About Oliver Starr

Oliver Starr

Oliver Starr is a well-known blogger (first employee at TechCrunch) and an authority on social media. He's consulted with Microsoft, Nokia and numerous high-tech and scientific startups.

Currently, Oliver Starr is the Chief Evangelist for Pearltrees. He is also a former professional cyclist with over 345 career victories to his credit both in domestic and international competition. You can read more of Oliver's writing at his personal blog StarrTrek.


Latest Posts by Oliver Starr

Liam Neeson’s “The Grey” Raises Concerns With Wolf Conservationists & Animal Rights Groups

January 29, 2012 by  

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The upcoming release of Liam Neeson’s new film “The Grey” has many wolf conservationists, animal rights groups and thousands of concerned citizens like myself quite concerned about this movie and what it might do to wolf recovery efforts and the fate of wolves like OR-7 – the first wild wolf to re-enter California in over 90 years.

Why? The movie grossly mischaracterizes wolves as blood thirsty, territorial hunters of humans and the plot makes it look as if the humans are being hunted and pursued by killer wolves as they desperately fight for their survival.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Millions of wolves have been murdered by humans in the past while it is questionable if even a single human has been killed by a healthy wild wolf in North America in the time that records of such events have been kept.

Nevertheless, people, particularly those in many western states have an irrational fear of wolves and this paranoia is likely to be exacerbated by the release of The Grey. In fact it isn’t hard to imagine that an anti-wolf zealot, incited by the film will take it upon himself to hunt and perhaps kill OR-7 or other wolves that are only just beginning to reestablish themselves in their former range.

Further, the federal delisting process — which most wolf experts believe is taking place prematurely — is likely to be accelerated by the kind of propaganda created by this movie. It is also possible that this film will increase anti-wolf sentiment across the country and this may result in an increased demand for permits to hunt the few wolves that have begun to re-colonize the lower 48 as well as those that thrive in Alaska.

Beyond this, it has come to the attention of the media that in an effort to “get the cast into the proper survival mindset” director Joe Carnahan (@carnojoe on twitter) procured a wolf carcass ( which he had his cast consume in preparation for the film – an apparent attempt at method acting.

Many organizations have expressed their outrage at the movie itself and the actions of its cast and crew and I join them in denouncing this grotesque distortion of one of natures most intelligent and important apex predators, as well as for their decision to consume such an inappropriate meal for no legitimate reason.

PETA has already written about this issue, so has Ecorazzi.com and numerous other sites that are universally appalled by this film and the actions of its director and cast. I hope you’ll help spread the word and support me and others like me in an effort to show Hollywood that they have a greater responsibility to the people, our planet and all living things.

I hope that everyone that reads this will help me and others like me to promote a boycott of this movie. Already over 5500 concerned citizens have expressed their opinion on this issue by signing the petition I helped start at Care2.com. If this is a concern of yours, read more about it and sign the petition too. My stance is simply this: help preserve and protect the wolf.

Smart New Uses for Old Technology

August 24, 2010 by  

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SSID_Messaging
If you want to know what’s going to happen next with a technology perhaps the smartest way to predict the future is to ask your kids – or someone else’s… It’s amazing what you might learn.

The other night, for example, I was having a meeting with Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher.  His son, Matt, also happened to be present.  I needed to log into their WiFi to go over a few things and as I did so I noted a number of funny networks in the area – phuckphace, for example.

When I mentioned this Matt told me how he and his friends are using the SSID – and it’s both clever and surprising:  they use it to broadcast general messages to their local area.  An example:  someone’s SSID might be “shutyourdogup” (the intent being obvious).  Another might be “partyatmyplacenexthurs”.

Sure, this is non-specific, but if you know who the network belongs to (or you know you’ve got a barking dog issue) this is a quick, dirty and free way to get the word to folks that are local to you.

Have you heard about another clever new way to use a technology you thought was fully exploited?  Did you learn about it from someone half your age?

I’m curating a Pearltree on this topic, so please include links with your comments and I’ll add other cool tips to the Pearltree so that you can see what other folks have discovered.

New Uses for Old Technology

2010 Singularity Summit: A Meeting of the Minds

August 23, 2010 by  

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Pages_bookstore_cyborg_mannequin4u
The 2010 Singularity Summit, held this past weekend in San Francisco, was quite literally a meeting of the minds.  Not just because the assembled group consisted of a fair number of the brainiest people on the planet, and not just because the general consensus was that a meshing of silicon hardware with our carbon wetware appears to be a future inevitability, but also because of the discussion about animal intelligence and how it is similar to yet different from our own.

Now that the event is a week in the past there have been a number of very interesting posts written on what happened there and what people think of it.  I’ve taken the time to pull together a detailed listing of the event itself as well as the press the Summit received and I’ve organized it into the Pearltree below.

Some of the interesting content you’ll find in the links below include: (links are in the Pearltree)

  • Steven Mann on H2Organ at Singularity Summit 2010
  • Singularity Summit | Summit 2010 > A Sample of the Singularity Summit -Includes full videos to the 2009 Singularity Summit Talks
  • Patrick Takahashi of Huffington Post on The Singularity Summit 2010 - 
  • ZDNet’s CHris Jablonski on: Singularity Summit 2010: No place for human values in a ‘posthuman’ future?
  • A collection of the links and tweets from the 2010 Singularity Summit: Accelerating Future » Singularity Summit 2010 Tweets and Links
  • Additional Collected Press Coverage of the Summit: A Selection of Singularity Summit 2010 Coverage
  • Mathilde Berchon covers the more physical aspects: Singularity Summit 2010- Human Health and Body Improvements Innovation Round-Up
  • Summit Volunteer, Kevin Fischer provides his thoughts on the event before the fact.
  • A comprehensive list of abstracts, bios and deep links on presenters.

