Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Selecting Bicycle Wheels - Part I


Introduction

It’s been said that the frame is the heart of a bicycle.  If so, the wheels are, like, the lungs.  This post describes my pleasure, and frustration, in purchasing bicycle wheels over the years, recounted on the occasion of a recent wheel purchase (a heady topic which I’ll get to next week).  For now, I think it’s important to lay the groundwork with a detailed character sketch of the athlete/consumer as a young man.  (I’m thinking here of all the expository stuff in “The Deer Hunter,” before the really gnarly Vietnam action.)  

More than anything, this post demonstrates my odd feeling of patriotism toward countries other than my own.  And it attempts to answer the question, “How do teenagers select a wheelset?”  (Or really, “How did the un-cool, iconoclastic, non-phone-addicted teen bike racers of yesteryear select a wheelset?”)

A quick note to burglars:  I’m well aware that you comb craigslist and even Strava looking for expensive merchandise to steal, and yes, I did allude just now to having bought some new wheels.  So I almost decided to tell a white lie about how I’m only borrowing these new wheels, just so you don’t figure out my address and come rob me.  But I don’t need to lie:  the fact is, my new wheels only cost me $700, and you could probably do better burglarizing any of my neighbors at random for their iPads, rare first-edition books, and objets d’art.  Heck, you’d have an easier time selling the stolen airbag out of one of their Priuses, or even their Priuses’ Clean Air Vehicle carpool-lane stickers.  Or better yet, just get one of us to hire you for some yard work, and overcharge us!


Rule #1:  Your wheels have to be cool (i.e., Euro)

Of course all consumers everywhere, or at least the male ones I can speak for, want their products to be cool.  But what is “cool”?  When I first became a consumer, cool meant Euro.  In the case of bicycle wheels in particular, cool meant French.

Naturally, I started out in cycling with cheap steel rims that must have been from Asia.  (I don’t remember much about the rims on my Fuji Junior except that they were 600C.)  The very virtue of affordability eventually made these wheels seem despicable to me.  My second bike started out with Araya rims that were probably fine, but which ultimately made me recoil.  Not only did they have the aura of sensible shoes, they weren’t even made very well.  The crooked decals visible in these easily googled photos attest to Araya rims’ haphazard construction.  Worst of all, Araya made BMX rims too!  ‘Nuff said.



Besides, as a budding bike racer I naturally looked to Europe as the standard bearer:  the glamour of their pelotons and famous races naturally slopped over to their bicycle manufacturing industry.  In fact, my lust for brands like Campagnolo and Cinelli easily preceded my interest in girls.  (And, given that cyclists in those days were pariahs, cycling ended up pre-empting dating altogether, to my eventual dismay.)

Getting back to the Arayas, and my need to rid my bike of them:  as soon as I’d saved up enough money, I bought some sweet new (well, used) wheels from my brother Geoff.  (Note how my limited options—i.e., my exactly one option—precluded endless research or agonizing indecision.)  These wheels had Phil Wood sealed hubs, Swiss DT spokes, and French Weinmann rims.  At least, I assumed they were French rims, because the crummy Weinmann brakes I saw around tended to be on French bikes, and I always equated crummy bike parts with France.  These brakes, in the flesh, were even uglier than they look in the picture.


I instinctively grasped that for the French to make good rims, while sucking at almost everything else, was just the exception proving the rule.  I’ve always thought of the French as the idiot-savants of manufacturing:  they can’t get anything right, except rims, at which they’re the best in the business.  (The other notable exception to their engineering ineptitude is the Simplex Retrofriction shifter, which I have discussed at length in these pages.)  So I loved those Weinmann rims, even if they were a step down from the Weinmann Concave model that I really wanted.


Have you been yelling at your computer monitor, telling me what an idiot I am?  Yes, of course you’re right, Weinmann rims aren’t French at all!  (Cut me some slack, I was just a kid!  At least I knew that “DT” stood for “Drahtwerke Tréfileries” which meant “wireworks.”  These modern kids don’t even know how to pronounce “derailleur” and wouldn’t know rim tape from bar tape, and—worst of all—wouldn’t even be ashamed of their ignorance.)


Indeed, Weinmann rims were actually Belgian.  Like Eddy Merckx!  Like the cobblestones!  Like Johan Museew!  Here I was, being only slightly arrogant about my supposedly French rims, when I was actually riding Belgian!  Man!  I was so money and I didn’t even know it!  (History has a way of repeating itself.  Years ago I bought a car that I thought was Swedish, but later learned it too was made in Belgium.  And French fries?  Yeah, they’re Belgian.)

My brother Geoff had laced these wheels himself, and did the front radial.  I was the first kid around (and one of the only people, period, in those days) with a radially laced front wheel.  I took a lot of flak for that from other kids; being insanely envious of how cool that looked, my peers felt it necessary to warn me that radially laced wheels tended to collapse during hard cornering.  I never knew what to say, so I just shrugged, which probably made me look French, and thus cool, though I didn’t realize it at the time.  (My self-esteem was slight in those days.  Maybe it’s because my mom’s pet name for me was “Lambchop.”)

On the other hand, those were the lower-end Weinmann rims, and my bike was a robot-built Japanese one (a Miyata 310), so of course I had to graduate to better things, which I did.  My next bike, a handmade English Mercian with full Campagnolo, had Super Champion Gentleman rims.


There was something mystical about the juxtaposition of the bold (and, being redundant, clearly European) brand “Super Champion” and the understated model name, “Gentleman.”  They were glorious rims.  High polish, like chrome, and I never broke a spoke or seriously damaged the rims.  (Of course, I weighed no more than Chris Froome in those days.)

Rule #2:  Your wheels have to be legit (i.e., tubulars)

Still, my constant craving to be more like the pros meant I had to eventually get some real racing wheels—that is, tubulars (aka “sew-ups,” or “soaps,” the nickname we used).  It’s not that I was sold on tubulars’ superiority (being lighter, stronger, much less prone to pinch-flats, and better in corners, than clinchers).  It was just that the pros rode tubulars, so for my friends and me to continue on clinchers was simply out of the question.

Not that buying tubulars was an easy goal to fulfill.  You’ve probably gotten the impression that I was some kind of rich kid.  Not so.  Yeah, I did have a full Campy Mercian, but I didn’t have any snow boots at all, and at home we drank powdered milk, and the burgers my mom fed us were ground turkey stretched with oatmeal.  My spending money came from making minimum wage ($3.35 an hour) working for Eco-Cycle, a grassroots recycling program using condemned garbage trucks and worn-out, donated school buses.  To get the job I had to lie about my age.  They only had me come work when they didn’t have enough adults to get the job done.  (Most of these were dirtbags doing court-ordered community service to work off their DUI convictions.)  So it took awhile to scrounge up the $100 I paid for my first tubular wheels, which had Campy hubs and Fiamme Ergal rims.


These were Italian rims, and they were garbage.  Man, they would just not stay in true.  It’s not like I was hard on my wheels, being so light.  On the other hand, I’d bought them used from my brothers’ friend Dave Towle, who even back then was a pretty big guy.  And he probably laced them himself in a dim garage, squinting at a book, and they were probably the first pair he ever built.  Teenagers couldn’t afford professional builds back then.

It was with these Ergals that I learned how to true wheels, which is a little like Frankenstein’s monster trying to train a Chihuahua.  Maybe I got those wheels looking straighter, but I knew nothing about spoke tension.  Those rims were so thin and malleable, it was like clubbing Claymation figures with a meat tenderizer.  I can’t remember what I finally did with those wheels but they didn’t last long. 

What came next?  I have a vague memory of a brief fling with some Super Champion Arc-En-Ciels.  Tight little mothers.  I don’t remember much about them, nor what became of them (and truth be told I don’t really know what “tight little mothers” even means in this context).


