Sunday, April 15, 2018

From the Archives - Fiction - Roommate


It being a slow news day, here’s a bit of short fiction from my archives. Enjoy please enjoy.

Roommate – June 1, 1989

It was an art, really. Nobody cooked ramen‑spaghetti like Nick did (albeit because nobody cooked it at all). The process gave him solace. No matter what was going wrong with his day, he could always count on his keenly precise cooking techniques to assure him that all was not lost. He would think, “Well, the ramen’s perfect anyway. At least there’s one thing in my life I haven’t screwed up yet.”

But today, Nick knew something was wrong as soon as he stepped into the kitchen. His demon roommate had stunk the place up. Scott, whose entire diet consisted of beans and brown rice, was sick again and thought he could cure himself by drinking gallons of tea infused with garlic. Scott wasn’t the first one to try this delusional home remedy. Nick’s own brother had tried it, too … when he was eight.

The smell itself wasn’t the only problem. Beyond this, Scott had used Nick’s pot. Nick was used to his roommates using his kitchenware, but not this pot. It was a gift, like almost everything else, from a friend who had used it all through college. “If you can handle not having a handle, it’s a great pot,” she had said. She was referring to the steel stub that had once supported a wooden handle. The stub never heated up too much, since almost all Nick cooked in the pot was ramen. And it was the perfect ramen pot, being the perfect size for two packages.

Nick’s routine was like clockwork. While the water heated up, he would pour spaghetti sauce into his special bowl. He used to have an even better bowl, with a fill line for the sauce, but Scott had broken it. Sure, Nick couldn’t prove that Scott broke it; somebody started a crack and one day the bowl finally split in half. But Scott was his scapegoat. Every household needs one, he mused, and this demon roommate had earned the title. The bowl Nick used now was less handy, but cool anyway: a white china bowl with a blue Japanese‑looking fish on the bottom. One of Scott’s former roommates had left it behind when he abruptly dropped out of college, having gone crazy. As in, he was literally in a mental hospital.

Nick would put the bowl of spaghetti sauce in the microwave, but he wouldn’t start it right away. Once the water was boiling and the noodles were all separated, he would reduce the heat and then start the microwave. The sauce didn’t need to be very hot; cooking it served as a timer more than anything. On half power, the microwave would warm the sauce just enough. When the microwave timer showed one minute, he would turn the stove off completely. With the lid on, it would keep cooking. He doubted—no, he knew—that Scott never took this energy-saving step; Scott looked at conservation only from a financial standpoint, and therefore acquainted it with being cheap. As if he wasn’t a low-class, low-rent, low-tier guy to begin with. He might as well admit it.

As soon as the timer rang, Nick would test one noodle. If it was done, he would pour the noodles in the waiting colander, then slide them into the bowl atop the sauce. The warm sauce cooled the noodles just enough to eat immediately once stirred, with a good shake of powdered parmesan from the green cardboard shaker.

But today his pot was dirty. Scott had used it to boil his smelly tea. Scott stubbornly insisted on brewing the tea several times a day. He couldn’t make a whole pot in advance and reheat mugs of it throughout the day, because he couldn’t figure out the microwave oven. It was an old-dog-new-tricks situation (Scott was thirty-fricking-three). Nick tried to show him how the microwave worked, but Scott just refused to learn. All manner of electronics mystified him, which was ironic since he was getting his Master’s in computer science.

Scott never figured out how to use his digital watch, either. When Nick realized this, he played a trick: he set alarm to go off at 2:00 am every night, just to see if the demon roommate would finally sit down and figure out how to disable it. Amazingly, not only did Scott fail to learn this, but couldn’t even figure out how to silence the alarm mid-ring. It was as though he was afraid to push a single button on the watch. Instead he made a habit of putting the watch in his sock drawer every night so it wouldn’t wake him up.

How would this guy, upon finishing grad school, find a job in the computer industry? Rely on his good looks? Hardly. Okay, he wasn’t a bad-looking guy, but also wasn’t nearly as handsome as he himself believed. He was so damn proud of his highway‑patrolman mustache, he would just sit in front of the mirror admiring it, like Narcissus. Nick, laboring to suppress a sneer nearby, would eventually give himself away. Then Scott would say, “Yeah, you could never grow one of these, could you? That’s a shame. Man, I used to have a full beard. Looked damn good too. Did I ever show you the picture of that?” Nick would roll his eyes. Only about a thousand times. Scott would reiterate, “You never could grow one of these. It’s not in your genes. Guess you’re outta luck.” Nothing Nick could say would deter him. Scott would continue admiring his reflection, and Nick would just stand there wishing he had a gun.

Normally Nick didn’t have to worry about Scott using his special ramen‑pot, because it was steel. Scott, like a lot of paranoid people, equated aluminum pots with Alzheimer’s disease. But he took it a step further, avoiding steel as well. He had one stovetop-safe glass pot, but today it was covered in burnt rice, and the dirtbag had resorted to borrowing the ramen pot.

This was a guy who took liberties. He left messes, he borrowed your stuff, you might even find him in your own bedroom sitting in your chair listening to your stereo. He had an entitled air about him, like Goldilocks. He had even discarded his given name and rechristened himself Scott. He probably chose this just so he could nickname himself “the Scotsman,” despite being the farthest thing from Scottish. He loved to refer to himself in the third person. As in, “I met a young woman at the gym today and got her number. Looks like the Scotsman’s gonna get laid!

