Saturday, November 22, 2014

Down With Convenience!


Introduction

“I appreciate the seamless ease….”

That statement is the inspiration for this post.  It’s from a letter a friend wrote me recently.  The point isn’t that he sounds like a TV ad (from the days when ad spokesmen were earnest instead of arch). The point, rather, is that I found this simple statement oddly inflammatory.  I asked myself why.  And the answer is, I should find it inflammatory, and so should you.  Ideally, all my friends would join me in mounting a War on Convenience.  If I can’t have that, well, maybe I can influence a few readers.

A paradox

Of course I was being bombastic and hyperbolic a second ago.  Who doesn’t want convenience in his life?  But I think convenience is like alcohol:  it should be enjoyed responsibly.

Paradoxically, my worldview straddles two seemingly conflicting ideals:  I’m a great lover of efficiency, but I bristle at society’s infatuation with ease and expedience.  “Wait,” you may ask, “aren’t efficiency and convenience pretty much the same thing?”

Nope.  When I say “efficient” I mean that I can get something done exactly how I want it done in as little time as possible.  (Often this involves doing a lot of work up front, like creating macros for a software application.)  When people talk about seamless ease, they’re often referring to systems that are merely intuitive, such as a user interface that can be grasped quickly, without any need for help menus or a manual.  Some products are convenient because they remove tedious steps; other products are convenient because they rescue you from having to learn something.

I think it’s widely assumed that where user interfaces go, intuitive is best.  But this isn’t always true.  Consider the computer keyboard:  to be maximally intuitive, its keys ought to be placed in alphabetical order.  That would make it easier for the first-time user, wouldn’t it?  But of course this idea seems silly, since typing efficiency is more important than making the keyboard layout straightforward for the newcomer.

What’s even sillier is that the QWERTY layout was actually designed to be maximally inefficient, to keep early typewriters from jamming.  The Dvorak layout I use was difficult to learn, but my long-term gains in efficiency were well worth the trouble.

Low-lying fruit

The simplest argument against the embrace of convenience is that it often requires us to forsake quality.  I give you microwave popcorn:  it’s certainly easy to make, but a) it literally stinks, b) it’s more expensive than traditional popcorn, c) it tastes pretty bad, d) it’s full of salt and fat ,e) it’s full of chemicals, and f) the excessive packaging is bad for the environment.  The popularity of microwave popcorn makes me embarrassed to be a member of the human race, considering that an air popper is also extremely easy to use, and cheaper, and lets you control how much salt and butter you add.

Whipped cream in an aerosol can is also really convenient, but it’s more expensive and less tasty than what you whip at home, and has the added problem of unpredictability:  it’s hard to tell when the can is low on cream (or non-dairy “kreme” as it often is), so you never know when you’ll foul up your sundae with the liquid dribble that comes at the end.  By whipping my own cream, I can choose an organic product; whip only as much as I need; control the amount of sugar; and save money.

But enough of these convenient examples.  I want to get into the more subtle ways that, through our love of convenience, we sell ourselves short without even realizing it.

The problem of control

Often, complicated systems are made more intuitive, and sometimes more efficient, through a simplification of the user interface and/or automation of repetitive operations.  A little Cessna surely has a simpler interface than a commercial airliner, though it often lacks that handy autopilot feature.


Automation is a fine idea in theory, but in practice, it’s only as good as its execution.  How accurate are product developers’ guesses about what should be automated and how?

Well, here’s a horror story.  My family was visiting some friends in their lovely, sunny home in London.  One afternoon, when our friends were out, I thought, hey, my mother-in-law is always asking for a nice photo of my wife and me.  And here we had this great lighting, so I suggested to my wife that we finally take the time to shoot a nice photo together.  My wife has a tendency to close her eyes in photos, so it took us at least a dozen tries.  Well, on the last day of our visit, our host said, “Hey, why not give us some photos of your visit from your SD card?”  Great idea!  So I took the card up to their Mac and stuck it in the card reader, expecting that I could cherry-pick the best photos of both families.  But to my surprise the operating system seized control, copied every photo off the card, and launched a little slide show, set to music.  This might have seemed really helpful to a novice computer user who hadn’t mastered file management software, but I was appalled.  The software must have chosen to show the pictures in reverse chronological order, because the first two dozen shots were of my wife and me.  We came off looking like the biggest narcissists you’ve ever seen.

Probably there’s a way to tell the Mac not to automatically grab all the photos from an SD card.  But some systems don’t give us a choice.  We consumers often put up with this lack of control because we enjoy the convenience of the overall product.  I see this problem most frequently in Internet-based systems, particularly when the revenue model is more complicated than “you pay me directly for goods or services.”  Things are automated with more than just the user’s experience in mind.

Here’s an example:  the Gmail Adsense engine, which automatically produces custom ads based on my e-mail text, doesn’t exist to serve me.  Were I given the choice to opt out of Adsense, I certainly would.  I don’t even use Gmail, and yet (as detailed here) my e-mails to Gmail users nevertheless produce these tailored ads I like it or not.

But you know what’s even worse than that?  It’s when we’re unaware of how convenience is costing us.  Consider LinkedIn:  it’s very convenient, and a great idea, and I’m glad that it’s free.  But as I’ve only recently discovered, LinkedIn does what it pleases with the information I give it.  Awhile back, because my profile photo was like five years old, I put up a new one.  (The idea was anti-vanity:  I didn’t want people to think I was using an old photo just to look younger to the world.)  To my embarrassment, LinkedIn contacted my 400 contacts on my behalf:  “Dana Albert has a new profile picture!”  As in, “Dana Albert, devoted curator of his own image and his self-important notion of an Albert ‘brand,’ wants you to see his latest self-portrait!”  A few people responded, perhaps snidely, “Nice picture!”  How embarrassing.  (Yes, I am easily embarrassed.  What can I say … I’m an introvert.)

But that’s not all.  I’ve come to find out that LinkedIn evidently does something special for their newer users:  they send an update anytime one of the user’s contacts has made new connections.  Since I don’t get such updates, I’d never have known about this behavior, except a couple of friends commented.  (“Wow, I’ve see a lot of LinkedIn updates on you lately … did you lose your job or something?”)  Once I looked into it, I figured out how to change these settings, but it wasn’t easy—which means that those who thrive on convenience will probably just accept the default behavior.  (Surely I don’t need to go into the various ways Facebook has surreptitiously exploited their users’ tastes, preferences, and purchasing data.)

Are your choices my business?

“Fine,” you might say, “Go whip your own cream, and type on your weird keyboard, and shun Facebook, if that’s what floats your boat—but let me do as I please.”  In other words, you might wonder why your behavior is any business of mine.  Here’s why:  other people’s behavior often affects what choices are available to me.

Here’s how that happens.  Because I worship efficiency, I enjoy figuring out how to make a complicated process go quickly—but not everybody enjoys this process, and manufacturers know it.  New products are often targeted at teens and young adults (to build brand loyalty early), so new consumers’ habits can have an immediate influence on industry.  Streamlining a process, modern consumers believe, should be figured out by the manufacturer and baked into the product.  Thus, the focus is outward on the product, rather than inward on the user.  It’s not “How can I get better at this” but “How can this be better for me?”  The “smarter” our products get, the lazier we’re permitted to be.

