Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What’s in a [Domain] Name?


Introduction

A workplace mentor advised me to develop my “personal brand.” There is a part of me that instinctively recoils at this phrase, and yet it’s foolish to pretend it doesn’t apply. We tend to make an overall impression on people, and they attach this to our identities, whether we like it or not.

If a person is also a blogger, does this branding thing extend to his blog? Yes and no. I think too much is made of automatic associations with made-up words like “Acura” and “Xfinity.” (It’s not like IBM gave a ton of thought to their name, and yet nobody would doubt the power of that brand.) But a blog, above all else, needs to have a memorable name—and mine, I have long feared, does not. I’ve now fixed that, as I’ll explain here. Just for fun, I’ve done so with a poem, replete with footnotes and commentary.

(If you want to skip the background and go straight to a list of new domain names that will take you to this blog, hit Ctrl-F and search this page for “The full list.”)

The Poem

What’s in a [Domain] Name?

I’ve done this almost eight and one half years—
This blog, that is, this thing called albertnet.                               2
Four hundred posts, on food and bikes and gears…
And yet I’m neither rich nor famous yet.
I’ve wondered if the problem is its name.
A brand is crucial, from the start I knew.                                     6
But all the best domain names had been claimed,
So “albertnet-dot-U-S” had to do.
The problem is, this name rolls off the tongue—
But backwards, down your throat so it gets lost,                      10
Caught up with sundry nonsense words among
Old slogans, songs, and other mental dross.
So even if you find you like my stuff,
You have to find, and find again, my site.                                 14
While “albertnet” itself is bad enough,
That “dot-U-S” is true mnemonic blight.
So now I have, despite a bit of pain,
Become the master of my own domain.                                    18

Footnotes & Commentary

Title – what’s in a name

I hope it’s not necessary to point out that this is from Juliet’s soliloquy in Romeo and Juliet. The full couplet from the Capulet (sorry, couldn’t resist) is, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” And so this blog would, were it not albertnet called, retain that [attempt at] [near] perfection which it owes without that title.

Line 1: almost

I say “almost,” but in fact as I type this my blog is exactly 8½ years old. But I started this post days ago, so by now, as you read it, it’s certainly more than 8½ years old, possibly (ideally) decades old. I’m thinking now of Paul Simon’s lines, “I was 21 years when I wrote this song/ I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long.” But I digress.

Line 2: this thing

The phrase “this thing” is of course an allusion to the song “Radar Love.” Remember that? “We’ve got a thing, that’s called radar love.”

But “thing” here also makes a point: albertnet isn’t actually a blog. “Blog” is short for “web log” and consists, according to Wikipedia, “of discrete, often informal diary-style text entries (‘posts’).” I have no interest in keeping a public log of my life. Such a thing seems gratuitously, indulgently self-absorbed. And obviously I err on the side of formality with these fully-formed, heavily edited essays. So albertnet is more of a … thing. A thing that’s called reader love. (God, that’s just terrible. And it’s not even true: no offense, but I don’t love you, not most of you anyway, whoever you are. I love writing. Your attention, if any, is just collateral damage.)

Line 3: four hundred posts

In fact, this is my 409th post. Yes, I cut a corner there by rounding down in order to preserve the meter of my poem. So sue me.

By the way, if you do the math, you’ll see that with 409 posts across 8½ years I’ve averaged 4.009 posts per month, thus succeeding (though barely) at my main goal for this blog.

Line 3: food and bikes and gears

The popularity of men’s magazines like Gear and Stuff, along with the hundreds of similar magazines with less blatant titles, is clearly related to humankind’s love of physical objects that can be coveted, researched, shopped for, purchased, and enjoyed (and ultimately discarded, which reboots the whole process). I’ve often thought that I could attract more readers if I blogged more about gear. But screw that, I’d rather blog about gears, with an “s”—that is, arcane things like bike gearing. Why blog about something boring like a teakettle when you can lead the reader into the heart of darkness that is the intersection of gearing and ego?

Line 4: neither rich nor famous

This isn’t completely true. In reality I’m pretty flush, at least compared to your average journalist. Never mind that roughly $0.00 of my wealth comes from this blog. And though I’m not famous, albertnet does get lots of pageviews, especially from Russia and the Ukraine.

Line 5: its name

The friend who inspired me to start a blog had his own, called travelgadgets.com or some such thing. At least my blog’s name didn’t have to convey what the blog was about. I never intended to write on any particular topic and I never have. Further simplifying my task, I knew any name involving “Dana” was out, thanks to the good folks over at Dana Incorporated.


Line 7: best domain names

You know, the really catchy domain names like yahoo.com, google.com, newyorker.com … they’d all been snapped up.

Line 8: dot-U.S.

I actually can’t remember now whether albertnet.com, albertnet.org, etc. had been claimed when I named my blog. Presumably I’d have opted for .com or .net but I may have decided that would be redundant based on the “-net” in albertnet which, to old school nerds, indicates network. I just asked my teenager what “dot-net” means to her and she said “Absolutely nothing.” She can’t recall ever seeing a URL ending in .net. So, yeah, I probably overthought that.

Looking back, I do remember thinking .us was cool because it was shorter. I used to care about that stuff because people used to type instead of just tapping links.

Line 12: songs

I wonder how much more stuff we could remember if we hadn’t filled up our read-only memory with rock music lyrics. Why do I still have most of “Mr. Roboto” still memorized? I never even liked that song!

Line 14: find and find again

You might think I flatter myself by supposing anybody would stumble across an albertnet post and then try to find my blog again later. You’d be wrong on two counts. First, I don’t actually believe this happens. Second, I have evidence that it does, at least from time to time. Looking through the pageview log, I can see what phrases people googled that led them (back) to my blog. This can be very amusing.

My all-time favorite such search phrase is “sunburned toad peeking out of the snow.” Whoever googled that was clearly remembering one of the more graphic images from my vasectomy post. His logic in searching on the very most specific phrase possible is impeccable, but he could have just as easily googled “california vasectomy law,” which for many years featured my post as its first search result.

Perhaps you yourself have stumbled upon my blog and, though you might want to find it again, can’t be bothered to memorize my name (i.e., you can’t just google “dana albert blog”). Fair enough. Here’s a list of search phrases that, if you google them, will feature one of my posts within the first page of search results:
  • lance eminem (1st result listed)
  • inner tubes fascinating (also 1st)
  • sunburned toad vasectomy (1st)
  • vasectomy jackstones (1st)
  • vasectomy “god gave me grace” (1st)
  • how to write a sonnet kinkade (1st)
  • highbrow vs. lowbrow museum avatar (1st)
  • glutted by campaign signs (1st)
  • “campaign signs” metallica (1st)
  • tire chains seething (1st result is my East Bay Times story; my blog post is 5th)
  • vasectomy 25-cent bic (2nd result listed)
  • world record berkeley cycling (2nd)
  • corn cob sonnet (2nd)
  • corn cob pie plate bike (2nd)
  • missy giove acne (3rd)
  • highbrow vs. lowbrow museum (3rd)
  • how to write a sonnet right wrong (3rd)
  • dvorak hemorrhaging efficiency (3rd)
  • cowboy sam review (4th)
  • corn cob bike bling (4th)
  • simplex retrofriction (5th)
  • corn cob bicycle (5th)
  • cowboy sam (5th)
  • inner tubes roulette (5th)
  • everest challenge cycling gluttony (5th)
  • cycling shoes cat butt (6th)
  • velominati BS (6th)
  • simplex shifters (7th)
  • how to write a sonnet (7th)
  • vasectomy mojo (10th)
Any of those searches will get you back to my blog, whether or not they take you to the post you’re looking for and/or the latest stuff. From my home page you can search the blog by keyword, or choose from the pull-down lists of labels I’ve applied to posts:


(There are a lot more labels than shown above. The complete list of labels is alphabetized but you see the ones above due to the quotation marks.)

Line 15: “albertnet” itself

Actually, there’s a benefit that I hadn’t predicted with the made-up word “albertnet”: it makes a really effective search term if you’re looking for a specific albertnet post. If you ever want to see what I’ve had to say about [TOPIC X], you can Google “albertnet [TOPIC X]” and the first search hit is bound to be a link to my post on [TOPIX X]. (No, I haven’t blogged about an actual topic called “[TOPIC X].” You’re meant to substitute an actual topic. For example, if you want to see my blog post about giraffes, Google “albertnet giraffes.”)

This works for photos, too. If you want to see my photos of Death Valley, for example, Google “albertnet death valley” and click on the first search result, or click the “image search” link.