Did I glue my own tires?  Yeah, I did.  Not only could I not afford to pay a shop to do it, but naturally I wasn’t a real cyclist if I couldn’t master this difficult chore.  The first time I did it I used this clear Wolber glue, and after letting it dry overnight I tested the tires to see if I could roll them off the rims with my hands.  I could, easily.  Sigh.  So I switched to the “red death,” the chewy, bright red glue made by Clément or Vittoria.  That glue was brutally effective, but unless you really knew what you were doing—which I didn’t—you ended up with rims and tires that looked like a murder scene.

It’s funny:  my wife and I are trying to decide if our twelve-year-old is mature and trustworthy enough to even ride by herself (i.e., road rides in the Berkeley hills), whereas by age fourteen my friends and I were lacing our own wheels and gluing our own tires … in other words, building our own time bombs.  (That said, I’ve never rolled a tire, and I’ve only had one wheel disintegrate during a race and even then I managed not to crash, though I must have caused half a dozen near-heart-attacks.)

Rule #3:  Eventually, your wheels have to be tough

As a teenager, I really wasn’t a weight-weenie.  I mean, sure, I cared whether my bike was heavy or not, but I never had that Manifest Destiny experience of today’s dentists and stockbrokers, who simply seek out the lightest stuff and buy it.  I knew Reynolds 753 was lighter than 531, but I couldn’t afford it; ditto the Campy Super Record titanium bottom bracket and pedals.  On the way up, as I tricked out my Miyata 310, I only hoped that the secondhand stuff I was putting on would eventually make it a light bike.  For example, the MKS pedals had to be lighter than the original ones because the original ones had reflectors.  And the Stronglight crankset must be both strong and light, right?  Ending up with a light bike was just a hope, like the hope that one day I’d be a strong cyclist.

But eventually it wasn’t just money that determined which (cool, French) rims to buy.  After my bad experience with the Fiamme Ergals, and many friends’ bad experiences with light but cheap rims, and as my weight began to increase until I weighed more than most grown-up women, I started caring more and more about how tough my rims were.  (And my spokes:  I went to 14-gauge, not because I was breaking 15-gauge spokes, but because the 14-gauge were so totally masculine.)

So around 1985 I finally stopped screwing around and got my first set of Mavic GP4s.


I remember the first time I ever saw a pair of those, a pair taped together in a shop, labels gleaming.  I’m pretty sure I made a mess in my trousers.  Has any man-made product ever come so close to achieving the Platonic ideal of anything?  These rims were absolutely beyond reproach.  I never met a soul who didn’t respect them, not for being the flashiest or lightest thing out there (which they weren’t), but for being utterly reliable, a steadfast ally in our war on potholes, rocks, crashes, other riders, anything the world could throw at us.

Did I ever ruin a GP4?  Sure.  I crashed on a prime lap in a fast criterium in Denver and totally potato-chipped my rear wheel.  But then, in that same crash I bent my crankset, destroyed my saddle and seatpost, and even knocked the rear triangle of my frame out of alignment (and went to the ER for stitches).  No wheel is invulnerable.

That about finishes the history of my wheels as a teen.  The GP4, and its kid brother the MA40 (its clincher version) were so reliable, they carried me into adulthood, and even fatherhood, and I didn’t start grappling with the really complex questions—“What should I buy now that money is practically no object?” and “Is it cool to buy these new-fangled ‘factory-built’ wheels instead of choosing hubs, spokes, and rims?”—until later.  Tune in next time for a portrait of the consumer/athlete as an old man….

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

From the Archives - The TechCorp Files, Part II: Aptitude Test


Introduction

This post is Part II of an essentially nonfiction archival tale from 1995.  Click here for the first half of the story (and a discussion of what I mean by “essentially nonfiction”).  This second installment is almost 100% true; only some playful hyperbole (e.g., “my contact lenses took on the shape of potato chips”) and a pseudonym interfere with the veracity of my account.

Where I left off:  I’d finished most of the interview process with “TechCorp,” and was sitting down to begin a written test that would help determine if I had a future with the company.


The TechCorp Files, Part II – June 9, 1995

I knew going in that the test would be multiple choice, and that it would consist only of mathematical and logical problems beyond the scope of my college education in English Literature.  (The informational handout even said, “The verbal/vocabulary skills often included on standardized tests are not part of this exam.”)  I was not, however, prepared for the exact nature of the test.  Perusing the cover of the test booklet, I learned that the test was developed by IBM during the late 1960’s, and was called the “Computer Programming Aptitude Battery Test.”  Something in the title smacked of redundancy, and yet it simultaneously seemed to be missing some words.  I suppose I was looking for “Computer Programming Aptitude Assault and Battery Test.”

Before I began the test, I was given a card to fill out.  It asked for my name, my college major (if any), my gender, and my race.  But … why race?  Suddenly, with this important exam looming before me, I suffered some sort of mental tornado, flinging around issues of intelligence, race, society, Our World, and a lot of other grand notions that had nothing to do with the next letter in the sequence of b a k r m v and so on.  I will now stray from my main subject—the test—to discuss my mental storm, just as it had overtaken my already worried brain.

The first thing I’d read on my application, which I’d filled out on the day of my interview, was a statement about equal opportunity and the total absence of unfair discrimination in the hiring process.  This was normal and expected.  Now, however, I was being asked my race as a part of a Computer Programming Aptitude Battery Test.  These two matters seem unrelated, and should be.  But I couldn’t help trying to connect the dots, having recently read a review of The Bell Curve.  Based on the review, I’d decided that the writers of The Bell Curve were morons, and the fact of them being published writers making money off of scholastically veneered racism made me angry.

(Is it okay to judge a book and its author by a review, without reading the book itself?  Of course!  That’s what reviews are for!  Besides, I’ve judged books on less substantial grounds than that; for example, I decided not to read The Bridges of Madison County after encountering, in an excerpt, this declaration from its hero:  “I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.”  No competent writer could pen this, let alone allow it to appear in his finished book.)

My mind—so recently a blank slate on which to scrawl intricate mathematical and alphabetical formulas—had now become overrun with mental static,  such as “Since I’m not applying for a computer programming job, why am I taking this test?” and “Am I even being considered for this job, or are they just gathering data for some examination of intelligence and race?” and “Could this actually all be a psychological experiment?”  The test had not even begun, and already I had my hand up and was asking the receptionist, who was also the proctor, “Ms. Swift, can I please leave the room?  My brain is full.”

No, I didn’t actually ask her that.  It’s from a cartoon.  But just once I’d like to be able to use that line in an actual classroom situation.  Instead, I pondered the legal and societal implications of what I should write down on the form for “race.”  I toyed with the idea of writing “white,” but decided nobody would want to hire a wise guy.  (Smart, yes.  Wise, no.)  Then I began to really sweat:  what am I?  What could I put?  “European ancestry”?

Obviously, it occurred to me to put “Caucasian,” but given the climate of the exam—IF YOU DO POORLY ON THIS TEST, YOU WILL HAVE NO FUTURE!—I suddenly began to doubt myself.  Caucasian?  What is that, anyway?  It ends in “-asian,” but I’m not Asian.  What does “Caucasian” mean?  Does it mean my ancestors came down from the Caucus mountains?  Where are the Caucus mountains?  Aren’t they in, like, Russia?  I knew I should have learned my world geography better!  Finally I wrote “Caucasian,” with trepidation, feeling like I was already just guessing, and yet the test hadn’t even begun.

