Thursday, November 26, 2015

Bell’s Seasoning & The Key to Thanksgiving


Can any interesting new sentence be formed using the words “holiday” and “tradition?”  Probably not, so I’m going to chuck the junior high writing guidelines, skip the topic sentence, and just dive right in.


In my family, the run-up to Thanksgiving always involves some eye-rolling by my wife.  She almost never rolls her eyes at my utterances, with a few notable exceptions.  If I use certain automotive terms (e.g., “synchromesh,” “constant-velocity joint”) she rolls her eyes … or when I start going on about Bell’s Seasoning.

If you’re not familiar with Bell’s Seasoning, your mother probably doesn’t love you.  I’m sorry to be so harsh, but it needs to be said.  There is only one use for this product, and that’s as an ingredient in stuffing.  (If your mom calls stuffing “dressing,” she probably hates you and you’re at some risk for Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.)  I say Bells’ Seasoning is “an ingredient” but really it’s the ingredient (although it’s also critical that your mom bake fresh cornbread, which she then cubes and sets out to get just the right degree of stale, to mix with other stale bread for the stuffing).

If your mom doesn’t cook your Thanksgiving dinner, things get much more complicated.  More on that later.

How crucial is Bell’s Seasoning?

Bell’s Seasoning is easy to find in New England and the Northeast, but elsewhere it can be tricky.  My mom can’t find it in Oregon, where she lives now, though she never had any trouble when we lived in Boulder (where I grew up).  I had to really hunt for it when I lived in San Francisco, but it’s not too hard in the Berkeley area.  Still, I get a little nervous every year when I need to buy it.

A few nights ago my wife and kids joined me for a Post-Prandial PromenadeTM to Andronico’s Park & Shop, the store that had Bell’s last year.  This place is so expensive I cannot normally go in there.  (I once encountered this hippy-dippy woman there who was buying a foil pan of grilled asparagus that cost over $70.)

During the walk I fielded the inevitable question, this time from my daughter, “Is this seasoning really that important?”  I said, “Suppose you were an astronaut about to go on a spacewalk.  Would you think of going out there without your space suit?  Would you get bored of the same old space suit routine, and say, ‘You know what?  I’m just going out with a SCUBA mask this time.  I’ll probably be fine’?”  Before I had a chance to finish my little analogy, I realized that nobody was listening.

My wife has either heard it all before, or feels like she has.  It’s become something of a holiday tradition for her to grouse good-naturedly about how much dialogue surrounds this Bell’s Seasoning.  She has a point; in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving I always have several phone calls with my mom about Bell’s.  A typical call might go something like this:

            I’ll say, “So, I don’t have the Bell’s Seasoning yet—Safeway doesn’t have it anymore—but I’m sure I’ll be able to get it.”
            My mom will respond, “Well, I actually have two half-boxes of it in the freezer.  So if you can’t find it that’s no big deal … I think these will work.”
            “No, no, I don’t want to risk it.  Don’t worry, I’ll be able to find it.”
            “I think it does okay in the freezer.  I think I’ve done that before.”
            “You know what?  I just discovered have a box of it here, but it’s only half-full and it’s been in the spice rack, not the freezer.  No, I just smelled it and it’s no good.  I think it’s from last time we hosted Thanksgiving here.  Don’t worry, I’ll be able to find a fresh box.  I’ll definitely bring one.”

Perhaps I derive excessive pleasure from this subject because procuring Bell’s is basically the only thing I do to help out with the Thanksgiving meal.  As a modern husband/father who does a lot of the housework (and even a modest amount of the cooking), I take great pleasure in being almost useless on Thanksgiving Day.

The secret of Bell’s

So what’s Bell’s’ secret?  That’s a tough question, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I’m not at all sure about the apostrophes I’ve just used.  I could have put “Bells’” but the mere act of suggesting it has caused another problem, that of running an apostrophe right up against a quotation mark, which is grammatically fine, but which (at my age) I realize lots of people have trouble with, due to spotty eyesight, so I try to go easy.  The other problem with “Bells’” is that it connotes “belonging to or associated with the Bells,” which isn’t at all what I mean.  And “Bell’s” connotes “belonging to or associated with Bell,” which is probably worse.  I need to convey “belonging to or associated with Bell’s [seasoning].”

The other problem is, I’m not a chef.  I know enough to say, “This food would taste better with more salt,” but when we’re talking about what to add to a bunch of dried out bread to achieve that amazing apotheosis into a food as uncannily delicious as stuffing, I’m completely out of my depth.  And yet, I think I do have one theory about why Bell’s is crucial.

The fact is, Bell’s imparts a flavor that is not only pleasant, but totally unique.  Stuffing itself doesn’t taste like anything else we eat, and my mom’s stuffing doesn’t taste like any other stuffing I’ve ever had.  (Don’t take this for granted.   Consider those ten-page Chinese menus where the same sauce is presented in the poultry, seafood, beef, and pork sections.)  This morning I waved the open box of Bell’s in front of my daughter’s nose and she said, “Mmmmm, that so smells like stuffing.”

So, had my mom used Mrs. Dash in her stuffing since I was a kid, would I be blogging about that product instead?  Of course not.  That stuff is a) inferior, and b) used in various foods, not just stuffing (at least, by those who use it, whoever they are).

What is at stake

Okay, Bell’s makes stuffing yummier and more familiar.  So what?  Well, there may be people in this country who can tinker with the Thanksgiving formula every year and haphazardly try some new recipe or introduce some new side dish, or allow guests to bring a dish, but I’m not one of them … I’ve been through too much tumult for that.  It’s bad enough that a divorce ripped my family in half, but on top of that, I’ve had to deal with a stepfather and two different stepmothers.  Throw a neighbor’s stepmother onto the pile and you’ve got some hard times.

Pre-stepparent, Thanksgiving was hard enough because my parents would fight over who got my brothers and me for the holiday.  They never communicated directly with each other on this; my brothers and I were used as arbitrators.  This is a horrible task to take on, so more often than not we’d just lie, and tell both parents they’d won out.  This only worked because each parent (for some reason) wanted to serve the meal at a different time.  So we’d dual-dinner, which took the traditional gut-busting Thanksgiving tradition to a new level that might have actually been physically dangerous.

Did my dad use Bell’s seasoning?  Nope.  He either didn’t know about it, or refused to turn his culinary effort into facsimile of my mom’s.  I can respect that.  (Adopting her formula would be like a new rock band doing nothing but covers.)  There was nothing unpleasantly foreign or alien about my dad’s Thanksgiving dinners because they captured his odd, sometimes scientific approach to cooking.  He had occasionally cooked dinner for us pre-divorce and it was usually something he invented; he tinkered at length over this wacky savory skillet-fried concoction halfway between an omelet and a pancake which he called a “doormat.”  For Thanksgiving he put the turkey in an oven-cooking bag which he called the “Buzzard Bag.”  It did come out more tender, though it tended to fall completely apart, like a gastronomic embodiment of deconstruction.

Stepparents hugely complicate this holiday meal tradition.  There was the stepfather who thought the turkey should be carved in the kitchen and served buffet-style, and the stepmother who actually served the meal without any f’ing gravy!  Can you believe that?  For all the grisly detail on these two meals, click here.