Line 16: dot-U-S … mnemonic blight

That isn’t an exaggeration. Even family members who remember the “albertnet” part have gotten hung up on the dot-U-S bit. I guess it’s just not intuitively obvious to your average joe that .us is a legit domain extension. So they’ll try albertnet.com and it won’t work, and then they’re like, “Oh, dot-U-S, I see. Wow, that is so weird!

But don’t worry, I’ve fixed this, and I’m about to tell you how.

Line 17: bit of pain

My fix has been years in the making, and involved a task I’ve long dreaded and procrastinated over, though in the end it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.

Line 18: master of my own domain

This would be a rather grandiose claim to make were it not completely true. To be precise, I’m now the webmaster of my domain, danaalbert. For many years somebody else owned it, but never actually pointed it at anything (see “bit of pain” above). And then he or she either decided to relinquish it or forgot to pay his or her registrar bill, because danaalbert became available and—having kept an eye on its status this whole time—I snapped it up. I also grabbed some other extensions for albertnet. After sitting on them for a couple years, I was nudged into action by the sudden availability of a new top-level domain, .blog, and after snapping up albertnet.blog I finally got down to business and put all my domains into use. So, effective immediately, you can now get to my blog through any of a number of intuitive URLs, given below.

The full list

All of the following domains now redirect automatically to www.albertnet.us (i.e., this blog):
Those will work with our without www and/or http:// at the beginning. And, of course, they will work from any computer, smartphone, or tablet on the Internet (barring firewall or WiFi network restrictions, of course).

Frequently asked questions 
  • Q. Right off the bat, I’m wondering if these questions are actually “frequently asked,” since you seem to have fielded them before even posting this…. A. Aha, you caught me! You’re right, in fact these questions have never been asked by anybody but me. (Now, not to burst your bubble or anything, but this fake question thing is standard operating procedure for advice columnists.)
  • Q. Can anybody else in the entire world use the danaalbert or albertnet domains for their own purposes? A. Nope, not unless they settle for a really lame top-level domain (e.g., danaalbert.xyz, albertnet.biz).
  • Q. You mean to tell me that not even The Donald could use these domains? A. Nope. He could hire a company to try to convince me to part with them, but he’d have to pay a pretty penny.
  • Q. Wait a second. There is an actual rock star named Dana Albert. Do you mean to tell me even he doesn’t get to use danaalbert.com, .net, .us, or .org? A. Yep, believe it!
  • Q. Will www.albertnet.us still work? A. You betcha!
  • Q. Will http://albertnet.us work (i.e., without the www part)? A. Nope, never did. Not sure why.
  • Q. Will, say, http://albertnet.blog work? A. Yep, like I said, all these new ones will work with our without the http:// and/or www.
  • Q. Will these all work until the end of time? A. Yes, so long as I remember to pay my bill with the registrar.
  • Q. Will you ever retire the albertnet domain in favor of danaalbert? A. No, based on the usefulness of albertnet as a search term (as described above), and because it’s possible some readers have bookmarked my original blog address, I’ll leave well enough alone.
  • Q. Does danaalbert.com work as this kind of search term? A. Not as well, though it does work somewhat. Your mileage may vary, so stick with albertnet as your search term—it’s easier to type anyway.
  • Q. Is there anything the albertnet search term won’t produce an essay about? Like, could I google “albertnet lotion sniper” and there would actually be a post about lotion snipers? A. Well, there are still some topics I haven’t yet blogged about (though “lotion snipers” isn’t one of them). If you should come up empty, just e-mail me and maybe I’ll do that topic next!
  • Q. I appreciate your effort here, but it still seems as though I couldn’t possibly remember any of these domains. Is there any other way for me to find your blog if I’ve forgotten its name? A. If you remember my name, you can Google “dana albert blog” and the first search result will be my blog. Otherwise, refer to the list above of easy search strings (e.g., “cowboy sam”) that will take you directly to my blog.
  • Q. It seems almost unbelievable that of all the Dana Alberts in the world, you’re the only one who managed to snap up all these groovy domains for himself. Do you have naked pictures of God or something? A. Nope. I’m just lucky. Real lucky.
  • Q. I heard a rumor that you’re going to revamp the Complete albertnet Index. Is that true? A. Well, recently I updated it after falling years behind. I’m also going to reorder the posts so that the newest ones are at the top. When I get some time I plan to improve the list of category names so that they’re each hyperlinked to the section headings. Keep an eye on the albertnet index post for details! 
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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Strong Placebos


Introduction

Where placebos are concerned, I’m something of a believer. In this post I examine the placebo effect itself; non-deceptive (aka “open label”) placebos; non-ingested placebos; machine-oriented placebos; nocebos; and what I’ll call the “hypothetical reverse-placebo” effect.


What I believe about placebos

I believe that a placebo—that is, a non-drug substance like a sugar pill being used in place of real medicine—can sometimes work if the person taking it has any faith whatsoever that it will. When I say “sometimes” I don’t mean “it’ll work some of the time,” but rather that certain maladies, or at least the perception of them, can be treated with hope alone (in the guise of medicine). There is evidence that this is the case, and I’ll get to that. But first, I have a few examples of my firsthand empirical success with placebos.

The first is Airborne, the so-called immune system supplement. I would never have tried this product on my own. My wife bought it once, and I humphed and hawed and studied the packaging with extreme skepticism. Well, it has Echinacea, I reasoned, which pregnant women aren’t supposed to take, and use of Echinacea for immune system support has at least some research behind it, such as this.  On that basis I tried out the Airborne, and found it fizzy and kind of yummy, and insofar as I didn’t get sick afterward, I decided maybe its benefit is real.

On that basis, my “evidence” wasn’t much better than that joke about the guy on the bus holding an imaginary box, from which he pinches an imaginary powder that he then flings around in the air, and then a fellow passenger says, “What are you doing?” and he says, “It’s to keep away lions!” To which the fellow passenger says, “There are no lions on this bus!” and the guy says, “See? It’s working!”

But there’s possibly more to this Airborne thing. Often I think I’m getting sick, and I figure it couldn’t hurt to take some Airborne. And on several occasions when I was sure I was getting sick, I took it and then rallied. But couldn’t I have been wrong about starting to get sick in the first place? Yeah, sure. But it’s such a relief to keep a virus at bay, I’m willing to ingest a fizzy drink that purports to help, just in case it somehow does. Meanwhile, I’ve sometimes had a virus last for days and days when I didn’t take Airborne, and other times my cold seemed to go away faster after I took it. I haven’t kept great notes or anything—this is all anecdotal—and yet I feel there’s a correlation, or at least there could be.

Sure, Airborne has a silly story (“Invented by a teacher!” as if teachers knew anything about pharmacology) and sure, the Airborne company was sued for false advertising … I don’t really care. If they called themselves medicine they’d be hucksters, but what they’re really purveying is hope.

(Does the house-brand of Airborne work? Too early to tell … my wife bought some recently and I’ve just getting into my one-subject clinical trials. In general I trust generic drugs so I’m optimistic. And really, if you have optimism about a placebo, what more do you need?)

Moving along, I have good results with the Camelbak Elixir tablets.  This product claims to be an electrolyte source, which automatically aroused my suspicion when I first heard of it. Energy drinks claim to be a source of electrolytes, but generally have only a tiny amount of sodium and even less potassium. A gallon of Gatorade has only 6% of your daily requirement of potassium. (You can get that much potassium from four ounces of orange juice.) The other common electrolytes—magnesium, chloride, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonate—aren’t even listed on the label.

All that being said, a pal recommended the Camelbak tablets for recovery after bike rides, and I was just desperate enough to try them.  Desperate?  Yep.  I have this problem of totally sucking on the second day when I ride two days in a row. It’s particularly bad on the second stage of the Everest Challenge bike race—to the point that on one occasion I actually got dizzy and thought I made have to abandon. So finally, the last time I did this race, I gave the Camelbak tablets a try, and—Eureka!—finally had a good second stage.

You might be wondering how I could believe in this product, given what I said about its mere trace amount of electrolytes. In fact, the Camelbak Elixir has just 2.3% of the US recommended daily allowance for potassium and 3% for magnesium.  That said, it does have some manganese, which could be useful. Wikipedia says, “Manganese is an important element for human health, essential for development, metabolism, and the antioxidant system.” But I learned that after the fact. My belief in the product comes simply from its having seemed to work.  (Full disclosure—Camelbak used to sponsor my bike team, and gave us free product.)