It got worse from there.  Ms. Swift handed me the Scantron form, and it was the most confusing thing I’d ever seen.  The sets of choices (A,B,C,D,E, with little boxes) weren’t even numbered.  And, instead of boxes running from left to right, and from top to bottom, they ran in every direction possible.  There were numbers, but only sprinkled in here and there.  Apparently at certain points during the exam you were supposed to rotate your answer sheet 90 degrees.  I hadn’t even opened the test booklet, and I was already lost.  Finally Ms. Swift showed me how to insert the answer sheet into the back of the book, and slide out a little sliver of it at a time, to line up with the questions in the book.  It was a little like using a Secret Decoder Ring.

The first section of the test was not a surprise to me, for I fully expected the dizzying array of convoluted algebra problems.  Unfortunately, the choices of solutions to the problems were not in the format I would have used.  When pressed for time, I prefer to compute things in my head, completing steps without the use of scratch paper.  Of course, this process only yields answers, whereas the test’s choices of solutions were only partial setups—that is, first steps—for solving the problems.

And the setups were monstrous, from my point of view.  The algebraic formulations suggested as answers simply didn’t look like the ones I would have used.  Matter of fact, they looked downright ugly.  I came to realize that I have always organized my algebraic formulas according to subconscious artistic principles, the violation of which was now confounding me.  To my horror I ran out of time with many problems totally unexplored.  I had thought I would have more time.  Could there have been a mistake?

Perhaps, perhaps not.  Perhaps the entire exam was simply a means to forever rid TechCorp of me and my hopes of employment.  Perhaps this test was a trap, a setup.  Maybe my failing score would be the preamble to my rejection letter.  After all, hadn’t the woman interviewing me looked me right in the eye at one point and said, “I don’t like you, Albert.  I don’t like you at all”?  (Well, she actually hadn’t, but she’d sure given me that impression.)

But now the “Reasoning” section of the exam was over, and I was on to the dreaded “Letter Series” section.  It was barbaric.  The letters danced in my head.  Within minutes, I had actually become dyslexic, if not aphasic.  Then I had my first migraine.  The letters blurred before my eyes.  It dawned on me, subconsciously (since my entire consciousness was in overdrive, contemplating how the alternate letters in the first part of the series might actually repeat themselves in reverse in the last part of the series), that these letter series problems were in fact much harder than the example given in the intro/warning literature I’d been given.

My mind began the equivalent of a jazz solo.  My soul, as though praying, sought out a muse, some kind of divine infusion of insight.  My testicles shriveled into hard, dry acorns.  My neck became a piece of coat-hanger wire that has been bent back and forth, back and forth.  My hands sweated, turning the plastic Choice #2 pencil into a slick, warm stalk of asparagus.  My contact lenses took on the shape of potato chips: first Lays, then Ruffles.  A tuneless rhythm beat in my head, like the tattoo of a racing hard drive.

All at once, this section too was over.  The day before, my interviewer had advised me to guess on all the remaining problems when my time was up, since I would have a 25% chance of getting each problem right (which, she insinuated, was about the extent of my chances anyway).  However, Ms. Swift proved to be a merciless taskmaster, refusing to give me an extra ten seconds to fire at random.  Besides, the answer sheet was so complicated this wouldn’t have worked anyway.

The next section was “Number Ability.”  This was basically just arithmetic with either very large or very small numbers; a typical problem had two things multiplied together, and this product divided by a third number.  The idea is that even using a calculator you would scarcely have enough time to finish the test (you had, in fact, less than 13 seconds per problem).  The trick was to notice that pairs of numbers, if rounded off, had special relationships lending themselves well to shortcuts.  If you took the right shortcuts, and had a knack for estimating your degree of error, you could reach an answer that would be fairly close to the choices given in the test booklet.

The idea of certain numbers having special relationships to each other was not new to me.  My ninth-grade math teacher was particularly keen on these kinds of things, and had trained me well.  Still, I resented myself for having never memorized all the tables of logarithms in the back of my math book, along with the methods for using these logarithms to great benefit in such computations.  Still, I actually finished the section.  This immediately struck me as the crowning achievement of my lifetime.

The last section of the exam had not been exemplified in my test warning handout.  It was called “diagramming” and involved computer-program-style flow charts.  An example problem is that a grain factory needs to produce a certain amount of grain, in a certain mixture and at a certain level of quality.  Many factors can vary the quality:  temperature, pressure, and accidental variances in the composition of the grain.  There are all kinds of scenarios involved, with all kinds of “if-then” statements conveyed by arrows and cells and things, and basically it was about the most complicated hypothetical scenario I’ve ever bothered to contemplate.  Certain cells had question in them (e.g., “Does the sample meet minimum standards?”) or an instruction (“Add more grain”) but others simply had numbers.  My job was to choose the question or instruction that belongs where the number is, so that the flow chart would make sense, and would provide a solution to the problem.  Each flow chart had 7 or 8 missing cells, and if you didn’t understand the overall flow, you were hopeless.  It was a lot like solving a murder mystery, but one that required collection of clues prior to the murder.  What made the test devilishly tricky was that in some cases, I couldn’t possibly fill in cell 1 until I’d figured out the proper input for cell 5.  Until I realized this bit of trickery, I was really stuck.

However, the frantic pace had taken a hold on me.  My brain cells, as impotent individually as steers, now stampeded en masse.  All my neurons were firing in unison.  Nothing could stop me from figuring out answers.  Perhaps not correct answers, but answers nonetheless.  I probably could have provided, in short order, some kind of answer to almost any question at all.  So accelerated were my thought processes, I probably could have even wrested some meaning out of an e.e. cummings poem.  Uncannily, I finished the test before Ms. Swift could even come to thwart me again.

And now I realized I had been in that office for an hour and a half, and was therefore an hour and a half late for my regular job:  a job which is not only within my abilities, but which pays me real money for my efforts.  A good job, I reflected.  A job which could easily come to an end if anybody bothered to scrutinize my elaborate excuses for missing work.

I left my answer sheet on Ms. Swift’s desk.  She was nowhere to be seen.  I wandered, lost, out into the lobby.  I found somebody.  “I’m done with my aptitude battery test,” I told this random person.
oooooo“You’re what?  Did you say ‘done?’”  She acted as if I’d said, “I’m menstruating.”  The word “done” didn’t seem to click.
 oooooo“Yes.  Ms. Swift never came and stopped me.  I guess she’s waiting until my time is up.”  I was beginning to realize the wild improbability of my situation.
 oooooo“Well . . . don’t you think you should go back and maybe, uh, check your answers?”
 oooooo“Oh, no.  There’s no point in that,” I said.  I almost said, “there’s no hope,” but stopped myself.  “I wouldn’t have enough time to go over anything,” I said.  “It’s over.”

I was dismissed, and I staggered outside, into the sunlight, blinking and squinting.  The world was still going on.  None of the people on the street had any idea what kind of intellectual butchery had just been done at my hands.  For all they knew, I was possessed of a fully functional mind.  I walked down the street towards work, trying hard to reconstruct some fragment of self esteem.  I’m still a good person, I reasoned.  I’ve never committed a felony.  I’ve never drowned a kitten.

And I could pass the drug test, anyway.

Monday, March 31, 2014

From the Archives - The TechCorp Files, Part I: Interview


Introduction

Short stories are a slippery thing. If a story is true, it can be spun as a simple yarn, and no more is expected of it. Formal fiction, though, gets subjected to all kinds of critical evaluation. Is there a story arc? Is some kind of Truth revealed? Does the main character grow? After all, with all the freedom in the world to contrive characters and actions to make your point, you’d better say something.

I’ve found that if you try to dress up a true story as fiction, you’ll crash and burn. I tried this, in a writing class. Amazing things that actually happened to me were dismissed by the instructor as “totally unrealistic.”