The other stepmother experience wasn’t as jarring, but still unhinged my brothers and me a bit.  This stepmother was (and is) actually a very cool lady.  My brothers and I liked her just fine, which is saying something given the unavoidably difficult dynamic of these bolted-on, imposter-ish fake parents, whose very existence creates a situation which cannot exist anywhere else in the animal kingdom except perhaps in brood parasitism (click here and search on “brood parasitism” for details).

This stepmother’s Thanksgiving dinners were basically okay except that she served these weird onion balls.  I don’t know the real name, but they were silvery onions, the diameter of a quarter, in this strange pearl-colored sauce with the exact viscosity of human saliva.  This was an important enough side dish to our stepmother that she had two platters of onion balls going around, and since we tended to pass them along pretty quickly (not really wanting to engage), they seemed to be constantly bobbing up in front of us, like there was no escape.  They didn’t taste bad or smell bad or anything, but they were just weird, like if James Bond’s suit had epaulettes, or Natalie Portman had a tail.  I thought I was the only one vaguely creeped out by this side dish until after the meal when one of my brothers said, “What the hell were those onion balls?” and we all immediately joined in, puzzling over them and bonding in our mutual bemusement.

The wilderness years

During my college years, it wasn’t always possible to make it home for Thanksgiving, and that’s where things got really rough.  One year, when my brother and I were renting an apartment in San Luis Obispo, our friend in the apartment next door came to our rescue.  Knowing we had nowhere to go, he invited us home with him.  Problem was, his home was broken, too, and this was his first Thanksgiving with his new stepmother.  She really couldn’t cook worth a damn—I think her stuffing was made with Wonder bread (that weird plastic-y white bread from the Rainbo Baking Company).  I mean, I’m not a fascist about good cooking or anything, and if a master chef who was not my mom made a great Thanksgiving meal, I could probably enjoy it, but this was pretty foul.  Even worse, the dad, whom my dad would certainly have labeled a “knuckle-dragging cretin” (or “KDC” for short) was watching football on TV the whole time, even during the meal.  I’m aware that millions of Americans do this every year, but that doesn’t make it okay.  I’d rather have a street mime performing in the dining room … at least they’re quiet.  The worst part was that our friend was in agony, between being ignored by his silent father and unctuously doted on by his stepmother, whom he clearly despised.

The next year, another neighbor friend—a guy old enough to be our father—promised to take us out for a gourmet Thanksgiving feast at The Cliffs At Shell Beach, a fancy resort.  His treat!  The idea of eating this family meal at a restaurant seemed a bit off, but at least (we figured) the food would be good.  Well, the afternoon dragged on as we all waited for this other kid our neighbor had invited, who had the car.  When it became apparent that this friend wasn’t going to show, we had to punt and head over to the nearby Sizzler Steakhouse.  They had a “special” buffet meal that did feature traditional Thanksgiving foods, but with a special Sizzler twist:  all the foods were loaded up with staggering amounts of salt.  On top of the bad food we suffered a low-grade bitterness:  the neighbor was bitter that his friend had flaked, and my brother and I were bitter at our friend, whom we suspected of hatching a half-baked scheme without getting actual buy-in from this (perhaps mythical) car-equipped friend.

The next year after that, another San Luis Obispo pal invited us home for Thanksgiving, and even drove down to pick me up from UC Santa Barbara.  Though I don’t remember anything about the food—which probably reflects well on it, under the circumstances—my brother and I experienced a new kind of pain.  Not only was the host family still intact, but they’d invited another unbroken family.  After the meal we all sat in the living room talking, and everybody was so convivial and non-dysfunctional, it kind of rubbed Geoff’s and my noses in the fact that our own family would never be together again.  (Even at gatherings of all the brothers plus one parent, there was no escaping the shadow of who was missing.)

So, the next year I said screw it and made a meal for my two UCSB roommates.  This was okay except the food sucked.  I wasn’t about to roast an entire turkey, so I did some chicken legs with canned cranberry sauce dumped over them.  I made Stove-top stuffing and used canned gravy, which I thought would be edgy and ironic but turned out just salty and MSG-y, taking me right back to that awful Sizzler’s meal.  On top of that, one roommate realized to his horror that he’d lost the ability to eat an entire meal in one sitting.  All his body could handle anymore was little snacks.  (He seemed to subsist almost entirely on sunflower seeds, which he ate like a little bird, flinging the shells everywhere until I trained him to store the seeds in one margarine tub and drop the shells into another.)

Return to normalcy

Now that I have a family of my own, I’m determined to get it right, and to build up traditions and institutions that provide the supreme comfort of predictability and reliability.  There’s a wonderful continuity in having my mom make the meal, the old way, not just to close up old wounds but because she’s such an awesome cook.  (Has my wife ever cooked the Thanksgiving meal on her own?  Yes, but she had the kindness and good sense to consult at length with my mom on the phone.  She completely nailed it, even the stuffing with its perfect blend of stale bread, stale homemade cornbread, celery, nuts, and—of course—Bell’s seasoning.)

So will I tolerate any innovations at all when it comes to this special meal?  Sure, as long as they’re introduced gradually and by an authorized family member.  Some years ago my mom introduced a relish tray which includes pickled herring in sour cream, and I now consider it non-optional.  And more recently she took to complementing her own homemade cranberry sauce and raw cranberry relish (both mandatory) with one little saucer of canned cranberry sauce, slid right out of the can so the corrugations of the can remain intact.  I don’t know how or why this innovation was adopted, but I’m completely okay with it, as long as I can wave an open box of Bell’s Seasoning in front of my daughter’s nose and have her say, “Mmmmm … that so smells like Thanksgiving.”

Sunday, November 22, 2015

1-Star Reviews: The Fun & The Folly


I’ve blogged before about Amateur Product Reviews:  those reviews that your average joe can post on sites like Amazon, Best Buy, Yelp, etc.  These serve a valuable purpose because we can’t always count on magazine reviews, etc. to be unbiased.  Moreover, it’s nice to see people’s opinions in aggregate; if a dozen or two reviewers complain that the lid doesn’t fit right, chances are it doesn’t.

Being a very reluctant consumer in general, I like to go straight to the 1-star reviews.  I want to know what’s wrong with this thing I’m considering, so that maybe I can talk myself out of it.  I also find that 1-star reviews are the most entertaining.  When consumers feel wronged, their talons come out.

Of course, amateur reviews are as flawed as humanity, and the overall level of discourse is less like your college English class and more like traffic school.  It has recently dawned on me that websites could do a lot better to help consumers separate the wheat from the chaff.  In this post I’ll explain how, and just for fun I’ll throw in a contest.  You might win!

How the review-o-sphere governs itself

The amateur review system has evolved, and some mechanisms are now in place to validate user testimonials.  Supposedly, there are safeguards to detect fake reviews from manufacturers.  Some sites validate that the product reviewed was actually purchased.  And now many sites allow readers to comment on a review, which in many cases means crying foul.

Here’s an example.  A reviewer gave a 1-star review, titled “Symplicity,” to a digital camera.  The review (in its entirety) reads as follows:  “Needed something for my wife to use without too many buttons and knobs. All she has to do is aim and push a button.”  A couple of people commented that this guy probably meant to give this camera the highest rating based on its ease of use.  They’re probably right, and I also liked the comment, “So, you’re looking for a camera that’s like you?”

Amazon keeps tabs on the usefulness of reviews by asking the reader, “Was this review helpful to you?”  It uses this feedback to rank its reviews, so readers can sort by the most helpful ones.  This is a good start, but it doesn’t stop useless reviews from cluttering up the page and distorting the weighted average of a product’s rating.

