Chris X Edwards

Any web dev that makes me agree to cookies with no dissenting option hereby agrees to get punched in the face. Email me to opt out.
2021-01-06 17:45
Consider archaeological graffiti whose (literate) writers were necessarily from the most elite/educated classes. What are equivalents today?
2021-01-06 07:36
Add to global warming problem list: trees being stressed by more ice and heavier snow than they evolved for. At least it's an albedo Xmas!
2020-12-25 08:19
It's surprising that professional athlete sportswear doesn't feature mocap markers. If unnecessary, I'm impressed. Or an opportunity lost.
2020-12-20 22:42
Prediction: the common cold will not be eliminated in 2021 because coronavirus vaccines are easy to create.
2020-12-02 12:38
Blah Blah

I've Had It, Covid 19

2021-01-14 14:36

We watched morons storm congress last week. Sure, that was shocking and disturbing, but frankly I was already at the limit of being shocked and disturbed by morons storming congress through democratic elections. It seems to me that a bigger deal, affecting every human on earth now and well into the future, is this damned plague.

When news of covid 19 first really hit a wide audience in March 2020, I was probably one of the first to ask a question that I’m going to propose is one of the most important questions of our lifetime.

Can you become seriously ill with Covid 19 after recovering from being seriously ill with Covid 19?

Am I being obtuse? Am I missing something? How is it that this question dawdled nearly unaddressed for damn near a year? If this virus is serious (it is) and not a hoax (it isn’t), eventually there must be a critical mass of people who, like me, had it. I think we’re finally to a point where there are enough of us that the most obvious questions we have are starting to be addressed.

Questions like…

  • Can I get it again?

  • How much danger am I still in after recovering from acute symptoms?

  • Would contracting it a second time be less severe/dangerous?

  • Does the virus remain subtly hidden and flare up?

  • What damage to my body did it really do and what is permanent?

  • What are the long term effects and prognosis?

  • Is my presence an equal or reduced danger to others, or no danger at all?

  • Could close contact between covid survivors cause any kinds of problems at all?

  • How debilitating will the long-term aftermath be?

  • Will a "test" show skewed results because I’ve had the disease in the past?

  • How accurate/relevant are tests for people who have had it?

  • Does it make sense for recovered victims to wear a mask beyond performative solidarity? A question I first asked publicly in July!

And today, I’m delighted to see the tiniest mote of attention turned to this topic, but simultaneously shocked and disturbed at the stupidity of some of the reports.

Let’s start with the AP’s addled advice: Should I Get A Covid-19 Vaccine If I’ve Had The Virus?

It’s impossible to know how long a person might be immune, said … an infectious disease expert at [fancy medical school]. "There’s no way to calculate that."

Ok, right away, I’m calling bullshit here because there is most definitely a way. Maybe you find it unreasonable of me to contradict trained medical professionals but when they seem unaware of the entire premise of my degree I’m going to push back and say there is absolutely a way to calculate "that" and I coincidentally studied it at university for years.

By the way, some of that same IE magic could probably also cure this absurd problem which seems to be turning the whole vaccination drive into a super-spreader event. It’s one thing for the aforementioned morons in congress to not be concerned about the pandemic but presumably these people are.


But it was articles like this one in The Week that really blew my mind. Getting Coronavirus May Prevent Against Reinfection For Months, Preliminary Study Finds It opens with this mind blowing idea.

Contracting COVID-19 is nearly as effective at preventing reinfection as the two top coronavirus vaccines…

What an extraordinary claim! It’s bad enough that pharma is enjoying their ticker tape parade before their rocket even launches, but using shitty statistical reasoning to come to absurdly unintuitive conclusions must surely be suspicious.

I thought that the coverage in Forbes had more correct language. Past Covid-19 Infection Gives Vaccine-Like Immunity For Months, Study Finds

"…we don’t yet know…" "…it is possible…" "…it will be interesting to see…" "…whether or not these findings hold true…" "It’s not yet clear for how long the protection provided by vaccines last."


Reuters' coverage seems helpful and sensible so I’ll quote a bit of it. Covid-19 Infection Gives Some Immunity, But Virus Can Still Spread Study Finds

Preliminary findings by scientists at Public Health England (PHE) showed that reinfections in people who have COVID-19 antibodies from a past infection are rare - with only 44 cases found among 6,614 previously infected people in the study.

But experts cautioned that the findings mean people who contracted the disease in the first wave of the pandemic in the early months of 2020 may now be vulnerable to catching it again.

They also warned that people with so-called natural immunity - acquired through having had the infection - may still be able carry the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in their nose and throat and could unwittingly pass it on.

"We now know that most of those who have had the virus, and developed antibodies, are protected from reinfection, but this is not total and we do not yet know how long protection lasts,…"

The BBC’s version is similar, and though confusing it seems technically reasonable. Past Covid-19 Infection May Provide Months Of Immunity

The main point I want to stress is that as far as I can tell only one of the following situations is possible. Only one.