Now Nick was in a rush—to zip home between classes and have a ramen spaghetti meal before rushing back for his next class required clockwork precision. Now his whole system was thrown off. When the microwave beeped he hastily pulled one long noodle from the pot, let it cool for a few seconds, and tested it. It was perfect—the gears in his machine seemed to be meshing again. He signed contentedly—and poured the noodles down the garbage disposal. The colander! He had completely forgotten it! And it was all because of the Scotsman throwing him off his game!

He was furious. His lunch—gone. No time to start over—he’d have to go hungry. Nick’s mind raced. Scott and that damn tea, he thought. I’ll get him for this. I’ll kill him! But how? Suddenly, he remembered the Winchester 30.06. He knew just how to get it, too. It was in his neighbor’s glass display case, and the neighbor’s eight-year-old kid had the key on a string around his neck. But that was the neighbor in his hometown, more than a thousand miles away, and that little eight‑year‑old was probably in high school by now. What could Nick do? There was always the chef’s knife . . . but he probably didn’t have the nerve. He didn’t doubt that he could overpower his roommate—he could envision the old dude’s brittle bones snapping like twigs. But there couldn’t be blood—then he would lose the damage deposit on the apartment. No, it would have to be clean—the perfect crime.

He didn’t have much time to hatch a revenge plot—Scott would be home by about five. He checked his watch, and was suddenly overcome with inspiration. Of course! The watch! As Nick watched the liquid crystal digits rolling over precisely, the seconds changing like magic, a plan unfolded before his eyes. The Scotsman had been talking nonstop about a meeting he was to have with the one professor on campus who still respected him. Scott freely—almost proudly—admitted that his flamboyant personality had irritated all the other professors to the point of complete alienation. And Nick knew a bit more than Scott had let on, since he had friends in the Computer Science department. Many people knew that Scott had virtually no hands‑on computer experience. Sure, he could write decent programs on paper, but that wouldn’t make him a real programmer. The ones who spent their entire lives in front of the computer—they would be competing for the jobs. For them, school was just a side‑show; they had been dominating the keyboards since they were teenagers. Scott, meanwhile, had spent ten years working at a factory after washing out in the white-collar world. Grad school was his second chance, but he needed to find a thesis advisor before he could finish his Master’s—and he had only one prospect left. Whether or not he could make a good impression at Friday’s meeting was up to him—until he decided not to wash that pot. Now, his fate was in Nick’s hands.

It was almost too simple. Nick would swipe Scott’s watch that night and change the alarm. The meeting was at 2:00 p.m.—he would set the alarm for 2:15. He envisioned the result: as the ignorant fool chatted with the professor, desperate to make a good impression, the watch would suddenly start beeping. The Scotsman, as shocked as the professor, would be powerless to stop the shrill “BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP! BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP!” For maybe five seconds, he would just listen to it, his face turning red, the professor becoming increasingly irritated by the unpleasant noise. Then, Scott would try in vain to muffle it with his hand. After about ten seconds, the professor would stare in disbelief as the computer science major clumsily fumbled with the band, finally stripping the delinquent watch from his wrist and shoving it in his pocket. The professor would realize the irony of the situation and burst out laughing. The damage already done, Scott could theoretically laugh with him, or make a futile excuse. But that wasn’t his nature. No, his explosive temper would take over, and he would blurt out something offensive and storm out of the room. He might reach the end of the hall before realizing that he had just ruined his last chance at getting a thesis advisor—and hence at getting his master’s degree in computer science. Once the word got out about his folly with the digital watch, and the ensuing loss of temper, he would be the laughingstock of the entire department.

Would the Scotsman then transfer to another school, to finally complete his degree? No chance. He was a quitter—always had been. A decade earlier, he’d received his first rejection slip from a magazine editor and immediately gave up all hope of becoming a writer, despite having a journalism degree. In like fashion, he would leave the university, unable to complete his goal, and return to the factory, a broken man. Nick’s revenge would be complete. And he couldn’t be punished! Even if he were convicted of tampering with Scott’s watch, was that a crime? In itself, no . . . Nick sat back, chuckling. It would indeed be the perfect crime.

Right around five, Scott arrived at the apartment, and between snorting, wheezing, and hacking up snot in the sink, he told Nick about this certain girl, who was so good looking, and not bitchy at all, but actually really sweet, and how he could tell she liked him, and how he wanted to “treat her to an active sex life.” Scott brushed his teeth, admired his reflection for a while, then continued his bedtime ritual by stashing his watch in the sock drawer. He was asleep within the hour, whereupon Nick retrieved the watch, put it in alarm set mode, expertly marched the digits across the screen until the alarm was set for 2:15 p.m., and returned the watch to its drawer. He had launched his magnificent plan and Scott would handle the rest, the mechanism of his own humiliation and rage set into motion like clockwork.

At precisely 2:28 the next afternoon, Nick looked up from his ramen to see the Scotsman crash through the front door in a blind rage. He crossed the room and began smashing his already bloody fist into the fridge. He spouted profanities, mingled with “professor” and “watch,” until he glanced over at Nick and fell silent. Nick, wiping tomato sauce from his chin, innocently asked, “What’s the matter?”

