, and you will experience that breakthrough moment. You’ll suddenly improve in leaps and bounds each week, until finally you start saying silly things like "I never knew 15 miles could seem so easy."

7. And Once Astounded, Contentment is Thy Enemy

Sure, smug self-satisfaction feels good – even deserved – when you’ve lost that first 10 pounds or improved your time by half an hour. Perhaps, you complacently think, you can skip this week’s training for some TV, or replace your run at the gym with a late-night run to Ben & Jerry’s. Sorry, but no. As I’ve told you before, now is exactly when you have to work harder. Whenever I begin to feel that creeping sense of contentment, I double my efforts, knowing that I’ll only slide backward if I don’t run forward. If it feels this good to shave off that first 10 pounds or 30 minutes, think how great it will be to lose the next 10 pounds – and how disappointing it would be to gain it all back.

8. Don’t Let Small Setbacks Cause Total Failure

You’re human. Over 18 weeks, you WILL bend. Don’t break. You will have three consecutive days where you are busy, hurt and tired and not run. The difference between success and failure here will be determined by whether you let these three days became ten. Draw a line in the sand and, after a few days back on your plan, it will be as though you never missed any training at all.

9. No Running on Empty

Nutrition is as important to successful running as training. Food is fuel, and you must approach it that way: when you’re eyeing that chili hot dog for lunch, remember that it won’t provide the energy you’ll need at mile 15. And empty calories will be excess baggage on your journey.
And you may not realize this on your 10-mile practice runs, but you also have to eat real food during the marathon. As I learned at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, water and Gatorade alone won’t cut it in a 26-mile race. Ignore how foul “carbohydrate gel” sounds and learn to love them for long runs and the race. My personal favorite is the Hammer gel. And during the marathon, you’ll need to eat real food as well; granola bars and orange slices work for me. Don’t just accept my suggestions, though – you might do better with peanut butter packets, nuts, fruit, or a bagel. Test them out on your training runs, and find the food that best fuels you. Rather than wolfing down whatever snack you choose, eat it in small doses continually. Break up a granola bar into seven pieces and make it last seven miles. And eat continuously the night before the marathon, too, since you can’t wake up to a big breakfast. The night before I ran Philly, I did not stop eating; I was curled up like a rabbit with a granola bar for a carrot, trailing crumbs all over the pillow until I fell asleep. The next day, I felt fully energized, and beat my best time by 35 minutes.

10. Invite Your Cheerleaders

Cheerleaders provide more than just distraction during half-time, as you’ll learn when you become the athlete and your friends and family band together as your cheerleading squad. Even if you can’t coerce your friends into training with you, their support, encouragement, and even high expectations can spur you on to faster miles. As I’ve written before, my late brother James has been a constant inspiration, and when you hit mile 12, nothing can provide an extra burst of energy like the sight of your excited, cheering family. A support network is essential to a successful marathon.

For further tips, inspiration, videos, and interactive tools, see the findingDulcinea feature Training for Your First Marathon.

Five Seconds That Were Just Packed

I caught a late train into the city today. Penn Station was quiet as I got on the short escalator to exit the track area. Just in front of me, several commuters balked at the bottom of the escalator and stepped quickly to the side. I pushed ahead of them and saw that a man in his 60s had fallen backwards and was laying on his back on the escalator steps, and sliding down and bumping his head, with his wife two steps up, shrieking. I had actually encountered a similar situation a few years ago, when a woman tourist had fallen back over her luggage, and thought that, as I did back then, I would pull his shoulders up and forward and he'd get his legs under him and stand. I knelt down and put my arms under his shoulder blades to assist him up. Suddenly his eyes rolled back in his head, and he went fully limp in my arms. I thought he had just died. His wife was shouting for help while I was shouting at her to run up and hit the emergency off switch, but thinking it may not matter. Believing that I had two seconds to save a corpse from desecration, I broke every back safety rule for lifting, uhh, dead weight, pulled him nearly upright, and prayed I could somehow get his feet off the ground as they passed the exit step. As we were a step from the top, the escalator stopped abruptly, and my shoulder bumped into his head, jarring him awake. The now risen man walked off the escalator, as I supported him until I could prop him against a wall. A railroad worker came up the escalator with my bag, followed by four cops who grabbed onto the no-longer-recently-departed. I picked up my bag and walked to the office, with a seriously strained lower back and fervently hoping that these would be the most excitement-packed five seconds of the day.