Because I’m not convinced that Airborne and the Camelbak tablets are based on real science, I refer to both as “placebo.”  Like, I’ll ask my wife, “Hey, do we have any of those placebos?” and she’ll know I’m talking about Airborne. Or on my recent Tahoe cycling weekend I told my pals, “Hey, I brought a tube of those Camelback placebo tablets.” My pals happily partook, without challenging my “placebo” label.

Look, I’m not an idiot. (Or at least, my position on placebos doesn’t by itself prove that I’m an idiot.) I rightly hold that homeopathic medicine is a total crock, and I believe that declining to immunize one’s child is tantamount to reckless endangerment. (If a person wants to try out questionable quasi-medicine on himself, that’s one thing—but putting one’s child at risk based on wacky beliefs is totally different.)

I believe in real medicine. But I also acknowledge that some things work without anybody understanding exactly why. As mentioned here, a chemist won the Nobel Prize for figuring out how aspirin works, like 90 years after it was discovered, and scientists still don’t think they understand aspirin completely. So if there’s some reason—any reason—to believe that something could work, I’ll might try it, so long as it’s not standing in for a proven medicine that I ought to be using instead.  And I limit my placebo use to scenarios involving a subjective experience of suffering.

Non-deceptive placebos

Some time ago I stumbled across an article about how patients being given a placebo found it effective even when they were told that it was only a placebo. I’ve just corroborated this with a little research, turning up multiple articles, eight of which read all the way through.  In case you are curious, here are links to them:  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8

That first link is to the original research, published in December of 2010, concerning irritable bowel syndrome. It’s a good start, though the study had had only 80 subjects. The researchers “tested whether open-label placebo (non-deceptive and non-concealed administration) is superior to a no-treatment control with matched patient-provider interactions” and found that 60% of patients receiving an open-label placebo reported relief from symptoms, vs. 35% who received nothing. That’s right, 6 out of 10 patients got good results from knowingly taking mere placebos.

That’s the good news about non-deceptive placebos. The bad news is that articles 2 thru 7 are all based on the same original study, so they don’t support it so much as reiterate it. Moreover, articles 4 thru 6 were published in 2016, and article 7 came out this year … which suggests no other studies on this subject have been done since the first one, almost seven years ago. I’d have more faith in this study if it had been replicated by somebody else. (This begs an interesting question: if I persist in believing in a study’s findings, even if they’ve not been substantiated, does that make the study itself an intellectual placebo?)

Article number 8, by the way, is a wacky “n=1” study (that’s right, just one subject) about a guy who takes placebo pills to alleviate writer’s block. As somebody who doesn’t have time for writer’s block, I’m going to lump that one in with homeopathic medicine.

Non-ingested placebos

Placebos aren’t limited to what you can swallow. This landmark study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that patients who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery fared no better than a placebo group, whose knees had incisions made but nothing else done to them (just instruments being handed around and saline “splashed to simulate the sounds of lavage”). This and other studies are described in this New York Times article, and the results were later replicated, as described here. The conclusions are twofold: 1) arthroscopic knee surgery isn’t very effective; 2) the very idea of knee surgery does provide some relief.

Fortunately, I can’t comment personally on the sham knee surgery thing; my closest experience with knee pain is the kind you can treat with ice. But I do have a ton of experience with a putatively pressure-point-based hiccups cure (click here for details) that might be more of a placebo thing. I’ve had excellent results with this cure for almost three decades, and I’m tempted to believe that it’s grounded in something physiological. 

But I’m not convinced, because the mere idea of this remedy is enough to cure my brother Geoff’s hiccups. We rented an apartment together in the late ‘80s, and worked together too, so I was always around when he got the hiccups, which was frequently. Knowing that this cure worked for him, I’d command him to stop hiccupping whenever he started up. The command alone was enough—he never even needed to apply the pressure to his finger! In fact, he eventually got kind of pissed off, because he wanted to have a sustained case of the hiccups from time to time, just to remember what it was like—but I’d never let him. Either this hiccups cure has a placebo component, or my authoritative command to stop was scary enough to cure his hiccups. (That was a joke, BTW.)

Machine-oriented placebos

Can a placebo work on a machine? Not exactly, but a human can enjoy a placebo effect from changes to a machine. I’m talking here about changes to our vehicles, primarily. This has come up a few times around bicycle wheels. Sure, if you put lighter wheels on a bike, it will take measurably less energy to accelerate it or propel the bike up a hill. That’s not a placebo. But not all technological changes have such a straightforward, undeniable benefit.  If we decide to believe a manufacturer’s claims, and then can “feel” the difference, but the improvement is really just hype, than we are enjoying a placebo effect, without having done anything to ourselves or ingested anything.

Case in point: my friend John bought some fancy new wheels for his racing bike recently, and explained their features and benefits thus:  
The bike shop owner described in detail the spoke lacing and why it had more “lateral stiffness blah blah when out of the saddle, but had more [unintelligible] when in the saddle.” I was all, “Really?  Cool….” The rear rim is “asymmetrical” in profile. Something about making it so spoke tensions are equal on drive side and non-drive side. Anyway, the result is new wheels on my bike, and… they feel great!  I kept trying to figure out what I was really feeling and what I was trying to convince myself of because I’d just spent a bunch of money.  I have to say they feel way smoother in multiple ways.  The most noticeable is that little bumps and cracks in the road are now less jarring, probably due mostly to the much wider rim.  I feel like they roll better too, but I could be making that up.
I myself am a believer in these wider rims, though I have to take it on faith that they really improve the ride. I went with these fat rims purely on the recommendation of ten or so bike pals who recommended them (details here.) Right away I could feel the difference … but was I perceiving anything real?  I told my dad, a former rocket scientist and engineer, about these fat rims and how the change they make to the tire profile makes the ride better (etc.), and my dad said (in a calm but authoritative voice, as if holding back exasperation), “I don’t see why they would.” More recently I put the question to a friend who’s a professor of mechanical engineering, and he also seemed puzzled at how a wider rim would improve the ride. I still do feel better on these wheels, but I don’t know enough to say where the design basis for this improvement lies along the spectrum between snake oil and aspirin.

Nocebos

In describing nocebos, Wikipedia is insistent on this point:  “We can never speak in terms of simulator-centered ‘nocebo effects,’ but only in terms of subject-centered ‘nocebo responses.’” Whatever, dudes. The point is, just as you can have a presumably unwarranted positive response to a non-drug, you can similarly unwarranted negative side effects from the same non-drug, or outsized side effects from a real drug. Prior to embarking upon this post, I’d never heard of this, but I guess it makes sense. This Times article nicely fleshes out the topic. For example, it describes how patients warned of erectile dysfunction as a side effect of a specific drug were three times as likely to suffer it.

In fact, I have firsthand experience of the nocebo effect—er, response—as well. The other night, I was suffering from some pretty bad hayfever, and I decided that my normal placebo—generic Zyrtec—wouldn’t be enough. (Even though Zyrtec has a bona fide active ingredient, it seems to make so little difference in my symptoms, I’ve decided it’s more of a placebo than anything. If this seems silly to you, consider this Times article about how hard the Claritin manufacturer had to work to get FDA approval, because the FDA medical officer declared it was “not very different than placebo clinically.”) Wanting real relief, I brought out the big guns: generic Benadryl. This drug has always worked wonders on my allergies, though its principal side effect—the near inability to wake up the next morning—is a beast.

Well, the drug did its job: my allergy symptoms were completely wiped out, though I had a really hard time getting up the next morning. My head was all muddy and I was stumbling around in the bathroom for quite a while trying to get my deodorant applied and my contact lenses put in. And then I spied something that kind of amazed me: the little pink generic Benadryl tablet, sitting there on our little bathroom shelf, uneaten.

I have no doubt this was the very tablet I thought I’d consumed, as it had been the last one in the package. So the antihistamine benefit, along with my Benadryl hangover, were both based on belief alone … a placebo paired with a nocebo.

Reverse-placebo effect?

This begs an interesting question: could the benefit of a drug be retroactively hampered by the suggestion that it was only a placebo? For example, if you suffered from appendicitis and had your appendix removed, and then were told later the surgery had been a sham … could your pain come back? In other words, is there any such thing as a reverse-placebo effect? Could you ruin the effect of a legitimate drug, or the results of an actual surgery, by telling the patient he hadn’t actually received it?