(Fortunately, schools are still essentially old-school.  If it weren’t for teachers making kids learn math, do you think these kids would bother, given the ease-of-use of smartphone calculator apps?  And yet, once you’ve learned arithmetic, it’s faster to do it in your head.)

The result of this consumer/producer dynamic is that perfectly valid products are often kicked to the curb.  Consider the manual car transmission, aka stick shift:  is it straightforward?  Not very.  Is there a benefit to learning how to work a clutch?  I think so.  After all, a manual transmission offers better gas mileage, and enables me to roll-start the car if my battery is dead.  My mastery of manual shifting impresses the ladies, and enables me to rent a car in Europe.  The popularity, in this country, of automatic transmissions didn’t used to affect me, until that choice became so ubiquitous that some foreign car companies stopped exporting their stick-shift models here.  When I bought my last Volvo, I couldn’t get one with the transmission I wanted.  I had to settle for an automatic. 

(By the way, that bit about impressing the ladies?  Yeah, that was a joke.  Just seeing if you’re awake.)

Another example:  digital cameras.  What a great invention, and yet the camera industry is really suffering.  You know what the number one camera is today?  The iPhone.  It’s easy to see why:  you’re carrying your phone anyway, so why carry another device?  The problem is, phone cameras are not nearly as good as regular digital cameras—even the more humble point-and-shoot ones.  A phone camera takes inferior pictures because the lens is too small and doesn’t let in enough light for non-flash photography in low-light conditions.  Phone cameras also lack a zoom (their so-called “digital zoom” is pure malarkey—cropping masquerading as telephoto).

Look at these two photos.  The first was taken with a $200 Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot camera.  The second was with a Motorola Droid phone of the same vintage. 



If the camera industry were healthier, I’d have even better products available to me, and at lower prices (due to economies of scale).  Alas, the market for standalone cameras has been strangled by the ubiquity of camera phones—the more convenient choice.

Whom does convenience benefit the most?

Sometimes the person who seems like the most direct beneficiary of convenience-oriented technologies actually isn’t.  Consider the grocery store UPC reader:  it’s very intuitive, and thus perfect for bringing new cashiers up to speed quickly.  It’s also more efficient, but this benefit does not accrue to the cashier, who is paid by the hour.  The system’s efficiency doesn’t mean the cashier gets a raise; it means he or she is easier to replace, and the store can get by with fewer checkout stations.

Now let’s move beyond human consumers and consider other consumers, like cattle.  Being kept in a small stall in a feedlot is certainly convenient for the cow, in terms of her basic need for sustenance.  Of course this diet causes all kinds of trouble for the poor animal, but her well-being was never the point.  The convenience of the feedlot mainly benefits the meat packer.  Since this arrangement translates into lowered operating costs, which can be passed along to the human consumer, it looks like a win-win.  So it is with cheap, high-margin products like soft drinks and sugary cereal.  Needless to say, in the long term this convenience isn’t benefiting the human consumers, either.  The countless Americans who buy junk food and frequent fast food chains are basically backing in to their own feedlot stalls.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies grasp that there’s big money to be made in drugs that treat lifestyle ailments, and doctors prescribe these drugs because doing so is so much easier than trying to get people to exercise and eat well.  Consumers participate in this lowest-price, lowest-effort economic model without an appreciation for its real costs.  The companies at the top in this economy are the direct beneficiaries of our rampant convenience addiction; by indulging it, they introduce a variety of societal ills.  In this regard, convenience is like secondhand smoke.

Convenience and parenting

If you’re a parent who has made it this far into my essay, I doubt you’re the kind who feeds his kid soft drinks, sugary cereal, and fast food.  But addiction to convenience is also present in the most upscale of products.  I’m talking about PCs, smartphones, tablet computers, and Netflix.

It’s more convenient to park kids in front of the TV or PC than to try to get them to help with dinner or with setting the table.  It’s easier to let a kid use his iPad in a restaurant, while his food gets cold, than to teach him how to behave like a grown-up.  So kids and their parents become co-dependents in a family dynamic that ultimately favors no one.

I won’t lie and say I never give in to such temptations.  But when I do, I don’t pretend I’m being a good dad.  “Shall we sit our kids down in front of a video and let them rot their brains out, just to get them out of our hair?” I’ll ask my wife.  And I’ll say to my kids, “Would you like to put in a video and let your brain be automatically extracted?”  This raises awareness and may help us fend off bad habits.


Do modern kids have the mental space required to daydream?  I’d guess a lot of them don’t.  So when my kids complain that they’re bored, I say, “Good.  It’s good to be bored.”  Necessity being the mother of invention, boredom is a good problem for the mind to solve.  Solving this problem with a library book, a blank piece of paper, or some random household detritus doesn’t do much for the economy, but the economy is not my problem.


“But wait,” you may protest, “Computers can be very educational!”  Yes, they can, but that doesn’t mean just any computer-based activity is intrinsically useful.  Too many parents pretend their Internet-addicted kid might become the next Mark Zuckerberg—because this fiction is more convenient than fighting with the kid about limits on his or her screen time.

My wife and I are all about limits.  This is why we don’t have cable, our kids don’t have phones or tablets, and their PC time is closely monitored and rationed.


“Okay, fine,” you might say, “You’ve identified some troublesome trends, but how are the habits of other families any of your business?”  Well, where the hell are my daughters going to find husbands?  My kids won’t settle for a passive, inert, pasty, video-addled mouth-breather who doesn’t read.  Meanwhile, the boys out there won’t settle for out-of-touch, pop-culturally illiterate nerds who don’t even text.  Sure, there are some boys out there whose parents are just as socially unconventional as my wife and me, but it’s a small pool.

Call to action

If you disagree with all of this, that’s fine—and I thank you for at least reading it.

On the other hand, if you agree with me, you may wonder what I propose to do about this rampant convenience addiction.  The answer is simple (though not easy).  Next time you appreciate the convenience of something, ask yourself if that convenience came at any great cost to you:  to your privacy, to your health, to your family, or to the environment.  Then ask yourself if it’s worth it.  I’ll keep on doing the same.

And at a minimum, if you find yourself using the phrase “seamless ease,” please don’t say it like it’s a good thing.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Chasing “Andrei Rublev”


NOTE:  This post is rated R for pervasive mature themes and mild strong language.

Introduction

This post has given me a bad case of writer’s block.  The topic, the 1966 Russian film Andrei Rublev (Андрей Рублев), is just too huge.  I can’t review this just as a movie—it’s much more complicated than that.  It has been called “the greatest movie ever made” and “a very long film about bearded men.”  As The New Yorker observed, the film—about a 15th-century icon painter—was blocked from being shown in the Soviet Union because the government considered it “ideologically ambiguous in places—an error regarded in Russia as more dangerous than mayhem.”  Andrei Rublev is like this giant heavy weight that can bear down on you even when you’re not watching.  What I’m going to try to do here is capture the experience of my monumental struggle of going toe-to-toe with this movie.  Twice.