Then, as he locked eyes with the demon roommate, he found he was no longer able to keep a poker face. He jumped up, anticipating the attack, and when the Scotsman reached him, Nick let him have it.

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2018 Paris-Roubaix


Cycling commentators are professionals. That means they generally hold their tongues, and don’t bag on anybody, even the dopers and the clowns. I’m an amateur with nothing to lose, so I tell it how it is. Here is my blow-by-blow coverage of the 2018 Paris-Roubaix, one of cycling’s most famous races.

(Why is it famous? Here’s a hint.)

2018 Paris-Roubaix

As I join the action, the riders have exactly 100 kilometers to go. And there’s a crash! Looks like Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) and I think they said Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates).

“They”? Yeah, I am watching the Eurosport coverage and benefiting from their commentary. So I can act like I’m smart by claiming their observations as my own, while acting like a smartass by making fun of them. See how this works?

There’s a breakaway with 2:34 over the peloton, but they have no hope, really. They lost two minutes of their lead while I was in the bathroom. The only rider I care about in the break is Geoffrey Soupe (Cofidis, Solutions Credits) and that’s just because of his name. Who doesn’t like soup? And “Soupe” is even better because he’s French. But it’s really the “Geoffrey” that I like because that’s my brother’s name. When my brother did the “My Book About Me” project in first grade (i.e., Narcissism 101), for the prompt “One thing people don’t know about me is...” he wrote, “My name is Geoffrey, not Geoff, and I am not stuppid.”

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is on the front! He’s a major contender today, with his impressive results in so many races and his mountain biking background, but he has never had a very good Paris-Roubaix. He complained after the Tour of Flanders that the other teams wouldn’t help him work against Quick-Step Floors, which has dominated the 2018 season so far. Four-time Paris-Roubaix winner Tom Boonen bagged on Sagan for this, saying, “I don't think Sagan really should talk about a lack of cooperation. He is the one who always starts to drag. He looks to see what is going on, and then he comes forward once and starts waving his hand. If you do that you have to keep your mouth shut.”

That sounds pretty harsh, eh? Don’t worry, it’s all cool. Boonen told Sagan in advance that he’d be saying this. “Look, I’m trying to make it as a commentator now that my cycling career is over, and they’re telling me I’m boring, so I’m gonna have to light you up a bit. Nothing personal, eh?” Sagan just shrugged, because he doesn’t speak any Flemish and barely speaks English. (Note that I made this all up, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also true.)

Here is the main bunch. You can see Sagan in there with his world champion jersey.

To be fair to Sagan, he has a lot of trouble because his team isn’t very good. Probably their best guy is Marcus Burghardt. They also have Peter’s brother Juraj, who fielded accusations of nepotism by saying, “My name is Juraj, not George, and I am not stuppid.” Is this really nepotism? Of course. Juraj did win the GP Boka (whatever that is) in 2009, was 6th in the 2010 Giro Del Veneto (ditto), but other than winning the Slovakian National Championships a couple times has never done anything remarkable in the sport. I wish my own brothers were well-connected and could hook me up like that. At least they’re not stuppid.

Okay, this is interesting. There’s a small chase group now that looks important. It’s one of the main favorites, Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), along with Nils Poliitt (Katusha Alpecin) and Mike Teunissen (Sunweb).

At the back end of the peloton, the blatant cheater and shameless liar Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) is struggling just off the back. Good. Serves him right. After his disgraceful behavior at the 2016 Milan-San Remo, I hope he never wins another race.

Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) has dropped out after a crash. I have nothing personally against Thomas other than him riding for Sky, a team so riddled with drugs they should all just go away. There, I said it. By the way, Boonen stuck up for Froome recently, so he (Boonen) is now dead to me. (Froome was of course dead to me all along.)

Tony Martin (Katusha Alpecin) is chasing now, all by himself. And this dude, whoever he is, is racing without gloves. WTF!?

Now Sdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors) is on the attack.

In the time it took me to check the spelling on “Sdenek” (and I still got it wrong, there’s some weird accent mark I can’t be bothered with), the Gilbert group was pulled back.

One of Sagan’s teammates, I think it’s Burghardt, is on the front, and Sagan moves up too. This is probably more about positioning for the next cobbled section than about the breakaway, which is down to 1:12 anyway with about 70km to go. Stybar is still going it alone and now he passes one of the breakaway riders who is going backwards.

There is one American in this race, Taylor Phinney (EF Education First – Drapac). He has had some great results in the past and could actually do something here.

Okay, Eurosport just killed their stream so I’m watching the Dutch coverage. So I’ll have to make sense of things for myself. For one thing, Stybar is still killing it.

Okay, I spoke too soon. Stybar is getting caught. And now his teammate Yves Lampaert attacks. I’ll be honest, I’ve never heard of this guy, but I suppose this does force the other teams to chase so Stybar can get a rest and maybe try again.

Sagan takes a pull! Be careful with this expression when you’re talking to Brits, by the way. It means something entirely to different to them, involving a monkey being punished. Man, it’s a strong pull ... I think Sagan has gapped the field without exactly meaning to.

Sagan is solo! The Dutch commentators are oddly blasé about it. If Sagan catches the lead trio and any of those guys turn out to have been loafing, that could be very good for him. But chances are they’re not loafing, they’re fried.