Singularity Summit

A Biofuels Primer

August 10, 2010 by  

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Over the last several years increasing attention as well as increasing controversy has focused on the topic of biofuels. Most specifically the issues surrounding biofuel relate to how much their use reduces CO2 and other greenhouse gasses as well as how the use of certain basic materials to produce these biofuels (particularly corn) impacts the availability – and thus the cost – of these commodities for other uses, namely for human consumption.

Biofuel Options

Let’s take a look at the most popular biofuel feedstocks, how they stack up against one
another from an environmental impact perspective as well as how they compare
with one another with respect to the other principal uses each feedstock has
and how this might impact human and/or animal populations.


Biofuel Basics

Biofuels – In the broadest sense biofuel is
defined as any fuel derived from biomass or living/recently living plant
material. They may offer some
of the most promising alternatives in our efforts to decrease dependence on
traditional fossil fuel sources (oil, gas, petrol, coal, etc).

Biofuels
offer the only immediate alternative to fossil fuels and they also have the
potential to help limit the environmental impact from fuel emissions. In addition, they are the only direct
substitute for oil in transport that is available on a significant scale in
most countries.

The concept of using biofuels is not new, the inventor of the combustion engine,
Nicholas Otto, conceived his invention to run on ethanol. Rudolf Diesel’s
first engine was designed to
run on peanut oil while early versions of the Ford Model T ran on ethanol.

Plant biofuel,
has become one of the most promising forms of renewable energy available
today. This is particularly important when comparing biofuel to other
technologies, such as hydrogen, which also have potential, because these other
potential fuels are still quite far from large-scale viability –particularly
because they will require major changes to vehicle fleets and the fuel
distribution infrastructure.

Additionally, the abundance of raw materials
and ease of use with existing equipment and infrastructure means that biofuels
are one of our most promising petro-fuel alternatives for reducing greenhouse
gas emissions as well as for diversification of the energy supply in the
immediate future.

The key reasons why biofuels are appealing on a
global scale include:

They
are immediately available

Their
use can help provide energy security and diversity

Biofuel
production will give new opportunities for farmers and developing countries

They
have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Principal
Forms of Biofuel:

Ethanol:

Ethanol
is a liquid alcohol made of oxygen, hydrogen and carbon and is obtained from
the fermentation of sugar or converted starch contained in grains and other
agricultural or agri-forest feedstocks.


Feedstocks:

Starches
(corn, grains, potatoes), sugars (sugar cane, sugar beet), biomass

Leading Producers:

The
USA is the world’s largest producer, having produced 34.2 billion liters in
2008.  Brazil is the number 2 global producer of ethanol, producing 24.7
billion liters in the same year.  The EU produced approximately 2.7
billion liters in 2008, followed by China which produced 1.9 billion liters.


Uses

Ethanol
is primarily blended with petrol (gasoline) to use as transport fuel.

Biodiesel:

Biodiesel is a non-toxic,
biodegradable fuel. The majority of biodiesel is from oily feedstocks in a
process called transesterification, where the oil is reacted with an alcohol
(usually methanol) and a catalyst (such as sodium hydroxide).

Feedstocks:

Vegetable
oils (canola, corn, cottonseed, palm, soy, sunflower) animal tallow, recycled
greases

Annual production worldwide:

3.8
billion liters in 2005

Leading producers:

In
2006, Germany produced approximately 2 billion liters, followed by France at
557 million liters and the United States at 284 million liters.

Uses:

Biodiesel
is mainly used as a replacement for diesel or in a blend with traditional
diesel fuel. It is used primarily as a transport fuel, but can replace diesel
in any engine.

Biogas:

Biogas consists mostly of a gas called methane which
is the principal chemical present in “natural gas”. Bacteria produce methane as
they break down cellulosic (plant based) material, whether in a swamp or bog,
or in an industrial biogas generator – a reactor that allows the collection of
biogas for power generation. Another type of biogas is carbon monoxide rich gas
made via thermal gasification.

Feedstocks:

Landfill
gas, sewage sludge gas, corn silage, liquid manure, cereals

Annual production worldwide:

402,602
TJ (terajoule)

Leading producers:

The
United States produces approximately 160,000 TJ; the UK and China each produce
approximately 58,000 TJ, and  produces Germany approximately 42,000 TJ
annually.

Uses:

Biogas
can be used in the same motors that use natural gas. Currently only a very
small proportion of biogas production is used in transport. Currently, the
majority of biogas is used in the production of electricity and heating.

Issues:

The global food crisis saw maize and wheat prices
double during the period 2003-2008.
Due to the rising use of biofuels during this period, particularly
ethanol derived from corn, many people identified the use of biofuel as the
principal reason for this increase, however research has shown that while
biofuel production has – and likely will continue to have an impact on the cost
of food for human consumption, the actual cost increases that can be directly
attributed to the use of biofuel remains difficult to accurately identify.

Furthermore, as biofuel production
technology improves and especially as we move towards using second generation
biofuels that do not require food otherwise earmarked for the human food chain,
this issue though important is not as significant as some parties would have
you believe.

In the above mentioned price increases, for example,
biofuel production was simply one component contributing to food price
inflation.  The recent drought in Australia, floods elsewhere in the world
and other adverse weather conditions have had a negative effect on harvests
leading to food shortages and consequently price increases.

Further as we
experience an evermore rapidly changing global climate weather is becoming even
more unpredictable and severe resulting in a continuing rise in food prices as
crop yields – particularly in developing nations are reduced and in some cases
where entire crops may fail due to changing environmental conditions.

In addition, rapid population growth
has placed a higher demand on food and this factor alone has played a
significant role in food price increases.

In fact, far from being the bane of global food
production, biotechnology can cost-effectively optimize the yields of both
crops for food and fuel. Ultimately, biotechnological innovations related to
agriculture will provide more affordable food and fuel.

nd this, second generation
biofuels are made from non-food feedstocks. By focusing on second generation
crops, feedstock options are widened and a greater amount of fuel is available
for the market, with the added benefit of potential for green house emission
savings.