One problem with my earlier writing is that I didn’t bother separating fact from fiction. I thought this was playful and fun, but I’ve come to realize it probably just confuses the reader. Besides, it deprives him or her of a sense of wonder when something unbelievable is actually true.

So it is with the following story, which is essentially nonfictional. Except where clearly noted (e.g., “Okay, I didn’t really say that”), almost everything happened exactly as I tell it. For example, I describe a pre-employment aptitude test, which was real. And, on my way to take the test, a homeless person really did pick a fight with me. I faithfully documented what he really said, and he really did seem to attempt to wring the neck of a parking meter. That said, there’s some hyperbole too; for example, the parking meter’s neck didn’t break. By exaggerating like this, I inadvertently pushed the whole episode into the realm of fantasy, where it didn’t belong.

I could go fix those problems in this archival tale, but a) that’s too much work, and b) the hyperbole is kind of fun. So instead I’ll preface what follows by itemizing what is truly fictional, so you can appreciate that everything else is true. Here are the other fictionalized bits:
  • The interviewer’s abrasiveness is exaggerated through dressed-up dialogue;
  • Names of corporations have been changed;
  • Other job candidates’ credentials have been exaggerated;
  • The Swan’s Oyster Depot episode is entirely fictitious.
A final prefatory note: given the length of this introduction and of the story itself, I have broken this post into two parts. No, I’m not indulging people’s shortening attention spans, à la Twitter. I’m just getting more mileage out of this story, like the magazines from Dickens’s time that used to publish novels serially. My second and final installment will go up in about a week, freeing me to work on my tax return.


The TechCorp Files, Part I – June 9, 1995

Last week I had an interview with TechCorp. A stern, cheerless woman scanned through my résumé.

ooooo“1350 Filbert Street?” she asked.
ooooo“That’s the apartment.” I said. “Where I live.”
ooooo“Nice place?”
ooooo“It’s all right.”
ooooo“Dana, imagine you’re in the desert—”
ooooo“Which desert?” I asked, uneasily.
oooooShe stared at me, exasperated. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “The Sahara.” She paused. “You’re walking, and you see a tortoise...”
ooooo“What’s a tortoise?” I demanded, with some trepidation.
ooooo“You know what a turtle is?” she said, quietly, disgusted. “Same thing.” She paused again. “You flip the tortoise onto its back. Its stomach is baking in the hot sun. You could flip it back over, but you don’t. Why is that, Dana?”
oooooI glared at her.
ooooo“They’re just questions, Dana,” she said soothingly. “Designed to provoke an emotional response. Now I want you to tell me the first thing that comes to mind about … your mother.”

Well, actually, that’s not how it happened. That was from a movie. Just once I’d like to have an interviewer say those things. I know I’ve been tempted, when interviewing somebody myself, to mix it up a little.

Of course, it’s much easier to relax and have a good time when you’re holding all the cards. I was far less comfortable here. My chair, a modern grey mesh fabric one that you might find on the Starship Enterprise, was improperly adjusted, and it was all I could do to keep it from pitching back. Somebody had configured it for lounging, feet up on the desk. Is this a ruse, I wondered, to see if I will modify my environment to best suit me? I’m a guest here; do I dare attempt a complex adjustment?

I tried to relax. I devoted my energies to leaning forward, sitting up straight, making eye contact, and trying to impress this rather severe woman. Not being a professional recruiter, she only pretended to know what to ask, and what to say.

ooooo“Now, the role of this division of TechCorp has nothing to do with the consumer-oriented service that you surely associate it with,” she told me. “It’s kind of difficult to explain. It takes a long time working here to realize exactly what it is we do.”

oooooIs it something found in the home?” I asked, helpfully.  No, I didn’t really say this—I only thought it. And once I’d thought of it, I couldn’t think of anything else. So I said nothing. My chair was now swallowing me up completely. I was shrinking, rapidly, approaching the size of a small child.

ooooo“Our products,” she said flatly, “involve high-speed packet network data transfer. We sell to huge companies. Our biggest account is MegaFi. You surely never knew this before, but MegaFi itself is not a corporation. It is a non-profit organization that makes money for banks. It makes gobs of money. And what we do for them, is. . . .” She paused again. “Look,” she said, “I am communicating to you across a vast gulf of ignorance and darkness.”

Okay, that’s not really what she said. That’s from a book. But what she did say, which I can’t precisely remember, had the same effect. At this point it was do or die. I needed to take control of this interview, dammit. So I began to just talk, with little regard to my interlocutor’s opening salvo. Through a series of carefully arranged statements, I gradually tried to insinuate myself into the job, so that eventually my employment at TechCorp would be automatic. Over the next hour, I hoped, I could move right into a discussion about promotion, and maybe even early retirement—ultimately, I could come out of the interview with a handsome severance package.

But she would have none of it. For her part, she continually buried the prospect of my employment deeply within the hypothetical realm. When I gave her my references, she said, “We will contact these people in the event that you happen to make it that far into the interview process.” She went into a cruel discussion of the myriad invisible opponents I was up against, most of them Oxford Rhodes scholars with “F-15 fighter jock” listed under “hobbies” on their résumés. She hammered home the point that I had come late into the game, which was in fact a source of irritation to her because I was dragging out the recruiting process. But eventually, and begrudgingly, she told me to make an appointment to take a written exam designed to evaluate … what? My intelligence? My worth as a human being?

ooooo“Funny you should mention a test,” I remarked. “I dreamed I had to take a test at a Dairy Queen on another planet.”  Actually, I didn’t say this. It’s from a song. But just once I’d like to use that, in context, and my little story here may the best chance I ever have.

I was actually eager to take the test. Not since 1992, when I took my last multiple-choice exam, had I enjoyed the opportunity to undergo such a straightforward and concrete challenge. Since graduating from college, in fact, life has taken on a rather nasty guerrilla-warfare bent, where performance is measured by subtle, person-to-person, tactical coups de grâce instead of by objective test results.

ooooo“You may be expecting something easy,” she warned, “but many people find our test very difficult. If you think this will be a routine ‘do-you-have-a-pulse’ kind of assessment, I think you’re in for a shock. I repeat, it is a very difficult test. Many people have complained. Some become outraged. Some never fully recover from the experience.” She paused. “But you appear to be young and healthy.” She gave me a packet of information about TechCorp, along with a two-page explanation of the exam itself. I took it home and read it. I have it in front of me. I will quote from it.

“Please come prepared....” it begins. “As the interviewing process proceeds you will be asked to take a test designed to measure your ability with numbers and your reasoning and logic skills.” I believed this was right down my alley. I believe I am rational and logical, and those who know me believe, at least, that I have a heart of stone. I looked over the sample questions, and this is one of them:

“Select the next letter in the sequence.

bakrmvmvkr_ 1 2 3 4 5

ooooooooooooa b k l m

The alternate letters in the first part of the series (b,k,m) repeat themselves in reverse in the last part of the series (m,k,_). Therefore, the next letter should be “b”, which is in column 2 of the possible answers.”


The part about “b” being in column 2 of the possible answers made perfect sense. I looked at the number 2, scanned straight down, and indeed “b” was right there. The part about “b” being the right answer, however, gave me more difficulty. True, I have had similar test questions throughout my life, and as a youth was often able to solve them. On “Sesame Street,” or perhaps it was “Electric Company,” a person (or perhaps a clown, or a mime—I don’t remember) would pace back and forth along a row of similar objects, while an unseen singer sang, “One of these things is not like the others/ One of these things does not belong. . . .” Usually the objects were three rabbits and a hare, or three turtles and a tortoise, but sometimes they were more obvious: three beach balls and a basketball. On these latter occasions I solved the riddle even before the mime did.