Yelp offers sophisticated feedback widgets.  A reader can flag a review as useful and/or funny and/or cool.  (I’m pleased to say that one of my Yelp reviews got 4 “useful” ratings, 5 “funny” ratings, and 1 “cool.”  I’m less pleased to report that this review, for Cozmic Café,  doesn’t actually show up in Yelp’s review listing for the place, which fills me with lots of sour-grapes-based conspiracy theories.)

These feedback widgets are somewhat helpful, but still don’t prevent pointless 1-star reviews from tarnishing the average rating of a product or business.  But there is a way to fix this.  After careful analysis I’ve determined that most useless 1-star reviews fit within one of just four basic categories.  By giving readers four more simple buttons to click as needed, a website could easily gain valuable insight into improving rating metrics.  If some threshold of readers flagged a review according to one of these categories, the website could exclude that review when calculating the average rating. 

Category #1 – the Hapless review

This category covers one of the biggest problems with these reviews, which is a person giving one star when he meant to give five, and vice-versa.  The “Symplicity” review above probably fits this category.  Consider also this 1-star review for the iPhone 6S:  “Great item i had recent.”  Considering that whoever posted this is barely able to operate an Internet-connected device, his calling the iPhone “great” really does attest to its ease of use.  It’s a shame that this would-be 5-star review, masquerading as a 1-star review, is bringing down the iPhone’s average.  Imagine if you could flag this review as “Hapless” to alert Amazon’s star-crunching engine.  (Of course one vote of “Hapless” shouldn’t change anything, but if 20 out of 21 respondents click Hapless, and 0 out of 21 click “Useful,” that’s a solid basis for ignoring the 1-star rating.)

There’s a subcategory of Hapless I’ve observed:  consumers who are the real problem.  A 1-star reviewer may not realize, for example, that the product he purchased needs its battery charged from time to time, or that dropping a smartphone and breaking it doesn’t indicate a manufacturing defect.  I recently bought a bike light despite a reviewer complaining, “The act of taking it off to charge it caused the strap to snap on one side.”  I suspect that something specific about that act—such as manhandling the light—broke the strap, because this review also says, “barely fit my handlebars.”  The directions for this light clearly state it’s not designed for oversized handlebars.  I’d flag this review(er) as Hapless.

Category #2 – the Irrelevant review

Amazon in particular is plagued by this one.  A reviewer has a bad experience with his shipping, or the partner seller, or  the means by which an entertainment product is delivered, and gives the innocent product a 1-star review.  Consider this iPhone review:  “I ordered an i phone 6s 64 GB unlocked. When I got the box I found out that the I phone 6s box contained brown colored clay and no phone or accessories. Very shocking.”

There’s a mechanism for dealing with this—the reader comment feature—but these comments are not always helpful.  Consider these comments on the “clay and no phone” review:   “Liar go ask for refund liar thief,” and, “Not true, probably a Microsoft fan.”

Another example:  a reviewer of Eminem’s latest album wrote, “I spent $16 on this album and it wont play. I wrote customer service and they never responded. Guess I’m just out the money and worst of all still no eminent!”  (I take this as an Amazon problem, as their new Cloud Player has received lots of complaints.)  This review elicited the comment, “Fools like this should lose all internet privileges.”  Love it.

Another reviewer of this album wrote, “this CD does skip very bad.”  Look, pal, you’re supposed to be reviewing the quality of Eminem’s music.  I don’t think he gets involved in pressing the discs.

It’s sad to see products dragged through the mud by reviewers who haven’t actually gotten to use them.  Again, a simple response button could tell the website to exclude these reviews from the average rating.

Category #3 – the Nonsensical review

Sometimes a reviewer receives his product intact, and understands that one star means worst, not best, and yet posts such an inane review that his basic brain function is highly suspect.  Consider this 1-star review of the Eminem album:  “Water for someone else.”  That’s the entire review.  What the hell happened here?  Was this guy typing on a smartphone and was so sloppy it replaced every word of his review?  Or was he starting to say something complicated and just ran out of steam?  Or does he think people will actually understand what he’s getting at?  I can’t see how this review could possibly contribute to a constructive dialogue.

Then you get the reviews from people who are obviously bat-shit crazy, like this review for the Apple Watch:  “Causes cancer. Radiation on wrist can bring rumors to your body. DO NOT BUY!”  Obviously this isn’t a person who would ever purchase this watch … so what gives him the right to review it?

Needless to say these reviews shouldn’t dilute the average rating.  On top of that, as a consumer I’d like to be able to filter out all nonsensical reviews before I even start skimming.

Category #4 – the Weirdly Autobiographical review

I want to be careful with this one because some of my favorite reviews are weirdly autobiographical.  Excess detail isn’t automatically a problem, but some reviews say more about the reviewer than the product or service being reviewed.  Consider this excerpt from a laptop computer review:  “My Dad is an Engineer in both Computer Sciences and Electronics/Electrical with many years of experience, and as such Toshiba could fair well to take some custructive criticism.”  Wow.  This guy seems to have some Daddy issues.  Were both father and son ignored by Toshiba’s product marketing department, or does the reviewer assume technical acumen is genetic?  And what does any of this have to do with this specific laptop?

I was researching old-fashioned razors (i.e., that use the double-edged “safety” blades) and one review reported, “I would say 1 out of ten hairs would just fold down and go under the blade. So I started using my wifes cheap razor to finish the job. Finally she got after me and I went looking for my old razor. I then found a stainless 43c. Although I liked the wood better this one cut just like my old razor.”  I have no idea what a 43c is, or how old this guy’s wood-handled razor must have been, or why his wife and her razor have entered into the discussion.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this review, but there are 127 other 1-star reviews of this razor and only so much time in the day.

An Apple Watch reviewer wrote, “If you wanna dictate something naughty you can’t do it unless you are alone, in that case use your phone.”  Wow.  Some kind of perv, and I wonder what he thought this watch was supposed to do.

Here’s another jewel:  in a review of the Cozmic Café, one guy wrote, “I was told they don’t have beer to which I said it’s on the menu and can someone go upstairs and get me one and they said they were understaffed.  As I was walking upstairs with the guy to go get my beer he says...see you later.”  WTF?!  I mean, sure it’s lame to run out of beer, but I’d be pretty scared if I worked at this café and some beer-crazed guy tried to follow me upstairs.  I think “See you later” is a pretty reasonable response, especially at a place where (as another 1-star reviewer mentioned) “lately I have heard of multiple fights breaking out there, including ones where thirty year old men beat up teenagers.”

I don’t think reviews flagged as Weirdly Autobiographical should necessarily be removed from the average rating calculation, but it’d be nice to be able to filter them out, or (for bored readers) filter the results to show only these reviews.

And now … the albertnet Fake Review challenge!

What follows is a collection of product reviews.  For each product, there are three reviews:  two real ones plus a fake one I made up.  I challenge you to identify the fictitious review for each product.  Send your submissions to  The first person to guess correctly on every review, or the person with the best score when I arbitrarily decide I have enough responses, will get a prize.  I don’t know what it will be, but it will be similar in value to the First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot given to John Lynch, the winner of the last Fake Review challenge.  Win this contest and you’ll be just as famous as he, when I publish your name and photo (along with the correct answers) in a future post.