FeedstockScenarios

Sources:
Joachim Von Braun and R.K. Pachauri, “The Promises and Challenges of Biofuels
for the Poor in Developing Countries”, IFPRI 2005-2006 Annual Report Essay
(Washington, D.C.: International Food and Policy Research Institute), November
2006.

Other than plant biotechnology, a number of other
factors will prevent fuel from being produced at the expense of food. In many
cases, a plant can produce both commodities – first the food can be processed,
and the remaining plant material is used to produce fuel.

For example, bagasse
is the biomass remaining after sugarcanes are crushed to extract the sugar.
Bagasse is a feedstock for sugarcane-based ethanol.

Furthermore, many of the most suitable biofuel crops
are not usually used as food. Sweet sorghum, jatropha, switch grass, types of
wood and other non-edible plants are all ideally suited for the production of
fuel.

Finally, it is likely that second-generation
biofuels feedstocks will be available within 5 to 10 years. These
second-generation feedstocks are typically non-food plants, such as
switchgrass, and will not affect the food supply.

Second
Generation Biofuels

As you have likely gleaned from the information
presented above, first generation biofuels have some significant limitations
that severely impact their overall prospects as truly viable sources to replace
petro-fuels.

Among these the two principal issues are the fact
that these Gen-1 biofuels rely on feedstock that is otherwise used for human
and animal food consumption.

This
fact alone places very real limits on just how much material is available for
biofuel production. Put simply, past a certain point the cost to create these fuels has a direct impact on the
cost of food.

Secondly the energy required to produce these fuels
as well as their limited ability to actually reduce the production of greenhouse
gasses calls into question their long term viability.

Beyond this, scientists familiar with this field
have raised concerns about clearing land upon which existing but non-useful
material (such as old growth forests) lie.

The concern is that by clearing land to plant more
generation one biofuel crops we are actually removing one of the most important
and effective means of capturing CO2 and replacing it with material that
ultimately will contribute to creating more of these same gasses that are the
source of a significant percentage of the global warming problem we are trying
to resolve.

Second generation biofuels have been designed with
these problems in mind. The goal
is to extend the amount of biofuel that can be produced sustainably by using
biomass consisting of the residual non-food parts of current crops, including
material left behind once the food crop itself has been extracted.

This includes stems, leaves and husks
as well as fruit skins, pulp, etc.
Other candidates for second generation biofuel feedstocks include crops
that are not used for food purposes including switch grass, and jatropha as
well as industrial waste like wood chips.

Here are the critical chemical details that
differentiate second generation biofuels from those tested for the first
generation of these new energy sources:

All
plants contain cellulose and lignin.
These are complex carbohydrates (molecules based on sugar). Lignocellulosic ethanol is made by freeing the
sugar molecules from cellulose using enzymes, steam heating, or other
pre-treatments.

By fermenting these sugars, ethanol can be produced in the same
way as first generation bioethanol production. The by-product of this
process is lignin. Lignin can be burned as a carbon
neutral
fuel to produce heat and power for the processing plant and
possibly for surrounding homes and businesses.

Lignocellulosic ethanol has the potential to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions by around 90% when compared with fossil petroleum.

At present, IOGEN Corporation has developed a
demonstration scale lignocellulosic ethanol production plant in Canada. Currently this facility produces around
700,000 liters of bioethanol each year. They are currently working to build a
full scale version of this operation.

A large number of other lignocellulosic ethanol plants have been
proposed in North America and around the world.

Another method to create fuel from biomass is the Fischer-Tropsch process. This process uses biomass to
create a gas which is subsequently converted to a liquid fuel. When biomass is the source of the gas
production the process is also referred to as Biomass-To-Liquids (BTL).

Third
Generation Biofuels

Although still in development, (and with no current
commercial scale production available) third generation biofuels appear to be
very promising. Typically, third
generation biofuels are derived from various species of algae.

Algae
offers three crucial benefits over traditional terrestrial feedstocks such as
corn, soybean, palm oil and others. First and foremost is the advantage in
land-use. The energy density of algae is vastly superior to other crops; even
at the low end of the potential oil-by-volume estimates.

While
the advantage conferred by using algae as a feedstock varies depending on the
strain of algae, what is confirmed is that certain kinds of algae have been
observed to achieve photosynthetic efficiencies of up to three times that of
corn and almost four times that of switchgrass.

Currently a couple dozen firms are active in this
space, however – as stated above, none of them has started production at
commercial scale. Nevertheless, it looks as though it is finally gaining some
momentum and entering a high growth phase.

In fact, despite the economic
downturn, venture capital firms poured $176 million into algae startups in
2008, including a record $84
million of it in Q4. Several firms have also taken the route of entering into
joint-venture agreements with larger oil and gas companies or utilities.

While this particular petro-fuel replacement is
still in its infancy, it bears watching as the benefits – much greater energy
density, byproducts that themselves are highly useful (such as nutrients and substrate
for pharmaceutical manufacture), the potential to scrub CO2 while the
feedstocks themselves are cultivated, the ability to grow these feedstocks much
more rapidly than conventional sources and finally the fact that their
production does not require additional deforestation makes this sector one of
the hottest in the sustainability race.

Fourth
Generation Biofuels

When considering fourth generation biofuels the key
word to remember is “bioengineered”.
This is because the advances that will make fourth generation biofuels
superior to previous generations are being done at the genetic level in the
feedstock sources being used.

Basically, scientists are developing genetically
engineered plants that have the ability to sequester far more CO2 than non-GMO
feedstocks. So far eucalyptus and
dahurian larch have been genetically modified for this purpose.

In
fourth generation production systems, biomass crops are seen as efficient
‘carbon capturing’ machines that take CO2 out of the atmosphere and lock it up
in their branches, trunks and leaves. The carbon-rich biomass is then converted
into fuel and gases by means of second generation techniques.