But this sample test question seemed much, much harder. Perhaps you got the answer, right off. Perhaps you’re smirking a bit, trying to imagine my mental struggle. Perhaps the only confusing thing about the problem for you is deciding how it could have presented me with any difficulty. But I’m just an English major, okay?  Yeah, I know it’s a pattern of letters, from the English alphabet, and yeah, I’m familiar with these letters and can handily recite the alphabet . I could even recite the alphabet backwards if I had to pass a drunk-driving test. But I don’t drink, and I don’t drive, and knowing the alphabet has nothing whatever to do with the solution to the problem. Letters and even words don’t give me a leg up unless they’re written by a long-ago dead British writer like William Blake, okay? My sweet spot is appreciating wonderful, colorful, deeply expressive phrases like “cold hot dog.”  Sequences like “bakrmvmvkr” don’t do a lot for me.

The test description (warning, really) went on to advise that “some people have found that practicing with a standardized test prep book has helped quite a bit.” But the handout they gave me had only half a dozen questions, and with the test looming—it would be first thing the next morning—I had no time to visit bookstores asking for prep books. The test warning might as well say, “Study all you want, but we cannot imagine anything could save you, you miserable pudknocker.”

With the “letter series” problems exemplified above, the test would allow 10 minutes for completing 26 questions. That allows 23 seconds per problem, not counting the time I would spend doubled over in pain. Allowing for about 15 doubled-over seconds per problem, I came to realize that I simply lacked the brain power required to obtain a respectable score. I decided to seek outside assistance.

I strolled down to Swan’s Oyster Depot, and Ralph, the guy behind the counter said, “We got fresh sea scallops on special today. Just $45 for a half-pound. They’re so fresh, we haven’t even caught ‘em yet! Have a seat, it’ll take us ten minutes to haul in the nets. By then we’ll have processed your loan application.”
oooooI shook my head. “Not today, Ralph,” I said.
ooooo“You sure? They’re mighty fresh. God made them just this morning.”
ooooo“No, I need brains today. You got anything smart? An engineer, maybe?”
ooooo“Hey, we got a doctor. Hauled him in this morning. I know, that’s not so fresh, but the price is good. No engineers though. Almost had one, but he figured out how to dismantle our nets. Made off with a lot of bait, too. Have to harpoon him one day. So how about the doctor brains?”

I came home with a small, paper-wrapped bundle of brains. Ralph said he gave me the best part, all left-brain stuff. I booted up my computer, set the brains on my mouse pad, selected “Run” from the “File” menu, then typed “a:\install.” My hard drive chattered for a while, and moments later my intelligence had increased dramatically. I instantly had a new understanding of the world, and I became deeply depressed.

The morning of the test, I showed up early. Nobody was there. What to do? I took a walk around the block, and gave a homeless man a dollar in change. He tried to give me a Street Sheet but I was trying to achieve a total mind vacuum and didn’t need any more information, especially about life on the streets, to gum up my brain. He said, “It’s okay, man, I’m just another of God’s chilluns.” Then another homeless man intentionally stepped in my way and I bumped into him.

ooooo“DO YOU WANNA SEE A FIGHT!?” he cried. “I’LL SHOW YOU A FIGHT, MAN! I’LL SHOW YOU ONE!”

I assured him, politely but firmly, that I did not want to see a fight. He made the offer several more times, and, perhaps for effect, began wringing the neck of a nearby parking meter. It bent like a reed in the wind. When he finished, its neck was broken, its dial said “VIOLATION,” and the man was still yelling, “DO YOU WANNA SEE A FIGHT!?” At this point I noticed he was wearing a rather nice suit, and I wondered if he’d torn it off a guy like me. I extricated myself from the situation somehow, but showed up at the test a frayed bundle of nerves.

I was handed the test booklet. You may raise an eyebrow here at my use of the passive voice: “I was handed the test booklet.” We are taught to use the active voice— “I betook the test booklet”—because the active voice is more powerful. I, however, have deliberately chosen the passive voice here to describe the powerlessness of my position. I was not the master of my destiny, in this room, with my plastic Choice #2 pencil and my two somehow sad pieces of scratch paper. I was to be merely the passive recipient of one and one half hours of intellectual assault. A mental punching bag, if you will.

Tune in next week for the thrilling finale of “The TechCorp Files.”

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Milan-San Remo 2014


Introduction

Last year I covered the cycling “Grand Tours,” the three most important stage races, online for a very select audience (i.e., like one guy).  Leveraging the blog format, I took full advantage of not needing to follow any rules of journalistic integrity, so I could call a spade a spade (and sometimes call a heart a spade—close enough) to get at the truth, if not the facts, of what was going on.  Meaning that when Froomestrong crushed everybody I could explain why (hint:  it has nothing to do with his “training during the winter” explanation).

This is the first time I’m reporting a “classic” in real time.  If you don’t know what a classic is, you’ve come to the right place:  I’ll explain it.  It’s a bike race that’s been held annually for many, many, many decades.  Such races make America’s Super Bowl look like a flash in the pan.  Milan-San Remo (say it “Mee-LAWN san RAY-mo”) first ran in 1907 and has been held every year since except for three years total due to the world wars.  (Yes, in this sport, a real sport, it takes more than an athletes’ strike to shut things down.)

In addition to being a classic, Milan San-Remo is a “monument.”  These are the oldest and longest of the classics.  The other four monuments are Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Tour of Lombardia, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.  Milan-San Remo is (I believe) the longest, at almost 300 kilometers.  It’s also considered one of the “easiest,” as if a pro bike race were ever easy.  The point is, it’s flatter than the others (except maybe Paris-Roubaix, which has a lot of cobblestone roads).

By the way, if you’re an expert on cycling and can’t stand me spoon-feeding you basic information like this, rest assured that you’ve still come to the right place.  Once the action starts I won’t have time for background info, and I pledge not to use all the hackneyed expressions other cycling commentators are addicted to, like “keeping his powder dry,” “the gallop to the finish,” “game of cat and mouse,” etc.

Biased Blow-By-Blow

There’s not a whole lot going on right now.  The riders have 72km to go (about 45 miles, a couple hours) and there’s a breakaway of five up the road.  I’m not going to share their names with you because there’s no point.  These breakaway riders are exactly like the red-shirted security guards you see at the beginning of a “Star Trek” episode who are usually toast before the opening credits even roll.

Ah, Sean Kelly just recounted (briefly) his 1992 victory in this race.  (Sean Kelly announces bike races for Eurosport, which is a treat, not just because of his thick Irish brogue but because he knows what he’s talking about.)  He said this was one of his favorite wins because it was late in his career and he wasn’t considered a favorite. (Kind of an understatement ... he was well past his prime and had very little punch left.  Those were leaner times in cycling, when even a top racer couldn’t necessarily afford to quit at the top of his game just to protect his ego.  Kelly came from a family of dairy farmers and figured it was probably what he’d go back to after his cycling career.  I have it on good authority that even during his peak, as one of the best racers in the world, he’d drive for three hours to do some crummy nothing race, just for the start money.)

Anyway, as Kelly just described it, he made sure (during the ‘92 race) not to follow any attacks because it’s too long a race and you have to save your energy. He saw Moreno Argentin close down 3 moves on the final climb, the Poggio, before breaking clear.  He said that the news accounts said Argentin had 7 or 8 seconds but actually he had 20. Kelly decided to go for second place and attacked on the downhill with 3km to go. That’s where he left off describing it, probably because he didn’t want to describe the wheel-sucking he then did. 