By the way, before you decide this topic is too nerdy, and/or that this movie is just a snooze-fest for intellectuals—kind of a My Dinner With Андрей—think again.  This movie softens the viewer up with long, dull stretches, only to suddenly shock him with a brutal Tartar raid, a nude bacchanal, or a scene of brazen ideological ambiguity.  It is as harrowing as it is dull.


Why should you read this?

Read this post if you’ve never heard of Andrei Rublev before and/or you’re considering watching it for the first time.  Are there spoilers here?  Yeah, there are, but believe me, with this film it’s better to err on the side of knowing too much than being mystified throughout.  According to one critic, “[Director Andrei] Tarkovsky himself said:  ‘We worked at drowning our idea in the atmosphere, in the characters.’”

If you know you’ll never watch the movie, read this to improve your cultural literacy, and to know what you missed.  Plus, maybe after this post you’ll change your mind and give the film a try.  (Which you should, if for no other reason than its name-brand director.  Another notable film by Tarkovsky is The Steamroller and the Violin, about a boy who is endlessly teased for playing the violin until he befriends a road worker, who teaches him how to drive his steamroller.  Apparently it ends there, before becoming the most badass revenge flick ever.)

If you’ve already seen Andrei Rublev and just love all the endless commentary about it on the Internet, you might be hoping I can offer a fresh perspective.  Could I be better than the 100 IMDb reviewers?  Well, I am a pretty eggheaded guy, but I’m also not afraid to call a spade a “pompous, self-satisfied, overeducated spade”—to its face.  My credentials as a highbrow type, who nevertheless  appreciates lowbrow sensibilities, can be found here.

My first time watching the film

I first encountered Andrei Rublev when my mom, visiting from Oregon, brought it with her from her local library.  This was a two-cassette copy on VHS.  Now, right off the bat, there’s something wrong with viewing an art house movie on VHS.  Here’s what Tarkovsky intended for us to see:


You know that on-screen notice that says, “This film has been modified from its original version.  It has been modified to fit your screen”?  Here’s what that’s referring to:


When a movie is modified to fit the squarer TV screen , a bunch gets cut off the sides.  Directors in the ‘80s and ‘90s actually compensated for this by putting important action in the middle of the screen.  Tarkovsky, needless to say, did not.  But that’s not even the worst of it.  Our VHS copy of this film was of absolutely terrible quality and looked something like this:


It was actually even worse because it was really grainy.  The whole movie seemed to take place during a blizzard.  (“I’m just so cold watching this!” my wife complained at one point.)  It’s hard enough trying to tell the characters in this movie apart (them all being bearded and hooded) without such a poor image.  I couldn’t follow anything and kept falling asleep.  Not being actually tired, I wouldn’t sleep for long, but every time I awoke, the action onscreen had gotten even more confusing and my poor brain—surely in self-defense—would power down again.  I think I fell asleep about forty times.  Once, I awoke to see a character flying high over the steppes in what appeared to be a homemade ultralight, like what killed John Denver.  This caused me a fit of confusion that was just short of apoplectic.  Though I was the first to abandon the film, my mom and my wife eventually gave up as well.  I don’t think they even made it to the second cassette.

Ever since that day, Andrei Rublev has been a running joke among my mom, my wife, and me.  We try to work it into conversation at every opportunity, as in, “I thought Avatar was a pretty cool movie, but it was such a blatant rip-off of Andrei Rublev,” or “Hey, look, the Key Grip on this movie was Mitch Lillian!  Wasn’t he a grip on Andrei Rublev?”

So when, a few weeks back, my wife came home from the library announcing she’d checked out Andrei Rublev on DVD, I assumed she was joking.  She was not.

Why watch this movie?

Don’t let me sour you on Andrei Rublev .  It is a well loved film.  The average IMDb user rating is 8.3, which tops 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King’s Speech, and The Hurt Locker—i.e., the last five Oscar winners for Best Picture.  It has more ten-star IMDb reviews than I’ve ever seen.

That said, this movie isn’t for everyone; it seems to favor the intellectual élite.  Frankly, there seems to be a bit of “emperor’s new movie” effect, with each reviewer seeming to be one-upping the next.   The first ten-star review is titled “The Pietà of Filmmaking.”  I guess I’m just not up to this reviewer’s level because I had to look up “Pietà,” which means “a picture or sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus Christ on her lap or in her arms.”  So how is this movie the filmmaking equivalent of that?  Am I supposed to feel unworthy that I can’t grasp the meaning here and am too lazy even to ponder it?

This review says, “Score it 11 out of 10” and also “It is a difficult movie to follow. One might liken it to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake as a work of genius so monumental and complex, and so disdainful of traditional narrative form, that it requires extensive thought and study to understand it.  And even after studying it, watching it repeatedly, and reading Tarkovsky’s own comments about it, one still finds it opaque in many ways.”  Yeah, “one” might liken it to Finnegan’s Wake, if one could manage to read Finnegan’s Wake in the first place.  Who is this “one,” anyway, who has the patience to watch a 3½-hour movie repeatedly?

Of course, it’s not just amateur reviewers who praise this movie.  The original review in The Guardian, in 1973, states, “Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie works through a slow, unstressed accumulation of scenes and images.”  Doesn’t sound like the formula that would get a new movie green-lighted … but maybe that’s what makes this one special. 

There’s something odd going on:  the confusing, misunderstood-genius flair of Andrei Rublev has somehow infected the reviewers.  The Guardian reviewer goes on to say of Tarkovsky, “He pared drama of vision; the deliberate grandeur of perception.”  That’s not even grammatically correct.  Worse, it doesn’t make a lick of sense.  It’s just a tossed salad of words that sound kind of impressive together.  Is that what it takes to describe this movie?  The abandonment of cogent thought?

The New Yorker review from 1969 offers praise that is easier to digest:  “It is a film that is fascinating, enriching, full of the sap and the soup of Russian rural life, of dirt and dirty girls, of trees and fields, and of people.”  Fair enough, but … aren’t dirty girls people too?

Ah, perhaps I’ve just caught the interest of the reader who may not care who said what about this movie, but is intrigued by the “dirty girls” notion.  Dirty as in dirt-covered, or as in libidinous?  Good news:   the New Yorker goes on to describe “a too long spring-bacchanal scene of naked full-busted and full-buttocked girls and bearded naked men.”   (Note that “girls” in this case means “women.”  That’s  the sexist language of 1969 coming through, I guess.) 

I think it odd how the men are described as not only naked but bearded.  I mean, just about all the men in this movie are bearded.  Is “bearded” in this context supposed to be as enticing as the women being “full-busted and full-buttocked”?  And speaking of “full-buttocked,” why haven’t we ever come across this description before?  It would have been so useful to rappers like Eminem (in “Ass Like That”) or Sir Mix A Lot (in “Baby Got Back”).

You might also wonder how a bacchanal scene like this could be described as  “too long.”  And yet, like everything else in the movie, it is.

By the way, promoters of this movie weren’t shy about using the sex angle to garner interest.  Check out this poster, which prominently features a very minor character:

My second viewing

Checking out a DVD from the library means you have all the time you need to watch it.  This is a blessing but also a curse.  Night after night we procrastinated.  The mere thought of tackling the movie again was enough to make me irreparably sleepy.