Review #1:  The Turn of the Screw (novel)

a)   The Turn of the Screw is quite possibly the stupidest and most pointless story I have ever wasted my time on. Purportedly a ghost story, the “ghosts” are nothing more than occasional appearances by the former governess and valet, both of whom are now dead.

b)   A friend told me “I couldn’t put it down.” Couldn’t put it down? I couldn’t pick it up! So hard to read...took me weeks to get through. If Henry James wrote this today, he would NOT get laid.

c)   The story is lousy, the characters are unbelievable, the protagonist is annoying, the plot development is glacial, and the ending is absurd. But what makes this book really bad is the writing.

Review #2:  Apple Watch 

a)   I had a hard time charging the watch.. The instructions read that that the charger attached magnetically to the back of the watch. When I placed the charger to the phone it seems to repel the watch instead of attaching to it. I tried resetting the watch twice but that did not help. I was finally able to get a charge by physically holding the charger to the phone and strapping it down, but this took 8 hours and I only got a charge 62%. It is our assumption that the magnet was placed backwards in either the watch or the charge.

b)   this is poop

c)   i thought this watch would replace my iphone (or actually I wouldnt have to buy one and watch is actually reasonable compared to phone cost) but it turns out WITHOUT THE PHONE THE WATCH DOES ALMOST NOTHING also battery life sux

Review #3:  toaster

a)    Mostly works well except something is catching on the bread and tears bits off that get “stuck” down in the toaster and hard to get out. So I tried to fish it out with a knife (with the toaster off, by the way) and got this big electric shock! My wide actually laughed at me and said next time just turn it upside down and shake it. So I tried that and burned the crap out of my hand! Toaster is going back for sure.

b)   I was so excited to buy a four slot toaster, morning arguments solved. However, this toaster was highly disappointing. The level that lowers the slots down is thin plastic and wobbly. The right side of the toaster quickly stopped lowing. The left side often burns part of the bread, while the rest of it is still cold. Overall, a shotty machine. Do not buy.

c)   I looked on line and read reviews and decided to get this one, HA! This does not even pop the toast up high enough to grab! It says that you get even toasting on both sides, not! It worked for about a week and after that half the side of toast would cook and then only half of a half, When I use the Bagle button the Bagle is cooked on both sides, not one like it should have been.

Review #4: Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage: Core Strength for Cycling’s Winning Edge (book)

a)   I would buy this book but not from somebody who was suspended for doping-specifically for using Testosteron-as a Physiciian I know that Testosteron is useful in the recovery and healing of tissues, especially muscles.If his training was as beneficial as he describes why did he need Testosteron-also being as long in the Pro Peleoton as he ,he must must be pretty stupid not to know how easy it is these days to discover Testosteron.Therefore with me he has no credibility and I will not buy the book

b)   It’s a shame how these books get published. The so-called co-author, Allison Westfahl, actually knows a lot about core strength training and theres lots of useful info here. Problem is she’s a nobody and couldn’t publish a book without tying it to a celebrity name so she let TD (aka Total Douche) pretend to co-write this. Almost worked but she should have hitched her wagon to a clean rider, if there are any left.

c)   I noticed the chapter on doping was missing. Can’t trust a doper. Maybe I will wait for the B sample of this book before buying again.

Review #5: cordless drill

a)   never should have bought cordless drill, remember when drills had a cord and you could just go whip it out and use it, now i always have to plan ahead and charge the batteries, this one particularly bad won’t hold a charge and tajkes forever to charge up do not buy!

b)   Only lasted two years and stopped working while my son was assembling soccer goals. Thought it was the battery and installed fresh one from the charger. My son came running to me yelling the drill was on fire. When I got to the drill smoke was pouring from the battery.

c)   came with black marks along handle, tip and back of drill. case had interior scratches, battery had a charge, and scratches, second battery had scratches. im not talking about scratches you could blame on rough shipping, this thing was dropped a few times outside of its case. nobody wants somebody elses tool. *cough* 

Okay, get those contest entries in! Remember,

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Self-Help & the 8th Habit


Don’t you hate it when this happens?

It’s always so tempting to mock the word “paradigm,” and other concepts from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  (I mentioned this book to my brother and he said, “Let me guess … these habits include yachting, fine dining, and fox hunting.”)  And if more people knew the subtitle of the 7 Habits book, Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, they’d probably make fun of that, too.  In general, the entire self-help industry has been a giant target for all kinds of sarcastic vitriol.

For example, George Carlin is very funny on this topic.  He asks, “Why do so many people need help?  Life is not that complicated….  I really don’t understand:  if you’re lookin’ for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else?  That’s not self-help … that’s help!  There’s no such thing as self-help!  You did it yourself … you didn’t need help!”

As much as I enjoyed that riff, I can’t embrace his distaste for self-help.  I myself have no use for glib aphorisms, much traditional advice (like the importance of goals), and frankly most of the books in the self-help section.  However, I’m a big believer in self-help as an endeavor, and actually respect The 7 Habits.  In fact, in this post I’m going to give you an 8th habit—an all-important one that I think Stephen R. Covey missed.

The self-help paradox

Some of the abuse that The 7 Habits gets is based on clichés like “paradigm” and “win-win.”  The comic strip “Dilbert” has been mining that stuff for so long, “Dilbert” itself can get repetitive.  (In Covey’s defense, “paradigm” and “win-win” weren’t hackneyed when he first trotted them out, and it’s only due to the massive success of his book that they’ve been overused ad nauseam.)  But I think there’s something else people are bothered by; after all, many other self-help books, such as Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, avoid the problem of trite language.  I think a lot of people instinctively recoil from the very idea of self-help.  (I know I did, when I was younger and cockier.)

Why should this be?  Well, many forms of self-help are aimed at people with drug, alcohol, or other addictions … not exactly the kind of person we hold up as a role model.  Beyond that, I think there’s a tendency to equate self-help with weakness, and whiny-ness, and perhaps with excessive humility.  Maybe showcasing the awareness of your own frailty can come across as emo.  If you meet a stranger at a cocktail party who within 30 seconds is mentioning his or her therapist, you might start looking for an excuse to disengage.

But if you look at self-help as commitment to improving yourself (and one that can be as private as you wish), and if you acknowledge that there’s a distinction to be made between good, sound advice in book form and all the chaff that any industry will naturally accumulate, I don’t think there’s any reason to automatically eschew the entire notion of trying to be a better person.  The alternative, when you think about it, is to think of yourself, “I’m just fine the way I am.” 

To me, that’s a pathetic way to be, and actually strikes me as more conducive to being emo.  When I witness emo behavior, I see it as an overblown, melodramatic indulgence and I want to shout, “Aw, just shut up!  I know you’re feeling all sad and vulnerable, but don’t wallow in it—work on it!  You could start by growing a pair!”  (Am I sexist?  Perhaps not—after all, I didn’t say “when I witness emo behavior in a male.”  I think “grow a pair” has, like “guy,” become almost a gender-neutral term.)

Frankly, I think the biggest problem with The 7 Habits is simply that not enough people actually read the book.  More broadly speaking, I think too many people—for reasons of pride, or insecurity, or laziness, or some combination of these—are unwilling to challenge their personal status quo.