  1. Having Covid does not stimulate the immune system to provide substantial subsequent immunity from future re-infections. A vaccine roll out will take longer than the vaccine provides protection for and may be futile.

  2. Having Covid does stimulate the immune system to provide substantial subsequent immunity from future re-infections for a significant time, much longer than a vaccine roll out. Deploying vaccines makes sense.

  3. Having covid precludes you from ever being in danger of it again - like mumps. Vaccines may be able to match that level of protection and can handily cure the pandemic.

  4. Pharma companies should get to work replacing our entire immune systems immediately because they have a much better chance of promoting our welfare than billions of years of evolution. The vaccines are more effective than natural immunity.

Though none of us really has the answer, I’d bet on the second possibility. What I find extremely difficult to believe is the fourth possibility.

And I suspect I’m not alone. When I see headlines like "I’m Not An Anti-vaxxer, But… US Health Workers' Vaccine Hesitancy Raises Alarm" I have to wonder — did the "40% of frontline workers in LA county refusing Covid-19 inoculation" perhaps already have the disease? I didn’t see a single article that even mentioned the possibility that factor may have influenced that poll. Clearly these people know what the disease looks like more than normal people. Clearly they are exposed to it much more. I can imagine many of them having been infected or tested positive with relatively mild symptoms (or not). Why should they get vaccinated? If there is a good reason, I think we need a lot more detail on exactly what it could be.

Why Breasts?

2021-01-12 03:04

Recently I had (what I believe is) a novel idea for why human females generally have prominent, permanent breasts. Obviously they have DNA that programs breasts as a phenotype but why is that so? Why is that morphology almost unknown in other mammals? If you give it some thought, it is not immediately obvious why the human arrangement of mammary features might be superior except by tautology. Indeed it turns out to still be an evolutionary mystery.

One traditional bad answer is: because men like them. Perhaps that aspect did co-evolve — babies like them too — but that doesn’t explain why other mammals don’t bother. To say that men and women are generally attracted to each other seems unremarkable and a facile explanation for why we are the way we are in the first place. It may seem obvious to some people that men love breasts, but anthropological research (beyond the parochial realm of cultures that do anthropological research) show that attraction to breasts is hardly universal. Now that WEIRD people have plenty of obese men with breasts, I’m going to say that the hypothesis that breasts exist because men like them has been somewhat refuted.

Another common bad answer I found in the literature is very bizarre to me: something for a baby to grab on to. Obviously, many women have breasts that comprise quite a bit of their entire mass, especially during lactation; yet newborn babies have quite tiny hands, hands that are rather inept at doing anything but poking themselves in the face. I’m sorry, but I’m not buying it. Wikipedia’s only hypothesis is that they protrude to keep flat faced babies from suffocating; maybe that’s so, but why permanent? Explanations like warmth and chest protection also seem lacking if men and other mammals didn’t also get them.

So why did that weird physiognomy evolve uniquely in our species? My theory suggests that breasts co-evolved with tool use. Imagine you had to craft wearable items from dead animals. One could imagine this starting by proto-hominids simply killing animals with tools (flint spears, arrows, sharp sticks, etc) and using the same tools to help eat the game. This would naturally leave behind a pelt as one of the least edible parts of the animal. It wouldn’t take long for our ancestors to totally gross out the rest of the animal kingdom by augmenting their own caveperson fur with these pelts. At first they would just wrap themselves in them at night and enjoy lower mortality. That’s step one.

Before moving on to loincloths or heavy metal attire or any item of clothing we might consider obvious today, I can imagine those pelts being worn for a different purpose than clothing. If I had a sharp piece of flint and a recently deceased deer, and if I was cold and naked, I’m pretty sure I could transfer that deer’s hide to cover mine. What is the next easiest thing to fashion with such tools and materials?

My guess would be a bag, something to carry possessions in. Basically you lay the pelt on the ground, put your things on it, and then gather the edges together with your opposable thumbs. Now it’s easy to pick up many things while gripping one. That’s possibly useful, sometimes, but it suggests an application that is extremely useful almost always for early hominid females — carrying a baby.

Consider how closely the two developments of wearing hides over your body to give extra protection, and lifting bundled babies had to be. This is no mere pointless fashion accessory. This allowed hominid females to be much less constrained by the task of keeping their offspring safely stowed.

Since I personally can imagine myself having the capabilities to simply tie a pelt in a knot, I’m going to suggest that doing so was the next developmental step in the history of clothing. With a knotted pelt, the really big deal is that you essentially have invented the baby sling. I propose that this invention, likely first developed by females, was one of the most profound innovations of our ancestral species that led us to where we are today.

I think of the baby sling as a milestone achievement on par with fire and flint tools. It allowed hominid species to essentially extend the intimate protections of pregnancy even further. This effectively helped create a species that promoted big brains by prolonging the transfer of knowledge, warmth, protection, and nutrients.