Monday, May 4, 2009

10 Takeways from the Kentucky Derby

1. The Kentucky Derby is the only major sporting event regularly won by the common man

Sometimes Kentucky Derby trophies are handed to wealthy breeders such as Paul Mellon and Frances Genter, who are justly rewarded for decades spent improving the breed. And on rare occasion they go to a wealthy newcomer who pays millions for a horse like Fusaichi Pegaus. And yet deliciously often, the Kentucky Derby is won by a horse that was purchased for a pittance, such as Seattle Slew, Real Quiet, Funny Cide and now Mine that Bird, who was originally bought for $9,500. The “dollar and a dream” fantasy is very much alive at the Kentucky Derby.

2. Pace Makes the Race

The early pace in the Derby was insanely fast, considering the track condition. With a half-mile to go, Mine That Bird was still more than three seconds behind the leg-weary leaders. While it looked as though he accelerated down the stretch, he merely ran an even pace all the way around, and the other contenders were staggering in the home stretch.

3. There is only one Bo-rail

From the very first race on the Derby card, horses that ran along the rail pulled away at the end of the race, while those who swept wide into the stretch faded. Riding the rail is always the shortest way around, but on Saturday, it took on added advantage, as the ground was clearly firmer near the rail than in the middle of the track. ESPN analyst and former jockey Jerry Bailey noted it several times. This left many fans wondering why every jockey didn’t emulate Calvin Borel’s rail-skimming ride aboard Mine That Bird. But such a ride takes patience and courage, and Borel reported that his small horse barely fit through some of the holes, and indeed scraped the rail at least twice. It was as remarkable a ride as you will ever see, and if they ran the same race tomorrow, few other riders would have the moxie to do what Borel did.

4. Sealing a racetrack yields inconsistent performances.

Since horse began racing on dirt, horse bettors have had to try to divine which horse would run well when rain turned the track muddy. But in the past 20 years, when a track is soaked and more rain is called for, many track superintendents “seal” the track – in effect, steamroll it and pack it tightly so that further rain will not seep in. Then, as the big race nears, the track is harrowed. Supporters of sealing believe it creates a more even and safer surface, a noble goal. But few doubt the proposition that even some horses who do well in the mud may flounder on a sealed racetrack. Friesan Fire and Dunkirk are just two horses that ran inexplicably poorly on Saturday’s surface.

5. Experience does matter

Many purists have shuddered in recent years as the Derby was won several times by horses who defied convention, whether by having fewer lifetime races or more rest than previous winners. But Mine That Bird had run 8 times before the Derby, starting his career in July of last year, and most of the horses who finished in the top half of the field fit the same profile. Meanwhile, favorite Friesan Fire finished next to last off his 7 weeks of rest, and second choice Dunkirk also finished well back in his 4th lifetime start.

6. With many trainers, it is still the case that a horse will show improvement in his 3rd start off a lay-off

This maxim has long been true, but has lost some of its currency in recent years. Nowadays, many trainers have their horses fully primed for every race, because they race them only a handful of times per year. But with throwback trainers like Chip Woolley who actually still believe in letting a horse race himself into shape, there is no better time to bet on their horses than the third race back off a layoff, which is where Mine That Bird was on Saturday.

7. Mine That Bird Ran an Extraordinary Race.

While many pundits will forever speculate why some horse ran poorly on Saturday, the fact is that the final time for the race was excellent, given the muddy track. While comparisons from one race to another are difficult to make, Mine the Bird ran much faster than Smarty Jones, Go for Gin, and Sunday Silence did when they won the Derby on a wet track. And few questioned whether any of them were worthy of the title of Derby champion.