So here’s my 8th habit:  get help.  Or to be more specific, don’t get too comfortable.  Concede that you’re not perfect, and work on yourself—and don’t pretend that your natural instincts about this process are any match for the careful, thorough thinking that very good minds have already done.  After all, if you knew how to be the perfect you, you’d be perfect.  And you’re not.  (Nobody is, except perhaps Atul Gawande.)

An example

I’m a cheap bastard.  When my daughter’s Stumpjumper (a great bike, but ~15 years old) wasn’t shifting right, I was determined to fix the shifter instead of replacing it.

I tried the easy route recommended by my mechanic pals (hosing the shifter’s innards down with WD-40), but that didn’t work.  This thing was completely gummed up.  So I took it apart.  Damn, that thing’s complicated.  There are all these washers and bushings and pawls, and it’s got 3 springs, one of which you have to wind up and hold tension on while you bolt the shifter back together.  I took photos as I went, but I wasn’t methodical enough, and missed important information, and wasted vast amounts of time in vain.  Throughout the ordeal there was this voice in my head:  “You’re an idiot!” and “Your brothers are right, you’re not mechanically minded!” and “You suck!” and “You call yourself a bike mechanic?” and “Like an idiot, you bought your kid an ancient bike you can’t get parts for and now you’re screwed!” and so forth.

I took a break from the shifter repair to closely examine these strong feelings I was having, and question whether there’s something wrong with me that I can’t take little failures like this in stride.  In the big scheme of things, a new shifter wouldn’t actually be that expensive.  Any third party would probably having trouble understanding why this meant so much to me—and maybe for good reason!  What if I’m being totally unreasonable, I wondered, and some deep fracture in my ego is starting to show itself?  These are all worthy ideas to investigate, and it’s a worthy thing to have the bravery to confront yourself and entertain such doubts.

So did I look online for a good therapist who could sort out my feelings of self-loathing?  No, in the final analysis I determined that that wasn’t the kind of self-help I needed.  I just needed a good website with some better photos of the shifter.  And man, I found an awesome site!  Click here:  this guy not only posted 17 great photos of the left shifter alone, he annotated them and provided complete instructions!

Frankly, I was plenty daunted by the website, because it gave me even less excuse to chuck the shifter and buy a replacement.  But more than that, this guy’s success, and his generosity in putting up the instructions and photos, inspired me.  He obviously has great patience, and a more methodological approach, and I thought, “Why can’t I be more like him?”  So I gave it another crack, and it really did end up being a self-help project (i.e., requiring my own effort and insight) because I couldn’t just follow the guy’s directions … I needed to conceptualize the pieces in 3-D, and try out various ways of putting them together (since I’d buggered the thing up to the point that some were installed wrong).  In case you’re interested, here’s my own set of photos:

(That last photo is a still from a movie I made, which was instrumental because even when I had the shifter assembled correctly, I still had to reach through a gap in the housing with a screwdriver and click the internal pieces back and forth, to work in the oil, before the lever finally started working—which it totally does now, like a champ!).

My point is this:  at the core of self-help is a refusal to let yourself off the hook too easily.  Sure, there is good advice out there about being compassionate with yourself, and the self-loathing voices that countless people have in their heads are not often very constructive.  But for every person who pushes himself too hard and needs to lighten up, I’d say there are 10 who are just too complacent to push their comfort zone, or too reluctant to get help on something they can’t handle on their own.

Giving up too easily can lead to serious consequences; standing down and accepting defeat is no good for the soul.  When I got that shifter working again, I just sat there for a spell, clicking away, putting it through its paces, as delighted as Eeyore savoring his birthday presents:  putting his (popped) balloon from Piglet into the (empty) honey pot Pooh gave him and taking it back out again.

Without getting help (and inspiration) from this complete stranger on the Internet, I’d have failed to fix the shifter, and that self-annihilating voice might well have taken to reasserting itself every time I looked at the mismatched replacement shifter on my kid’s bike.  Instead, the repaired shifter is now an emblem of my perseverance.  (Is it okay that I berated myself so much during the process?  Yeah, probably.  I’m a loud person from a loud family  so my internal voice is bound to be loud as well.  I think my self-esteem is fine.  Sometimes my stubbornness plays a little rough, that’s all.)

One more point to be made here is that not all self-help resources are touchy-feely.  A how-to guide, or the shifter repair instructions on a website, are still self-help.  Why are so many people perfectly casual about instruction manuals and how-to guides but suddenly get nervous when the book is about fixing yourself instead of some object?  A self-help book is either good or it isn’t … there’s no shame in giving it a go, even if (or perhaps especially if) the process might subject you to uncomfortable self-examination.

The cynical justification for the 8th habit

Okay, maybe you’ve been gagging on my whole essay here because you’re just too cynical to go in for this idealistic self-help business and my saccharine success story.  That’s fine—but you should still embrace my 8th habit—get help—for one purely pragmatic reason:  chances are very good your boss will appreciate it.

Who is it, after all, in the “Dilbert” strip who’s always spouting stuff about “win-win” and “paradigms”?  It’s the bosses!  Who are the people, in the real world, who have used these terms so much, and for so long, that they’ve become clichés?  The executives! 

Now, there are various ways to account for this.  One way is to say that executives just have a weakness for this stuff and those who spout banal platitudes and ideological sound-bites are bound to flock together.  But another possible explanation is that a willingness to embrace the self-help ethos is what actually helped propel these people to power.  I don’t think it matters which of these you believe, because the bottom line is, management does respect the self-help impulse.  (Over a dozen C-level executives are quoted in the “Praise for…” section of The 7 Habits.)

When you think about this, it makes perfect sense.  Any healthy corporation needs to foster a culture of earnestness, while rooting out cynicism (which can hugely erode employee morale).  I don’t think you can ever go wrong, career-wise, by erring on the side of humility.

So am I saying you should leave The 7 Habits on your desk for your boss to see, and/or gush to him or her about this or that self-help book?  Not at all.  This essay being the exception, I’m generally pretty quiet about my own self-improvement projects.  Moreover, there’s no telling what your particular boss might think of this or that self-help resource.  But if you suppress your cynicism, and acknowledge the reality that earnestness isn’t the 8th deadly sin, and at the very minimum resist the temptation to pooh-pooh the various professional development programs and rah-rah sales kickoff meetings or whatever, your attitude is bound to evolve, and this will be noticed.  Humility is a habit that very few people, I think, would hold against you.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

From the Archives - Mountain Biking “Big Ring Tale”


My older daughter is looking to join her high school’s mountain bike team. We went to the kick-off luncheon recently, and the head coach said to her, “I hope we’re not too late ... your dad hasn’t turned you into a roadie yet, has he?” I was surprised that he’d pinned me as a roadie. What gave it away ... my lack of facial hair?

The story that follows is from around 1996, when I was about 25 pounds heavier than I am now, from too many business trips and not enough biking. I hesitate to call this a “big ring tale” (i.e., a tale where at a pivotal moment the hero shifts onto the big chainring, which is the rough equivalent of Popeye eating his can of spinach) because mountain bikes don’t really have a big ring. Most have no more than a 46-tooth, which is smaller than the small chainring a pal of mine sported on his road bike back in ’82. But, as with so much of my life, this will have to do.

(The photo below is the oldest one I could find. It’s from a decade after this story; imagine this guy with another 15-20 pounds of pure gut.)