I don’t see any practical value in such a thing, but it would be an interesting thing to study.  Perhaps some silver-tongued professor or researcher is able to drum up some research funding. For what it’s worth, my recent experience with the generic Benadryl suggests that the placebo effect, along with the nocebo response, were unaffected by lifting the veil. I put the unconsumed tablet back in the package, shrugged, and continued to enjoy an allergy-free but decidedly hungover morning. But then, as I said, I’m a placebo believer.

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, July 28, 2017

From the Archives - Lobsters in Maine


Introduction

As described in these pages, my wife and I did a cross-country bike tour in 1994, starting in the Bay Area, heading down the west coast to San Diego, and then making our way north and east all the way to Maine before dropping down the east coast to South Carolina. Since it’s a slow news day here at albertnet, I’m sharing this archival bike tour essay, which mostly concerns Maine lobsters. (Note: this post is not about the 2015 movie The Lobster. However, if you haven’t seen that movie yet, you should definitely check it out … just as soon as you finish reading this.)

One more thing: I originally wrote this account while still on the bike tour, without the benefit of Internet access or any other means of fact-checking all the stuff I wrote about lobsters, which was stuff a guy told me, and which I recounted from memory. I see no need to fact-check any of it now; I mean, it’s not like you’re going to get in some kind of trouble because you had, say, the wrong figure for legal size of a captured lobster.

Lobsters in Maine – September, 1994

Our first morning on Mount Desert Island, we awoke at 3:45 after scarcely four hours of sleep to ride up Cadillac Mountain, which at a paltry 1,000 or so feet is nonetheless the highest point on the east coast. It is also reputed to be the first place in the United States that the sun hits in the morning. We took in a nice 5:57 a.m. sunrise (whether or not it was really the first), and then had a nice descent to breakfast. In the process we came across the Great Acadia Downhill Bicycle Adventure: a company drives you up the mountain, gives you a motorcycle helmet and a beach cruiser, and guides you down the mountain, all for just $29. We used the $58 we’d saved to buy ourselves a lobster dinner that night in Bar Harbor.

I’d never eaten an entire lobster before—just a tail, on a couple of occasions. Lobsters are as cheap as $3.50 a pound, live, in Maine. This is the season for them, and every restaurant in town offers them, at anywhere from $6.95 to $11.95 for a whole 1-¼ pound lobster. At an ice cream shop, I even tried lobster ice cream, which must have been more gimmick than anything because it was just plain vanilla, with chunks of lobster meat. After going to a bookstore to review souvenir placemats describing the 10-step lobster eating process, we went to a restaurant that one of the Bar Harbor locals had recommended. (Q: How do you find one of the rare locals in a tourist-mobbed place like Bar Harbor? A: They’re the ones without the fanny-packs and commemorative t-shirts.)

The early bird special was $9.95 for a whole lobster with rice pilaf and vegetable. It was delicious, I must say, although quite challenging to dismember. The lobster was almost too perfect to eat: it was served, mere minutes after the end of its life, completely intact: eyes, antennae, claws, legs, tail everything. The best meat came from the tail and claw sections, although each of its slender legs yielded meat as well, which you got at by sucking really hard on the narrow tubular shell. (It was kind of like trying to suck a Wendy’s milkshake through a straw, except yummier.)

The liver of the lobster—a great green ball that lobster aficionados call the tomalley—is considered a delicacy, but it was too much for me. It tasted like the way the sea smells, except worse. I guess I’m glad to have tried it, just for the experience, just like I’m glad I once tried chicken feet at dim sum, but I shall never eat a tomalley (nor a chicken foot) again.

We’d intended to stay longer on the island than we did, but the awful roads and suffocating congestion, combined with the exorbitant expense of the campgrounds, were just too frustrating. A park ranger explained that the post-season lull, which we’d been counting on, is a thing of the past. So many travel books, he said, encouraged people to visit after the tourist season (Memorial Day to Labor Day) that it’s just as crowded in September as it is in June. In fact, we discovered that more people were there on weekdays than on weekends. Maybe the time to come would be over the July 4 weekend, when all the wily tourists are staying at home. Or better yet, come in January, when even the central heating of an RV isn’t enough to rectify the discomfort of winter.

After leaving Mount Desert Island, we went looking for a small, relatively obscure restaurant called Bob’s Chowder House, which had been recommended by locals. After looking in vain for a while, we stopped at a random roadside restaurant called the Gateway Lobster Pound. It featured awful food, slow service, and a noisy staff that argued well within earshot about whether my wife was justified in sending back a slice of pie, which tasted like the inside of a refrigerator and was completely stale.

We left, disgusted and unfulfilled, and then, a quarter of a mile up the road, found Bob’s Chowder House. Such despair! We were so disappointed by the first place, and in such low spirits, that we stopped at Bob’s Chowder House anyway. (This is where having an auxiliary stomach really comes in handy.)

This time we were not disappointed. The waiter was friendly, the food was fantastic, and afterwards, on our way back to the highway, we stopped outside where the lobster cook presided over giant drums of boiling salt water recessed in a brick fireplace. He was a young, bearded fellow, idly smoking a cigarette while there were no lobsters to be boiled. He was happy to talk with us about lobsters, and even went to the tank to get us a live one to examine.


When you take a lobster out of a tank of chilled water, it’s alert and strong and you have to keep its claws rubber-banded shut or it could maim you. But once it’s been in the warm air for a while, it gets weak and woozy and the rubber bands can come off.

A lobster, before cooked, is generally a brownish color, although some of them are blue. When cooked, all of them, even the blue ones, turn red. Lobsters look a lot like the crawdads we all dissected in biology, but in fact they’re quite different. Most species of lobsters are of the genus Homarus, while crayfish are of the genera Cambarus and Astacus. Lobsters are considerably larger and dwell in salt water, while crayfish are fresh water creatures, except for the spiny lobster (aka rock lobster) which is a salt water crayfish.

[Note: in the years following this bike tour, I did some business travel and found a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio that served a seafood pasta with a big ol’ crawdad sitting on top. The first time I ordered it, the waitress warned me about the crawdad. I asked what could possibly be the problem and she let on that some customers were a bit freaked out to have this insect-like thing staring at them. It didn’t bother me a bit, and I can now report that crawdad tastes exactly like lobster.]

Lobsters are captured in a “lobster pot,” which is a slatted cage with an opening covered by a funnel shaped net. It is lowered all the way to the ocean floor, and will gradually fill with as many lobsters as can climb in, until it is pulled up. The trapping of lobsters is restricted in order to protect the species: lobsters of less than 5 inches or so in length, measured from the mouth to the tail, are illegal to sell; likewise, lobsters of greater than 10 inches or so (I can’t remember the exact numbers) are also illegal to sell. These must be put back in the ocean. Sometimes a lobsterman will catch a female that has laid eggs. These eggs are stored on the underside of her belly, and she curls the tail around them like a shield. The lobsterman must cut a notch in the tail of this lobster before putting her back, so that if she is caught again and without eggs, she will still be recognized as a breeder and returned to the sea in reward for her fertility.

Lobsters lead a very busy life. The only way they can grow is to shed their shell and grow a new one. Further, they can only shed their old shell in shallow waters, where they must wait, hidden under a rock or shelf in the sea floor, for the new shell to grow. A lobster spends his entire life walking across the ocean floor towards the shallow water, shedding his shell, growing a new one, and then slowly retreating to the deeper ocean again. By the time he gets back to deep water, it is time for him to grow again, so he turns right back around and heads towards the shallow water again. This is a slow process; by the time a lobster is big enough to sell, he is usually 4 or 5 years old. If he is lucky enough to outgrow his legal size without being trapped and consumed, he will have a long life ahead of him, with few or no natural predators. Lobsters can live 80 years, and the largest one ever captured is in a museum in Boston and weighs something like 45 pounds.

Like an Albert, a lobster will eat whatever he can get. Usually this means ocean debris that has sunk to the bottom of the ocean, but we’re told a lobster will eat another lobster if he gets the opportunity. Lobsters have one dominant claw, which is bigger than the other, and they use this claw to break up and pull in food. The other, smaller claw is used to put the food into the lobster’s mouth. (Some lobsters are “right handed” and some are “left handed.”) These claws are extremely powerful—they could snap a broomstick in half—so lobsters are seldom bothered by other sea creatures. And, if a lobster loses an appendage, he can grow a new one.