Then, before,
during or after the bioconversion process, the carbon dioxide is captured by
utilizing so-called pre-combustion, oxyfuel or post-combustion processes. The
greenhouse gas is then geosequestered – stored in depleted oil and gas fields,
in unmineable coal seams or in saline aquifers, where it stays locked up for
hundreds, possibly thousands of years. (what we’ll do with this sequestered CO2
down the road is a question I’ve yet to see convincingly answered).

The
resulting fuels and gases are not only renewable, they are also effectively
carbon-negative. Only the utilization
of biomass allows for the conception of carbon-negative energy; all other renewables (wind, solar, etc) are all
carbon-neutral at best,
carbon-positive in practice. Fourth generation biofuels instead take historic
CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere.

Unfortunately,
Gen-4 biofuels are still some way off.
Furthermore, like any other solution that relies upon genetic
engineering, this technology has its detractors. There are a large number of people concerned about the
impact that genetically modified plants – and particularly those that might be
distributed on a large scale can have.

As any molecular geneticist is quick to point out, we are only just
beginning to unlock the secrets of true bioengineering and as with any nascent
scientific area there are likely to be unforeseen consequences (both good and
bad) as we progress with this line of research.

at
does seem clear about fourth generation biofuels is that once we truly get the
science fully developed, these fuels with their double-duty feedstocks would
appear to pave the way to not only truly sustainable production of
post-petroleum fuels but also a means to scrub some of the excess CO2 out of
our environment in a truly cost efficient and sustainable way.


FourthGenBiofuels

Wrapping it Up

Although this is an unusually long post, we have
actually barely scratched the surface of this highly complex and rapidly
developing sector.

As you can clearly see a lot of money and a large
number of very bright people are working hard to make sustainable liquid fuel
sources a reality in the near future.

It is also plain to see that the solutions developed so far each present
their own set of challenges with no one solution coming out on top as the clear
winner in the race for a sustainably produced petro-fuel alternative.

That said there is a vast amount of money on the
line for companies that do manage to successfully address these issues and
create an environmentally beneficial product that doesn’t require
deforestation, does not cause a reduction in available human foodstuffs and
which can compete and win economically when compared to conventional fuels.

While necessity may be the mother of invention, it
is the opportunity for enormous financial windfalls that drives the
entrepreneurial process.

Very few
areas possess the potential for a windfall anywhere near that of the energy
sector. In the final analysis, it
is this fact that gives me the greatest optimism for these technologies.

While we may actually be depending upon these
solutions to continue life as we know it, I still find it comforting to know
that the same motivations that have lead to breakthroughs in so many areas are
driving research in this critically important area full speed ahead.

A Question of Chemistry: A Selection From My Writings on Pharmaco-Technology

June 24, 2010 by  

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Way back, once upon a time after I was an athlete for pay but before I was a card carrying geek, most of my intellectual energy was invested in biochemistry, pharmacology, biology and the science of better athletes through chemistry. As you might imagine I have a lot of thoughts on the whole “steroids in sport” issue, as well as on Floyd Landis, Lance Armstrong, Greg LeMond and many other athletes with whom I trained, raced and most especially suffered.

Depending upon the reception this topic area receives I may or may not bring to light other articles I have written – I might even offer a few insights into the recent issues with doping and bike racing – like I said, it depends upon what you think of this topic. I penned the following piece a few years ago. It is half serious and half a raving rant in the style of Dennis Miller. In any case and without further explanation I give you:

A Question of Chemistry; the case FOR drugs in sport
©2002 Oliver W. Starr

The whole damn baseball thing pisses me off. Grown men paid millions to run around in pajamas and whack some ball around an abandoned football stadium. Worse, baseball had preempted the regular surf videos usually on the TV at my favorite bar and this was an unwelcome interruption to my normal routine.

My only solution was to drink and luckily the bartender abetted me ably in my quest. After my third marguerita I didn’t really care who was winning (not that I cared much to begin with) and I was less annoyed than I would have been sober.

Granted, “the national pastime” (as if even one in fifty Americans actually plays the game or gives more than a passing thought to it) has some money behind it; network support, big advertising revenues, and all that god-awful MLB merchandising. It also has big drug problems.

What? Baseball? The “ALL AMERICAN” game? While taking drugs isn’t precisely an American phenomenon, American athletes seem to be taking drug use to new heights. It used to be that drugs in sport meant late night calls to bail bondsmen and court-ordered substance abuse programs. No more. The new sports hero is all about performance enhancement, which means, among other things, anabolic steroids.

You’d have to be blind or at least too ascetic to own a television to have failed to notice the dramatic post-Rose change in professional ball players. Once, the rare slugger (who used to sport a radial or two round the middle) had guns on him. Now, even the formerly petite pitching star looks more like an aspiring “natural” bodybuilder than a quarter-miler.

I’m not a gambling man, but I’d be willing to place serious money on a definitive drug test positive for something more than andro if you tested the hair of one notorious heavy hitter. In fact, my suspicion is that a large percentage of the “men of summer” would fail an International Olympic Committee drug test with flying colors. Course they don’t have anything on track and field stars or gridiron gladiators, but then we’ve been inured to drug use in those disciplines since Alzado and Johnston made such spectacles of themselves.

If anything the whole androstene issue from years past was a perfect smokescreen for what was really in those player’s lockers. Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m not some misguided armchair quarterback with a totally unrealistic perspective on drugs in sports. Far from it; with a career as a professional athlete in two of the most drug-riddled sports on earth, I’m uniquely qualified to have an opinion on this issue and here it is; let these guys use all the drugs they want. Let them snort them, inject them, swallow them, rub them into their skin, pour them on their Wheaties or shove them up their asses. So long as performance is improved they can kill themselves for all I care.