Finally, one night, we put in the DVD.  We were immediately struck by the excellent video quality.  Not only is the aspect ratio restored to movie screen dimensions (i.e., the sides aren’t chopped off), but all the blur and graininess are gone.  Look:


But what the hell was that onscreen?  Just like you, my wife and I were shocked to see, against the backdrop of a church, what appeared to be a gigantic scrotum.  What kind of sick person would put that into his movie?  As the camera panned down, in its slow, unstressed way, I realized this wasn’t a scrotum but some kind of homemade hot-air balloon.  For like twenty minutes we see a bunch of identical Russian peasants running around yelling as the balloon gradually breaks its tethers, and then some guy flies off in it.  There are no subtitles in this scene to explain what the yelling is about.

Would the dialogue have been discernible to a native Russian speaker?  I don’t know.  The DVD jacket advertises “New English subtitles translating 40% more dialogue,” suggesting that the bar had previously been set pretty low.  (The audio isn’t very good, by the way.  Later in the film, I replayed a brief scene several times to try to learn the Russian for “motherfucker,” but I couldn’t hear the word clearly enough.)

Who knows, maybe you’re not supposed to grasp what’s going on.  We watched this balloonist fly over the bleak Russian landscape for a good while, until he finally crashed.  Who was he?  What was he doing up there?  Was the balloon made for him, or had he stolen it for a joy ride?  Did he survive the crash?  And what did this have to do with Andrei Rublev, the icon painter?  None of these questions was answered.  Nothing made sense in this chapter, the first of nine.

I’m not going to walk you through the entire plot of the movie, but let me share with you some highlights, to convey how difficult—and yet beguiling—Andrei Rublev turns out to be.

The second chapter is almost as mysterious as the first.  Three monks leave their monastery on horseback, muttering something about going somewhere else to seek their fortunes as painters.  It starts to rain.  They seek shelter in a barn where a jester entertains a bunch of peasants with a disturbingly bawdy performance that goes on and on.  Finally the monks show their disapproval, which puts a damper on everything, including the movie.  Then some soldiers arrive and haul the jester away.

Where is Andrei?  What does it all mean?  I tried to shrug this off.  In the third chapter, we come upon a character who at first seems to be dead but turns out just to be really, really old.  He starts up a long dialog with this other guy about painting icons.  Suddenly I’m hopeful:  could the younger guy be Andrei Rublev, meaning that after like 45 minutes I’ve finally isolated a character whose actions and words might actually be important?  I’m on the edge of my seat even before the old guy asks him, “Are you Andrei Rublev, by any chance?”  Now my heart is in my mouth!  There’s a long pause and the young man replies, “Nyet.”  Dammit!

That was enough for the first night.  We broke the viewing into three, maybe four nights because we kept falling asleep, and there’s only so much you can take.  But, with all the snow and blur from the VHS version removed, we found ourselves looking forward, in a way, to picking the film back up again.  (I know this isn’t how you’re supposed to watch this kind of movie, but hey, we’ve got kids, and lives outside of our passive video entertainment.)

On the second night, we did gradually figure out who’s who and what’s going on.  Rublev looks a little bit like Woody Harrelson with a beard and a hood.  If you ever watch the movie, keep an eye out for the guy who looks like this:


The basic gist is, Rublev gets recruited by the old guy, Theophanes the Greek, to be an apprentice and (eventually) paint the Last Judgment on the walls of a church.  There’s a great scene where Rublev says goodbye to Daniil, his mentor at the monastery.  It’s a bit of bromance I suppose; Rublev is really emotional and does an interesting hand-jive on the table, fingers drumming and hands moving around like giant spiders, probably because he’s so nervous.  If you watch this scene a couple times, as my wife and I did, you can stretch the moviegoing out even further.

Wait.  Would you want to stretch it out?  Well, possibly.  There’s something kind of pleasant about this movie, once you relax a bit and give up on trying to comprehend everything that goes on.  It’s a good movie for just drifting along, taking in the unusual scenery and attractive cinematography.  Many reviewers have described the movie as soothing; my wife agreed, saying, “It’s almost kind of narcotic.” 

Before Rublev settles down to paint, there are long scenes of him arguing abstract artistic and religious matters with Theophanes in the middle of some blasted landscape.  Some of the dialog is predictable and boring, but other snatches are very cryptic, like when Rublev suddenly yells at his helper, as they’re out wandering in some grassland, “You idiot, you let the glue burn on the flame!” and then some old guy comes out of nowhere, cuffs the helper on the ear, and yells, “You idiot, you let the glue burn on the flame!” as if Rublev hadn’t just yelled this.  (What glue?  What flame?  Where?  Beats me.)  Fortunately, before these scenes become too tiresome, we’re on to the pagan bacchanal scene.

Indeed, these women are full-busted and full-buttocked and nude.  They’re not bad-looking, but fortunately not that good-looking either, which would be silly (like the heroine in Braveheart who is not only really pretty but has unrealistically perfect teeth).  There’s a lot of frolicking in the forest, and Rublev is caught spying on the action by some pagans who tie him up and vow to come kill him in the morning.  He’s freed by a full-busted and mostly nude pagan woman, Marfa, who later flees through the woods, showcasing her full buttocks.  It’s a strange butt, not just ample but oddly square, and my wife said to me at this point, “Please tell me I don’t have a Marfa-butt.”  (She assuredly does not.)  I am quite sure that phrase will be immortalized in the specialized jargon of our family.

Finally, Rublev shows up at the church in the city of Vladimir to do his work.  There’s just one problem:  Rublev doesn’t actually paint.  It’s like a stalled-out government contract job.  We’re supposed to grasp that there’s an artistic dilemma involved here, between what the government wants (a cautionary tale of some kind, I guess) vs. Rublev’s desire for something that expresses the essential humanity of all involved and charts a new course for Russian painting, etc.  But how do you convey that?  Rublev just comes off like a slacker, and it doesn’t make for very exciting cinema.

Maybe that’s why we suddenly get an endless scene of Tartars sacking the city of Vladimir.  (The plot of Andrei Rublev is a bit like how Pauline Kael describes the James Bond movies:  “One damn thing after another.”  Come to think of it, Rublev being rescued by a babe, who’s supposed to be the enemy, is right out of a Bond film, innit?)

There’s a lot to alarm you in the Tartar raid scene (e.g., people’s eyes being gouged out, women being dragged off, dwellings getting torched) but what really jarred my wife and me was a horse falling backward down a staircase.  In this pre-CGI era, how did they get this footage?  We feared for the horse.

The New York Times review from 1973 says, “I wondered … how the director got a horse to fall down stairs.  Was the horse hurt?”  I’m glad somebody else was bothered by this.  What is it with Russian artists and horses?  In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment a horse is brutally tortured; in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina Vronsky (distracted by Anna) crashes his beloved horse during the steeplechase and the poor creature must be put down; in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time the hero literally rides his horse to death.  Such depictions are disturbing enough in literature, where actual animals aren’t involved in the rendering.  I discovered this tidbit on IMBD:  “For the scene where the horse falls down the stairs, it was shot in the head.  The crew acquired the horse from a slaughterhouse, and it was going to be shot the next day, so they decided to use it for the film.”