Having learned all this about lobsters, I began to rethink my enthusiasm for eating them. It seems like kind of a waste for a lobster to spend 4 or 5 years scuttling along the floor, making its long journeys, putting out such an effort to grow new shells and increase its size, only to be eaten over a period of 15 or 20 minutes. Of course you could argue the same point about cattle, but I think there is an important difference. The modern cow is entirely reliant on humans for its food—indeed, for its very existence. In a sense it’s almost more like a crop than a creature. But the lobster has a very busy, purposeful life, and would do quite nicely without being captured and eaten, thank you very much.

On second thought, lobster makes more sense than beef as a food because it doesn’t require any feeding. I heard somewhere that half of the water used in the U.S. goes towards growing corn to feed cattle; why shouldn’t we instead eat an animal that that finds its own food? All the McDonald’s restaurants in New England serve lobster; if lobster were to replace beef, think of all the land we could use for growing other stuff! Someone told me once we could feed the whole third world that way! Besides, lobster is so much less fattening than beef (and contains, incidentally, more iodine than any other food). We already have lobster hatcheries; what about doing it big?

Alas, there’s the whole food chain issue, so dramatically increasing lobster populations wouldn’t really work out. But what about this: since they can regenerate claws, how about harvesting those? Why waste all that potential claw generation time while the lobster is out scuttling around? Keep him happy, give him all the fish food or leftovers he wants, and take claws as necessary.

Okay, that’s enough. I was just kidding. Consider that last paragraph the deranged musings of a somewhat disturbed former lobster eater—reformed by default, since there is no more lobster to be had.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Ride Report - Sierra Nevada “Almost Death Ride”


NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language and frontier violence.

Introduction

You might not have known this about me, but I’m one of those big-shot bike racers on an elite racing team. Wait, that’s not quite right. More of a shot, baggy-eyed bike geek in a book club. Wait, that’s too harsh. I’m somewhere in the middle: an ageing former racer on the East Bay Velo Club. EBVC is a group of classy old veterans, some of whom still race and make the podium regularly, and all of whom love big food, good coffee, biking, and race reports (roughly in that order).

Well, I did race once this year but that was off-road and probably doesn’t count. So in lieu of a glory-filled tale of my peloton-crushing exploits, here is my food-filled tale of crushing myself on an epic mountain ride in the Lake Tahoe region with my EBVC pals Craig and Ian.

Executive summary

It was brutally hot. The climbs were brutally hard. Ian, Craig, and I are brutally old. We ate brutally well. Hydration was a problem. Mother Nature treated us brutally. Verdict? Epic PASS. We got in touch with our inner brutes.

Short version 
  • Ride stats: 117 miles; 8 hours 3 minutes ride time; 12,080 feet of climbing over 32 categorized climbs (at least, as categorized by Strava), including Monitor Pass (category 1) and Ebbetts Pass (HC)
  • Pre-ride dinner: huge plate of pasta, BBQ chicken & peppers, French bread, salad, one “hydration” beer (Stella Artois)
  • Breakfast: bowl of cereal that was organic but 90% sugar; bowl of fake Cheerios; 1% milk; banana; 1 NoDoz
  • During ride: 2 or 3 energy bars, 1 gel (2x caffeine), 3 sleeves shot blox, 2 Hostess cupcakes, 1 20-oz. Coke, about 10 bottles of water
  • After ride: 3 “Greek” wings, pita bread, baba ghanoush, ½-pound lamb burger with feta, big pile of seasoned fries with aioli, 3 huge glasses of water
To make the ride especially hard, we all failed to train properly. We also added on two more weekend rides as garnish: a 35-miler on Friday evening just to wear ourselves out, and a 67-mile “insult to injury” ride on Sunday. We modeled the main (Saturday) ride loosely on the Markleeville Death Ride, but did two trips over Luther Pass instead of the backsides of Monitor and Ebbetts so we wouldn’t run out of water.



The average temperature was 90 degrees. For long stretches, it was well over 100. The campground 2/3 of the way up Ebbetts Pass, where we’d planned to get water, was oddly dry. Nevertheless, we avoided heatstroke and completed the ride, though we were pretty well hobbled by the end. High spirits and sophomoric humor dominated the proceedings.

Long version

Who are Craig and Ian, anyway? (Since this post is destined to be a cult classic like Deliverance, The Osterman Weekend, and The Blair Witch Project, I suppose I should develop my characters.) Craig is a big friendly giant, who used to play football and now drags us around in his slipstream across the flats, never bothering to draft us because that would just slow things down and anyway he never needs to rest. Craig can climb like the dickens, which has never made sense to me given his size.

Ian, on the other hand, is not a giant, but he’s from England and has that cool accent that makes him sound all intellectual and authoritative, and he has that overseas vibe that makes you feel automatically inferior as a cyclist. Vague impressions aside, Ian holds a 5th-place Strava KOM—just behind four-time national champion Freddie Rodriguez—on the legendary Lomas Cantadas climb. Needless to say, I went into this ride very worried that my pals would hate me by the end for slowing them down so much.

I should also point out that my normal road bike was out of commission for this ride so I was riding my backup bike, which is pretty decent except the oversized aluminum tubes transmit all the road shock right the way up to make my ass and hands super sore, which causes whining. On the plus side, this bike has a really cool head badge. (I pointed it out to Craig, who said, “Oh, a photo of when your kids were younger and still loved you!”)


For a summary of our route consult Appendix A. The climb up Luther Pass was a decent warmup. It’s not that hard a climb, gaining 1,359 feet to a summit of 7,740. It was a beautiful day, with no rain forecast (a pleasant change from my last would-be epic ride).


After a short descent we made our way up Carson Pass, braving a headwind. I’m not complaining, mind you—the wind actually made it easier to suck Craig’s wheel.


It was weird doing Carson so early in the ride … every other time I’ve ridden it was toward the end of the Death Ride, when I was already worn out. The temperature was perfect at this point. Still a fair bit of snow at the higher elevations. In case you were wondering, this pass is named for Kit Carson, an illiterate trapper and frontiersman whose idea it was to pioneer this route through the snow (against the advice of local Washoe Indians), causing the expedition to have to eat their dogs, horses, and mules for lack of game.


At the summit we fared better than that expedition had. Though there was no running water, the visitor’s center sold us bottled water for the low, low price of $0.50. I feel bad for all the wasted plastic but I guess it’s better than eating our pets.


Here’s the requisite glamour shot. The real point of this photo is the elevation sign over my shoulder. It’s a little too small to read, but the summit elevation is 8,574 feet. I’d have liked to get a better shot of that sign, but Ian and Craig seem to have some problem with standing out in the middle of the road and getting run over. These signs meant a lot to me during the ride, because they were my only indicators of progress: my backup bike has no computer and I wasn’t even wearing my watch.


After Carson we descended for a glorious 15 miles, then had some rollers through Markleeville. Is there anything interesting to be said about this little town? Well, it’s named after Jacob Marklee who lived there for many years before dying in a gunfight. Also, according to Census data, 100% of Markleeville’s population live in households, 0% live in non-institutionalized group quarters, and 0% are institutionalized (at the moment). That photo of my bike (above) shows this town in the background. (Yes, that’s pretty much all there is to see.)

It started getting really hot as we headed south on Highway 89 towards Ebbetts Pass. Ian’s bike computer registered 104 degrees, Craig’s 106. I think we had a bit of a tailwind as well. My energy bar was sweating in its package and came out covered in a snot-like film. Melted frosting, maybe. Not that I minded. What I do mind is how so many modern energy bars are full of seeds. My kid has swiped all the basic flavors from our stash, leaving me with the weird ones, like “Berry Pomegranate Chia” which is mostly chia seeds.  Worse, I have all these “Nuts & Seeds” bars that have actual pumpkin seeds in them, as though people actually eat those other than after carving Jack-O-Lanterns (in which case most of the seeds end up on the floor anyway).  After eating one of these modern bars, I spend the next five miles running my tongue around dislodging all the seeds from my teeth.  A tired, sore  tongue is just that much more suffering I don’t need.


See that sign in the distance? That marks where Highway 89 heads east toward Monitor Pass, which we’d hit later. But first we went straight to take Highway 4 up Ebbetts Pass, our hardest climb of the day. Ebbetts Pass is named for John Ebbetts, another pioneer, who naively recommended this route for the transcontinental railroad because he mistakenly thought it didn’t get much snow, based on his one visit there. He planned a second trip but was killed in a steamboat explosion before he could go. I get the impression lives were more exciting, and shorter, in those days.

Ebbetts Pass is a beautiful and very hard climb. My backup bike lacks a compact crank; I thought the ensuing boost to my mojo would help me handle the grade, but it did not. (At least both my legs were working right … last time I did this climb, I was recovering from a broken femur and dealing with asymmetrical power delivery.) At times my gearing limited how easy I could take it on a steep pitch, thus this photo.


