Fast footnotes from fleet Marathoners

marathonthumb-041One of my favorite things to do each Boston Marathon is dig into the numbers at the back of the pack.

Because really, that’s where some of the best stories can be found.

Like the story in the photo above. Richard Whitehead of the U.K. ran a 3:02 today. I don’t know enough about him or his background right now – I’m looking, but I can tell you that he has cut his marathon time nearly in half in just five years. Then again – what more do you need to know beyond the picture to be inspired by him? Wow.

(Photo credit: Rob Larsen, Drunkenfist.com, under a Creative Commons license)

It’s in the stories of people like Terry McCluskey of Vienna, Ohio. He cranked through the 26.2 miles in 963rd place. Out of 20-odd thousand runners, that’s pretty good – especially when you consider that at 60 years old, he was the oldest runner in the field to break 3 hours.

Not to be outdone, Susumu Ichida of Japan put up some nice numbers, as well. At 71, he ran a 3:16 – good for the Top 4000, and great for any age.

And who was the fastest guy on the course today? Not Deriba Merga, that’s for sure. It wasn’t Ernst Van Dyk, either – although the 8-time winner put up a speedy 1:33:29. (Actually, for him, that was a little slow – his slowest pace in any of his Boston victories.

The fastest person on the course was Arkadiusz Skrzypinski. He cranked a handcycle over the 26 miles, up Heartbreak Hill and down into Kenmore Square to the finish in 1:24:44. Let’s do the math. He cranked a handcycle – a piece of equipment most of us would be hard-pressed to move a half-mile – over 26 miles at an average speed of 18.5 miles per hour.

Ever try to drive the route on a good day in a car? An hour, 24 minutes wouldn’t be bad. And then you’d have to pay for parking.

It wouldn’t be right not to recognize the oldest woman on the course. Katherine Beiers of Santa Cruz, California beat a lot of people literally half her age. At 76, she finished in 5 hours, 50 seconds.

As for the elder statesman on the course? He’s a local. John Di Comandrea of Revere was one of two 81-year-olds on the course. He finished in 6 hours, 6 minutes.

Only a handful get laurels – but all 20,000+ plus who ran, walked and raised a ton of money for charity deserve a tip of the hat – and a good massage.

(I posted this on the NECN ‘Boston Score’ blog, too… but I liked it enough to get it here as well.)

Following Mt. Redoubt, since you can’t watch as much on YouTube

redoubt-027Ahhh, the power of pictures. The eruption of Mt. Redoubt will be all over the web today, but you can get a look for yourself online straight from the mountain, without leaving the climate-controlled, ash-free comfort of your living room. The Alaska Volcano Observatory has webcams set up to monitor the volcano outside Anchorage – and as the sun comes up, we should see more of the effects of the eruption Monday morning, which has led to a reported ashfall on a number of communities downwind of the volcano.

Right now, it’s ummm, wicked dark. But sunrise in Alaska is a bit after noon EDT. So it could make a good lunchtime diversion.

The U.S. Geological Survey also lets you track Mt. Redoubt and more than 160 other American volcanoes at their site, through the Volcano Hazards Program.

Meanwhile, there are some major rumblings and grumblings on YouTube, after the site began taking down videos produced by users that have incorporated music from the Warner Bros. Music group. The two sides are in a content battle, and that has some users caught in the middle, according to the New York Times. Gone are baby videos, audition tapes and other videos using Warner music, says the Times.

The battle is over “noncommercial” use, and it is an interesting one. When you mix your child’s baby pictures to a soundtrack and post it to YouTube, you probably aren’t trying to make a buck off of Junior. But YouTube is – the site runs ads connected to videos, and that is where Warner is feeling a bit waxed.

Of course, as the Times points out, whatever their arguments, the industry is in no position to win a PR war at this point. As one analyst points out in the article:


“I feel like the public’s perception of the record labels is so hostile that YouTube will be able to deflect any complaints,” said Phil Leigh, a new media analyst who runs Inside Digital Media, a consulting firm.”