8. Horses who jump up from obscurity don’t always go back there.

Derby upsetters like Giacomo, Lil E. Tee and Gato Del Sol enjoyed little, if any, glory after their two minutes of Derby fame. But Canonero II, Derby champ of 1971, perhaps the most obscure Derby winner of all, next won the Preakness Stakes. While he then finished 4th in the Belmont Stakes and lost his first 7 races the following year, he validated his brilliance when he defeated three-year old champion Riva Ridge in the Stymie Handicap at Aqueduct racetrack, setting a track record in the process. I think there are more big wins in Mine That Bird’s future.

9. There is a huge carryover into Churchill’s Wednesday card on both the Pick Six and the Super High Five.

More than $100 million was bet on Saturday’s racecard. Mine that Bird’s shocking upset meant that no one picked the winners of 6 races in a row, nor the top 5 Derby finishers. More than $1 million carries over and will be paid out to people who hit these bets on Wednesday. And so many of the veteran handicappers who at 6:30 on Saturday night swore they will never bet again are today buying a Racing Form for Wednesday. And that is because.......

10. There is no breed of human being more indomitable than a horseplayer.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Why Heads Must Roll Over Monday's "Photo Op" Over Lower Manhattan

On Monday morning, residents and office workers in lower Manhattan and Jersey City got quite a shock. What appeared to be a large commercial jet was flying very low over the Statute of Liberty, and then circling close over the Goldman Sachs Tower in Jersey City. Close in pursuit was a military jet. Millions watched in horror, anticipating the third terrorist attack on lower Manhattan in 16 years.

Fortunately, it was merely a "photo opportunity" - Air Force One flying over the Statue of Liberty to create mementos for President Obama to give to guests.

While some authorities in NY and NJ were given advance notice of this photo op, they were also told to keep it close to the vest, as the mission was "classified." Only local authorities with a "need to know" were to be told. Apparently Mayor Bloomberg did not make the cut.

Why was this mission "classified" ? The mission was not military in nature; it was a purely political stunt. And therein lies the answer. What was the sensitive information that needed to be kept from public scrutiny ? The fact that the Obama administration had authorized a mission at great expense to taxpayers and the environment for a "photo op."

Just last week President Obama ceremoniously demanded that his cabinet cut $100 million per year in expense, and of course has generated a lot of goodwill with his environmental policies. Now it is headline news that his administration sent out a 747 and a fighter jet from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to circle around New York City to make gift cards. And I bet they didn't even purchase carbon offsets. The "Top Secret" classification is suddenly quite understandable.

And of course the colossal waste of taxpayer money and the harm to environment pale in comparison to the great damage done to the psyches of those who witnessed it. How did anyone imagine they might react ?

The New York Daily News reported the reactions of two people in lower Manhattan that explains it better than I ever could:

"I was crying and praying to God to forgive me my sins because I thought I was going to get killed," said Kathleen Filandro, who fled from 1 New York Plaza when she spotted the planes.

"It's like someone coming up to you, sticking a gun to your head for 15 seconds, walking away and hearing 20 minutes later it was an undercover cop posing for a photo," said Wall Street worker Bill Privett.

For many, it was like having a gun to your head for 30 minutes, 8 years after you had another gun to your head for several hours, while you watched 3,000 people get shot in the head.

The entire incident shows a stunning lack of judgment that cannot be dismissed. Has no one in the White House been introduced to the concept of writing a list of pros and cons and weighing them before approving an action? Or, as one wry commenter put it, haven't these guys heard of photoshop?

Last year, I wrote a post about missteps by Facebook (which continue to this day), where I quoted an essay by Judge Joseph McLaughlin, of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and former Dean of Fordham Law School. He wrote that he long ago learned that "the world pays off on judgment - not brilliance, knowledge, and not experience or compassion either, though a fair portion of all of these is essential to the exercise of good judgment."