In fact I’d back that policy 100%. As far as I’m concerned these guys are the Formula-One cars of sport. In fact, let’s stop this ridiculous sham and just kick the door wide open. I want to see the biggest, strongest, fastest, meanest mother-fuckers on the planet dukeing it out tag-team style in a pharmacologically enhanced free for all the likes of which we’ve NEVER seen in the WWF.

If perchance a few athletes succumb to cancer or the odd myocardial infarction we can only hope it happens on prime time; the physiological equivalent of a three car pileup on the back stretch.

Face it; if we police baseball, or any legitimate professional sport for that matter, we’re looking at performance backsliding to levels we haven’t been tortured with since the sixties. Personally, I’d rather see guys dropping dead over the finish line after running a 3:37 mile than yawning my way through a 4:55 by the current “drug-free” world’s best.

Imagine it. Golf will be dominated by power-driving “Happy Gilmores”, in tennis we’ll witness the first ever “death by service”, and cyclists will hit 60 mph in drag strip reminiscent field sprints where athletes literally snap the cranks off their machines as they drive towards the line.

Perhaps you think this is unsporting? Ask yourself this; is it more sporting to have quasi drug-free events dominated by a select few athletes with the resources to cheat the tests with the aid of top drug docs? Is it fair that we let our children grow up believing that their heroes, through hard work and talent alone have achieved their remarkable skill and physical prowess? Or is it better, as I propound, to call a spade a spade. We don’t pretend to fuel “fire breathing dragster tractors” with unleaded gasoline, why should we discriminate with people?

Let’s embrace the potential of the chemically enhanced athlete. It’s a brave new world with a brave new conscience completely prepared for the freakishness that only the monstrously drugged athlete can deliver. Either that or give me the fucking remote so I can turn the TV back to the surf videos I came here to see.

CAS Refuses to Hear Landis Appeal. Positive Doping Verdict Upheld.

June 24, 2010 by  

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le_tour_de_farce.jpgSo ends one of the most ludicrous, unfair, illegitimate and biased trials in the history of professional sport. According to CNN, a three person committee meeting in Lausanne Switzerland has issued a 58 page ruling denying Floyd’s request to be heard on appeal. In addition to upholding the previous decision of WADA (the World Anti-Doping Association) the committee criticized Landis harshly and fined him an additional $100,000 to go towards covering a portion of the expenses accrued by WADA and USADA (the United States Anti Doping Association) while they prosecuted Landis for his supposed use of synthetic testosterone during the 2006 Tour de France.

From my perspective as a biochemist and a former professional cyclist who raced many times with Floyd this is a sad day for Floyd but also for the sport of cycling. This ending – in my opinion- is the culmination of a witch hunt that has been going on ever since Lance Armstrong donned his first yellow jersey.

This is much less about a true agenda to keep the sport clean and much more about retribution for having the temerity to win the Tour de France seven times and never come up positive for drugs. Only they couldn’t nail Lance (and I’m not saying that Lance took drugs, either. In fact if there was any single human being capable of doing what he did without drugs, it was Lance who could do it).

So Landis gets to take the fall, payback from a frustrated country that hasn’t had an athlete capable of winning their own national tour since Fignon lost to LeMond back when EPO couldn’t be detected and amateurs were dropping dead like flies from the drugs they were using.

So Landis is now out of options, out of a job, a title and apparently out of money too. What really sucks about this is that I’m still not convinced that he was positive for synthetic testosterone that he ingested the day he staged his miraculous comeback. The numbers for that never added up in my mind, the case was based upon data that was clearly flawed and the court that arbitrated the hearing was so intent on nailing Landis to the proverbial cross that they overlooked the half dozen obvious flaws in the testing, the analysis, the reporting and even the disclosure of the test results.

Any one of these issues should have been sufficient to have this whole thing tossed out and the fact that it wasn’t is prima facie evidence in my opinion that they never had any intention of giving Landis a fair trial. It was a forgone conclusion from the start that Floyd was going to be the sacrificial lamb and so he was.

This sucks for the sport. It’s really too bad that the riders don’t have the initiative to unionize and stand up to USADA and WADA and all the other “ADAs”. These “ASS-sociations” are the ones that are screwing up the sport. If I were leading the rider’s union I’d suggest that not a single rider submit to another control until there are better ways so insure that the rider’s rights are preserved during the anti-doping control process and that there is no way that a rider can be arbitrarily called a doper and have his career destroyed when the truth is really that incompetent technicians using flawed procedures are the ones at fault and should be the people held accountable.

I know this sounds like I’m soft on Floyd but that simply isn’t the truth. I’m sympathetic towards Floyd, it’s true, but only because I know enough about what has gone on and also about what lead to his comeback (See “Floyd Landis and the Magic Water Bottle; Part 1, Part 2)to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt that Floyd didn’t dope on the 17th stage and that the stripping of his title and the destruction of his career are a travesty and an assault on a hard working and deserving champion.

One of the things that really pisses me off about this is the hypocrisy of the other riders in the race. If there’s a single professional cyclist in the peloton of the Tour de France that is totally ignorant about which drugs to use and when to use them, he’s both inhumanly gifted and spectacularly naive. These guys all know that you don’t use testosterone for a single day performance boost. It simply doesn’t work that way and the doctors, the riders, the USADA and WADA judges all know this. Floyd knew this too. In fact, a single injection of testosterone in the morning before a stage would have been among the dumbest of all possible moves.

Not only does it not help, and likely hinder performance, is readily detected and difficult to mask, the shot itself can make you sore too. Steroids have their place in a properly constructed doping protocol but that place is not 0n the morning of the 17th stage of the Tour. The fact that all these riders – guys that Floyd has raced with for almost a decade – and guys that I’m sure Floyd treated with respect have been pathetic and spineless. I guess that’s sort of to be expected. After all, look how these guys fight.