Off-road Big Ring Tale – ca. 1996

Cycling has been frustrating for me since I quit racing. I just slow down more and more every year­. Today I stepped on a scale and I weighed in at 200 pounds ... my all-time high. Last week, I was riding my normal loop and some guy just blew past me. Within a minute he had 30 seconds on me. And it occurred to me that a few years ago, I was that fast. In fact, for several years I was that fast. Sure, I could get there again, but I don’t see it happening. A lot would have to change. I wouldn’t say age has so much to do with my decline, but accepting the new, sluggish me is probably good practice for getting old.

Which brings me to the tale of my ride with Dennis, a pal who never actually raced (though I was on the college team with his brother). We rode over the Golden Gate Bridge to start, rode about halfway to the top of the Marin headlands, and then took a series of trails and fire roads that loop around more or less randomly.

About two hours into the ride, we crested a hill and from behind us came a lean, shaved-legged, slick-looking dude with $150 Oakley sunglasses, a jersey that looked just a little too clean, and an expensive aluminum Stumpjumper M2 mountain bike, complete with Rock-Shox suspension forks. He was going at a respectable speed (more respectable than ours, obviously) but I didn’t think that warranted his lack of a greeting. When I said “Hi,” he just ignored me. I hate that.

I didn’t expect to see this guy again, but on the descent I happened to overtake him. He’d gotten himself into a bit of trouble taking a curve too wide, and I had ample room to pass him on the inside (the alternative being, of course, to crash into him). I suspect he’s a road racer who isn’t terribly experienced in the dirt. Anyway, he seemed embarrassed, and yelled, “Hey, buddy, call out when you pass!” This all happened, of course, in a matter of a couple of seconds, so I didn’t have time for a response.

I found this irritating. I mean, he was essentially out of control, in the process of being a major trail hazard, had been decidedly antisocial earlier, and now expected some kind of special trail protocol. If your natural tendency is to give people the benefit of the doubt, please suppress it and consider this guy our enemy. That will make my story much more enjoyable for you.

A bit later, Dennis and I regrouped, and the slick dude passed us again. This time he was working really hard to keep up with another racer-type on a road racing bike with cyclocross tires. This bike was really better suited for the fire road we were on, since the surface was smooth and the grade was steep. (Mountain bikes, no matter what the salesman tells you, are in fact heavy and slow.) Initially, I let the two go; they were going far faster than Dennis could have gone, and to be honest, climbing that hard really didn’t look like a pleasant thing to do. Besides, they were clearly both well-trained cyclists who wouldn’t take kindly to any insolence from an apparent nobody such as your humbly equipped, hairy-legged narrator. I decided to leave well enough alone.

However, when they were almost out of sight I suddenly changed my mind and decided to go after them. Of course it was a stupid idea to strike when the iron was stone cold, but I went for it anyway. In fact, I threw her in the big ring! The big chainring, I mean: the stuff of heroes. Thus began one of life’s rare and delicious surprises. For no good reason, my body decided to perform as it used to, in the days of yore. I was amazed at the rate of acceleration I was able to attain. Within no time I must have been going three times my initial speed.

As if in a video game, I passed several chance cyclists as if they were standing still. My effort took on an unreal quality, as if I had somehow become “seemingly infinitely powerful” (a phrase I coined back in my racing days to describe whoever was beating me at the time). It seemed as if I was ascending the hill about as fast as I could have descended it. (In retrospect, perhaps I wasn’t going that fast, but please permit me these narrative indulgences.)

Needless to say, I came up fast upon our slick mountain biker dude, who had by this point been dropped by the guy on the road bike. To say I caught this quasi-man would be an understatement indeed; I was like a hawk overtaking a earth-bound duckling, or a tsunami rolling over a boogie-boarder. This time, I took a wide outside line around him, and zestfully shouted out, “PASSING ON YOUR LEFT!” The look of absolute disbelief and disappointment on his face was priceless. I imagine he scrambled to pick up his pace and get my wheel, but I sure wasn’t around to see it. I may have actually spun him around like a pinwheel.

By this point I had my sights set on the road bike guy. Not out of any vendetta; I assure you I had none. I simply sought to give the macho dude the message that I don’t even bother with his petty ilk—that I’d had my sights set on the roadie all along. And this is how I found myself in the middle of a badly considered and hellishly ambitious endeavor.

By this point, my speed was so high there was no way I wouldn’t catch the roadie. In fact, I believe that only my ten extra pounds of gut kept me from reaching escape velocity. Oh, I caught the roadie, all right, but as the unchallenged king big man cyclo-god, ruler of the trail and destroyer of mountain bikers, he had slipped into a lazy, complacent rhythm which was only a starting point for him. He instantly responded to my unwelcome presence, and by the time he overtook me, I was beginning to really suffer. The initial euphoria of my conquest had faded, and with it the Supersize 32-ouncer of adrenaline, the six-pack of endorphins. I was like the car-chasing dog who’s caught up with a Dodge Ramcharger. Now what?

The roadie was hella fit and capable of chitchat. “I was wondering if somebody was going to try to catch me,” he said, clearly as a deejay and as calmly as Clark Kent. I lacked the breath to say, “Well, that arrogant jerk with the fancy shades made his bid, but I guess you didn’t notice.” Instead, I attempted a suave “yup,” and it came out a croaked “yip.” At this point the roadie seemed to sense that I’d written a check I couldn’t cash. He said, “Now that you’re here, are you ready to hammer?” My back to the wall, I put my illusions aside and came clean. “No,” I told him.

“Take my wheel,” he said. “I’ll tow you awhile.”

Well, that was nice of him. On a flat road, his gesture would have been more kind, but this was a long, hard climb and I wasn’t exactly excited about suffering on his wheel like a prize fighter up against the turnbuckles. He picked up the pace, and I was thinking just clearly enough to know that I should try to stay with him and not pass up a good thing, since the spiffy guy behind us was probably highly motivated to fish his ego out of the ditch by catching me. So, I made every effort to glue myself to the roadie’s wheel.

With every pedal stroke, his gift of a draft seemed like less of a good thing. Soon I was deeply in the throes of oxygen debt. Eventually, I had to take a second mortgage on my legs. The bill collectors began to come around, and I was beginning to pay a lot in interest. Then my body took on the kind of crazed effort that a praying mantis makes when he continues to copulate even after the female has eaten his head. All the blood began to be rerouted past my brain, directly to my legs. Brain cells immediately began to die at an alarming, glue-sniffing rate, and with the loss of intelligence I began to feel more optimistic about the world. Maybe Newt Gingrich is actually onto something, I thought.

Then all thought was crushed out and I became a simple, pedal-spinning automaton. The only thing that saved me from riding myself into the ground, in fact, was a panicked telegram from my legs that finally made its way to my brain: ZIPPY GUY WAY BACK STOP NO NEED TO CONTINUE STOP STOP STOP.

I slowed down just enough to restore my will to live. When would this climb end? For all I knew, it went on for miles. I had suffered so badly that the slightly decreased effort gave me a lot of relief, even though I was still going pretty hard. I finally crested the hill about midway between the roadie and my victim. I waited at the top for a while, and when the vanquished would-be-big-shot came by, he didn’t look too happy. I tried to look as nonchalant as possible, and I don’t think he figured out that the effort had left me with a bad case of oxygen bankruptcy, coupled with acute testosterone poisoning.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Carbon vs. Steel & the Bike Geek Divide

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


This post was inspired by the book It’s All About The Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels by Robert Penn.  It’s a very good book (the New York Times applauds Penn’s “vast and endearingly shaggy bicycle boffinry,” and yes, “boffinry” is well worth looking up).  As I read this book, though, something dawned on me:  Penn resides on one side of a bicyclist divide, and I’ve gradually crossed over to the other. This post examines that divide.