That brings us back to boobs. Imagine a new band of especially clever apes whose new mothers now carried around their babies slung over their shoulder in dead animal pelts. (Does it help to consider the mysterious obsession some modern human women seem to have with leather handbags?) When sitting or resting the mother can position the baby in the front for feeding. Maybe protruding breasts help reach babies nestled in hide slings.

However, most of the time while foraging and migrating, women would tend to wear their babies on their backs. Why did human women evolve to have strangely large breasts? I’m going to offer the simple engineer’s explanation of counterbalance. Remember, the hide innovation, like flint and fire, must have hit the innovating species pretty quickly in evolutionary terms. Once hominids started wearing their babies, evolution was going to make some strange and radical selections to keep up with the suddenly new circumstances. That is, to me, a more satisfying explanation of why prominent permanent breasts are such a uniquely human feature.

Perhaps some hominid species were pitched forward naturally and used their hands for stability, like gorillas. As evolution filled in the gaps between them and us, some force would want to keep the delicate vertical alignment once bipeds were fully bipedal. The morphology of modern human breasts may not seem compatible with this explanation of the origin of breasts. Today breasts may well be the equivalent of peacock feathers. But it must be kept in mind that peacock feathers are still feathers and feathers are evolutionarily quite clever in general.

In short, I propose that oversized hominid breasts of some form arose to counterbalance and reach infants being worn in hide slings.

Subsequently breasts could have taken on a new additional role as a signal of reproductive fitness but it would seem arbitrary to propose that as the primary reason for their existence.

I’m not a paleontologist so I don’t know exactly what about this hypothesis is testable. (Spine wear? Skeletal posture?) If some aspects were, and the theory could be strengthened, it may actually provide a way to link hide wearing with physiological features in the fossil record. One could also reconstruct the physiological choreography of reproducing humans. As the baby grew and started to become weaned, the breasts would still serve as a counterbalance. The counterbalance would be further increased by the toddler’s younger sibling in the womb. When that baby was born, it would be time for the older kid to start to walk for themselves.

All of this brings me to my own most valuable advice for reproducing humans: slings are great! Carrying your baby in a sling, like pretty much all human women have done for pretty much all of human history, has so many advantages that it’s hard to enumerate them all. (I’ll let the rest of the internet do that job.) When my son was born I made a (canvas) sling and it was by far my most valuable piece of baby equipment.

I actually got the idea for breasts being a counterbalance when I was trying to learn how arctic natives build igloos. I came across Nanook Of The North, a 1922 documentary from before the time that documentaries really existed. At that time the film’s creators could only properly understand the genius and macho power of the male titular character. But to a modern audience who won’t take such things for granted, the women also clearly inspire awe. Here is Nyla who did an amazing job of demonstrating the most extreme form of a life physically connected to one’s baby.


Review - The Three-Body Problem

2020-12-21 11:57

I kept hearing hype about a science fiction book from China, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. Mega-reader and Very Smart Guy, Tyler Cowen, says, "My best fiction reading of the year was Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem trilogy,… It is one of the best science fiction classics, ever." And then apparently Netflix was (is?) going to spent $200e6 to make it into a thing for illiterate people who love esoteric physics-based plots. Cool. And then controversy arises based on the Chinese author saying some things to defend China’s honor (if you read his book, you’ll learn that maybe he was forced to say those things!). I’ve got no opinion about those things, which I know very little about! But I can read the book and be opinionated about that. So I did and here we are.

Style - There’s ESL and there’s its apotheosis, Chinese. The fact that this book (the version I read) was a translation from Chinese is pretty unusual. The fact that it was really well-crafted comfortable prose is a credit to the superb translating job of Ken Liu. This book didn’t make me desperate to read all the Chinese fiction I could lay my hands on — you know, in that way that, say, Japanese anime can take over people’s brains; however, with no disrespect to the author, if I were going to follow up with more writing like this book, I’d be looking at Ken Liu’s own oeuvre.

Organization - Good. Some sensible time jumping flashbacks. Some sensible interludes set in another (virtual) reality. But not so much that you get confusion whiplash. The lengths of the chapters and sections were sane.

Character names - I get it. Really I do. I suspect that to Chinese speakers, uttering my name aloud probably sounds like "big idiot who has literary prosopagnosia". But Chinese names for me are just not easily filed in the same place as people names. They’re more like subatomic particle names. At best, they’re more likely to go into a kind of comedy section like Zaphod Beeblebrox, except they’re not funny. Well, unfortunately, except when they are — best not to dwell on what the name "Dong Dong" conjures up. When names are merely foreign like "Franz", "Nacho", or "Magnus", I know, ah, these are people, men probably, etc. But with "Shao Lin" I’m unable to not think of Shaolin Kung Fu. That was a real character in this book. "Shi Qiang" was another one that was a challenge; he was also called "Da Shi" which irked me because I worked with someone called "Da Shi". Was I misunderstanding his name the whole time — is it really a goofy nickname as the book suggests? No idea. My colleague was such a good sport about it; I’m sure I was mispronouncing it too. Well, you’re either good with Chinese names or your bad at it. There’s a reason that "character names" is an entire section in my fiction reviewing matrix. At least Ken really is cognizant of this and has an index of names. I scoffed at it when I first saw it, but was grateful for it the 300 times I referred to it, each time feeling like an idiot. I’ve got to confess, I read the whole book before realizing that the author and translator shared a name. Is that their family name or their intra-family name? Who knows? (Well, besides the 1.4e9 obvious people.) I’m going to continue my parochial Anglosphere-centric belief that "Ken" is Ken’s first name.