For the most part I couldn’t keep up with Ian and Craig, but could at least keep them in sight. Here, I’d planned a scenic photo with my pals in the distance, but by the time I got my camera out, they’d rounded the bend.


There’s a campground about 2/3 of the way up that we were counting on for water, but none of the spigots worked. We asked a couple of campers about it and they said, “We know nothing. We’re so stupid we don’t even know our own names. Please bother somebody else because we’re about to cry. We just don’t know what else to do.” (I’m not sure I heard this right, but it’s the gist of their response.) We found the camp host, who was hiding in a giant RV and pretended not to hear Ian’s salutations, despite his commanding accent. Finally the host mumbled, “No water, go away, I hate you,” or something to that effect. He had this giant water tank but offered us nothing because his misanthropy and selfishness were limitless. Note: we were not bitter.

Near the summit of this pass is a beautiful lake, Kinney Reservoir to be precise. This reservoir was dug in 1896 by frontiersman Joseph Kinney, who never got to see it filled, as he was fatally garroted with fishing line by his six-year-old nephew in a freak fishing accident. (Okay, I made that up.)


We thought about filling our bottles in the lake, but it’s full of filthy, drooling, peeing fish such as brook, rainbow, and cutthroat (!) trout.

At the summit of Ebbetts we encountered a friendly biking couple in their 60s who had parked their car at the intersection of Highway 4 and 89—that is, the start of Monitor Pass, our next big climb—and offered to meet us there (after we all descended Ebbetts) to give us water. The nice couple also snapped this photo.


Zoom in all you want, you still can’t read the elevation on that sign. It’s 8,730 feet, which is higher than the summit of the Col du Galibier, the highest point in this year’s Tour de France.

Ebbetts is a glorious descent. I must say, it was really nice riding these roads without all the Death Ride throngs: safer, and quieter, and less chaotic. Of course I wasn’t able to get many photos—just this one.


Along the way down we stopped to fill up bottles at a fast-running section of the creek. That is, Ian and Craig did. I am far too afraid of waterborne parasites to drink anything that doesn’t come from a tap. With creek water there’s a giardia risk, of course, and I particularly had in mind this description by Anthony Bourdain of the aftermath of ingesting an amoeba: 
It slammed me shut like a book, sent me crawling to the bathroom shitting like a mink, clutching my stomach and projectile vomiting. I prayed that night. For many hours. And, as you might assume, I’m the worst kind of atheist.
I should point out that when fact-checking this, I discovered that it was a bad mussel that made Bourdain sick, not an amoeba. But that doesn’t change the fact that during this ride I was more willing to risk dehydration than waterborne illness.

Monitor Pass was a mother. The heat, which had subsided somewhat on the higher elevations of Ebbetts, was back into triple digits. A long, straight section of 10% grade felt like it would never end. What with my tired legs and old school gearing, I had to weave quite a bit. Fortunately, there’s absolutely nobody up there, so you can hear a car coming from a mile away. (Okay, maybe not actually a mile, but a right fur piece anyway.)


This section of highway is one of the newest in the Sierra Nevada mountains, having been paved in 1954. According to Wikipedia, “The highway project was promoted by Robert M. Jackson of Markleeville, who worked for the Alpine County Public Works Department for more than 30 years until he perished in a grisly wood chipper accident.” (Yeah, I embellished that.)

The summit of this climb marked a milestone for at least two of us: we were now 80 miles into this ride, making it the longest we’d done since the 2014 Everest Challenge. This gave us a sense of accomplishment, sure, but also dread, as we had 37 miles left to go.


Craig got a front flat. His tire had developed a hernia. We had to boot it, using a rubber boot I had and a duct tape one from Ian. To be extra safe, Craig put only 70 or 80 PSI in his tire. The point of this photo, of course, is the sweat salt on Craig’s jersey.


Craig kept dragging us along. Even 90+ miles into the ride, I honestly don’t think he’d drafted either of us once. Drafting him all day must be what it’s like to be Chris Froome ensconced perpetually in the womblike slipstream of Team Sky (except I’m not jacked up on performance-enhancing drugs).

As we rolled along I had an in-my-body experience: this sudden full realization of living my life right now, moment by moment—that what I was seeing before me wasn’t a dream, a memory, a flashback, an illusion, or a vision of the future.  Gone was the sense that my life is all cerebral and abstract; I was aware during that moment of being a living organism processing and reacting to immediate stimulus. I know this all sounds obvious, but actually this real-life sensation, this sense of bearing real-time witness to my own currently unfolding experience, is for me the exception and not the rule.  I experience this feeling from time to time, and find it exhilarating. (I’ve talked to at least one person who finds it terrifying.)

We stopped in Markleeville again for water and goodies. At this point I still had an energy bar on me, but it was a “Cloves, Peppercorns, Grape Nuts & Gravel” variety and I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. I also had a gel, but it was an expired tangerine flavor that is the wrong kind of sour and should really be called “Tangerine & Stale Cigarette.” I was really craving a Hostess fruit pie (which packs like 600 calories) but the general store didn’t have any. Fortunately, I got something almost as good.


The first ingredient in these Hostess cupcakes is sugar, but don’t worry, they also contain high fructose corn syrup, along with “vegetable and/or animal shortening.” These cupcakes are sold as “Pingüinos” (i.e., penguins) in Mexico. Could these actually have penguin fat in them? Possibly. But the point is, they’re light and fluffy and really easy to eat, unlike a standard energy bar, which is hard to chew when you’re 100 miles into a ride and knackered.

Craig ate an energy bar and a small bag of potato chips, one or both of which, as we headed toward Luther Pass, started to mess up his stomach. (I momentarily wondered if it was the creek water, except Ian’s stomach was fine.) The upshot of this was that Craig no longer felt like dragging our asses along into the headwind we found ourselves facing. Fortunately, I finally started to feel pretty good. Clouds had appeared and it was a bit cooler, and I think I’d hit that perfect level of dehydration: not enough to affect my power, but enough to cut my weight by several pounds, improving my power/weight ratio.

My gearing still wasn’t as low as I’d have liked, so I had to dig pretty deep in the long run-up to Luther Pass.  Strava calls this stretch “Death Ride Carson Pass Part 1” and reckons it a category 2 climb. I guess that’s about right, especially since we had a headwind. It was a real slog, but my legs did this odd thing they sometimes do really far into a ride:  they just kept turning, as if unbidden, surprising me with their tenacity.  Their motion was utterly without pause, as if the turning of the rear wheel was dragging them along instead of the other way around. I was kind of mesmerized watching them go, wondering things like “How are you doing that?”  My legs didn’t even hurt that bad, though my butt, feet, and hands were in agony.


After a subdued final descent (subdued owing to the low pressure in Craig’s front tire) we reached the car, triumphant because we’d conquered a seriously hard ride without having really trained for it. Yeah, we’re fricking old, but maybe we’ve still got some heat left in our coals. Here I’d thought winging it was the privilege of the young ... but it turns out the cussedness of age is highly compatible with reckless ambition.

Here is the requisite “after” shot. The point of this photo, of course, is the pair of ridiculous dents in my forehead from my helmet.


Look , I know this report would be more exciting and fun if our ride had been a disaster, like this one, but things turned out really out well, especially when it was time for dinner. Due to poor planning, we had no bike lock for the car rack, so were restricted, when choosing a restaurant, to a place that looked out on the parking lot so could see our bikes. Fortunately there was a Mediterranean place with a picnic table out front, which was doubly handy because when Ian’s hamstring cramped and he cried out in pain he didn’t scare anyone. Check out these kind vittles:



On that note, I just realized I’m starving, having been on the South Beach diet for two weeks (excepting this Tahoe weekend, when I ate like a king). Time to go eat some squash and other assorted vegetable nonsense.

Appendix A – route and climb stats 
  • Parked at the junction of Highway 50 and 89 (elevation 6,381 feet)
  • Rode up the west side of Luther Pass (a category 3 climb, summit elevation 7,740 feet)
  • Turned right on Highway 88 and headed up Carson Pass (cat 2, elevation 8,574)
  • Turned around and descended to Woodfords, where we turned right to stay on 89 and headed to Markleeville (elevation 5,489)
  • Continued on 89 and then Highway 4 and climbed Ebbetts Pass (huis categorie, aka HC; elevation 8,730), failing to get water along the way
  • Turned around and dropped back down to the junction of 4 and 89, elevation 5,827 feet
  • Turned right and headed east on 89, climbing the west side of Monitor Pass (cat 1, elevation 8,314)
  • Turned around and descended back to Markleeville, then retraced our route along 88/89 to the Luther Pass junction (this bit is listed as a cat 2 climb)
  • Turned right on 89 and climbed the east side of Luther Pass (cat 3, elevation 7,740)
  • Descended back to the car
Appendix B – What does “Almost Death Ride” mean?