The divide

On the one hand, you have dudes riding Brooks saddles with actual rivets; on the other, guys who use (and can sometimes even spell) Fi’zi:k.  The first group—let’s call them Crusty Old Veterans—favor handbuilt wheels laced 3-cross.  The other group—the Tech Weenies—don’t much care how their wheels came to be, so long as the front is laced radial and the rear has something similarly aerodynamic going on.  The COVies say things like “steel is real,” and the Tweenies prefer carbon fiber (even if they irreverently call it “plastic”).  One side is enraptured by hand-cut lugs; the other by bike weights in the low teens.

Perhaps you can tell from my unflattering descriptions (equal-opportunity bashing, if you will) that I don’t overmuch care for either group, or for anybody with overly strong opinions about seemingly trivial matters (notwithstanding my own fierce brand loyalties regarding ketchup, Band-Aids, and deodorant.)  The point is this:  your opinion about which bicycle cult(ure) to embrace is largely based on taste, but also—I’ve recently decided—on politics.  Not in the sense of red/blue, liberal/conservative, but about what you think a bike ought to be, and what a bike company ought to be doing.

The common ground

Since I’m about to label Robert Penn a COVie, and then advance the case for Tweenies, I better pause for a moment and praise his book some more.  Specific preferences aside, all bicyclists love to ride; they wish more people rode bikes (or at least wish fewer people drove cars); they believe bicyclists have a right to use the roads; and probably most feel somewhat claustrophobic when driving a car (especially in traffic).  Penn does a great job of celebrating the bicycle—a tribute society sorely needs, with so many Americans thinking of this noble machine as a child’s toy.  Penn’s book provides a fascinating history, describing a huge number of bicycle-related inventions that were later adapted for cars.  Bikes were a dominant industry at the turn of the 19th century; almost a third of all US patents went toward the bicycle and there was a whole separate building just to process the bike patents.  It strikes me that the bicycle, in its heyday, was like the mobility industry of today.

Penn’s dream bike

It’s All About the Bike interleaves historical ruminations with the blow-by-blow report of Penn’s global quest to build the perfect bicycle, part by part. He has the frame built in England, heads over to Portland for a headset, has the wheels laced in Marin County, and visits Italy to find a fork and some handlebars.  It’s kind of like Anthony Bourdain’s book A Cook’s Tour, except that Penn doesn’t eat everything along the way. 

What would you choose for a dream bike?  I can’t really answer this question.  I’ve learned not to get too attached to my bikes, because they keep breaking.  (Over the last decade I’ve broken six frames.)

That said, I can tell you one trait I’d definitely avoid in a new road bike:  a steel frame.  “Steel is real?”  Yeah, it’s real lame!  Look, I know all the great things about it:  you can cold-set it, it rides nicely, it has a long history, it’s durable, yeah, yeah, yeah.  All true.  But it also fricking rusts.  I hate that.  I’ve had to retire two steel road frames before they even had a chance to break, because they got so rusty I was afraid to go fast on them.  Once I had a steel fork snap on me, right at the steerer tube, due to unseen rust.  That was a painful crash. 

(Full disclosure:  four of the six frames I’ve broken recently were aluminum, but at least they were far, far lighter than the two steel ones that broke, one of which was the most expensive frame I’ve ever owned.  By the way, I’ve been using carbon forks for twelve years, and haven’t had a single failure.)

What’s that?  You’ve been on the same steel frame for decades without a spot of rust?  Well, you must have naked pictures of God or something.  Steel frames invariably have chrome in the fork and rear triangle, and nobody does good chrome.  (The chrome fork doesn’t have its origins in durability or aesthetics, but in cheapness.  Frame builders weren’t interested in building forks and bought them from some third party that did a good-enough job; chroming all of them was easier and cheaper than trying to match frame paint or arranging to have them painted at the same factory.)  And no, I haven’t stored my bikes in a shed or even the garage—they always live indoors, in my office or bedroom.

So, getting back to Penn, I found it curious that for his once-in-a-lifetime dream bike, he chose a steel frame.  His reasoning was even more surprising.  For one thing, he writes, “Steel is not prone to sudden failure.” (Yeah, right.  I refer you to the three counterexamples above.)  He trots out “steel is real.”  (Whatever, dude.)  He argues that the supposed comfort of carbon frames is a fallacy, maintaining that it’s the tires and such that make a bike comfortable, not the frame.  (This is so obviously, empirically untrue I’m not even going to bother debating the point, other than to mention that Penn did select a carbon fork for his dream bike.)

Moreover, Penn leaves out what I would consider the best reason for buying a steel frame:  the ability to specify custom geometry.  I’m not aware of a single manufacturer who will build a carbon frame to order, though a handful will do custom aluminum.  (No, I didn’t research this thoroughly … I’m too lazy, and I want   to leave the door open for people to set me straight.  Providing an opportunity for smug indignation is my little gift to the world.)

Custom geometry:  COVie or Tweenie?

Hey, here’s a puzzle:  is custom frame geometry the domain of COVies or Tweenies?  On the one hand, custom-built frames have been around for many, many decades; I spent many an afternoon drooling on The Custom Bicycle, published in 1979.  (That’s where I got the tidbit about chrome forks, if memory serves.)  Of course that book is now COVie territory since it predated the vast majority of non-steel bicycles.  On the other hand, a five-star reviewer of it says, “In spite of a number of efforts involving higher-order differential equations performed on a Cray computer nobody has been able to derive the equation for bicycle frame stability.”  What could be Tweenier than that?

Custom geometry may be the nexus between COVies and Tweenies because it’s a traditional trait of an old-school top-end bicycle, but also a highly technical matter compatible with a performance-at-all-costs ethos.  Part of my distaste for COVie bikes is that they’re heavier, less aerodynamic, and therefore slower than cutting-edge bikes (even if only marginally).  When I’m gloating over my new bike, I’m not thinking, “Oh, it’s so beautiful!” but rather, “Man, I’m going to hurt some people with this thing!”  (No, I don’t often have such delusions of grandeur, but if a guy in the throes of New Bike Syndrome can’t indulge some grandiose notions, when can he?)

Custom geometry, since it doesn’t add weight or wind drag, really is an unalloyed good thing.  (Sorry about the pun.  I couldn’t help myself.)  I had one racing bike, a Ten Speed Drive team-issue Guerciotti, steel, that just had the best geometry.  When it rusted, I bought another Guerciotti from a web merchant, and it had the worst geometry.  From the first pedal stroke I knew I hated it, and my opinion never improved.  (When it got too rusty to ride at high speeds, I turned it into a commuter bike, and it was great for that, until it broke.)

Having learned my lesson, I had my next frame custom made.  (It was aluminum.)  I based my design largely on that first Guerciotti, with a couple alterations, and produced something like this:

(I say “something like this” because the above is the second generation of my custom geometry; the first didn’t have the slightly sloping top tube.  The manufacturer refused to do a non-sloping top tube for my second frame, but I didn’t really care.  The essential geometry is the same, and the frames rode identically.)