Perhaps the coolest part of the movie is toward the end when this teenager, bluffing, tells the authorities that he has learned, from his late father, the secret to forging bells (like the kind you’d put in a church tower).  So he gets a commission for this giant bell, which hundreds of poor Russians help build, in the middle of a damn field, casting it in a huge clay-lined pit with a raging bonfire.  It’s the polar opposite of our modern 3-D printing, and an impressive sight to behold.  Could you just rent the movie and fast-forward to this part (perhaps pausing along the way to take in the nude bacchanal)?  Well, you could, but I think it helps to be in a stupor when you get to this scene.


At the very end, the movie switches from black-and-white to full color, and the camera passes (in its slow, unstressed way) over the still-extant icons that the real Andrei Rublev painted.  Many critics have been really impressed by this part, but my wife and I found it infuriating.  The footage is too close-up, like trying to look at an elephant from six inches away.  I knew from what I’d read that this was the end of the movie, but as far as my wife knew, we could have only been halfway through.  When the credits started rolling she gasped, “That’s it!?  We’re done?!  You mean we actually did it?!”

Afterword

Our great intellectual adventure behind us, we decided that the next thing we watched would be more on the lowbrow side.  (I was particularly interested in something more frivolous, as I’d been reading a novel about a 17th-century English village ravaged by the bubonic plague.)  So a few nights later we watched the first episode of Mad Men on DVD. 

Wow, what a comedown.  Every point it made—Women were treated so badly!  Everybody smoked back then!—was so glaringly non-subtle, I found the show tedious, like being fed with a baby spoon.  “Man, is this like a two-hour pilot episode?!” I finally asked, before toggling the display and discovering that we’d only been watching for 45 minutes.  It only seemed long.  I guess after a difficult movie like Andrei Rublev, typical media fare just isn’t difficult enough.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fiction - One Halloween Night


Introduction

Ideally, I’d have had the idea for this story in time for Halloween, but I just plain didn’t.

What follows isn’t a ghost story, exactly, but I hope it can give you a little chill.  All characters, situations, cultural traditions, observations, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions are fictitious, coincidental, accidental, or are used fictitiously.


One Halloween Night

Robert’s first batch of Trick-or-Treaters came at around 7:30:  a bug, a robot, and a witch.  A trio of parents hung back in the darkness beyond the span of the porch light.  A few minutes later, the second Trick-or-Treater, a very small kid dressed as a sunflower, was solo except for his mom, standing six feet back and prompting him:  “Say ‘Trick or Treat!’  Remember to say ‘Trick or Treat!’”  Robert held the candy bowl at the kid’s level and the kid finally mumbled the magic words and took a fun-size Snickers.  “Say ‘thank you!’” the mom reminded him.  The kid seemed paralyzed by the push-and-pull of free candy on the one hand, and a terribly frightening social engagement on the other.

Robert fondly remembered his own kids’ first Halloween, when he too prompted them—at every house—to say “Trick or Treat.”  He could relate to this mom:  somehow, a kid just standing there waiting for his candy was violating a social contract.  The words were important, and of course the gratitude.  Robert chuckled remembering the first time he’d prompted little Amanda to say thank you:  he’d nudged her and whispered, “What are you forgetting?”  Amanda looked back to the homeowner and said, “Oh, yeah … can I get something for my dad, too?”

The girls were older now, almost too old for Trick-or-Treating and certainly too old for a parental escort.  Robert fretted about the possible danger in this nighttime tradition.  Why did Amanda have to go as a raven?  Could she possibly have chosen a less visible costume, what with drunk drivers all over the road?  And little Sarah was so sociable, she chatted up everyone who answered the door … which was just fine in their own little neighborhood, but these days it seemed like she wouldn’t need to stray too far to encounter that over-friendly whacko who might (gasp!) invite her in.

Of course, as much as Robert worried, he also kicked himself for being so paranoid.  He’d always had an overactive imagination, and it didn’t help that he was lately consumed by a growing addiction to true crime novels.  For the last six weeks, walking Sarah to school  and back, he’d been watching the painstaking construction of a haunted house a few blocks away, which was so elaborate they practically needed a building permit.  Why go to so much trouble?  Surely he wouldn’t have been so suspicious if he hadn’t read The Lovely Bones, in which a psychopath builds an elaborate underground clubhouse and lures in an innocent teen, correctly supposing that her curiosity would overcome her parents’ admonishment about talking to strangers.

The next wave of kids were perfectly behaved:  they  remembered the Trick-or-Treat, the thank-you, and even wished him a happy Halloween.  Robert was charmed, but also slightly relieved, for he couldn’t help but evaluate Trick-or-Treaters, with his entire opinion of humanity hanging in the balance of the kids’ behavior.  One year he left his post for about ten minutes to have a drink with the neighbors, leaving the candy bowl on the porch with a sign reading, “Please take just one.”  When he got home, the entire bowl was already empty, some little lardy scofflaw obviously having dumped the whole thing into his bag.  This offended Robert inordinately, as did kids who grabbed a whole handful of candy when he held out his bowl.

The next time the doorbell rang it was a duo of pre-teens in inscrutable costumes.  Dark lords of some sort, Robert guessed.  They didn’t say anything at first and then one elbowed the other, who said, “Trick or Treat, Trick or Treat, give me something good to eat,” and then, in a barely audible mumble, “Or smell my feet.”  Robert wanted to say, “Look, if you’re going to play that card, you have to step up and do it right.  Own the insult.  Look me in the eye and say, ‘Trick or Treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.’  Don’t tack the ‘smell my feet’ part on at the end.  Now let’s try it again.”  Instead he just held out the bowl.

Of course, as a kid Robert hadn’t had the verve to say those words at all, as much as he and his brothers dared each other.  When it came down to it, they were all craven, and this manifested in unfailing politeness.  That is, until they became full teenagers.  The last year Robert had trick-or-treated, he wore this giant foam monster head his brother had made, and he could barely see out of it, which (it turned out) made him a sitting duck for a candy mugger.  The jerk had pretended to admire young Robert’s costume, and then grabbed his whole candy bag—a haul representing over two hours of hustling from house to house—and ran.  The rest of the night, Robert had been driven around at high speed in the back of his brothers’ friend’s Jeep, looking for the thief so they could avenge the crime and get Robert back his candy.  Futile as this was, it felt like turning the page from childish rituals to manly acts of courage.

“How many can we take?” the next kids asked.  Robert replied, “Just one … I’m running low.”  He was pleased that the kids were polite enough to ask.  Following this there was a lull, and Robert was able to wolf down some of his dinner before the doorbell rang again.

To his surprise, there was no kid there, but an adult starting to walk away.  Normally when Robert was slow to answer the door, the kids would leave off ringing the doorbell and start knocking on the door, sometimes two or three at once, and one time a kid accidentally tumbled into the house when Robert opened the door.  Such impatience was understandable:  for kids fixated on hitting as many houses as they could, time passed differently, with each moment of waiting seeming to stretch out toward infinity.  But here, since it was obvious someone was home—given the porch light, the lights on in the house, and no fewer than three lit jack-o-lanterns on the porch—any adult should have been more patient.  And where was this guy’s kid?