You can watch the finale of that race on YouTube, and it’s worth doing.  (I only got to read about it back in ‘92 but even that was thrilling enough.)  I just re-watched it with my daughters yesterday and it’s brilliant.  (Even my daughters, who normally don’t care much for bike racing, were on the edge of their seats.)  Kelly catches Argentin and they just have a handful of seconds over the peloton.  Argentin was no slouch—he won the World Championship road race in 1986 (I watched it in person, with better-than-front-row seats on top of a camper parked at the finish line) and Argentin handily crushed Charly Mottet in the uphill sprint.  So he had a good kick and was fully six years younger than Kelly (still is).  So he probably figures he can take Kelly, but not if he tows him all the way to the line.  Kelly, of course, has to be pretty blown from chasing him down.  (Most of why he was able to bridge was his fearless bike handling, but it’s not that steep a downhill so they were all still working.)

So Kelly absolutely refuses to take his turn at the front.  Argentin, being Italian, gesticulates wildly but Kelly just sits on his wheel.  Finally Argentin commits himself to holding off the pack, which you can see barreling toward them; he’s banking on his youth to hold off Kelly and Kelly is banking on Argentin to keep him ahead of the pack.  Finally Kelly launches his sprint and just blows Argentin away.  It’s so glorious I even forgive Kelly his terrible dome-shaped Brancale helmet, shown below (which bears a striking resemblance to the modern so-called “aero” helmets that Kelly’s fellow commentator has just been talking about, saying that they are in fact more aero, which a) cannot possibly be true, and b) is beside the point because they’re ugly, and I’m sure—or at least I hope—no rider would wear nipple rings, with jersey cutouts to display them, if it were found they increase your speed, and I wish the riders would show this same discretion with these modern ugly helmets, but I digress).


So yeah, Kelly did some major wheel-sucking there, which some riders and fans would look down on, but not me.  To me, it was an example of the intersection between fair play and professionalism.  Fair play because there’s no rule that you have to share the work.  Professionalism because Kelly needed to win because cycling was his career and he needed to give his team what they were paying him for—and to get paid himself, frankly—more than he needed to look like a chivalrous, gallant fellow.

In contrast, look at, say, Lance Armstrong “gifting” the Mount Ventoux stage of the Tour de France to Pantani.  Lance was clearly trying to further polish his image as a fair, honest, even generous champion, probably in pursuit of yet more endorsement money, but of course it wasn’t actual fair play because he was lubed to the gills.  Only a doper can win so much he has the luxury of giving away victories.  Dopers protect their image by lying out their asses.  Kelly sucked Argentin dry in full view of everybody, and haters be damned.  Ah, the good old days, when men were men.

Wow, a Eurosport ad just showed a power-weight-lifter hoisting a massive weight over his head, and in that final jerk his rolls of belly fat jiggled like a full tray of Jell-O atop a paint shaker.  “Athlete” indeed.

A final note on doping:  it plays, I think, less of a role in these one-day races where cunning, boldness, bike handling, and teamwork matter more than in stage races such as the Tour de France.  In a stage race, recovery is absolutely key, and one of the main benefits of EPO is its ability to help you recover (specifically, to keep your blood from losing its ability to carry oxygen).  So the classics are generally more exciting than the stage races.  So why haven’t I been saying more about the race?  Well, it’s long, and largely flat, and until the riders get to the two big climbs, the Cipressa and the Poggio, not much happens.  So it is today:  still no real action with 43km (~27 miles) to go.  The breakaway is down to three riders and has about five minutes (though they had over ten minutes earlier).

Have I mentioned it’s rainy and wet out there?  I’m glad I’m not in it.  As I documented a couple weeks ago, I’ve had enough rain riding for the year. 

Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma - Quickstep) looks cold and miserable but he’s in good position.  He’s won this race before (in 2009) and is a favorite this year.  Interestingly, he only recently decided to do this race (whereas other riders have been training specifically for it all winter).  The promotors had added another climb, between the final two, to make the race more exciting, and on that basis the pure sprinters decided to skip it.  It’s hard enough for them to hang on over the Cipressa and the Poggio, with the non-sprinters and their teams desperately working to drop them; with a third climb, they’d no longer have that much of a chance.  But terrible weather in the area this past winter caused a landslide and the promoters had to take the new climb out.  This shuffled the start list accordingly. 

Other favorites are sprinters like Andre Greipel of Lotto-Belisol (another last-minute entrant), John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), and last year’s surprise winner Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka), along with great classics racers like Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Fabian Cancellara (Trek), and last but not least Peter Sagan (Cannondale) who blew it last year by being overconfident and starting his sprint too early.  Sagan is an interesting case because he’s an all-rounder (i.e., is far more versatile on climbs and in long solo efforts than a sprinter), but has a fast enough sprint to mix it up with the best of them, at least after almost 300km of racing.

Riders are ditching their jackets because the rain has let up.  Surely they know it’s raining harder at the finish, because they’re spoon-fed all kinds of information through their race radios.  I’m against the radios because they make the racers more like drones.  Back in Kelly’s day, riders had to make their own decisions, which favored savvy and experience and intuition, which is part of why a tired-out old rider like Kelly in ‘92—the human equivalent of a spent tea bag—could still eke out a victory in a major race.

The riders are approaching the final climbs so I’m going to have to take a little break here while I still can...


Perhaps you’re frustrated by how this supposed blow-by-blow has been nothing but digressions.  Well, that’s how bike racing is.  It’s like a piece of classical music that builds up slowly, unlike, say, basketball which, with its constant action and scoring, is more like rap.  Cycling is a great sport to watch if a) you’re a patient person, b) you enjoy looking at the scenery and the bikes, and c) Chris Froome isn’t there bludgeoning the pack to death on drugs alone, without the need for tactics.  (No, he’s not doing this race.  He wouldn’t dare.)

The break is on the Cipressa.  It can’t be that hard a climb because it sounds like a salad.  Ah, the peloton is on the climb too, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) attacks!  Cannondale is going after him, working for Sagan of course.  Wow, Nibali’s got a big gap!  Only Cannondale is chasing.  The other teams are no doubt hoping Cannondale will wear itself out with the chase.  Kind of risky ... they wouldn’t want Nibali to be able to solo.

Whether he can hold it depends a lot on the wind.  With a tailwind, he’d have a great shot.  With a headwind, he’d be doomed.  I can’t tell what the wind is doing.  Nibali looks solid, even comfortable.  He’d a good descender but I think this move was too early.  Kelly rightly points out that if one other rider bridges to Nibali, he could have a chance.

Nibali has 33 seconds accourding to the video feed, but the commentators say 20 seconds.  There are still two riders ahead of Nibali:  Marc de Maar (United Healthcare) and Maarten Tjallingii (Belkin).  Their breakaway is doomed, but at least Tjallingii can take comfort in having the hardest name to spell in the entire pro peloton, if not in all of sport.

The leaders have finished the Cipressa and are moving on to their cioppino course and their breadsticks.

The peloton is now descending at great speed on the shiny, wet road. 

One of my real-time readers (okay, my real-time reader) has written in to say that he once did a 300km race (during the Tour du Pont) and found it “totally boring.”  There are probably bored riders in this peloton (domestiques without much to do) but all the contenders and their better teammates are probably experiencing a severe pucker-factor now, with 18 km (~11 miles) to go.  (Note:  I am not talking about their cold lips.)

A six-man group has broken from the main peloton.  Cancellara, clad in all-black, is in the group.  The peloton, which has been peeled down to about 30 riders, isn’t having any of it.

Sagan and Gilbert are working hard on the front, doing what they can to keep this from coming down to a bunch sprint.

Nibali is still slogging away on his own.  He looks pretty good, but he’ll have to really fly on the Poggio.  He’s got about 45 seconds.  Somebody knowledgeable (I can’t remember who, perhaps past winner Oscar Friere) said that with this race, you can only play one card.  Meaning that there is no Plan B, since the race is too long for anybody to try something, fail, rest up, and have enough energy left to try anything else.  Nibali has clearly committed to this one move.  He’s probably doomed, but you never know.