A little snow, a little service… it’s not so hard

So, in the last week I have had three days of crippled computer, a big honking snowstorm and now jury duty. Is this any way for someone to actually be productive? Turns out, yes!

First things first. It snowed. In Boston. In March. Shocker. But it turns out it was a pretty good thing for NECN.com and our weather blog, Weather New England. First of all, it’s never bad to have bad weather when it comes to web traffic. But we also tried to pull out at least a couple of stops when it came to our coverage, and I think we found a map for the future. One, what can you say about Matt Noyes, who started basically a solo livestream at 4am while preparing for the morning show, let me join in to help in the AM, and took questions from viewers online in between weather hits for NECN television. It lasted 7 hours, and he didn’t take a break.

But the live stream is a great tool for someone like Matt and a topic like weather. We used Mogulus, and asked people to both ask questions they might have (as long as they were patient about getting answers), or to share their snow totals and observations as heavy snow moved up from southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, through the Boston area and into New Hampshire. We got dozens of reports – as well as a handful of others which we begged for asked for on Twitter. it was engaging, entertaining, and something we should do again.

And for the second time – we got a surprise amount of enthusiasm for something that to us seemed really sort of obvious, as in “what do you mean this hasn’t been done much before?”

Video blogger and all-around good person Steve Garfield and I were able to set up a livestream from his cellphone of Steve going outside and measuring the snow depth in his Boston neighborhood. Using a decidedly low-tech ruler to check the depth, he took his measurement while the crowd watching the Mogulus stream saw him full-frame, and the crowd watching NECN saw it in an embedded window on a web browser on TV. (Next time, I will remember to take him fullscreen.) it was quick, it was kind of fun, and it seemed to make a splash, getting noted in a few places – thanks to Steve, not me, I should point out.

But the main thing I take away from the whole event was that w can be so locked into old ways of doing things that even the easiest ideas can seem much harder than they should. Cost of the chat – $0, except for the willingness of Matt to tackle the challenge of talking about the weather, which is what he does for a living. People have a lot greater tolerance for ‘dead air’ in a live chat, so Matt was able to get his TV work done, answer questions and work in a much more casual format.

And the technical breakthrough with Steve Garfield live? That took a little more technical know-how, but we weren’t reinventing the television station. In fact, our biggest limitation may have been the bandwidth needed to get the streams in and out of NECN and Mogulus. We barely scratched the surface, and I look forward to trying it again. In a day and age when television stations are beginning to use Skype for broadcast live shots, and $200 cameras can shoot HD-quality video, our biggest obstacles are often our own creative limitations.

Bring on more snow! We want to try this again! (Well, maybe we can find another worthwhile event in warmer weather.)

Salmonella gives agencies taste for social media

Turns out there is a positive story about salmonella.

The nationwide outbreak caused by peanut products has actually pushed the federal agencies responsible for Americans’ health to find more social ways to communicate.

The Centers for Deisease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Adminstration (FDA) and Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) are now working together to provide users of the web easier access to more information.

The blog ReadWriteWeb pointed this out this morning – but it’s something eagle-eyed users of NECN.com might have noticed back on Friday. On Friday, we posted a new widget built by the FDA that lists all the foods affected by the nationwide recalls.

Widget? A widget is a small piece of code that runs on your webpage and can be updated in real time – in effect, we give up a little piece of real estate, and the FDA could update it. So as the products list changes… it will be reflected on our NECN.com page – or anywhere else that the widget is posted.

The widget gives you an easy way to search for products affected by the massive peanut recall that continues right now, and it gives content providers like, say, NECN.com, an easy way to get the best information directly to you, without having to redesign a webpage every time products are added to the list.