In a single, precise word, Judge McLaughlin had captured why many brilliant people fail; they have bad judgment. I vowed to use this word to focus my thinking in all future critical situations. This vow was cemented a few days later when I read a WSJ article about the sacking of a CEO of Coca Cola; a board member discussed a situation that the CEO handled very poorly, and said that the Board help a CEO overcome a deficiency in skills, but what the CEO did showed bad judgment.

The decision to go ahead with today's photo op, and to limit advance disclosure of it, evinces a stunning display of poor judgment, and a reckless disregard for the people of New York and New Jersey. Anyone who participated in, and approved this decision, is beyond salvage and should be removed from the administration.

Fortunately, some good did come out of this incident. In light of the reaction to two planes buzzing New York yesterday, a planned mission to have two plans buzz Washington DC in two weeks has been canceled. Maybe there is some hope after all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Running the Boston Marathon: Days Like These Are a Great Gift

For someone who began running in the 1970s, the Boston Marathon is the pinnacle of sport. It has been run since 1897, and was the only marathon of consequence until the NYC Marathon came of age in the late 1970s. And so every runner dreams of running the Boston Marathon once. But the qualifying standards are high, and for most runners it remains but a dream. However, when the race began to offer spots for runners who raise money for designated charities, I jumped at the chance, joining the Habitat for Humanity team.

The weather was ideal, in the 40s and cloudy. As my brother Matt drove me to the start in Hopkinton, I was more full of anticipation than I have ever been for a race. I met up with my Habitat teammates, who are as fine a group of people as you will ever meet, and shared mutual encouragement and then went to the starting line.

I ran with Brett Holey, director of NBC Nightly News. He is a veteran marathoner who has run some remarkable times, but his training was slowed by injuries. He was thrilled to have recovered enough to run, and was merely looking to finish. We ran a 21 mile practice run together 3 weeks earlier, and I mentioned my hope of running under 4 hours, which would be 18 minutes better than my previous record and nearly an hour faster than my best NYC Marathon 18 months ago. At dinner the night before the race, Brett offered to be my "rabbit," keeping me on pace to break 4:00, regardless of the effect it would have on his race. You don't meet many people like Brett.

We started at the rear, and it was extremely crowded for 3 miles. We hoped to run 8:20 for these downhill miles, but ran closer to 9:20. Brett's "zen like state" calmed me, where if I were alone I may have fought the situation, burning a lot of energy for little gain. The road finally opened up, and we picked up the pace. As congestion eased further and our legs loosened, I felt like a bird who had escaped the cage, and we accelerated from miles 6 to 11. I was running faster than I imagined I would, but the miles went by easy, so much so that I missed some of the mile markers.

After mile 12, we began to hear the thunderous roar of the Wellesley College "scream tunnel." It reminded me of approaching Niagara Falls; it was stunning to hear how loud it was from so far away. We hit the half on target, at 1:54, and I began to think a 3:55 finish was assured. Brett said I should feel no obligation to stay with him, and at mile 16 I told him I was going to take the downhill hard, and he fell a little behind me (happily, I later learned he finished very well). I sailed past Mile 17 and up the 2nd biggest hill on the course. I got to the top in good shape, and my confidence soared. But as I hit the next two smaller hills, they took far more out of me than I had expected. I realized that in fifth marathon, I had begun to take it for granted and had not carefully thought through my food and fluid intake. Adding in my zeal to overcome the slow start, I had not hydrated enough, had eaten nothing, and had very suddenly become weak, nauseous, dizzy and was cramping badly in my left leg. And this was at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill ! I had hit The Wall before, but never so suddenly, where in a half mile stretch I went from thinking a 3:55 finish was assured to wondering if I could even finish the last 6.2 miles.