All the same, what goes around comes around and when one of the guys that benefited from Landis’ ridiculous disqualification finds himself on the wrong side of a bottle of piss there won’t be anyone to stand up for him either. Of course this sort of thing is relatively unlikely to happen again soon. There aren’t many Americans with a Tour de France win in their future tearing up the road these days and the one guy that I think has a chance to be that good is still a junior – though with the genetics of Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter-Phinney I think you can expect great things from him so long as the doping police leave him alone…

Floyd Landis and the Magic Water Bottle: Part III

June 24, 2010 by  

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They Forgot Who They Were Dealing WithEditor’s Note: Here’s the long-awaited third installment to my series on Floyd Landis and his epic Tour de France and subsequent doping controversy. While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I do have a unique perspective that is based in part upon my career as a professional cyclist and in part upon my education and work in biochemistry and exercise science. If you’re just finding this article for the first time, you might want to read Part I and Part II first. You might also find my views on pharmacological sport performance enhancement interesting or amusing. That post is here.

In part two we talked a bit about doping in cycling and how it is a systematic program and not a fly-by-the-seat of your pants (or fly with the help of a needle more accurately) athlete-as-physician circus act such as the press and the sports governing bodies would like to, and would also like the public to believe. We discussed the stage and how hard the GC contenders had to go on the final climb and finally we saw a quote from Floyd that I believe was an overlooked but enormously important indication of why what happened next well…happened next.

TDF Stage 17 a Miracle on Two Wheels or Something Else?

The 200 kilometer stage 17 from St. Jean de Maurienne to Morzine was the final day in the Alps and represented the last chance any serious TDF contender had of making a significant move in the overall general classification.

On paper this stage didn’t look like a monster. Unless, of course your perspective was colored by the fact that you’d already raced sixteen previous stages including monster climbs in the Pyrenees and the Alpes, and particularly if you’re perspective was also determined by the fatigue you’d added to your already accumulated fatigue by virtue of a leg shattering, lung searing effort on the final climb to the finish at La Toussuire.

The Role of Cumulative Fatigue and Superlative Effort

On the other hand, if your perception was colored by the facts above the seventeenth stage looked like one to be survived – to be endured – it was a perfect stage to let a bunch of no-hopers role on up the road and gain fifteen minutes and suck up all the points for the KOM and the Green Jersey along the way. It looked like the perfect stage to have your lieutenants ride “tempo” all day – just fast enough that no one got any ideas but not so fast that the leaders would have to call upon those weary legs to do anything more than the minimum required to just finish the day in the same GC position as from the day before.

If you’ll recall in Part II of this series I wrote about the effort that the leaders must have made up the final climb to La Toussuire. As you might imagine you pay a price for an effort of this magnitude, a price that is made all that much steeper by the previously acumulated fatigue, by the fact that it was made at the end of a long, hot stage, by the fact that every rider was dehydrated before the effort began and of course by the fact that the following day they had to get back on the bikes and race once more.

You might also recall that I pointed to Floyd’s statement the he could “only go one speed that wasn’t very fast” on that final climb. In other words his bad day – whether he was bonking, fighting a virus, or whatever – so limited his performance that even though he was trying as hard as he possibly could he simply didn’t have the strength or the energy to go any faster or – and this is important- to hurt himself very much.

This last may seem counterintuitive so let me try to help you understand it. Lets say you lift weights. Lets also say you have a coach that is a few points shy of having a genius IQ and he has you do biceps curls every day for a month. Then, on the 31st day he has you try and do your 5 rep maximum.

Now you might try very hard, but if your arms are trashed from the 30 prior days of lifting your five-rep max isn’t going to be all that impressive. What’s more, since you’re probably sore as hell already you’re not going to be able to push yourself so hard that you’d make yourself all that much sorer. In fact, the impact of your five-rep-max effort would probably be so minimal that on the 32nd day you wouldn’t be any more sore than you were on the 31st day, follow?

Now on the other hand, lets say you have a coach that’s a bit more capable and he has you train biceps only once every five days – he knows that your maximum strength and recovery capabilities are going to be on the fifth or sixth day post your last effort. So he has you train biceps only five times during that same month and then on the 30th day (which will be five days after your most recent biceps workout) he has you do a five-rep-max. I can guarantee that you will absolutely crush your five rep max from the prior coach. Your arms will have been fresh, but well trained and totally recovered.

Fresh enough and well enough recovered in fact that they’ll be strong enough to allow you to do an awful lot of damage to yourself in those five reps. I can also promise that you’ll be sore beyond belief on the first and second days after your big effort.

This same principle is at work in the tour. Floyd was too fatigued and flat on the stage to La Toussuire to do himself much physical damage, but the other riders, the ones that were taking it to Floyd on that final climb felt better and they had the adrenaline of a cracking tour leader coursing through their veins. They buried themselves. In fact they did themselves so much damage that I am surprised that more of them didn’t crack completely the following day.

To Drink or To Chase, That Was the Question

But that’s not all by a long shot. If you look at the route on the seventeenth stage you’ll see that it was tailor made for a long break by a small group or an individual. The course was serpentine and undulating with small, winding roads that make it especially hard for a team to get a big chase organized and rolling. It’s also tough on a course like that to see what is happening up the road.

The old saying “out of sight, out of mind” is really true and on a course like the seventeenth stage it was possible to get out of site almost right away and from then on the peloton never saw the leaders again the whole day.

The other thing that the seventeenth stage made difficult was for the riders in the peloton to get enough to drink. With the small narrow roads the cars couldn’t come up next to the peloton which meant that the domestiques had to keep dropping back and ferrying water to their respective team leaders.

This was also a difficult situation – if the same guys that you need to be up front chasing are constantly going back to fetch water they aren’t going to have enough left in their legs to mount an effective chase.

Plus, with that many riders packed together and people getting nervous about the rider up the road the pace was probably very uneven which meant that there were likely brief accelerations where everyone was going nearly flat out followed by extended lulls where the pace dropped to barely 22 miles per hour.