Believable characters - Graded on a pass/fail, this passes. What makes it extraordinary and somewhat special is that the characters are very smart people. It’s pretty cringey to wade through some impression of smart people performed by someone who is on the outside looking in. All of the characters were smart, but not drastically smarter than a guy who can write a coherent modern physics based novel. Did the fictional rural 1970s characters act with the sensibilities of real 1970s rural Chinese people? No idea, but nothing struck me as out of place.

Natural dialog - Again, I think we have to defer to Ken here who did a really good job. Writing good natural dialog is always challenging and thus a section in my review matrix. There is no way crafting sensible utterances in English out of things written in Chinese can be an easy job. It was handled well.

Plot complexity - Normally I kind of like plots on the more complicated end of the spectrum, but the real goal is to get it right and I think this book succeeds. It really wasn’t too baroque — I actually imagined a more convoluted plot than what really ended up unfolding. Make no mistake, however, this definitely is clever and enough so to keep your brain busy. Most of the complexity was in keeping the complicated technical elements coherent. It did a very good job of keeping the hard science fiction hard, similar to The Martian.

Plot resolution - I hate books that "end" in some vague way with a meandering change of style that hints that the author is simply tired of writing. This book did not do that. It was well thought out. It even set up for its sequels in a classy way. There was one plot point where the author might as well have thought to himself, what is the literal most unbelievable thing that could possibly happen? And then he wrote that into the story. And then later provided a hard science fiction rational explanation for how it happened.

Erudition - Good as it gets. On par with Peter Watts, Ted Chiang, Neal Stephenson, etc. When a character easily created a login username of a famous personage’s name (n.b. it was not already taken) I was concerned that the author wasn’t quite ready to write about MMO games. But later I got the feeling he actually didn’t. So all good.

Gems - Poor Ken. He had to keep footnoting how clever the original was. Other than that, a bit austere. Ain’t gonna lie - glad I speak English pretty well if the rest of the world is reading our literature with so much missing. For me, the most memorable gem about this book — which focuses on the alignment of celestial bodies in a solar system — is the fact that I’m writing this review on the solstice.

Immersion/world building - I think that the extraterrestrial world building was a little cartoonish, but that was probably deliberate and acceptable. The really excellent work here was the whole Red Coast project from conception to ambiance. That was really well done. And since I’m no expert on such top secret Chinese military projects of the 1960s, it all seemed legit to me.

Believable tech - Clearly Cixin Liu knows physics. And math. And to a lesser degree, some practical engineering and computer stuff. I have to say that one of the key technologies smelled a little fishy to me. Here are some nerds wondering about the details of using the sun as an amplifier. Whatever. Ultimately it was not fishy enough to invalidate its story use for me. More in my domain of expertise, at one point in the story a (not-very-fun?) VR "game" features a "computer" composed of millions of NPC soldiers configured as logic gates. This is so implausible sounding that it was backpedaled in the story as overly fanciful. But, it turns out, Minecraft redstone can actually do such things. I’ll even let slide the very fanciful technology behind the plot’s really miraculous parlor tricks. Aliens, right? Always coming up with the cool new tech. But what did chafe my metal cutting instincts was the use of magic nanowires to cut metal. Yes, in the story they were duly being researched and in limited supply, blah blah. But still, too much deus ex nanotech and you’re basically one of the bad plot premises of Michael Crichton.

Imagination/creativity - This is very hard to get right — either the story is ordinary and believable, or fanciful and less so. Much of this book was grounded in mundane details about historical events that were actually kind of interesting themselves (e.g. the Chinese Cultural Revolution was quite an interesting clusterfuck). But the author still was able to effectively draw heavily from popular science articles that feature the word "could" in the title. It’s very easy to go from yawning to eye rolling with science fiction and I think this book kept things pretty well adjusted.

That and the Wikipedia plot summary are basically all I need to remind my future self about this book. Hopefully you were suitably enlightened and, if intrigued, not too spoiled by spoilers. It’s a fine book, but I think reading it really taught me that I’d probably be just as happy reading the translator’s Star Wars books than the sequels to this book.