Sagan catches the lead group. It’s only 26 seconds ahead of the peloton, though. Just in case these three don’t turn out to be irrelevant, their names are Sven Erik Bystrom (UAE Team Emirates), Jelle Wallays (Lotto Soudal), and Silvan Dillier (AG2R La Mondiale).

Two riders are trying to bridge up: Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Wout Van Aert (Veranda’s Willems-Crelan). Wout, wout!

Yikes, a crash!

Looks like Kristoff was caught up in that. Could be the end of his race.

At the front, Sagan is drilling it and the lead is back out to 48 seconds!

In the time it took me to get that snapshot, the lead went up to 55 seconds! Sagan is really going for it!

Looks like Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) was caught up in the crash. He’s the only rider my wife cares about, based on his looks. “Care” is putting it a bit strongly, actually. He’s the only rider she doesn’t detest for being too skinny.

I think this is Taylor Phinney on the left, leading the chase.

The Sagan group has lost somebody. Their lead is coming down now as well: it’s only 39 seconds now. Wait, now it’s 42, now 43. Now 44. I guess it’s coming back up. But there are still 42 km to go ... probably this won’t last unless somebody bridges up or Sagan has an amazing day.

Indeed, it’s Phinney toward the front. A chase group with six riders is floating a bit ahead of the main bunch. It’s Gilbert, Phinney, Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First – Drapac), Jasper Stuyven (Trek – Segafredo), reigning Paris-Roubaix champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), and Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), who recently won the Tour of Flanders.

Sagan’s group now has 1:06 over the main bunch, and 58 seconds on the chase group. There are 35 km left in the race. The other two in the break are actually doing some of the work. That’s gotta be pretty exciting. It was Bystrom who got dropped, by the way, so this is Wallays and Dillier with Sagan.

Wallays looks like he’s hanging on for dear life now.

Nike Terpstra is leading the chase group. The way he is holding his body, he looks a bit tired ... or am I projecting?

Here’s a nice close-up of Sagan and a young fan.

What the hell?! Sagan seems to be adjusting his stem while he rides. This can only indicate mental illness. I mean, okay, I suppose it’s possible that there’s actually something wrong with his stem, but what are the odds a rider would be carrying a wrench for that? This is not a rhetorical question: the odds are zero. No rider brings wrenches in his jersey pocket, except a crazy person. The last rider to do mid-race bike adjustments was Eddy Merckx, who wasn’t exactly crazy, but had some definitely odd idiosyncrasies after a horrific crash motorpacing that killed his coach. Afterward he could never get comfortable on the bike and would often make adjustments when possible, such as when the peloton was waiting for a train or stopped by protestors. But I don’t think even Merckx tried to make adjustments while riding! This is so bizarre! I don’t care what happens for the rest of this race ... it’s already the best Paris-Roubaix ever.

Okay, let’s think about this. Maybe Sagan’s stem was loose, and he didn’t want to wait for a new bike, so he went back to his team car while I wasn’t looking and borrowed a wrench? I guess that could be it, though I’d rather have this be a glimpse into serious psychological issues.

Now Wallays has been seriously gapped by the breakaway. I think he’s done. And Sagan is totally drilling it on the front, with just 25 km to go!

The chase group is still holding together but are about 1:10 back now. Not sure how far it is back to the main group. Sagan looks seemingly infinitely powerful.

Dillier is doing some of the work and actually looks pretty good too, his expression notwithstanding.

The gap is up to 1:26. Terpstra and Van Avermaet are working pretty well at the front except they’re just not going fast enough. Still, 21 km is a long way ... maybe they’re letting Sagan hang out to dry? Or maybe they’re hoping his handlebars fall off?

Sagan’s bike is really ugly. I like Specialized bikes—I really do—but the gold just looks cheesy. It’s like the cheap gold paint you put on cardboard blocks to simulate gold bricks when you’re in like third grade. It’s the color of the lame plastic sword you get with a cheap Halloween costume.

Maybe this really is Sagan’s day ... maybe Boonen really pissed him off so he’s out to prove something. His lead is up to 1:30 and he actually is getting some real help from Dillier!

It seems like the chase group is holding together pretty well. Alas, all the footage is of the breakaway so I can’t tell what’s happening behind.

Phinney works hard at the front for his teammate, Vanmarcke. Man, those Education First – Drapac costumes are ugly. Who came up with those colors? It’s like Pepto-Bismol pink with puke-y neon green, like a teenaged Easter bunny in the ‘80s.

Terpstra takes a pull and looks like he means it. As if in direct response, the gap drops to 1:12 very quickly ... so Sagan doesn’t have this in the bag by any means.

Sagan is totally hammering, whether in response to the dropping gap or because Dillier is starting to make him nervous. The gap is down to 1:08. They’re reaching the end of the last really serious section of cobblestones.

There are only 13.6 km left in the race but the gap is down to a minute. Sagan has got to be pretty much shitting himself now. Fortunately, Dillier takes a turn at the front. He’d probably be pretty happy with second place here, and who knows, I guess it’s possible he could beat Sagan in a sprint if Sagan did a ton of work and was just fried or paused to give that stem bolt another good turn.

The chase group is down to just four riders: Terpstra, Van Avermaet, Phinney, and Vanmarcke. The winner today will very likely be either Sagan or one of these guys.

Dillier takes another turn at the front as the gap drops to just 48 seconds. Man, we’ve got a real bike race here! My daughter shows up and I catch her up on what’s going on. Perfect timing, that.