Realizing I had no other means of transport, I walked quickly up the hill, inhaling every orange slice, pretzel, gummy bear and cup of water offered by the angels of mercy in the crowd. This strengthened me some, and the task ahead seemed easier at the top of the hill than it had at the bottom. I realized I could still break 4:00 if I could maintain a 9:35 pace, and this seemed achievable, given that I had run faster than 9:00 for 18 miles in a row. I gave it all I had for the next mile, but ran it in 10:00; I pressed even harder to mile 23, but again hit the marker in 10:00. I realized the cramping in my left leg and the resultant lack of fluidity was slowing me measurably. I realized that even if I could maintain the 10:00 pace, I would finish in 4:02, which would cause me to spend months analyzing how I could have gone 2 minutes faster. So I went into "safe mode," running moderately from mile marker to mile marker and walking through the water stations. Around the 24.5 mile mark, I suddenly felt compelled to stop. I walked a few yards trying to figure out what was wrong and finally concluded, like Forrest Gump eventually did, that I simply didn't want to run any more. But I had 1.7 miles to go, and put one foot in front of the other and repeated, and staggered to the finish line. My time was 4:04:58, disappointing considering how great I felt at Mile 19. And yet it was 13 minutes faster than prior best last November, and a lot better than I feared as I stood weak, dizzy and nauseous at Mile 20.

And then they hung around my neck a blue and gold medal that signified I had completed the Boston Marathon, which I had been dreaming about for 30 years. I realized that days like these are a great gift that should be cherished, with no energy squandered on rethinking what went wrong and slowed you for a few minutes.

And a smile came across my face that hasn't left since.

Well, except for when I walk down stairs.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Twenty, twenty, twenty four hours to go to the Boston Marathon

And yes, I wanna be sedated, before I go loco. The last weeks before a marathon are maddening. After 4 months in heavy training; you downshift, rest 2x a week and cut workouts back in intensity and duration. This is my 5th marathon, so I understand why, and yet I fret that the inactivity will haunt me in the race, even though my experience says it won't. Part of the anxiety stems from the fact that heavy training puts you in a steady zen state, and as you cut back, you come down off a high. And I want to start the race NOW, prove to myself I'm still fit enough, and get back that high. I feel good about my training and am hopeful for a good race, perhaps breaking four hours. This won't put me on any "top 100 finishers" list but would be a feat for me. As I wrote earlier this year, I ran around 5 hours in my first three marathons between 2004-07, and then decided to get more serious about my training. I added a boxing class to my routine, lost a lot of weight, and improved 35 minutes in the Philadelphia Marathon last November. I have continued to lose weight, add muscle, and run faster during my training runs, and any meaningful further improvement will be enough for me. Surprisingly, after training for two marathons 5 months apart, I am not broken down at all - physically I feel great, and mentally I'm even better - I'm actually thinking as much about future races as tomorrow's, and I know I can continue to improve a lot from here. I've benefited from participating on a charity fundraising team for Habitat for Humanity, one of my favorite causes, for which we are raising funds to buy foreclosed homes, rehabilitate them, and sell them on an affordable basis to first time buyers, thereby turning around entire neighborhoods. Though most of my teammates are from the Boston area, we've been emailing each other for four months and I met about half of them during a 21-mile practice run on the course last month, and we've supported each other quite a bit. Having a support network like this is crucial to the success of any ambitious training program.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

FindingDulcinea's Redesign: Better than Facebook's

Facebook recently redesigned its homepage, and the results are overwhelming. ly. bad. In a poll, 94% of Facebook users preferred for the old homepage. Farhad Manjoo of Slate argues we'll learn to love it once we give it time, but I'm not of a mind to give it time, and many other users feel the same way. Heavy Internet users are adding new sites, tools and functionality to their repertoire every day. And Facebook friend requests I get from new members is skyrocketing. And each of these groups, when frustrated by a drastic, befuddling change that no one asked for (except Facebook executives envious of Twitter's growth), may be just as likely to largely abandon Facebook as they are to figure it all out again. At the very least, they'll react as my young niece did in this story: her family moved every year or two due to his career. Shortly after arriving in a new city, my brother tried to wake her for her first day of Kindergarten; she looked at him through sleepy eyes and said "naaah, I'll go to Kindergarten when we get to the next city." And that's how I feel about the new Facebook redesign; I'll figure out how to use the next one.