Armchair Rowing Advice

2020-12-20 21:21

After yesterday’s post about my recent indoor rowing adventures some people I know, and maybe some I don’t, seem somewhat inspired to give this sport a try. When you’re housebound during The Plague, it is a pretty wholesome hobby. In the spirit of my Armchair Triathlon Advice I thought I’d write what I know about indoor rowing.

The most important thing to cover is how to not screw up your back.

To start that off, let’s go to a sport that I know even better than rowing and you probably do too. One of the things I see quite a bit which triggers my bicycle coaching instincts is someone climbing a hill on a bike and their upper body is bobbing like crazy. On a bicycle extraneous upper body motion wastes energy in exactly the way you do not want it to. Competent cyclists must develop the skill to feel like that kind of energy wasting motion is truly wasting energy. It must become an instinct! I bring this up because it’s important to talk about why this happens and why it needs to be coached out of people using actual brain thinking until it is automatic. It is important because in rowing there is an equivalent kind of sloppy form, but unlike cycling, if you get it wrong you do not merely perform suboptimally. No, you can easily destroy your back and end your rowing career. Let’s avoid that.

What causes this bobbing in inexperienced cyclists? I certainly can remember that sensation from before I had a clue. The answer is desperation. We’re used to living our lives well within our means. You usually don’t find yourself halfway up the basement stairs unable to proceed because you’ve suddenly become paralyzed with fatigue. But riding a bike, especially up a hill, can involve unusually high wattages. Without experience in this realm of strange bio-kinematic physics what happens is the inexperienced are taken by surprise. They start the climb fine. But what has happened is that they’ve been given a small energy loan from the body which is assuming this silliness is going to stop Very Soon. But when that loan is not paid back quickly the body starts shutting off service. On the bike it starts with the legs and what happens is that inexperienced cyclists continue to spend wattage from whatever extraneous body parts will allow it. You see people bobbing their heads or shrugging their shoulders or flapping their elbows or bouncing the whole bike up and down while their cranks slow down and stubbornly refuse to go any faster. Basically they are spending dumb energy that is not going into solving the real problem.

This sounds like a diversion from rowing but you really must understand this problem to face it with the proper respect. When rowing it is very easy to unload your maximum wattage. How long can you sustain that? The answer is of course not very long. Then what? What dumb muscle groups will you pointlessly flail about with to produce the equivalent of bobbing on a bike? The harsh answer is that unlike cycling, there are no spare unused muscles. Maybe you can nod or bob your head stupidly, but already that hints at the real problem. What people do when they have toasted the muscles that control their proper rowing technique is they do dumb things with their spine. It takes many forms but a common one is pushing your butt back — dangerously hunching your back — while the oar goes nowhere — and then lashing out with the back muscles. This works deceptively well for about two strokes. And then your rowing career is over.

Everyone has heard the sensible phrase "Lift with your legs." Rowing uses the whole body, true, but since your legs are far and away your strongest muscles, rowing is really a leg strength sport with some light upper body diversion thrown in. Make sure you internalize that idea. My first piece of advice is to really try hard to punish your legs — if something is hurting and it’s not the large muscles of your legs, you’re doing it wrong. I actually had a slight variation on that as a strong cyclist with very weak arms. But if your back ever starts to hurt, you need to stop doing what you’re doing immediately. If it doesn’t hurt that much and you really don’t want to take a break, you need to focus all of your workout energy on technique. What technique specifically? The technique that allows you to row with a comfortable back. There is no Plan B.

How can you make sure you’re rowing in a way that keeps your back safe? Fortunately it’s not that complicated. It really comes down to good posture. In cycling sitting lazily in a bad position is going to cause problems. Rowing doesn’t have terrible ass end interface problems like cycling, but having the discipline to always maintain excellent posture is even more important. If you’re very tired, a sensible workout on a rowing machine is sitting there doing nothing with good posture. If you can’t do that, don’t even think about rowing.

What entails "good" rowing posture? To me it is feeling like you are in full control of your spine’s position. When you slouch you’re letting gravity do whatever it wants to your back. Rowing involves some gravity and a lot of other forces. You must have complete control of your spine at all times.

A simple rule that I try to follow is to start with the spine in a comfortable and sensible shape and never change it. Your vertebrae evolved to move a bit with respect to each other but that motion does not power a rowing stroke. If your spine is bending or twisting as part of your power delivery, you need to rethink your technique.

The good news here is that if you do a lot of rowing you’re also doing a lot of focusing on good posture and strengthening the muscles that facilitate it. This is why rowing is not incompatible with back problems if done correctly.

I’ve stressed the fact that you need to watch your back. But there’s slightly more to be said. When people start as novices in rowing clubs they usually get the same lesson. There are tons of technique videos out there but if you only watch one, Gary the buff Kiwi explains pretty much everything you need to know about the typical beginner lesson in under 3 minutes.