The main bunch is way back at 1:25. Nobody in that group will be a factor at the finish. And Sagan and Dillier are under the 10km banner! Gap is now 47 seconds.

Dillier has really ugly sunglasses.

With  7.7 km to go, the gap is 45 seconds ... such a nail-biter for those who bite their nails. I wish we could get some help for those people, the nail-biters.

And it looks like Wilfred Peters has brought his own weather to this race.

Hmmm, he’s also not wearing a helmet. I think maybe that photo isn’t current. It’s from 2001! How did that sneak in here?

The gap, amazingly, is back up to 51 seconds! Unbelievable! I don’t know how Sagan does it. He’s been out there since like 54 km to go. I’m starting to think the only thing that could stop him now is that loose stem.  The gap is now up to 54 seconds, with only 6 km to go. What’s wrong with these chasers?

Terpstra is drilling it now, and gaps Phinney!

Probably it’s too little, too late. This really could be an amazing win for Sagan. It would be the first time in 37 years that a reigning world champion takes Paris-Roubaix (the last being Bernard Hinault in 1981).

With 3.6 km to go, the gap is back up to a minute! Wouldn’t it be amazing if Dillier actually won? He really is looking good and doing his share of the work. But Sagan has a legendary sprint. Hell, even I probably couldn’t beat him. Oh, wait, I just remembered I’m not a World Tour racer.

I think they’re done with the cobbles now and on some pretty nicely manicured city streets in Roubaix.

Maybe Sagan’s handlebars will come completely off during the final sprint! That might not cost him the win, though. He can do a no-handed wheelie, after all.

The racers now have the velodrome in sight!

Why on earth is Dillier leading it out? How did Sagan swing that?

Like clockwork, Sagan comes around Dillier as they approach the finish line!

And Sagan has got the win! The sprint was a formality due to Sagan’s earlier work with the allen wrench.

My daughter’s hands are trembling with the excitement! She’s a true fan! It’s a great day! Sagan gives Dillier a little handshake.

Sagan, needless to say, is thrilled. His handler, however, looks bored and a bit annoyed.

Terpstra takes third. Like you care. Like I care. Like he cares.

Since Sagan was never considered even an outside favorite for today’s race, one of the organizers has to scramble to get the plaque ready for his trophy.

Sagan is being interviewed. “I kept going until the end,” he declares. “I am very happy to came the first.” I love this guy. Strong like bull ... smart like tractor. Not that I would be any more eloquent if I had to say anything in Slovak, of course.

Okay, they just showed some highlights from the race and indeed, Sagan did drop by the team car to borrow a wrench. It appeared to be an allen key, which is pretty dangerous. With those carbon fiber steerer tubes on modern forks, you really need a torque wrench. It’s a good thing Sagan didn’t overtighten it, and that he didn’t linger too long at the team car holding out for a proper wrench. I’d say he played this one just perfectly, tactics-wise.

Look at this handler. He still looks bored and slightly annoyed. I guess he couldn’t care less about bike racing. What a shame ... I would love to have that job (for a day) though I’d have to gain a lot of weight before being qualified for the job. But one time during the 1985 Coors Classic I got to hold Bernard Hinault’s bike for him while he went up to the podium. That was a thrill.

Here’s your top 10:

They’re preparing for the podium. What’s with the ski goggles? Must be a sponsorship thing. Or maybe he is crazy after all.

Dillier looks reasonably happy, I suppose, after missing the win.

Notice how the podium girls are at the far edges of the stage this time around. They’re on their way to being gone altogether. Is this Bernard Hinault presenting the trophy to Sagan? I hope not ... he doesn’t look so good.

Here’s your final podium.

That does it, I’m going to go out and buy some neon green ski goggles.

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Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Autocomplete Zeitgeist


As everybody knows, Google Autocomplete is a function of Google Search that starts providing feedback even before you’re finished typing your search query. The search engine predicts what you’re searching for based on what others have searched for (among other things). As such, it’s a good indicator of where people’s heads are. In this post I examine the national zeitgeist as of March 31, 2018. (To some degree Autocomplete is regional but I’m not going to worry about that right now.)

No, I’m not the first person to do this. But since you’re here, roll with me for a while….

Persecution mania

To start, let’s see what people worry about being busted for. This should showcase an interesting array of guilty consciences and/or unfounded worries.

Typing “is it illegal to” yields the following Autocomplete suggestions:
  • Is it illegal to burn the US flag
  • Is it illegal to drive without shoes
  • Is it illegal to change lanes in an intersection
  • Is it illegal to burn money
  • Is it illegal to run away
So far, it appears a majority of Internet searchers are unpatriotic free spirits who hate wearing shoes, didn’t study very hard for their driving test, resent their own wealth, and would run away from home if they weren’t worried about being arrested.

Changing our query to “is it against the law” doesn’t change much except we get “to threaten someone,” “to not file taxes,” “to spit on someone,” and “to cheat on your spouse.” So the America-hating, wealth-hating free spirits who are miserable at home are also adulterous and gross.

“Can you be arrested for” causes Google to add “speeding,” “slander,” and “jaywalking,” which all fit our emerging profile  of the scofflaw, irreverent American. Bringing in the search term “imprisoned” yields Autocomplete suggestions like “for a debt,” “for not paying taxes,” and (perhaps most alarmingly) “for drink driving.” (No, that’s not a typo. I mean, it’s not my typo.) Seems that a lot of these social degenerates are misbehaving first and asking questions later.