I say “almost” because our ride was almost as hard as the Death Ride. And it was better because we didn’t have to fork out $125, share the road with thousands of others, and endure all the fuss of registration, etc.

In case you haven’t heard of it, the Markleeville Death Ride is a popular century ride (not a race) that traverses five mountain passes over its 129-mile length. I’ve ridden it 12 or 13 times, and (as described here and here) always very much enjoyed it. These days, the main purpose of the Death Ride is to make people like me feel old. I first rode it in 1993, half my lifetime ago, and last rode it in 2005, a quarter of my lifetime ago. Where has all the time gone?

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2017 Tour de France Stage 12


Introduction

The Tour de France can be hard to watch. It’s usually pretty boring because, being the most important stage race on the calendar, it draws out the best dopers, which for the most part are on Team Sky. The way Sky dominates this race, it’s a bit like if the Chicago Cubs were up against a minor league team for the World Series. Worst of all, the announcers have to play along like this is legit and say nice things about everybody.  Well, as you can see, this blog is different.  Being an unpaid nobody, I can gnash my terrible teeth and roar my terrible roar as I see fit, which might just breathe some life into my coverage.

Today my blow-by-blow report covers a pivotal mountain stage of this year’s Tour.  Since this is the first Tour stage I’m covering, I’ll also catch you up on what’s been going on since July 1 when the race started.



2017 Tour de France Stage 12 – Pau to Peyragudes

As I join the action, the riders are on the penultimate climb, the aptly named Porte de Balles.  I think that’s the name, anyway … kind of blurry.  It’s a huis categorie climb (i.e., it could beat up your dad’s climb).  The peloton has got 44 kilometers to go. There’s a breakaway of eleven unimportant riders 4:23 ahead.

A couple of other nobodies attacks.  They’re Fortuneo-Vital Concept teammates Maxime Bouet and Brice Feillu. I guess I’ve heard of Feillu.  Kind of a strange story how he got his first name:  it was a typo.  It was supposed to be Bruce, but you know “i” is an adjacent key.


So here’s what’s going on in this year’s Tour so far.  There are only two time trials in this edition, and they’re pretty short ones at that.  Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas won the first one, which was the prologue, and kept the yellow jersey until his teammate Chris Froome took it from him on Stage 5, the first mountaintop finish of the race.  Fabio Aru (Astana Pro Team) won that stage, taking 20 seconds out of Froome.  (Thomas crashed out of the Tour a few days later.)  After a couple more mountain stages, Froome retains the lead but has only 18 seconds on Aru on the GC.  Looks like a close race, eh?

No, not really.  Aru lost 40 seconds to Froome in that measly 14-kilometer time trial, so the Italian climber will have to take at least two minutes out of Froome over the remaining four mountain stages if he wants a shot at winning the GC.  I suppose two minutes is possible, but Aru has finished the Tour just once in four tries, and was only 13th place last year.  Meanwhile, the rider currently third on GC, Romain Bardet, is 51 seconds back on GC and lost 39 seconds in the first TT, so he’d need to be like 2½ minutes ahead of Froome before the final TT.  If Froome were a normal rider, all too human and subject to bad days and so forth, that wouldn’t be insurmountable.  But Froome isn’t normal, obviously.  Anyway, of the guys who beat Froome in the opening TT, the closest on GC is Stefan Krug (Team BMC), who’s over an hour down, in 100th place overall.  ‘Nuff said.

It’s 38 kilometers to go, with the breakaway’s gap down to 3:17.  The GC group is starting to pick it up and riders are going off the back so fast it’s like they’re being clotheslined.  I saw a guy actually get clotheslined once while riding a motor scooter.  It was brutal, and he had this big red welt on this throat, like a grisly red line, for like a week. I know that has nothing to do with this bike race but it’s a lot more interesting than what I’m seeing on my screen, which is Sky predictably swarming the front, all in yellow helmets, while the Astana team, supporting Aru, lurks just behind them.


Froome’s closest rival ought to be Richie Porte (BMC Racing Team), who brought some serious high-test lube to the Criterium du Dauphiné a few weeks back.  How doped was this guy?  Well, consider that although he’s a pocket climber (i.e., 5 feet 8 inches, 137 pounds, rides a 48cm bike for crissakes), he handily won the Dauphiné time trial, beating not only Froome but Tony Martin (Team Katusha-Alpecin), the reigning time trial world champion.  When a climber wins a major TT against top riders, I get suspicious.  The surface area to mass ratio of a climber just isn’t suited to cutting through the wind in a fast TT.  Size does matter ... why do you think sprinters can’t climb?  (And what other little climber dudes have won major TTs?  Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer, and Tyler Hamilton, all known dopers.) Anyway, I feel like a dick bringing up Porte’s probable doping, because sadly, the Aussie is out of this Tour after a terrible high-speed crash on Sunday. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, of course. Also, Porte would have made this a much more exciting race, and I’d rather have seen him win than Froome.  Oh well.

Oddly, Feuillu has dropped his teammate, Bouet. Why would he do that?  This is probably a coincidence, but Bouet now has a dark stripe up the back of his white shorts. What’s that all about? I don’t see a stripe on anybody else’s shorts and the road isn’t wet or anything. Maybe he shat himself! I know it’s not nice to cast aspersions like that, but then again, the dude is wearing white cycling shorts.  I think he’s got it coming, and his whole team as well.

It’s 6 km to the summit of this climb and still no attacks in the GC group.  Maybe nobody wants to get a lead before the final descent—given what happened to poor Porte—and are waiting for the last climb.

Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) attacks the breakaway!  He has a beard.  Not many racers do. Will this help or hurt his chances?  I’m not sure but in the Eurosport post-stage review with Juan Antonio Flecha we’re bound to find out how De Gendt’s beard played in to the ultimate stage result.

So, to continue my review of the rest of the Tour so far, the green jersey competition is pretty much doomed to be a yawner this year.  Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) has virtually no competition, having won five stages so far.  Two of his main rivals are out.  Peter Sagan (Hora-Hansgrohe) was disqualified for crashing Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) in stage 4.  Cav, meanwhile, was too badly injured to continue this Tour.  Besides Kittel, the only sprinter who has won a stage this year was Arnaud Démare (FDJ), who—amazingly—was cut from the race for losing too  much time on Sunday’s mountain stage.

Why “amazingly”?  Because Démare is a great climber!  He’s that one-in-a-million sprinter who can climb like the dickens!  In fact, he holds the Strava record for the famous Poggio climb in the Milan-San Remo road race!  Okay, I’m bullshitting you here.  Not about Démare’s Strava record for the Poggio, which he actually did get, but about him being able to climb.  He won last year’s Milan-San Remo because he blatantly cheated, hanging on to his team car all the way up the Poggio.  Read all about it here! So yeah, I was stoked to see Démare fall behind in the points competition and then be sent home for missing the time cut.  What a douchebag.

The peloton continues to thin out as Sky chases.  The gap is down to 2:41 (though I can’t tell if that’s to De Gendt or the rest of the break).  Bouet has been absorbed and Feuillu will be soon.

Stephen Cummings (Dimension Data) has attacked out of the breakaway and caught De Gendt.  I didn’t see it happen … he either faked out the cameraman, or me, or both.  He’s a sneaky little bastard!  Interesting tidbit:  Cummings is the grandson of e.e. cummings, the mediocre poet whose contribution to poetry was to be the first one to eschew all punctuation and capitalization.  (Maynard, please run that down post-production and fact-check it … I’m pretty sure it’s true but am starting to wonder if I made it up.  About being the grandson I mean.)

Vasil Kiryienka (Team Sky) detonates and is going backwards, off the back like a comet.  It can’t be easy setting tempo for Froome, no matter how lubed you are.  It’s no matter though … Sky still has plenty of dudes at the front (and in fact a highly “not normal” number, though that’s normal for Sky).