When I was a kid I was taught: legs, back, arms; arms, back, legs. (It’s a FILO queue if you’re a computer science person.) Notice that Gary the buff Kiwi says ligs, body, ahms. Sometimes he even says "hips". I think today coaches are trying to avoid saying "back" because it gives people the wrong idea. In that middle phase, your spine may move in space, but it is not providing power. It is not changing shape. That is important.

One way I’ve thought of to properly visualize this is to imagine laying on the floor. (It’s a thought experiment - you don’t even have to do it! Yay!) You could stick your legs in the air and wave them around. If your feet were together and extended above you in this way, you could then bend your knees and your legs would be doing stuff. Pretty dumb, yes, but here’s the important part — if your knees are bent or not you can still raise and lower your legs while lying on your back and yet you’d never think to call that a back workout. That’s rowing. Your back is set. Maybe not in the same shape as lying on the floor and maybe not using gravity, but your spine should be immobilized by your good posture and control while you do crazy power stuff with your legs, knees bent or not.

When I thought about writing some rowing tips, I thought I would take some photos of my lovely rowing technique. Then I got over myself and remembered that this is the 21st century and I could do better than that. Way better.

Around the 1 minute mark of this video (which can’t be embedded, sorry), the British-Californian man highlighted was the first person to cross the finish line in the fastest boat in the most prestigious regatta of the last 8 years. I think we can safely assume he knows what he’s doing.

I did some video processing to help us analyze his stroke. The most helpful thing I did was to stabilize the frames so that the stationary focal point of the camera was on the oarsman. Usually with rowers sliding around in a complete boat perspective it’s hard to get a sense of what it’s like to be them. Here I’ve tried to lock the camera to his center of gravity, basically where his back intersects the gunwale.


Then I added colored lines to show the three stroke phases mentioned by Gary the buff Kiwi. Green is the leg drive, red is the hips, and magenta is the arms. I roughly made the arm lines longer when his arms were more bent; the lengths of the other two lines are just so that they would be visible and have no special meaning. I lined up the leg line on the front of the shins. The red body line is interesting because his shirt has a vertical seam which I used and I think it provides a pretty consistent and accurate look at his core body position.

The first thing to note is that the green line leg drive is very quick. This is where the vast majority of power comes from and the rest is all icing on the cake while the legs rest up for the next jolt. The part of the stroke where the oar goes in the water is called the "catch" and coaches really try to get their crews to explode with leg power at the catch. This Olympic he-man gets his shins perfectly vertical like a machine — just like coaches would coach you to do. But if that’s a lot of stress for you, do what’s comfortable. You’re not an Olympian. No big deal.

The next thing to notice is that the bent arm pull at the end of the stroke, called the "finish", never happens while the legs are still driving. Speaking of arms, this boat is a "sweep" oar boat meaning he’s rowing port side only with a single oar in both hands. This is why his body twists as he reaches for the catch — he places his left shoulder between his knees. Obviously if you’re rowing in a gym or your living room, you do not need to think about such things. Still as someone who once did a lot of port side sweep rowing and erg rowing, they are more similar than different.

That brings us to the critical red line. I think the forward angle is a bit exaggerated at the catch because he’s more twisted than he’d be sculling or on an erg. Some of the red line straightening up on the leg drive is really his body untwisting. But it all seems correct enough to me. You can see that he opens with his body more powerfully only once the legs are done. And his arm pull finish is only really executed once he’s leaned pretty far back. Still, the part that beginner lessons leave out is that his phase transitions are all smooth and fluid.

The really important thing is to pay attention to his back. It is curved a bit as would be natural sitting on the floor reaching for something in front of you. But it is never stressed — he never changes its shape. Look at his stomach which is as straight as his oar. You just know that if you punched this 196cm guy in the stomach he’d laugh at you.

If you really study this sequence you can see that his back does compress a little — it must — but only when he is relaxed on the recovery; the reason is that he needs to lower himself a bit to keep his oar out of the water. Watch his head against the shoreline and you’ll see this in action (some of this is boat surge). But when putting power into the drive after the catch, his back has the flex of an I-beam. He actually fully re-extends his back well ahead of time while still relaxed and reaching for the catch with the oar over his shins. If you’re rowing indoors, none of that oar handling applies to you! Just keep your back solid. Keep the oar/handle at a consistent height, about at the sternum.

Without seeing you row, that’s all I can say about form.

There are a couple of other minor things to worry about with rowing. While cycling is notoriously harsh on the ass end interface, rowing is notoriously harsh on the hand interface. Fortunately, this problem is not too bad for indoor rowing.

I started my rowing career in real boats on a nearly frozen off-season lake, clumsily smashing my soft lazy hands into the gunwales over and over until there was way more blood than I expected rowing would produce. Things are much easier for indoor rowing.