So how did that custom geometry work out?  It was amazing!  As soon as I climbed on and started pedaling I had this exhilarating sensation of perfect rightness.  How to describe this feeling?  Well, hypothetically speaking, it’s like when you’re doing the bone dance and your condom breaks.  To be precise, it’s that brief moment when the bad part about the condom ceases to be a problem, but just before you realize why everything feels suddenly better—that is, before you realize what this means.  You know, the delighted “aaaaaaah” just before the terrified “AAAAAAAAAUGH!”

A friend of mine summarized this description as “fits like a condom.”  I can see his logic in extending the laudatory “fits like a glove” description, but in fact a custom frame fits like a lack of condom.  It’s the beautiful sense of freedom from that which constricts and pinches.

Is custom geometry worth it?

So, should we accept the limitations of steel if it means getting to have custom geometry?  This depends a lot on the rider.  Those with strange proportions (e.g., really long legs and an incredibly short torso) have more to gain from custom geometry.  For most riders, adjusting the saddle and getting the right stem will do the job, though it’s worth pointing out that on my second Guerciotti I was able to get my body oriented how I like, but the stem was too long, which made the steering weird, and the head tube angle was too shallow, which made it handle like a touring bike, and the seat tube angle was too steep, which meant I couldn’t get the saddle back far enough without resorting to a setback seatpost (which I couldn’t bring myself to buy).

The big challenge with custom geometry is knowing what you want.  Robert Penn worked closely with a frame builder to optimize the position on his bike and so forth, which is ideal.  Most people would probably just guess, based on bikes they had that felt particularly good. 

A couple years ago, my fourth custom-made frame broke, and the manufacturer no longer offered frames with custom geometry.  Their stock geometry sucks balls so I never even considered it (even though all four frames were warrantied, which by the way is a benefit of going with a huge company, in stark contrast to many small-shop frame builders who will take forever to fix or replace your frame, unless they’re too arrogant to even admit it was defective).  So I switched to a stock frame from another manufacturer (a giant outfit based in Taiwan).  Was this a problem? 

Actually, no.  Here was a case of the free market actually solving a problem:  because there are so many companies making bikes, chances are somebody just so happens to offer your desired geometry (at least, if your physique isn’t too weird).  It’s easy to shop for frames online when geometry is your main selection criterion, because manufacturer websites almost always provide geometry diagrams.  (This is how I selected the frame for my backup bike, which has almost my ideal geometry other than the seat tube and head tube being too long, which spoils the aesthetics.)  Once you know what geometry you want, you’ll probably be able to find it—and in carbon, no less!

The politics of bicycles

No, my little “free market” comment above isn’t where politics come in.  (I think it takes a pretty fringe mentality, in this country, to oppose capitalism.  I for one do not.)

What I’m talking about is a somewhat political undertone I noticed in Penn’s book.  This was something like nostalgia, for a time when things were made by hand, by people in first-world countries who made a good wage with solid benefits.  Workmanship seems to be a core value for Penn.  For example, he bought his dream hubs from Royce, a company in England that makes only super high-end stuff, including these bling-y gold things that you’d expect a rapper to have if a rapper had a bike. 

Penn went to Portland for his headset, and goes on at length about how cool Chris King is.  It’s a small company with good benefits and happy, educated employees who bike to work and are fed a free lunch.  Sure, their headsets are really expensive, but hey, they’ll last forever, and isn’t it better to bring your business to a responsible company?

Well, it’s great that Chris King uses soy oil in its machining, and turns metal shavings into little pucks that are easier to recycle.  Perhaps they deserve my business for that reason alone.  And yet—who cares about headsets?  I never wear them out.  I have three steel frames in my garage (two broken, all rusted) with perfectly good teenage headsets I might yet harvest one day if I come across an old frame I want to use.  I refuse to blow $150 on a headset, because it won’t make me go faster.  And the soy oil is a drop in the bucket compared to basic choices I make, like how often my vacations should include air travel.  (Penn surely did more environmental damage flying around the world buying bike parts than he’d ever save by preferring eco-friendly manufacturers—but I’ll cut him some slack because a) he was writing a book, and b) he’s a cyclist.)

Now, getting back to those Royce hubs:  what’s up with all this amazing craftsmanship and beautiful finish when the product is technologically obsolete?  Their fancy gold hubs cost almost $1500 a pair; even their apparently budget-minded Venus rear hub costs $480, and yet you don’t even get straight-pull spokes!  Look, I’m sure these are great hubs, but in my experience, straight-pull spokes break less frequently, and tend to make a lighter wheel.  I’m not going to get into a whole separate debate about this, but for $480, shouldn’t the design be different than what’s on my 1960 Triumph 3-speed?  For $480, I want wind tunnel testing, space-age materials, Bluetooth, and a fricking motor!  (And, to flip it around, would Penn settle for a cottered crank, if the materials and finish were good enough?)

To be clear, I have absolutely no problem with Penn, or anybody, buying a ridiculously expensive bicycle.  After all, my own bicycles (at least by my wife’s standards) are ridiculously expensive.  I just have a different opinion about what kind of companies we cyclists should reward with our business.  He seems to especially admire the “boutique” style companies, which make conspicuously high-end stuff for those who can afford it and want to show off.  He makes the classic COVie move (COVerture?) by springing for a $250 Brooks Team Pro saddle, which sports a 50-year-old design and little eyelets for a saddlebag.  (Is he unwilling to concede that any technological progress has been made in half a century?  At least Fi’zi:k saddles are vegan.)

Myself, I am more impressed by companies that invest so much in the design that relatively cheap stuff can still perform wonderfully.  Take, for example, the Shimano Sora derailleur:  for about $20, I’ll bet it shifts better than the Campy Super Record I had on my ’85 Mercian.  Maybe I overpay for my Dura-Ace, but at least I’m subsidizing the R&D that improves all kinds of basic, inexpensive bike parts.

Here’s another example:  a second wheel innovation Penn passed up, which is a laughably simple one, is the new generation of wider rims.  An American company, HED, experimented with this a few years back and discovered that wider rims give a much smoother ride, because of how they affect the profile of the tire.  With traditional rims, the cross-section of the tire looks something like a light bulb, tapering inward where the bead fits into the rim.  With a wider rim, the tire profile is improved:  the tire deflects less during cornering, and can be run at a lower pressure, and the ride is much more comfortable without any compromise in speed.  The beauty of this innovation is that the wider rim doesn’t make the wheel more expensive the way traditional advancements (e.g., carbon rims, titanium axles, etc.) always do.  So the benefit can “trickle down” to cheaper wheels.  (And if there is no actual benefit, and I’m just drinking my own bathwater, at least I didn’t pay big bucks for the placebo effect.)

To my mind, Penn’s dream bike is more like a bespoke suit, hand-tailored from whole cloth:  certainly a nice thing, for those who can afford it, but not ultimately much better than “off the rack.”  Getting to talk face to face with the guy who laces your wheels is a nice personal touch, but not anything most of us need; I’d say it’s the rough equivalent of getting a shave from a barber (who theatrically hones his straight razor on a leather strop and soaps up your face with a beavertail shaving brush) instead of shaving your own face with a 25-cent Bic. 

I would love to see a bicycle industry that does a better job of making everyday, affordable bikes faster and lighter and more pleasurable to ride.  What’s ultimately the better service to society and the planet:  satisfying the aesthetic fetishes of the very wealthy, or bringing a reasonably high-quality experience to the cycling newcomer, so he might actually get out there and ride?