In contrast Floyd, alone in front, had a car right there feeding him water whenever he wanted it. In fact you saw on the coverge that he was actually dowsing himself with water – you won’t see any footage of the guys in the peloton doing that. They needed every ounce of water they had just to keep minimally hydrated.

The same thing goes for food. When you’re alone or in a small break, it is a lot easier to get the food you want and to eat it without worrying about someone crashing next to you or someone attacking just as you grabbed a musette bag full of snacks.

Floyd was also able to ride at a steady tempo. No huge accelerations, no big lulls, just a steady, AT effort for several hours.

These Guys Forgot Who They Where Dealing With

It’s important to mention something else here too. Did all the guys in the peloton forget Floyd’s background? A moutain bike world cup race is basically a two kilometer sprint flat out, followed by blowing up and then scraping yourself together and riding at your AT for the next three to four hours. Funny, that sounds a lot like the way Floyd rode the seventeenth stage, doesn’t it?

When you take all these factors and add them up, it doesn’t take illegal drugs to balance the equation – it seems to me that it balances pretty nicely all by itself.

Let’s examine it in summary, shall we:

  1. The riders that rode away from Floyd on stage 16 nuked themselves in the process
  2. Floyd was so flat on the final climb of stage 16 that he couldn’t hurt himself nearly so much
  3. The peloton rode a very uneven pace on stage 16 while Floyd was able to ride steadily
  4. It was nearly impossible for riders in the peloton to stay hydrated during the 17th stage
  5. Floyd was able to hydrate very effectively during the 17th stage
  6. Floyd was able to get and stay out of sight easily on the 17th stage
  7. The domestiques that had to fetch water were also the ones that were supposed to be mounting a chase on the 17th stage, a task that was all but impossible given their own fatigue, the small winding roads and their leader’s need for water that they had to fetch from the cars following the race
  8. Floyd was a pro mountain biker, very familiar with and exceptionally well-suited for an effort just like the one he made on the 17th stage.

In summary it seems to me that when you take all these facts and lay them out before you on the table, any rational person is going to see that there are plenty of reasons to explain the respective performances of Floyd and the other riders in the Tour.

Yes, it was an exceptional effort. But was also the culmination of a series of factors and events that created a “perfect storm” for a miraculous solo win. Also, don’t underestimate the fact that this was an enormous tactical blunder on the part of all the teams that should never have let Floyd gain so much time. By the time these guys realized that they had an emergency on their hands it was already too late to do anything about it.

Honestly – and I hope by now you can see that I really do call it the way I see it – I don’t see how you need doping to explain Floyd’s results on this stage. Far from it. I think that the facts that are readily apparent to all concerned, facts that can be conclusively demonstrated to be true, definitively prove that Floyd’s performance can be completely explained without resorting to speculation about doping.

Needles? We Don’t Need No Stinking Needles

I’ll save the lengthy explanation about why using testosterone would have been one of the most ludicrous decisions imaginable for another post as I’m sure I’ve given you plenty to think about already today. Before we wrap this up though let me remind you of what I said before: that on a Tour team of the caliber of Floyd’s the doping is not left up to the riders. The doctors know this stuff as well as anyone – certainly as well as I do so I am absolutely certain that no one on Floyd’s team stuck him with testosterone before the stage. I think that Floyd would have had a pretty tough time finding testosterone to shoot up with too. Remember that in previous tours teams and riders had been raided in the middle of the night – recall people even going through the garbage in Lance’s room after he departed from motels during his final tour.

I hardly think that Floyd (as the American leader who was clearly under the microscope) would have been wandering around with syringes and testosterone in his bag or some tube of transdermal testosterone gel in his personal effects. Puh-lease. Why didn’t the “investigation” into his alleged doping ask any of these sensible questions?

Anyway, I’ll delve into the myriad reasons why only a moron would have used testosterone in my final post on this topic. I hope you’ve enjoyed this one. Please let me know what you think in the comments.

Oh- and I promise I won’t take another four months to write the final installment. Oliver

Floyd Landis and the Magic Water Bottle: Part II

June 24, 2010 by  

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Landis, ShatteredIn part one of this post I talked about my prior relationship with Floyd and also named a few of the folks that might have had a vested interest in seeing Floyd come up positive for synthetic testosterone in the 2007 Tour de France.

In this installment I’ll take a closer look at this contention and talk about the 16th and 17th stages, including a discussion of Floyd’s “miraculous” ride and just how testosterone may have helped or hindered such a performance. I’ll examine also, other possible reasons for his epic effort that it appears to me have possibly been overlooked by Floyd’s friends and foes alike.

Much has been written about drugs and cycling – mostly that professional cycling is one of the most drug riddled sports on the planet and that by in large nearly all professional cyclists use performance enhancing substances at least part of the time. Unfortunately, these statements are both essentially true. Though drug use is nothing new in professional sports there are few examples where systematic use of banned ergogenic substances is so endemic.

This is not a new phenomenon as some would have liked us to believe. Cyclists have been using various compounds nearly as long as the sport has been recognizable in its modern form. From alcohol and strychnine (I kid you not) used by riders contesting six day track events in the 1920′s and before to the use of cortisone and other anti-inflammatory steroids, along with amphetamines in the 70′s and 80′s, to the modern era of steroids, rEPO, blood doping, blood packing, perfuchloro, and even retro-viruses that stimulate local production of nerve growth factor if there’s even the potential that something will aid in the cyclists quest to go faster, go fast longer, or recover more quickly it has been tested, tried, discovered by the governing bodies, made detectable via testing and abandoned for the next tricky thing.