Is some country trying to bend immigration law to get you on their Olympic rowing team? No? Ok, great. That means you’re a perfectly normal person. And as such, if you want to wear gloves, then gloves are fine. Do not listen to rowing weenies who sneer at gloves because they can be problematic in real shells pulling on real oars. When I started back on the erg this fall, I quickly tore up my hands and was not about to feel stupid about the half dozen pairs of cycling gloves I own just sitting around mocking me. Even with gloves, you will get calluses. I’ve got one of those skin abrading stones and file my hands into a sensible shape as needed. At this point I sometimes row with gloves and sometimes not depending on how I feel at the time.

My final advice for taking up indoor rowing is don’t go crazy with ambition. Don’t set massive goals. You will not stick with unrealistic expectations. If you attempt to go from couch potato to moderate athlete training instantly, that’s like going from moderate athlete training to Olympian training instantly. That is unlikely to produce good results. Try to have fun and find the satisfying parts that you feel good about. Not everybody can find such sentiments in such a masochistic hobby, but I assure you it’s possible!

Rowing Drive And Recovery

2020-12-19 23:45

Way back in June I mentioned that my health had still not quite returned to proper form. Although it was subtle and my overall health is very good, I could tell some things weren’t quite working as well as they had before I was sick. The circulation in my shins was probably the most noticeable. I also had occasional days where it felt like I was at high altitude. I felt sluggish and short of breath. Here is a good article that investigates many of the strange problems people are having long after their initial Covid19 experience would seem to be over.

I’m pretty active and never stopped being so. I was walking on our forest trails most days and biking more than 50% of the days, but I felt like I needed a more serious way to push my body. My feeling was that if there was a lingering pathogen, I wanted to burn it out. If there was slow repairing vascular damage or lung scarring, I wanted to push my body to tear it all out and do a complete overhaul. If I was going to drop dead from a blood clot or stroke, I wanted to do that sooner rather than later.

Thinking about how I might maximize physical activity (without doing some major bike touring), I thought back to my introduction to hardcore athletics and the brutal sport of indoor rowing. I’ve ridden the big climbs on the course of the Tour De France. I’ve ridden farther than cycling grand tours in shorter amounts of time. That’s hard, yes. But there’s something special about rowing which makes it even harder. Rowing uses your arms and shoulders and a pretty fair amount of upper body. And if you do it properly, you can pour an outrageous amount of power into rowing without getting damaged. Cycling is not bad for that but it is common to have knee problems or other issues when increasing cycling by an order of magnitude.

Although I’m told that modern cycling gadgetry is pretty fancy, the physics of it will never let it come close to indoor rowing for accuracy and precision of tracking performance. A proper indoor rowing machine is called an ergometer because of its accurate energy measurement ability. In the world of exercise equipment, there are all kinds of "rowing machines" one can buy. In the world of competitive indoor rowing, there is only one: Concept 2. I started rowing on a Concept 2 Model A which was a bicycle wheel with plastic paddles stuck to it on a chain.


Much of my high school training and learning the art of high watt suffering was done on a Model B.


In my 20s I bought a new model C, nearly identical to the model B.


I gave that up long ago and now I needed a new one, a Concept 2 Model D, still very similar to the B and C.


I was ready to buy one and… they’re very back ordered thanks to The Plague. Great. I signed up for the waiting list and did my waiting.

After a few months they finally sent me one. It is a very fine machine, designed to be constantly abused by some of the strongest people on earth — imagine training centers for Olympic rowers. I wasn’t going to break this thing, but I was going to give it my best shot.

What I wanted to do was to push my cardiovascular system to its maximum. Every day. For a decently long amount of time. I wanted it to be consistent so that I could spot anomalies easier. At first I started by doing a 5 minute piece at full gas. I’d do a 5 minute warm up and a 5 minute cool down. I did that for about two weeks before realizing that I often was strongest on the warm up. So I settled on three 5 minute pieces at full throttle. I figured this was like running a 5km race — not just a training jog — racing every day. The trick was to not do the 15 minutes continuously but to break it up to get much higher wattage closer to full gas racing. I think if you did a running 5km race every day, you would break yourself. But on a rowing machine, you just feel like you’re being waterboarded three times a day. Fun!

The process was to wait between pieces long enough to maximize wattage. But not so long that I cooled down. At first I thought this would allow the whole operation to be over in about 20 minutes but as my wattage grew, the recovery intervals went from a couple of minutes to between 5 and 10. I didn’t get too fussy about that, just whatever I felt would maximize wattage over 15 minutes of engagement.

As I started this program, I didn’t know how it would go. I didn’t know if it was sustainable (it totally is not). I didn’t know what to expect from myself. But after the first few weeks of making good improvements, I had a pretty ambitious goal to see if I could crack 250 watts for a 5 minute row. Many weeks went by where it seemed like I was on a trajectory to do that, but quite a long way into the future. However on my 85th day the stars aligned just right for me to pull off a blistering 254W! I started that record run feeling good but being surprised that I was only pulling 240W in the first minute. Then I realized I was hitting 340W! The first minute came in at 303W. I kept it together for minute two and knowing I was solidly on pace to break my goal, I was able to push well beyond normal performance for the gruesome painful minute 3 and 4. By the last minute, I knew I would succeed and the excitement of that knowledge elevated my performance even more. I was so happy that I then rowed an entirely respectable 242W on the next piece. (I’m not bragging because pretty much everyone who is serious about this sport is way better than I am, but if you’re playing along at home, you’ll want to be under 143.4lbs at some point in the day or under 145.2lbs right after your competitive attempt. If you’re tall and/or my brother, you’ll need to basically pump out 3.85W/kg for 5 min. Also you’ll need to be over 50 years old. Have fun breaking that one Al.)