By contrast, the redesigned homepage of findingDulcinea has received nearly unanimous plaudits. True, most of the people I've asked work for the site, but we think you'll like it, too. We've significantly reduced the number of photos on the home page, as they made it difficult to concentrate attention on any one spot. And we've given more prominence, and more permanence, to our most popular features, On This Day and Happy Birthday. And we've invited Elvis Presley and Harry Houdini to help us launch it. Elvis sings "Unchained Melody" while Harry tries to unchain himself and leave the building before Elvis finishes the song. History addicts will be able to see a whole week of On This Day features as at a glance. Please check it out and let us know how you like it !

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Three Simple Words: No More Excuses

Today's New York Times carries yet another article confirming the obvious: most of us fail to keep our New Year's Resolutions. This stokes our love affair with self-improvement reality shows, which chronicle the struggles of ordinary people trying to turn their lives around. For me, resolutions have always involved weight loss and fitness. For the past 8 years, I have exercised vigorously for half the year, losing a good deal of weight (though never quite enough) and running several marathons (slower than I would like). After each marathon, my exercise and nutritional zeal waned and I regained all the weight by the time I began marathon training again the next summer, and then did not quite meet my loss/exercise goals for the next marathon. I blamed shortcomings on the extraordinary demands the rest of my life posed, and took comfort in knowing that my conditioning was gradually improving as my marathon times slowly got better. And again last July I began serious training, heavier and less fit than I should have been. But this time, I lost 31 lbs, twice the usual drop, and ran my best marathon by 35 minutes. After 5 weeks of rest (sloth), I am back at it today. What changed this time ? There were many factors; for one, I previously wrote of how adding early morning cardio boxing workouts helped. But another major factor was a simple gesture by my friend Bill Germanakos, who won Season 4 of NBC's Biggest Loser by losing 167 lbs, or half his body weight, and has kept almost all of it off. After his win, Bill hit the lecture circuit, and at each stop he listened to sad people explain the litany of reasons they had not hit their goals. Finally, he put his arm around a man and said, "listen: No More Excuses." The man was startled, and began to cry and admit that all his "reasons" were really "excuses." And so Bill adopted this mantra, and even created some black bracelets imprinted with it, and gave me one. And nearly every time I found myself thinking "I should run tonight, but it's raining," I glanced at the bracelet, realized that I was making excuses, and set off on a long, soggy jog. I also adopted most of Bill and Jim's Nine Tips for Keeping Your Resolutions. Each of these is spot on. For instance, #1, making the resolution an integral part of your life means you don't let the demands of the rest of life always take precedence, which was critical for me. Creating a detailed plan (#4) for achieving your goal makes you set a realistic goal to begin with, and helps you track your progress. And perhaps most important of all, having a resolution buddy (#7) keeps you on track; two colleagues ran the marathon with me; one is the person who introduced me to boxing class and made it fun, and the other ran with me on the crucial mid-week long runs that I never found time for before. FindingDulcinea offers a lot more advice on keeping resolutions, including advice specific to the most common ones. As for me, a tenth tip that I would add is "Contentment is thy enemy." Getting half way to your goal can cause you to smugly ease up. This year, each time I felt that way, I doubled my effort. And, recognizing that if I don't go forward, I will surely go backward, I have resolved to lose the final extra 22 lbs I am carrying and improve yet another 35 minutes, to 3:43, when I run the Boston Marathon in April. There will surely be days I'll try to fashion an excuse to make choices inconsistent with this goal, and I can only hope that each time, I will look down at my black bracelet and read its three simple words.