I’m very interested to see if Cav can hang on over the Poggio.  The lead group is going to be flying.

Nibali is on the Poggio, all alone.  He’s passed the remains of the breakaway.  He’s got about 40 seconds now.  For those of you not terribly familiar with the sport, Nibali won the Giro d’Italia last year, and almost won the Vuelta a España.  (Click here and here for my blow-by-blow accounts of key stages.)

The main group is flying up the Poggio.  At least, they were before this annoying pop-up ad obscured my view.

My correspondent asks, “You think Sagan could go across?”  Yeah, he’d have to really launch himself to get clear of that bunch, though if a rider like Cancellara or Gilbert joined him, he’d have good odds to win.

Looks like it’s all over for Nibali.  They’ve got him in their sights.  Man, the field is just crushing it.  After 275 km no less.

Gregory Rast (Trek) has attacked.  Perhaps he’s figuring his teammate Cancellara can counter-attack once he (Rast) is caught.  He’s going faster up this climb than I could go down it, I think.

Enrico Battaglin (Bardiani-CSF) has attacked.  He’s a nobody (I’d never heard of him) on a team I’ve never heard of, but then so was Ciolek last year.  You just never knew.

Battaglin has joined Rast.  By the way, I have heard of “Battaglin,” as a bike brand.  Not sure if this guy is related.  Maybe “Battaglin” is like “Smith” or “Jones” over in Italy.

Only 7.5km to go and these two are well ahead of the group.  In fact, it’s kind of remarkable—whoah, there goes Gilbert!—how far ahead they’ve managed to get.  The group chases Gilbert right down, and just like that they’ve caught Battaglin and Rast too. 

The group is stretched out in a long line so you know they’re completely drilling it.  They’ve now reached the top of the Poggio.  I think the sprinters have managed to hang.  Greipel is hanging at the back by the skin of his teeth.  I can’t tell if Cavendish is still in there.

This is such a great descent.  Loads of switchbacks.  It’s getting strung out now with gaps developing between riders.

Bauke Mollema (Belkin) is doing a great job at the front.  There’s just 4km to go.  It’s deceptive how big the gaps look ... at such high speed, separation in distance doesn’t represent much separation in time, and you can get a good draft from pretty far back.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) has attacked, but gets nowhere.  Mollema is right on him.  The group has come back together after being stretched tight on the descent. 

Some guy in a chartreuse jersey has attacked and I hope he gets caught because I can’t tell who he is.  With 2km to go, he’s doomed.  The peloton is swarming and the sprinters’ teams will be setting up their leadout train.  Lots of Katusha riders.  Wow, Greipel is just latching onto the back now!  He’s got to be dying.

I think Sagan is sitting fifth, but it’s hard to say.  My postcard-sized video feed is blurry.

They’ve got less than 1km to go!  About 30 guys in the group.  My pulse is racing.  There’s been a crash at the back.  Ah, there’s Cav up near the front.

Dammit!  My feed froze right at the key moment!  At least I can see the replay.  After his Katusha team’s great leadout, Alexander Kristoff, whom I’ve never heard of in my life, took the win.


So typical.  After watching for over two hours, and seeing absolutely nothing that shaped the outcome in any meaningful way, I lose my video feed in the final, crucial 30 seconds.

Cancellara was second, Ben Swift (Team Sky) was third.  Cancellara did a lot of good work lolling his tongue out of his mouth during the sprint, but it wasn’t quite enough.  He did a great scowl and downward-punching non-victory salute though.

I’m not going to try to form an opinion, on the spot, of this relative nobody winning the race, other than to say a) it’s always nice to see a fresh face making his mark on the sport, especially when the Tour de France result is all too predictable, and b) his helmet is not only ugly, but crooked.

Even though these racers finished well ahead of schedule, it looks like the coverage is ending so I’m not able to report on the podium girls.  So that’s it for today ... I hope you’ve enjoyed this coverage.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Bitcoin Explained!


Introduction

On  the face of it, I’m not the ideal person to explain Bitcoin to you.  As far as you know, I don’t work in the financial industry.   Why shouldn’t you just look at, say, Wikipedia to finally understand what Bitcoin is? 

The answer is, you’re too impatient.  Who wouldn’t be?  This is the kind of topic it’s hard to dabble in.  Ten words of the techie mumbo-jumbo and your eyes start to roll and your brain browns out.  So, you should read my explanation because I feel your pain.  I am writing from a perspective comprising equal parts curiosity and impatience.  Plus, I’ll work hard to understand a related question, which is “What’s so funny about  Bitcoin?”


Basic explanation

Wikipedia says that Bitcoin is “a cryptocurrency, so-called because it uses cryptography to control the creation and transfer of money,” and that “Bitcoins are created by a process called mining, in which computer network participants, i.e. users who provide their computing power, verify and record payments into a public ledger in exchange for transaction fees and newly minted bitcoins.”  Got that?  You “mine” them by doing something with a computer that rewards you with “newly minted bitcoins.”  Who minted them?  Well, that’s where it gets confusing.  So I’ll use an analogy to help clarify.

Suppose you’re playing with your children, making play money out of construction paper.  Of course this paper will never give you actual buying power, because no government stands behind it guaranteeing that it isn’t counterfeit.  For it to be legitimate, the currency must be produced by the government mint.  But, if you take the letters that spell out “TEN DOLLARS” and rearrange them to spell “DLTN ELOSRA,” and write this on the paper and have your child bring it to her mother, there’s a pretty good chance her mother will let her “buy” lemonade with it.  The act of encryption generates the lemonade-buying wealth pretty much out of thin air.  (This isn’t a perfect analogy, because anagrams are not really encryption, but you get the idea.)

Why does this work?  Well, in the olden days, people made coins out of pure gold, and the rarity of that metal gave the gold value.  Then they started using coins and paper markers that only represented gold, but for every bit of currency minted, there was a corresponding amount of gold, most of it (or at least most of ours) stored in Fort Knox.  If anybody got nervous about the actual value of his currency he could exchange it for gold, no questions asked.  (In practice nobody did this because gold is so heavy.)  Eventually, there wasn’t enough gold to back the currency, and many feared the whole system would collapse.  But governments kept right on minting currency, with no gold behind it, and nothing bad happened.  Money went on working simply because people continued to believe in it.

So why don’t governments just print more and more money, and give it as handouts?  Well, smart governments, like ours, know that would be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.  As with diamonds, the money supply must be artificially suppressed so the value doesn’t diminish.  (Some of the more stupid governments get this wrong somehow, and their currency tanks.)

But there’s no government behind Bitcoin!  No obvious mechanism to keep it from being produced ad infinitum, willy-nilly!  So how does it work?  This is the wrong question.  The right question is, does Bitcoin work?

Does Bitcoin work?

The answer is, Bitcoin sort of works, kind of in the way that Ross Perot’s campaign sort of worked.  Yes, some people believe in Bitcoin, so it’s possible to buy stuff with it, and it’s even possible to steal it.

Steal it?  You mean, the way you can steal credit card numbers?  Well, not exactly.  Stealing credit card numbers is stealing information of a very useful nature.  That information represents an established form of payment that everybody believes in.  By putting that information to work—i.e., stealing the access it gives to somebody’s real credit account—you can buy stuff.  But a Bitcoin isn’t really information.  It’s a notion, and an encrypted one at that.