The guy smiled sheepishly.  “My daughter ran off,” he explained, before turning toward the sidewalk and calling, “Katie, come back!”  He paused for a moment and said, “Oh well, I’ll get her something.”  This seemed perfectly reasonable, until he proceeded to grab a whole handful of candy before walking off.

Robert was perplexed.  On the one hand, parents—particularly in this earnest community—were always bending over backward to do right by their children.  On the other hand, wasn’t the classic post-Trick-or-Treat dilemma all about how to get all that candy—with its sinister corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, artificial flavor, and PGPR—out of your kid’s hands?  What parent would want to add extra candy to the stash?

Robert almost shrugged it off, but then walked out onto the porch and watched the man walking away.  So far, the guy hadn’t reunited with his daughter.  And another thing:  he was carrying the candy bag.  What parent carries his kid’s candy for her?  And what kid would even allow this?  The guy was heading south and it was a long block.  Robert went inside and phoned his friend Mark, who lived ten houses down.

* * *

Mark’s doorbell was broken and he had a sign:  “Please knock loudly!”  Kids took this to heart and tended to pound the crap out of his door, especially because Mark was a bit slow getting there.  So when he thought he heard a light knock, he wasn’t sure and stayed on the couch.  The knock came again; he drained his beer and went to the door.  He’d have been surprised to see only an adult walking away, except for the call he’d had from Robert.

“Oh, there is someone home!” the guy said as he turned around.  He added sheepishly, “My daughter ran off.”  He looked toward the sidewalk and called, “Katie!  Come back!”  With a little shake of his head he said, “Oh well,” and reached for Mark’s candy bowl.

“Wait,” Mark said.  “Before I give candy to my Trick-or-Treaters I like to see their costumes.  Like, I won’t give candy to un-costumed teenagers.”  He stepped out the door and escorted his guest to the sidewalk.  “Now, which kid is your daughter?”  The guy pointed at a little girl halfway to the next house.

Mark called out, quite loudly, “Hey Katie, you forgot something!”  The girl did not turn around.  She was dressed in a darling little Totoro costume but had evidently found the fabric head stifling and had pushed it back like a hood so it dangled down her back.  “Hey Totoro, you forgot something!” Mark yelled, and now the girl looked back, confused.  “Hey, is this your dad?” Mark called out.  The girl looked stricken and ran ahead to an adult whose hand she grabbed.  Her actual dad.

The guy with the candy bag started to quickly walk away but Mark grabbed him by the wrist.  “What the hell is your problem?” Mark demanded.  “Why can’t you go buy your own damn candy?”  He looked the guy up and down.  The guy wasn’t homeless or anything.  Good shoes.  “What, are you like some kind of kleptomaniac?” Mark continued.  “You get off on abusing people’s trust?  You some kind of sicko?”  The guy just stood there, frozen, his face stuck in a half-smile.  Was he enjoying this, too?  Or was this half-smile just a manifestation of his abject awkwardness?

Now the guy grasped the full murderous menace on Mark’s face and managed to wrestle free and run for it, his candy bag slapping his leg as he went.  Mark shook his head and went back into the house.

What could he do?  Call the police?  What would be the charge?  Trick-or-Treating Without A Costume?  Trick-or-Treating While Adult?  Identity Theft?  Impersonating a Parent?  Unspecific Non-Sexual Perversity?  There was no specific crime committed, and yet his transgression was so very, very disturbing.

Mark phoned Robert.  “He’s headed back in your direction, in a full run,” he said.  “You wanna go out and at least trip him or something?”

About the Type

This blog post was set in Calibri, a typeface based on a sans-serif New Wave face used in a variety of 1980s teen-coming-of-age novels.  Calibri was cut by Lawrence Spitspoon in Taos, New Mexico, and was brought to Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, WA by a hitchhiker on his way to a salmon-fishing job in Alaska in 2007.

Depending on your web browser, its configuration, and your computer operating system, this blog post may appear in Georgia, a typeface cut with a crude hunting knife into the trunk of a Mongolian oak (quercus mongolica) in Izborsk, Russia, in the early 1800s by Ivan Ivanovich Zakareishvili in memory of Tsar Alexandar I.   Georgia was first introduced to the web in 1997 when bundled with the Internet Explorer 4.0 supplemental font pack.

Monday, October 27, 2014

From the Archives - Why Girls Dig Cyclists


Introduction

In my experience, there is not much overlap between the so-called “Greek system” (i.e., sororities and fraternities) and a college’s cycling team. Cyclists tend not to drink (at least during the season), and Greeks tend not to ride bikes. Thus, their paths almost never cross, except in class. This tale, which I just realized is a quarter of a century old, explores a rare exception to this rule.


Why Girls Dig Cyclists - May 4, 1989

You know that old stereotype that all sorority girls are luscious babes? Well it’s true. And you know the one about how they’re all airheads? Well . . . who am I to judge, especially when they feed me? And what are they feeding me? Spaghetti, of course. I’m a cyclist, so that’s pretty much all I eat. You may wonder how it came to pass that I’m dining at a sorority house. Well, wouldn’t you, if given the chance? My bike team pals and I are here for a benefit dinner. The sorority is raising money for a cyclist who was hit by a drunk driver and faces $1 million in hospital bills.

I suppose there are plenty of guys who would jump at this opportunity even without a spaghetti addiction, just to have a chance to chat up the sorority girls. After all, if you’re not in a frat, you may not have that many opportunities. That’s been my experience, anyway. This one girl in my French class seemed really into me until she asked what “house” I was in and I said some version of “none,” at which point her noise crinkled up like somebody had stepped in dog shit. That’s when it struck me that where sorority girls are concerned, for a guy not to be “Greek” is a real liability. (Or is it just me?)

Fortunately, I’m here with my teammate Randy, who is the right guy to hang out when you’re at a sorority house. He seems to know all the girls. I thought maybe this would lead to some introductions, but he’s too busy flirting. Myself, I’m too busy not flirting to actually flirt. I occupy myself noting the things that make this unassuming building a true sorority house. (Besides the hot chicks, of course.) For one thing, the lifestyle is really structured—look at all the charts on this bulletin board. Up top, we’ve got the “OVER 3.75 GPA” listing, and below that, the “OVER 3.00 GPA” listing. At the bottom is the voluminous “NEEDS MOTIVATION” list. Oooh, I’d hate to be on that one. Kind of like being in stocks.

Over here is a really unique list. Seems that when you’re in a sorority, they inspect your room every month and fine you if it’s not up to snuff. I’m not kidding! Here’s a sample (note that the names are approximate):

Bambi Barrette . . . . . . . . poorly dusted . . . . . . . . $ 2.50

Fifi Forbes . . . . . . . . . . not vacuumed . . . . . . . . . $ 2.50

Cindi Smith . . . . . . . . . . hole in wall . . . . . . . . . . $ 2.50

Julie Johnson . . . . . . . . . total mess . . . . . . . . . . $10.00

Why “hole in wall” doesn’t carry a heftier fine is beyond me. I figure if my room was a total mess, I’d go ahead and punch a hole in the wall to get my ten bucks worth. I wonder what it would be like if our landlord charged us fines like that? Maybe might look something like this:

S.H. Brickhouse . . . . . . . door torn from wall . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $50.00

S.H. Brickhouse . . . . . . . dirty dishes hidden behind fridge. . .  $10.00

S.H. Brickhouse . . . . . . stinky green sweats . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $10.00

S.H. Brickhouse . . . . weird curly hairs embedded in soap . . . . .$10.00

(I used an alias in the above example. My roommate likes to go through my stuff and might find this letter. What would be the fine for snooping? And how much for a beat-down?)