Any scandals in this Tour?  Well, there was a lot of bickering about whether Sagan should have been disqualified.  I don’t have much to say on that because I only watched the video footage like 100 times, and most of the Internet pundits have watched it at least 1,000.  The other scandal is about Aru attacking while Froome was having bike problems.  The announcers and post-race commentators zealously tore into this one, with all the Internet trolls adding their considerable expertise to the debate.  Aru defended himself, saying he didn’t notice that Froome was having bike problems, and I tend to believe him … after all, Froome’s head is down half the time anyway.  What is it with Froome and mechanical problems?  Remember the 2015 Tour when his gears were mashing or something and Vincenzo Nibali attacked him?  At least this time around, post-race, Froome declined to take the bait and cry foul—maybe he read my diatribe about this and learned his lesson!  (No, of course he didn’t.)

Anyway, I totally support attacking the GC leader, whether he’s crashed, had a mechanical, or had to take a dump on the side of the road.  All this “unwritten rule” talk is pure BS.  What other sport or contest doesn’t let you take advantage of the leader’s bad luck?  Imagine if you’re playing Monopoly and one guy has like all the monopolies and all the money and has like a dozen hotels and is gradually bleeding everybody dry—and then he gets the Chance card that says, “You are assessed for street repairs.”  What are you gonna do, appreciate the relief, or say, “You know what, just take another card, we wouldn’t want to harm your chances, since you’re already winning and everything.”  Luck is supposed to be part of this sport—it makes things more exciting.  And any Tour with Froomestrong in it needs whatever twists and turns it can get.

With under 10 km to go in the stage, Sky is still dominant at the front.  Needless to say.


Wow, Spain (I’m reduced to watching a foreign-language video feed today) has really racy commercials!  Lots of scantily-clad women!  Who knew?  Now it’s back to the race, I guess, but it’s just some unknown person blathering away about the time trial course.  WTF?!  Time trials are boring enough to watch, much less talk about.  This coverage sucks.

Okay, I’ve dismissed that silly all-TT-blather-all-the-time feed and now have nothing.  Wow, cool!  I tried a third browser and now have the Eurosport feed.  What a relief.  It’s the good announcers and everything.  Wait … okay, now it’s vanished.  I sent a note in the little chat to the admins, and they replied, “both are working. the problem is at you.”  Story of my life.

Now I’ve switched to a different PC and a different Internet feed.  Gosh, I’ve missed a lot.  Cummings is still the leader, solo, and he’s got 2 minutes on the GC group with 12 km to go.  He’s on the last real climb of the day, the Category 1 Col de Peyresourde.  Its summit is just 5 km from the finish, which is atop the supposedly Category 2 climb to Peyragudes, which looks so short on the profile I can’t imagine how it got that rating.  It doesn’t really matter though, because my feed has dried up again.  Should I just stop now?  Let you go about your day?  Okay, I’m back to the first PC. 

Wow, Kwiatowski (Team Sky) blows sky-high!  The hammer has truly gone down in the main GC bunch and Cummings’ lead is suddenly down to just over a minute.  The GC group is down to 11 riders, three of which are Sky.


Man, within the last minute Cummings’ lead went down to under 30 seconds … he’s doomed.  Oh man, suddenly he looks deflated … he’s really suffering.



And just like that, they’ve got him. 


And now Cummings is spat right out the back!  Poor dude.

Dang, while my feed was AWOL, it looks like Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) got dropped!  I guess he’s no longer even an outside contender for this Tour.  Must have tired himself out trying (in vain) to win the Giro.


Not a single non-Sky rider has seen the front of this GC group all day.  And Froome hasn’t faced the wind for more than about a minute or two, cumulatively, since July 1.  I guess that’s how it’s supposed to work, but I wish something would break down.  The Giro d’Italia was really exciting because winner Tom Dumoulin’s team was so frail, he had to do a ton of work himself and he only just barely got it done.

Aru is just sitting on Froome’s wheel, as he’s been the whole day.  He’s brashly told the press that he’s not afraid to attack Froome, and my reaction is like, duh!  Are you a racer or not?  It’s not like he’ll do anything in the TT, so sitting around and hoping Froome’s clockworks finally wind down isn’t much of a winning strategy.  But we’re 1.4 km from the summit of this climb and it’s just Sky slogging away on the front while Froome sits there and Aru, Bardet, and Uran just sit there too.  I guess the pace is just too high for anyone to attack.  Not since the Indurain years has a Tour stage been this boring.

Wouldn’t it be cool if Froome sucked at descending, like Thibaut Pinot (FDJ)?  Then you might see people trying to take advantage.  But I have to hand it to Froome, he’s a very good descender, and deserves full credit for it.  After all, there’s no syringe for descending fast.

And just like that, the GC group is over the summit of the Col de Peyresourde.


I guess it’ll be exciting to see who gets the stage win. With bonus seconds on the line Sky won’t be giving anything up to anybody. Meanwhile, if Froome can’t put in his first real effort of the day up this last little section and increase his GC lead, I’ll eat my hat.

Of course, even if everything suddenly goes sideways for Sky at the end, remember that Aru needs to accumulate a two-minute lead over these climbing stages before the final TT if he wants to win.  If he doesn’t even have enough strength to mount a single attack today, he might as well give up his GC ambitions.  Then he could pick a stage to go off the back and build up a huge deficit so Sky no longer cares about him. Following that, he could go hunt for another stage win.  It would be pretty sad if he had to resort to such dregs, of course.

Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) is somewhere off the back.  He’s crashed several times and is completely done, not just for this Tour but for his career, I’m afraid.

It’s just 1.5 km to go and still Sky, Sky, Sky. 

Warren Barguil (Sunweb), the current KOM leader, is off the back with Quintana.

With 1 km to go, Froome moves up to second position, the closest to the front of this GC group he’s been all day.  Dan Martin is moving over to the side, as if to prepare for an attack, or at least center the football for a field goal attempt.  And ... my feed freezes again.


And look at this!  George Bennett (Team LottoNL-Jumbo) attacks!  


But he’s instantly shut down!  And there goes Froome!  But this footage is just a slide show now!  I can’t see shit!  And now Aru is somehow in the front!  He’s drilling it but the grade is severe!


Now suddenly Bardet is in the lead!  Every time my feed restarts the positions are different!  Now I see why this short climb is a Category 2 ... the grade is unbelievably steep!

Froome is over the line but I can’t tell who won, I missed it!  Internet Tour coverage sucks!

Looks like Bardet got the win, with Uran getting second and Aru third.  Unbelievably, Froome lost like 20 seconds right at the end there.  Maybe his legs froze along with my feed?  Wow, I guess I need to eat my hat now! Froome is clearly not so dominant as in years past.

With the time bonuses, Aru could be the new GC leader because remember, he was only 18 seconds back. 

Here is the stage result, which is as much news to you as to me:


Okay, after some more scrambling for feeds, I  see the new GC, and sure enough, Aru has the yellow jersey, but only by six seconds.


The jersey will be a nice souvenir for Aru, and maybe he’ll even survive tomorrow and keep it for a while.  It’s too bad for him he didn’t (couldn’t?) try something earlier.

It’s tempting to think Froome could still lose this Tour.  Among the GC contenders there’s only one guy who can really time trial, that being Rigoberto Uran.  Uran did win a long time trial during the 2014 Giro d’Italia, but remember, notwithstanding his climbing prowess right now, he lost 51 seconds to Froome in this Tour’s first TT.

Meanwhile, the support Sky gave Froome today was pretty unbelievable (in every sense of the word). Time will tell, but in my biased opinion, Sky’s overall Tour campaign is looking alive and all too well.

Epilogue

I have now gone and watched the finish via freeze-free replays, and can see that I obviously missed the most exciting part of the race by far. I have also heard commentators weighing in on the controversy (recounted here) around Landa totally dropping Froome in the final sprint and taking 17 seconds out of him.  Here, I have to totally disagree with anybody who finds a problem here, and even with Landa for claiming not to have known what was going on.  Landa has nothing to apologize for.  That grade was unbelievably steep and the speed was not that high, so drafting would not have made a big difference ... and meanwhile, if Froome couldn’t find a wheel to follow that’s his problem.  At some point, you just may not have the legs, and he didn’t.  And let’s not forget that Landa is a totally legitimate GC contender and Sky’s best shot if something were to happen to Froome (e.g., crash, terribly timed mechanical, failed dope test, or one really bad day).  Why would you make Landa wait, with only like 300 meters to go? How much moral support could he even give Froome? I’m getting kind of tired of how everybody is trying to baby the yellow jersey.  He is (or was) a Tour leader, for crissakes, not an infant!  And we’re supposed to be rabid spectators, not helicopter parents! Dang.

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