Still confused?  Let’s go with another analogy.  Remember the story “Stone Soup?”  A penniless traveler picks up a stone on the way into a town, where he asks people for food and is turned down.  So he gets somebody to loan him a cauldron, builds a fire, and starts boiling the stone in water, saying it’s soup.  In return for throwing vegetables and stuff in there, people get to share the soup with him.  By the end he’s had a full meal based solely on the stone he’s contributed, which of course he then pitches.  In like fashion, Bitcoin is the idea of money, and so long as people pony up actual money for bitcoins, or accept bitcoins as payment, they’re as real as that stone.

So all that Bitcoin is missing is that ubiquitous acceptance.  The problem is, anytime your average joe comes across a matter involving arcane abstractions like public/private key exchanges, digital cryptography, and the sliding scale of the value of a currency, he’s going to rightly feel out of his depth, and will generally look to somebody else, somebody in a position of authority, to validate the thing for him so he can know whether to accept it or not.  (This isn’t a bad explanation of some people’s approach to religion, actually, but I digress.)  Where Bitcoin is concerned, the question is:  in the absence of a government and a grandfathered-in acceptance of a currency once backed by gold, who will step up and vouch for it?

Who will validate Bitcoin?

Alas, many governments are unfriendly to Bitcoin and warn their people that it lacks consumer protections.  Economists, unsurprisingly, cannot agree on whether Bitcoin is legit.  (I say “unsurprisingly” because no two economists ever agreed on anything, except for one pair of mental lightweights I’ve already excoriated in these pages).  It doesn’t help that the most prominent Bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, collapsed recently and filed for bankruptcy. It also doesn’t help that “Mt. Gox” sounds like something straight out of Dr. Seuss.

However, it does help that some merchants have started accepting bitcoins as payment for actual goods.  Some prominent examples:  the Sacramento Kings, Clearly Canadian, University of Nicosia, Zynga, Overstock.com and most recently the British department store Lord & Taylor.

There are some caveats with these.  The Sacramento Kings is a pro sports team, which means you’re paying to see a bunch of doped-up cheaters—so the game is a sham anyway.  Meanwhile, Clearly Canadian is basically flavored water sold at the price of something legitimately nutritive.  Zynga is a video game, which—unlike productivity software—can be given away widely without costing the supplier anything, nor providing users with anything of value.  The University of Nicosia is in Greece, whose economy is so bad you could probably get anything you want there just by asking nicely.  And the last two retailers, Overstock.com and Lord & Taylor, while perfectly valid retailers, accept bitcoins with a very large asterisk.

The asterisk is that these retailers convert the bitcoins to something legit at the last second, so they’re not really accepting bitcoins at all.  According to Digital Transactions magazine, “Overstock tempers its currency risk by having Coinbase convert its Bitcoins instantly into dollars” and “Lord & Taylor will not accept Bitcoin directly from customers.  Instead, customers will use the Pounce app, from Israeli technology company BuyCode Inc.”

So, the validation Bitcoin gets from being accepted by two major brand-name retailers must be tempered by the fact that they’re actually transferring all the risk to more companies you’ve never heard of.  It’s tempting to call this “lipstick on a pig,” but it’s actually called “reintermedation.”  Whether or not this fancy label restores your faith in Bitcoin is your business, but I for one am not impressed. 

Now, you may accuse me of cherry-picking examples of unimpressive merchant acceptance of Bitcoin, so I guess should fess up:  I left out TigerDirect.  They’re a pretty sizeable retailer, who have been mired in various controversies such as being investigated and ruled against by the Fair Trade Commission; being sued by Dell; being sued by the State of Florida; and being investigated by the SEC.

Restoring faith

After the Mt. Gox disaster, Bitcoin is on shaky ground and badly needs to be propped up.  And, to renew faith in the population at large, the Bitcoin folks need to restore our nation’s faith in electronic commerce in general, thanks to the Target breach, which by some measures has directly affected one in three Americans.  And going back a bit further, I think we’re all a little more wary these days of the financial genius types that broke all the rules around subprime mortgages and various overly complicated financial instruments and caused the great economic meltdown of 2008.

Well, guess what:  we have the answer!  All we have to do, apparently, is lock up our bitcoins in big vaults.  According to a “Wall Street Journal” article, “a Silicon Valley startup called Xapo is among a handful of young companies trying to become the Fort Knox of bitcoin, building secret bank vaults deep in the earth that would safely store millions of dollars worth of bitcoin on computer drives.”  Xapo has raised $20 million in venture capital for this effort.  (Needless to say, “Xapo”—one of those names you can’t even pronounce—is, from a psychological perspective, the polar opposite of “Lloyd’s of London.”)

Now, I know I’m just a simple caveman and everything, but aren’t we missing something here—namely, the fact that the Mt. Gox theft was not of the hands-on, grab-and-dash type?   Nobody held up Mt. Gox at gunpoint or burgled it in the dead of night.  The Mt. Gox bitcoin theft was termed a “malleability-related theft.”  For my money, Bitcoin needs to fix its malleability problem.  How does Xapo intend to do this with vaults, video surveillance, and armed guards?  To think of it another way, how did Target incur $61 million in losses through its data breach:  by having its stores and headquarters overrun with Ninjas or bandits?  No!  The thieves were all the way over in Russia.  They almost literally “phoned in” the theft.

Perhaps the $20 million in venture capital is itself supposed to buoy up Bitcoin:  the idea that if this venture capital firm, run by geniuses, has that much faith in Xapo and Bitcoin, that we should, too.  The problem is, these venture capitalists have flamed out before:  we all watched the dot-com bubble burst.  (I myself saw $20,000 of my on-paper profits—that is, my pretend Internet money—evaporate almost overnight.)

Why should we care?

Okay, I guess it’s pretty obvious by now that I think you’d have to be crazy to mess around with Bitcoin.  But aren’t there all kinds of investment schemes to avoid, like swampland in Florida and Internet-sourced Nigerian inheritances?  Why bother writing about this one?  Well, the reason I care about Bitcoin is that I’m afraid if it gets popular, and then goes supernova, it’ll take the rest of the financial world with it, throwing the world into utter anarchy.  Because frankly, I’m already nervous about the traditional notion of money.

Why?  Well, let’s do a thought exercise.  I derive a lot of comfort from the protections available with conventional finance.  For example, when I discovered that a clothing company in China, from whom I made a legitimate purchase in January, had mysteriously dinged my credit card again in March, I didn’t freak out.  I know I can call my bank and say, “This charge is bogus, make it go away” and they’ll say, “Right away, sir!”  But what would happen if you logged into your online banking account and found it almost completely depleted but for no clear reason?  Whom would you call then?  Imagine your reaction if you complained to your bank and they retorted, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  You never had that much money.  Go away, kid, ya bother me.” 

Sure, you’d probably have some recourse, but it wouldn’t be easy.  We take it for granted that our money, which exists electronically as a data point in some unseen database, won’t just go away.  Our entire system is already founded on trust, and on the universal agreement that this unseen money—not hard currency or gold, but numbers represented electronically by zeroes and ones—is real.  With this much riding on blind faith, the last thing we need is a Bitcoin bubble.

But you shouldn’t take my word for it—I’m no expert.  You’re probably better off listening to the financial gurus who live and breathe this stuff.  Take the 40-year-old CEO of Xapo:  the son of Patagonian sheep ranchers in Argentina, he got educated and “developed Patagon, one of Argentina’s first online financial-services firms … [and] also founded Banco Lemon, a Brazilian bank for the underbanked.”

What’s that?  You’ve never heard of the underbanked?  Well, I must confess, I hadn’t either.  And, after spending all this time thinking about Bitcoin, Mt. Gox, Xapo, and financial malleability, I’m starting to feel a bit overbanked.  In fact, I’m strongly considering turning some of my liquid assets into expensive bicycle wheels that can’t just vanish like a puff of smoke.