There’s another chart on the wall: “WHAT’S IN/WHAT’S OUT.” The term “girls” is out, while “women” is in. The rest of the guidelines seem to concern the complicated political structure of the sorority, so I have no idea what they mean. Anyway, boys will be boys, and we’re coming up with a few really good guidelines of our own, which I can’t share with you.

The cooking is going real slow, so while we’re waiting in the hall, some of the sisters bring out Kool‑Aid and Honey Grahams. The Kool‑Aid is the standard summer camp mass-consumption recipe—one package of mix to ten gallons of water—but I’m really enjoying the graham crackers. They make me feel about ten years younger, since ten years ago is the last time I had them. I can see by the look on the girls’ faces that the sorority motherhood training is working. But as beautiful as these maidens are—and believe me, they are beautiful—nobody can serve up the graham crackers quite like a real mom.

My friends and I are getting extra graham crackers. That’s because we’re wearing our “UCSB CYCLING” sweatshirts. I’ll bet you that each and every one of these girls is envisioning herself in one of these sweatshirts; that’s how cool they are. See the guy in the “Top Gun” aviator jacket? At over $200, it’s no match for what we’re wearing. These sweatshirts testify that yes, we are actual bike racers. Each day we live and breathe cycling with undiminished passion. And it is this passion that the girls want a piece of.

(Would we give these girls UCSB CYCLING sweatshirts? Naw. First of all, sweatshirts cost money. Second, though the sweatshirt’s bagginess is great for obscuring the underdeveloped upper body of a cyclist, we’d prefer that these girls—er, women—wore something more form-fitting.)

In the dining room, a girl is standing on a chair, shouting at everybody. I guess she’s the supervisor. “Sisters can’t eat!” she yells at two other girls. I think about asking, “Is that because of the sorority dieting policy?” but think better of it. Suddenly, I see a sign on the wall: “LOAD YOUR PLATE HIGH CUZ IT’S ONLY ONE TRIP THROUGH!” Oh my god, I’ve been had. I’d heard it was all you can eat!

Oh, well. I’ve gotten out of tougher spots than this. My three pals and I level the entire tray of spaghetti—and it was just put out. The people right behind us in line are griping, but those farther back (who have to wait anyway) are shouting encouragement. Suddenly, disaster strikes: plate failure. My paper plate is buckling, threatening to dump my entire haul. Without a moment to spare, the girl behind me in line gives me another plate. Then the sauce starts to run off the edge. Panicking, I bolster the leak with garlic bread, narrowly averting disaster. As I make my way to a table, I hear her say, admiringly, “What’s scary is that he’ll probably eat it all, too.”

The other diners have to stand there in line awhile longer waiting for the next batch of spaghetti, but I’m sure they’re not angry. They know my friends and I are representing the UCSB Gauchos in the West Coast Collegiate Cycling Championships this weekend. We command a lot of respect on this campus. In fact, if you look at the girls carefully (which you’ll do anyway, if you’re male), you can easily see how smitten they are. It takes a lot of guts to tackle such a big plate of spaghetti, I know. But hey, I rode today.

Does it seem like a lot of the girls have left? Yeah, they probably went out front to see if we rode our racing bikes here. Girls just dig our bikes. I saw this one eyeing my Dura-Ace eight-speed derailleur the other day, and I could tell she wanted to talk to me but was just too shy. That’s normal; we cyclists are so much bigger than life, our admirers get overwhelmed sometimes.

A couple of Randy’s lady friends at our table have finally gotten him to tell some war stories. We cyclists don’t like to brag (which is what describing our races frankly amounts to), but girls have a way with these things. “Yeah, it was so rad,” Randy says. “I’m coming around the last corner and suddenly I’m on the ground, just going, whooah, what happened. Last lap, too. Rotten luck.” The girls are obviously enraptured. “But, like, why did you crash?” one of them asks. I pick up the ball: “We crash because crashing is fun. It’s as simple as that.” The guys start laughing, but she looks concerned. “Doesn’t it hurt, though?” she asks. John takes this one. “Yeah, but we’re s’damn tough that, well....” He shrugs. John likes to flirt, but his intentions toward her are honorable. (If that sounds familiar it’s because I’m paraphrasing a fortune cookie.)
    
Speaking of cookies, that’s what we raid next. It’s really crowded up there, and I’m trying to get what’s mine when everybody starts laughing. “What happened?” I ask. This dude answers, “Some geek just ran into the sliding glass door.” Dammit! It’s Randy! I feel really bad for him ... after all, I did that once. But the door I ran into was a lot cleaner. Boy, I hope he’s okay. I guess he got caught up in all the excitement.

As we’re eating our cookies—Randy and I got enough for everybody—a girl walks by in some really interesting faux-cycling shorts. Most faux-cycling shorts look almost like the real thing but lack the chamois pad. But this girl’s shorts differ further in that they’re really short. Really, really short. One of the girls at our table says, “Oh my GOD! Look at those shorts! Those are so cute!” I know she likes them, and well, I do too. “Oh my GOD!” I echo her. Why does it sound so different when I say it? Language sure is strange. The guys are all laughing. She is not. But hey, it’s cool. I can tell she digs me. Of course she does—I’m a cyclist!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

“Glycogen Window” for Sports Recovery - Proven!


Introduction

Haven’t heard of the glycogen window?  It’s a period of time, roughly half an hour immediately following exercise, during which any carbs you ingest provide extra benefit in restoring muscle glycogen.  In other words, if you exercise good and hard, you not only deserve a treat but are well advised to have one because it’ll help you recover.  Among my racer pals, post-ride chocolate milk is all the rage.  (Protein, calcium, and antioxidants are also touted as important recovery aids.)

I suppose I should add that this glycogen window thing isn’t widely viewed as hard science.  I first read about it in “Bicycling” magazine back in the ‘80s; cycling hero Andy Hampsten wrote about it.  I’d link to the article, but I doubt “Bicycling” has archived all their issues electronically like “New Yorker” has.  (Perhaps “Bicycling” assumes their readers have no patience for text, especially old text that has been regurgitated countless times anyway, with articles like “It’s you—fit, fast, and self-trained!” and “10 easy ways to improve your power!” run in constant rotation.)

Naturally, I believed what Hampsten wrote because he won the Giro d’Italia and the Alpe d’Huez stage of the Tour de France.  I began eating things like ice cream, fruit, or yogurt right after a ride or race, and immediately noticed an improvement in my recovery so I’ve stuck with it over all these years.  (Yeah, it could be a placebo, but if so, it’s a strong one.)

In this post I will make a cursory examination of the evidence against the glycogen window theory, before presenting substantive proof, recently obtained from a very talented young scientist, that the glycogen window is for real.  Here is the scientist, enjoying the fruits of her labors, both scholastic and athletic.