But that stellar performance came at a cost. I was absolutely shattered for a couple of days after (as you can see below). It was about then that I set the project’s conclusion to 100 days — which was yesterday.

So how did it all go? Let’s take a look. Here is the "meters" recorded by the machine for all 300 five minute events. This corresponds very accurately and consistently with wattage (the machine’s physics allow it to calibrate itself every stroke). The days that are missing (at 22-23 and 67-68) are days I was away from my house and didn’t have access to the machine.


You can see that I started out imagining that I would push for strong performances after warming up, shown on the middle green bar. But after a couple of weeks I could tell that my performances cold were often better. This has always been true in my athletic career, but I thought being an old man would necessitate some changes. Nope. More often than not I can sit down cold (literally) and blast out my best possible wattage.

My astonishingly good performance on day 85 is clear to see. But that was not actually my highest wattage day. Can you spot it? Take a look at the next plot which shows the days' cumulative total meters.


I let Gnuplot have fun with smooth mcsplines to make that green line with the hope that it would sort of hint at the trends — and it sort of does. The purple bars are unremarkable days — days where I literally did not make any remarks in my training log beyond the scores. The blue bars are days where I note some other kind of significant activity. I still was walking the forest trails for about 20-30 minutes 5 out of 7 days or so. The blue bars are something beyond that. For example, day 43, I biked 90 minutes. Biked 30 min on day 76, a pretty good rowing day. Day 65 I skated for 30min (my feet are still not completely healed from that). And if you were doubting my dedication during the two out of town breaks, the rowing on days 23 and 68 were done after 7 hours of driving - fun!

Now we get to the interesting days, the point of the exercise. The red bars are days where my log noted feeling either ill, severely fatigued, suffering strange muscle pain, or strange breathing difficulty. For example, as I already pointed out, on days 86 and 87 I was completely toasted. Those days felt like I overdid it with the previous rowing. Makes sense. But other days, were more mysterious. The recent days, 94-97, were a challenge — those were what I call "high altitude" days where I feel like I’m at 3000m/10kft above sea level all day. I function fine at those altitudes, but it’s unnerving to feel this way at low elevation. To see that clear drop in wattage helped me feel like, ah ha, I caught this weird evil spirit in the act.

But overall I’m more reassured than worried. Clearly I’m not quite dead yet. I didn’t even drop dead while pouring out maximum wattage. I’m self-aware of my body enough to know that doing the equivalent of a 5km running race every day is probably not optimal for, well, anything. For example, atrial fibrillation in endurance athletes seems to be a real thing and I’d like to not know too much more about it. Apparently that affects cyclists, rowers, marathon runners, and, uh, cross-country skiers… Oh ya, that last blue bar was our first sufficient snow of the year and I was out skiing. Twice.

I definitely feel stronger and healthier than I did when I started this rowing project. That feeling now has some good data to demonstrate that while I may have suffered long term Covid19 damage in subtle ways, I’m not in too bad shape. Also my fitness can improve and has. Bad days now are better than good days two months ago.

My future plans with the rowing machine are a lot more sensible. I’ll probably keep doing some occasional 5 minute wattage tests, but not every day, and definitely not three punishing times daily. Hopefully I can shift to skiing more soon, but, you know, global warming… Next spring, I’d love to figure out a way to get back on the water in a real shell after decades of missing that beautiful sport.

UPDATE 2021-01-05

Ed Yong tipped me off to an interesting resource describing something called post-exertional malaise. Which apparently is a thing. While a lot of the descriptions of that ring true with me, I think my much higher than normal level of fitness masks the subtle effects. Was I fitter than normal people in 2019? Without a doubt. Would I be fitter than normal people if I lost 10% of that advantage? Of course. But I would notice the loss.

And that’s what my intense rowing agenda was trying to investigate. I enjoyed reading this from that web site:

"Questions have however been raised about the clinical use of the 2-day CPET procedure. Snell et al. suggested it might be unethical to use this method since many ME/CFS patients might suffer a serious relapse as a result of exercise performance."

(In other words, is it ethical to test people who might develop extraordinary malaise/fatigue problems because of the nature of exercise on their physiology, by having them exercise?) It was funny because I suspected the same thing and wanted to do to myself what would have been questionable to inflict on others: push my limits to see what the effects were.


For older posts and RSS feed see the blog archives.
Chris X Edwards © 1999-2021