In recent years the testing – and particularly the “in competition” testing – has become so good that it has forced athletes to dope in entirely new ways. Doping has become much more of a science in the past decade as well. Gone are the days of a soigneur with a little black bag fixing you up before a stage when you’re not feeling so hot – we’re now in the time of highly trained, highly paid physicians that are exceptionally knowledgeable about the compounds they are employing to improve the athlete’s performance, the methods of using these compounds for maximum benefit and of course the means of detecting these drugs and how to get around them. It has even been said that the highest paid guy on most teams isn’t the team captain, it’s the team doctor. “Nuf said”.

When I was racing there was certainly plenty of drug use to be seen, from the unsophisticated, lower level pros and teams to the highly professional medical programs employed by the best teams and the best riders. A level playing field? Hardly. But that is not what I’m writing about. I only make this point for one simple reason and it is this: a team like Phonak, that had at least one rider capable of vying for a Tour de France victory is not going to leave doping to chance.

This is not amateur hour – at this level the riders themselves are not self administering pharmaceuticals any more than they are giving themselves (or each other) massages after the stages end. Pulease. We’re talking about major advertising dollars being spent on these teams and the salaries of the top riders. These athletes would no more medicate themselves than a jockey would medicate a Kentucky Derby winning thoroughbred. What this means is that if Floyd doped – or more specifically, since for the purposes of this post we are only talking about the use of synthetic testosterone during the 17th stage of the Tour de France – it is highly (one might even say impossibly unlikely) that such a drug was self administered without the guidance or knowledge of the team physician.

We’ll get back to this in a minute because it is important but first lets talk about what happened on the 16th stage

As you know, Floyd was seemingly in command of the tour up until the 16th stage when he had what can only be described as a catastrophically bad day. Riders in big tours have bad days all the time. It is inevitable that over 23 days of basically non-stop racing on some days you’ll feel good and some days you’ll feel like it would be an upgrade to feel like death warmed over. The key for a GC rider (general classification) is to have bad days on stages where it is possible to fake it through the stage without letting your competitors know how vulnerable you are.

A nice long flat road stage is perfect for making a bad day look like a not so bad day. A stage with 2 “hors” category (above category) climbs plus one 1st and one 2nd category climb is perfectly horrible for that same bad day. When the going gets vertical there is no place to hide, no teammate that can provide meaningful help and no amount of determination that can save you from the inevitable.

Unfortunately for Floyd, his bad day came on stage 16 which was without a doubt one of the most difficult stages of the 2006 Tour. The Yellow jersey, it is said, is a magic fleece and many are the riders who graced with the golden tunic suddenly found themselves transformed from mere mortal work-a-day professional cyclists (if there is such a thing in the European professional peloton) to beings capable of other worldly performances. You only have to play reruns of any previous Tour to see what I mean. Unfortunately, this magic is whimsical at best (Lance it seemed was charmed for a full seven years) and it chose to take its leave of Floyd at the worst possible time.

Apparently Floyd knew almost instantly that his day was going to be long and painful. I can tell you from personal experience that it is one of the worst feelings a professional cyclist can have to wake up with legs that feel like lead, lungs that feel like they’ve been scorched and a heart the size of a hummingbird’s when you’re facing a race of any sort – let alone a 220 km beast like the one facing Floyd. The course he was facing is so difficult that it would pose a truly serious challenge to all but the most extraordinary recreational cyclists to simply ride the distance in a single day, never mind the fifteen prior days and more than 2000km of racing at an average speed of around 47 km per hour leading up to it.

As you know, Floyd hung tough – incredibly tough – up until the final climb to La Toussuire. On those vertiginous slopes he finally cracked and with each stroke of the pedals his competitors drove a stake through the heart of his Tour de France dream. There was nothing left in the tank -it was obvious for all to see.

When I was a pro – and particularly during long time trials which was not my favorite discipline – I used to ask myself this question: ” If someone put a gun to my head right this moment and told me that I must go faster or they would pull the trigger, would I take the bullet? In other words was there another ounce of power I could summon for the effort? If there was you weren’t going hard enough. The correct answer should be “yes I’ll be taking the shot to the head, there’s nothing more I can do.”

I mention this, not so much on account of Floyd but on account of his competitors that were giving him a beating. During races like the Tour the riders have radio communication with their team directors in the cars following the race. These cars in turn are all tuned in to the race radio which is a moment by moment report of what is happening on the road.

The moment that Floyd cracked every director knew it, this in turn meant every rider with a prayer of a decent overall finish also knew it. In an instant all those headsets came alive with directors sportif screaming at the top of their lungs to their respective athletes: “ride, ride, ride – venga, venga, die, die, allez, allez, allez…this is it, this is the race you must go now with everything you’ve got and more!!!” And ride they did. In spite of the heat and the three massive climbs already under their wheels that day the men looking for a GC placing went flat out – most likely as hard or harder than they’d ever ridden in their lives for the remainder of the stage.

It was the kind of effort about which books are written – the kind of effort where you die a little you go so hard. Pain means nothing, fatigue means nothing, vision narrows until you are racing in a black tunnel with barely any sight except the yellow line rolling by beneath your tires. Efforts so extreme that some athletes void their bladders or even bowels without even realizing until later – unless you’ve been there and done this, you simply cannot conceive of an effort like the ones the men who had dropped Floyd made.

At the finish Floyd had ceded 10:04 to Dane Michael Rasmussen, effectively taking him out of realistic contention for an overall victory. Speaking about the disastrous stage, Floyd said something which I found to be very telling. In fact, I believe, and experience dictates that my belief is correct, that what Landis said actually explains everything about what happened the following day.

“I was struggling even on the climbs before that,” Landis said. “I tried to hide it, but I wasn’t good, and then on the last climb there was only a certain speed I could go, which wasn’t very fast.” Floyd Landis following his disastrous finish on the 16th stage of the 2006 Tour de France

As I said, this statement is very telling but what it tells us is not obvious and also probably not what you’d expect….

In the next installment we’ll take a look at what this statement really meant and why it is the real smoking gun of this whole saga…

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