The case against glycogen window

It didn’t take long to find “evidence” against the glycogen window theory.  The first Google hit came from an online magazine called evidencemag.com.  I won’t summarize their arguments—you can read them right here—but suffice to say, I’m not impressed.  This article depends entirely on a) other people’s research, and b) sentences beginning with “there’s little evidence that,” which only show the lack of information available to the author.  Perhaps evidencemag.com will retract the entire article after reading this post and seeing my evidence. 

One other thing:  their headline is really wishy-washy:  “Why Most Endurance Athletes Don’t Usually Need to Eat After Workouts” (italics mine).  It wouldn’t hurt to define what an endurance athlete is, and why some would sometimes benefit.  Meanwhile, this glycogen window thing (according to what I’ve read in support of it) only works if you do it as a standard practice—which means that nobody needs to do it sometimes.

That said, one thing mentioned in that article does present damning evidence against the glycogen window theory.  It’s one of the footnotes, linking to an article that supposedly supports the notion:  a book called “The Lance Armstrong Performance Program: Seven Weeks to the Perfect Ride.”  Obviously, if Lance Armstrong—a known liar—says the glycogen window is legit, then it must be a myth, right?  Well, it’s not actually that simple.  You see, it’s clear Lance didn’t really write that book, but merely lent his celebrity to the project.  So we’re still good.

You know what?  I’m tired of paying lip service to the glycogen-window haters.  You can research their silly positions on your own.  It’s time to get to the proof that it’s valid.

Hard science

Occasionally, I make the time to carry out scientific experiments on my own.  For example, I proved that cyclists have extremely high pain thresholds (click here) and that rinsing—the practice of tasting something sweet without actually ingesting any calories—actually does increase athletic performance (click here).  But I don’t have time to test every theory I come across.  Thus, when I had the opportunity to leverage the considerable brainpower, time, and energy of my daughter Alexa, I jumped on it.  (As I’ve documented here, I’ve long dreamed of exploiting my children’s intellect for personal gain.)

Here’s how I got my chance:  my daughter was assigned a science project having to do with heart rate.  It was supposed to be a fairly simple affair, such as measuring the heart rate of each test subject before and after eating chocolate.  (Needless to say, it’s never a problem finding subjects for such a study.)  Obviously Alexa could have done a really easy project like that, but you can guess what happened:  I got involved and pressed my personal agenda.

It wasn’t hard to get Alexa to tackle a difficult research project, because a) as a budding athlete and lifelong lover of sweets, she has a vested interest in validating the glycogen window theory, and b) she knew she’d get some treats, in the form of candy and accolades, during the testing process.

Of course, using heart rate to measure the benefit of sports nutrition is not particularly straightforward.  Alexa’s methodology involved measuring the change (i.e., delta) in heart rate between lying down and standing up.  On the morning after exercise, this delta is usually greater than if the subject didn’t exercise the day before.  Alexa sought to determine if getting a snack during the glycogen window reduced this morning-after effect.  (Where did she get this idea?  From me.  I read it somewhere, ages ago, and a coach once explained it to me.)

You know what?  Alexa describes all this better than I have: 
One way of testing your recovery time is by comparing the delta of your heart rate between lying down (first thing in the morning) and standing up.  After physical exertion, your muscles are tired, and standing takes more effort, raising your heart rate.  This assumption is based off of the existing studies on the subject. My experiment will in part test this hypothesis. However, the main point is to examine the effects of  getting a sugary snack within 35 minutes of exercising (i.e., during the so-called “glycogen window”).  It has been proposed that getting this immediate sugar helps replace muscle glycogen (which is like the fuel in your car’s tank).  This greatly enhances recovery (i.e., getting over fatigue).  In my experiment, half of the test group will have some form of sugar after exercising, during the glycogen window.  By comparing the delta of their heart rates, I will be able to see how the heart rates of the people who had sugar compare to that of the people who didn’t.

Procedure

Alexa’s project got off to a fine start:  she baked cookies for her friend’s soccer team.  Half the team would get cookies right after soccer practice, and the other half would take cookies home to eat later.  (Just try recruiting kids for the control group without offering them tasty snacks, too!)  Unfortunately, the soccer practice got canceled, and though Alexa tried to get half the team to forego snacks after the next game, they all (predictably) flaked.  So she got pretty far behind on her project. 

I always try to strike the right balance between giving my daughter too much help versus letting her make her own mistakes.  So, in this case I helped my daughter find replacement test subjects, but made her drive the project.  This resulted in a real nail-biter:  Alexa didn’t have all the data she needed until the morning the project was due.  At 6:00 a.m. she was frantically collecting the final test results, writing her report, preparing her graph, and putting the whole thing together.  (Perhaps this was the best thing about the project:  she learned the hard way not to procrastinate, and got some good practice working well under pressure.)

Here is Alexa’s procedure, in her words: 
Procedure: People participating will:
  1. Take their heart rate first thing in the morning.
  2. Stand up and take it again, recording the data, to get a baseline heart rate increase (aka “delta”).
  3. Exercise in some way (something aerobic) at some point during that day.
  4. Half of the group will have something sugary within 35 minutes of completing exercise; the other half won’t.
  5. The next day all will measure their pulse again, first lying down and then standing, and recording the data.
Results

Alexa ended up with ten test subjects, their ages spanning 12 to 50-something.  One subject was herself.  I participated twice:  I served as a with-sugar subject and then (a day or two later) as a without-sugar subject.

In the table below, a row shaded in yellow indicate a sugary snack was received within the glycogen window.  I’m subject #1 and #2.  Alexa is #3.  My brother Bryan is #7.  As you can see, getting a  snack resulted in much less of an increase in the delta; that is, subjects recovered better when they had a glycogen-window treat.


Here is the conclusion Alexa wrote: 
I have concluded that my hypothesis is correct, and having sugar after a workout helps you recover.  The percent change in delta was in every case greater in the people who had no sugar after exercising.  This shows that getting up was more of an effort for them, meaning that their muscles had not recovered to the extent that others had.  This is illustrated by the graph.  The red indicates people who did not have a sugary snack after exercising, and the blue indicates people who did.

Just look at this graph.  The data unequivocally support her thesis.


 Every responsible scientist notes certain caveats that could make the results less compelling, and Alexa is no exception: 
In one case, the data set was not complete, and without a proper baseline delta, I couldn’t calculate that person’s percent change.  If I were to redo the experiment, I would try harder to get that data in time.

Her final sentence is my favorite, with its unexpected twist at the end:
This evidence supporting my hypothesis could prove extremely beneficial in the area of after-sports snack debates.

Happily, Alexa’s findings guarantee that she (and her sister and I) will continue to get glycogen window treats after every serious workout.  For me as a parent, this is a win-win because this coveted sugary reward guarantees my daughters will continue to do serious workouts.  (Alexa will do a 45-minute trainer ride for just five or six jelly beans.)  It’s touching to see these kids racing into the kitchen after exercise, jockeying for position and throwing elbows, yelling “Glycogen!  Glycogen!”

A final note

I realize that neither Alexa nor I made any effort to prove that the lying-down versus standing heart rate delta actually means anything.  But hey, we can’t do it all.  If one of you would study that on your own and send me your results, that would be great.  Or better yet, get your kid to do it!