“Can a police officer” … take a guess. Get a date? Be a winner? No, but nice try. Autocomplete suggests “search your car,” “lie to you,” “take your phone,” “take your car,” and “threaten you.” So it looks like these miscreants expect to get back as bad as they give.

If we back off the legal aspect and soften our query to “are you allowed to,” the suggestions get a bit softer, too: 
  • Are you allowed to smoke weed in public
  • Are you allowed to bring weed on a plane
  • Are you allowed to bring lighters on planes
  • Are you allowed to retire at age 50
  • Are you allowed to use a calculator on the gre
It’s perhaps worth noting that these misanthropic lawless hooligans can’t be bothered to try to spell “marijuana.” Try searching on “is smoking w” and you’ll get a full rack of weed-related Autocompletes:

But searching on “is smoking m” doesn’t even begin to suggest marijuana:

Whoah, that’s a weird batch of Autocompletes. I saved you the trouble of looking up what “smoking money” means … it’s using dollar bills as rolling papers. Why would anybody do this? Could Zig-Zags cost that much? (Believe me, I’m the wrong guy to ask.) Mullein is some kind of flower that people are evidently seeing fit to smoke. Ditto mugwort. So apparently our carefree, resentful scofflaws are burning money for a reason; will get high on just about anything; and are approaching 50 and fearing some kind of pushback if they leave workforce. If all this weren’t strange enough, they’re also thinking of taking the GRE.

Who, what, where, why, how

Okay, there’s more to life than finding out what we can and can’t get away with. There are larger, existential questions like who, what, where, why, and how. Searching on “what is,” the top five suggestions I get are:
  • What is palm sunday
  • What is bitcoin
  • What is my ip
  • What is a rambler
  • What is net neutrality
The first suggestions merely tells you when I started researching this post. The bitcoin response suggests either a fascination with alternative currencies or the never-ending quest to get rich quick. So which is it? Well, considering that my thorough explanation of bitcoin has not gone viral, probably the latter.

The question “what is my IP” is a pretty silly one, because most people have their IP address dynamically assigned via DHCP, so the concept of “my IP” is about as useful as smoking dollar bills. So our freewheeling unpatriotic ne’er-do-well, though he may despise paper money, likes the idea of cryptocurrency and wealth, even if he’s a bit confused about the Internet and/or retiring at 50.

As far as “rambler,” that’s a very good question … after several seconds of painstaking research I’ve determined that it’s the nomadic hobo, which for some reason takes lupine form, that is the mascot of Loyola-Chicago’s sports teams. Apparently the average American, while not driving barefoot to an extramarital tryst and/or smoking weed, is watching sports while pondering the deep questions that activity produces.

Moving on to the question of why, we’re presented with a laundry list of compelling mysteries:
  • Why is the sky blue
  • Why is downsizing rated r
  • Why is fortnite so popular
  • Why is my poop green
  • Why is my internet so slow
I know just what you’re thinking: even though you aren’t personally a person who madly changes lanes right in the middle of an intersection while “driving drink,” or smokes weed on an airplane, spits on people, and hopes to get rich via bitcoin, you really would like the answers to those pressing questions. So I’ll save you a Google search:
  • The sky is blue because it’s a beautiful day
  • Downsizing is rated R because of multiple scenes of male full frontal nudity, 24 instances of the F-word, and moderate drug use
  • Fortnite is popular because it’s a stupid video game where you shoot people (i.e., society is doomed)
  • Your poop is green because you smoke too much mullein
  • Your Internet is so slow because your ISP gave you a really lame IP address and there’s no net neutrality (whatever that is)
Moving on to “who is,” we discover that the cash-smoking moral degenerates of our time are more interested in Snoke (a Star Wars character) than Jesus, though at least Jesus took second and third place. Next up is “the richest person in the world,” who better watch out lest his cash get burned up (whether out of spite or as joints). Rounding out the podium we have Marshmello, an electronic dance music producer (probably responsible for the music people listen to while smoking mugwort and watching the Loyola game with the sound turned off).

“Where” gives us these suggestions:
  • Where’s my refund
  • Where am i
  • Where is  xur
  • Where is the final four this year
  • Where to buy ripple
So the freewheeling adulterous drink-driver isn’t so anti-money that he isn’t impatient for his refund, and meanwhile wants to get rich on Ripple, which I’ve learned is like bitcoin. He doesn’t know where he physically is, which is what you get for rolling up plant matter in paper currency and inhaling.

I’m going to guess that Loyola made the Final Four … good job, Ramblers!

But what the hell is xur? Oddly, when I Google “what is  x,” Autocomplete doesn’t suggest “what is xur.” It suggests instead, “what is xur selling.” And when I google “what is xur,” the first result is “Where is Xur? Find Him here and See What He’s Selling.” In fact, the whole first page of responses deals with Xur’s location and what he’s selling. Now, I’m not about to be arrested because the cops track my IP address and bust me for trying to buy a bunch of Xur’s illicit products. So I’m not going to I looked up “xur” on Wikipedia and—check this out—there’s no entry. When’s the last time that happened? Suffice to say, if you want to know anything about Xur, you’re on your own.