And the widget isn’t the only thing the CDC and FDA have created. The agencies also have a map (which you see in the report) that regularly updates the number of salmonella cases by state – and like the recall list, it’s an embeddable widget that a site owner could post and never have to update. If you go to the CDC’s social media site, you can also see other widgets, blogs and Twitter accounts the agencies are launching. Some of the ideas seem great, others (like the “Have you checked your cabinets for recalled products?” e-cards) seem a little more unusual. But even those cards have a purpose – after all, Web users are far more likely to act on a recommendation from a friend than one from a government agency.

It’s tough to get positive about salmonella – but it’s good to see agencies recognizing new ways of communicating, especially in an area where timely communication can save lives.

Knowledge is power savings for Google

googlethumb-013Google is looking to get itself into the power business. Not generating it, mind you, but informing people about their usage. The company has unveiled software today that allows users to get real-time information about their power usage, in the hopes that it will save Americans money.

The announcement is on the google.org blog. The new software is called PowerMeter, and the concept is simple – if you knew how much electricity you use, you might, well, use less.

But before you run out to get signed up – Google faces a number of big obstacles here. First you need a smart power meter – of which there are only an estimated 40 million worldwide, and a small fraction of those in New England. Second – Google has yet to sign a partnership with any utility or independent device provider to gather the data. But they are working on it, and are making the software itself open source, which means that programmers can take it and rework it freely to work with other products.

The company is testing out the system with some of their engineers, and the engineers say it’s making a difference. One engineer on the company’s YouTube video release says that utilizing PowerMeter and other energy saving techniques has saved him 64% on his electric bill – and about $3000.

Of course, that might get filed in the same bin as the “hypermilers” who can crank their Civics up to 100 miles per gallon by doing things most folks would never dream of. And just knowing what you’re using is only the tip of the iceberg. The next step would be letting your appliances decide when, for example, it might make the most sense to run the dishwasher, or charge the iPhone most cheaply.

And getting the smartmeters in place is a challenge – and not cheap. Connecticut Light and Power is working on a smart meter project announced in 2007, and the utility reportedly once estimated the price of the meters at $1000 apiece.

(Note: if you don’t want to wait, there are other “smart” options out there, from Smart Power Strips that shuts down power to plugged in but switched off appliances, to appliance-driven solutions like Z-Wave that are already out there. But those mean you, not the utility, absorbs all the hardware cost.)

But still, there are certainly savings to be had just from knowing what your appliances are consuming. The Google blog post notes:

“Studies show that access to home energy information results in savings between 5-15% on monthly electricity bills. It may not sound like much, but if half of America’s households cut their energy demand by 10 percent, it would be the equivalent of taking eight million cars off the road.”

And that would have consumers and the planet seeing a little more green.

How green is your Google?

A Harvard researcher finds himself at the center of a tech buzz over Google’s carbon footprint. But he might not belong there.

The buzz started with this headline Sunday morning in the Times of London: “Revealed: the environmental impact of Google searches – Physicist Alex Wissner-Gross says that performing two Google searches uses up as much energy as boiling the kettle for a cup of tea”.

(Two Google searches is one cup of tea? No wonder I can’t sleep! The caffeine is killing me!)

But of course, it’s not that simple.

[Read more...]

New England’s Metal Tulips

Look in a New England garden this time of year, and you can see them sprouting. Daffodils and tulips. (I think they’re tulips, right? I’m no garden guy.)

Look on the roadways, and it’s metal tulip season. What’s a “metal tulip?”

Objects in mirror are colder than they appear

They’re those little mobile things we call convertibles. At this time of year, they are seen in 35 degree weather like this morning, with the top down, but the windows rolled up and the heat cranked high enough that they create a little pocket of global warming around them. (It’s metal, and it’s bowl-shaped, like a tulip. Work with me here, please.)

I’m not complaining. I see them, and their counterparts, as another sure sign of spring.

Other roadway horticulture:

The two-wheeled thistle: A motorcyclist so bundled up that they look like a puffball riding a bicycle.

The steaming rose: A car with a sunroof open in weather cold enough that you can see the heat exiting the car into the surrounding atmosphere.

Oh, and don’t take pictures of objects in your rear-view mirror while driving. Do as I say…