And finally, the big questions all having been investigated, we reach the practical matter of how:
  • How to delete facebook
  • How many ounces in a pound
  • How to make slime
  • How to buy bitcoin
  • How to tie a tie
I guess it just figures that a person who cheats on his or her spouse, spits on people, and smokes weed on airplanes would also be painfully active on social media, ignorant of basic weights and measures, and unable to tie a necktie. But making slime? Is this really the new national pastime? God we’re a weird populace.

The future

So far I’ve focused on Internet searches regarding the present. But where, as a people, are we going, or do we hope to go? To find out, I typed “am I going” and Autocomplete dished up a laundry list of common fears:
  • Am I going crazy
  • Am I going to die
  • Am I going to hell
  • Am I going bald
  • Am I going to die alone
  • Am I going insane
  • Am I going deaf
  • Am I going to heaven or hell
Next I typed “will I” into Google, but unfortunately this yielded a number of false starts involving the musician will. i. am. To jettison these I changed my query to “will I ever,” and the result was possibly even sadder than “am I going”:
  • Will I ever find love
  • Will I ever be good enough
  • Will I ever get married
  • Will I ever be happy
  • Will I ever get a boyfriend
  • Will I ever find true love
  • Will I ever get over him
  • Will I ever be happy again
The thing is, these are tough questions that would require a lot more information than a Google query can give (even with Google and other cookie-enabled agents presumably tracking our every move on the Internet). It strikes me that the people asking these questions (and thus making these the most popular queries) are using Google less as a search engine and more as a Magic 8-Ball. So why not just do that?

I tried this by going to (Note that this site isn’t encrypted so you better not ask anything too private.) I asked it, “Will I ever be happy again?” and got back “Concentrate and ask again,” followed by “Without a doubt.” (This isn’t as complete as “Wait … aren’t you happy now?” but I’ll take it.) Disconcertingly, before answers, it briefly presents the message “Contacting Oracle.” This makes its responses seem less like magic and more like a database lookup. But then, isn’t that just like the Internet?

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

My Father’s Things ... Looking For a Home


This post is about getting rid of my late father’s stuff. Not the valuable stuff, like his house and his car (which have new owners), but all the rest of the stuff that meant something to him, and possibly even to somebody else (given that there are over 7 billion people in this world).

You’ll get to see some of this stuff showcased below, in case you want any of it. But I’m also going to proselytize a bit about not accumulating stuff. You might find that amusing and/or a needed wake-up call.

A soldier’s things

There aren’t many activities sadder, I think, than going through a dead person’s stuff. The poor guy … his stuff outlasted him, and now he can’t use it anymore! In case the sorting activity itself isn’t enough to make you cry, it helps to get the Tom Waits song “A Soldier’s Things” in your head. Although I have just discovered there is some debate about the meaning of this song, I take it to be about a yard sale for all the stuff a soldier left behind when he didn’t make it home.

Some time ago I went through a similar process with the bike gear left behind by a friend of mine who drowned. That was almost unfathomably tragic but at least I had the satisfaction of finding good homes for the vast majority of the stuff. Many friends bought his old bike components (with the proceeds going to Mark’s widow) simply because they wanted something to remember him by. I myself am enjoying Mark’s old rollers, and I suspect I’m using them more than he even did.

But with my dad’s belongings … well, it’s all just such weird, arcane stuff. My dad realized well ahead of his death that he ought to do something with all of it, since it’s not really anything you could offer up at an estate sale. But by that time he was so old and sick, I found myself suggesting that he not spend his last months or years on this Earth getting rid of it all. I suppose it was reasonable advice but now I’m dealing with the aftermath.

A bit of advice

If you’re the hoarding sort, as I’ll confess to (somewhat) being, it sure doesn’t hurt to pair up with somebody with the opposite approach. My wife has a strong aversion to almost all physical objects. A running joke in my household is that I have to keep moving, or she’ll drag me out to the curb. As her most recent birthday was approaching, I suggested that I find some object in the house, gift-wrap it, and announce—as she opens it—that I’ll get rid of it before the end of the day.  She was delighted by the idea—and not just as a joke. She’d have actually been thrilled (though I couldn’t bring myself to actually do it).

But even if you aren’t lucky enough to be mated to an anti-hoarder, here’s a suggestion: as you approach retirement age (but while you’re still energetic and have your wits about you), go through all of your belongings and ask the following questions about each object:
  • Is this making me happy?
  • Is this making me money?
  • Would my kid(s) want to inherit this?
If the answer to all three questions is any version of “no,” get rid of the object. If the answer to the third question is “yes,” ask yourself a follow-on question: would my kid(s) want this now? If so, offer it up. If your offer is declined, maybe you answered the question wrong (i.e., you should jettison the object).

My dad’s stuff … you want it?

Okay, let’s get into the stuff itself. Some of it my brothers and I are keeping, like an assortment of beautiful, expensive-looking prisms. (There are dozens of them, weirdly enough, so if you have a thing for prisms, let me know.) Obviously some stuff has sentimental value, like the homemade coat rack with our initials carved in the base, and thousands of photo slides, most of which nobody has ever laid eyes on before (since slide projectors take so long to load up). But the vast majority of the stuff had value only to him (and perhaps not even much value, as most of it spent the last few decades out in the garage or moldering away in boxes).

Exhibit A is his recumbent tricycle. Five of the six members of our family find the original, classic bicycle design to be a rare example of perfect functional elegance. The recumbent makes about as much sense as microwave popcorn (i.e., none at all). When I see a person riding a recumbent I feel terribly sorry for him. He looks like a tortoise flipped over on its back. Oh, these recumbent riders try to look like they’re enjoying themselves, but they’re not. There is actually no logical way to explain this recumbent-riding behavior except a nerdy person held prisoner by his own iconoclastic yearnings. When my dad purchased this tricycle, to replace the recumbent bicycle he never quite managed to learn to ride, I was dead set against the idea (but I kept my mouth shut … there’s simply no point arguing with an iconoclast). He never ended up riding it much because it hurt his neck.

But anyway, perhaps you’re a weirdo yourself and think a recumbent trike is a fine idea (the product does, after all exist), so here’s a movie showcasing it. I will confess that my narration of this video flies in the face of everything I’ve just typed.

And now, on to the telescopes. Why don’t I want these for myself, you ask? Well, the Bay Area isn’t exactly a great place for astronomy. If you want to see anything cool, you have to take a trip to the middle of nowhere. I’m a true family man, so I don’t fancy the idea of a solo astronomy expedition. And I can’t bring my family on such a trip, because I’m married to The Woman Who Ruined Astronomy.

Here’s what happened. Like twenty years ago, before we had kids, my wife and I did a mountain biking vacation in Moab, Utah. My dad drove down and met us. We were camping in Arches or Canyonlands, and the astronomy was superb. Thus, my dad—a fanatic stargazer—gave us a free (if unsolicited) astronomy lesson that lasted, it seemed, for at least a couple of hours. I have to confess, when I peer through the eyepiece of a telescope I seldom see anything interesting. Often I think I’m only seeing the reflection of my own eye. Sometimes there are little pinpricks of light. It all just seems so pointless and arbitrary. The constellations? I have no use for them. I can recognize Orion’s Belt, and the Big Dipper, but all the rest? Forget it. Anyway, at some point my wife heard a noise. We were at a totally deserted campsite pretty much in the middle nowhere, and that sound could have been anything. A wolf, a puma, maybe even a Sleestak! So my wife turned on a flashlight and shone it around. This, of course, spoiled everybody’s hard-won night vision. My dad snapped, “Thanks a lot. You just ruined astronomy.” I guess it didn’t occur to him that she valued her own safety more than the wonders of the celestial heavens. My dad’s utterance instantly became a classic quote, trotted out regularly to this day, pretty much whenever somebody notices the night sky.

I wish I could have seen my dad in his element, holding forth at a star party to people who actually cared about astronomy. Surely he was everybody’s hero in that exalted realm. His telescopes are amazing. One of them in particular seems to be a crazy hybrid of state-of-the-art commercial technology and his own carpentry. My dad actually worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, fixing this giant flaw that originally plagued it. He was the real deal when it came to aerospace and optical engineering. It’s really a crying shame that although my dad had four sons, not one of us appreciate astronomy enough to want this stuff, but that there’s what it is. Anyway, here are a couple of videos showcasing the amazing telescopes themselves along with the crazy menagerie of tripods that supported them. If you are serious about astronomy, give me a shout and claim one or more of these for yourself. (Note: if you’re thinking of using one of these to spy on your sexy neighbor, consider that you would probably end up getting a very good look at his or her pores.)

Now, scopes ain’t all that he had … all kinda crazy shit was in this baller’s pad. (I’m paraphrasing Ice-T because that’s what my dad would’ve wanted. No he wouldn’t.) He also had all manner of useful, high-tech instrument. Unfortunately I can’t identify much of anything. I know that he built a number of interferometers, unmatched perhaps by anything ever produced by anyone, but he apparently didn’t save any of those. Suffice to say, the instruments in his collection were all top-of-the-line, made in America because nobody else knew how to build this stuff. Check it out:

Hey, wait! The video did not capture everything. Here are yet more instruments:

Here is a close-up of the two grooviest instruments:

Wow, what a lot of cool stuff. Probably the Smithsonian museum would love this stuff. Or maybe the Antiques Roadshow would pay a mint. Or some mad scientist would give anything to get his or her hands on it (either to put it to good use, or to store it in his or her house for a decade or two). Anyway, it’s free to a good home.

And now for one more thing: the Hewlett Packard 85 computer. As described here, this bad boy cost $3,250 back in January of 1980, which equates to over $10,000 in today’s dollars.  It sported 8K of RAM. (To put that in perspective, a decent modern laptop has 1.5 million times as much memory.) The HP-85 was a good investment: my brother Bryan and I both learned how to program on that machine, and one of us makes his living writing code. (Hint: it’s not me.) Here’s a print ad for the HP-85, followed by a video:

Some years ago, my dad offered me the computer. I politely declined, because I just couldn’t imagine myself actually making the time to mess about with it, and my kids would be even less interested. So it would just sit around taking up space. Well, I should have accepted, because that would have made my dad happy, and now here I am storing the damn thing anyway. (In a storage locker, no less, because I couldn’t bring myself to take it to the Goodwill or a disposal center.)

So, if you want any of this stuff, let me know—and if you don’t, forward this post (via this link) to everybody you know, and hell, even a lot of people you don’t know, and have them all do the same. Threaten them with bad luck if they break the chain—whatever it takes to find the right home for all these things! You’d be doing me and my father’s memory a huge solid.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.