Saturday, September 24, 2022

Biketronics II

Introduction

This post is not about e-bikes (i.e., battery-assisted bicycles). I have a lot to say on that topic, actually, but that’s for another day. This also isn’t about electronic shifting; I cover that here and here. This post is about bike computers.

More than twelve years ago in these pages, I posted Biketronics, a survey of these handlebar-mounted computers (and related technologies like heart rate monitors, power meters, etc.). That was a surprisingly popular post. So, having recently purchased the fanciest (and perhaps wackiest) of these devices I’ve ever had, a Sigma Sport Rox 4.0 with GPS capabilities, I figured we could go another round. My every instinct tells me this is a terrible topic and that nobody could possibly be interested, but then I’ve been wrong before. (For example, my post on the spelling of “kindergartner” is now one of my most popular of all time.) So here we go. I’ll throw some totally unrelated gags in here and there just in case your interest flags.

By the way, a lot has changed since my original Biketronics post. Back then, of the fifty-two cycling pals I surveyed, only five were using GPS-equipped devices. Now virtually all my friends have GPS. So I’ll devote some focus to that.

Who even uses Sigma Sport?

Nobody uses Sigma Sport bike computers, at least in this country. I literally don’t know a soul who has one, except one guy in Germany. I had to order mine from some outfit in Spain. So why did I choose Sigma Sport? Well, Garmins are too popular, same with Wagoo or Wayco or Woohoo or whatever that other popular brand is. I don’t want to be like everyone else. Besides, I’m a cheap bastard, and all the modern GPS-enabled models are at least a couple hundred bucks. No thanks.

Besides, look at the loads of features you get with the Rox 4.0:


Sure, lots of modern bike computers have power meters built in, but how many have pierced earrings? You might say “plenty,” but you’re not paying attention: pierced ears are popular, but pierced earrings? Those are hard to come by. And I love the existential air of “protective seals removed and cannot be.” These seals, these seals … they cannot be!

I also wanted a Sigma Sport because my old one served me well. It looked outdated the day I bought it, and certainly had its quirks, but it featured a groovy lap timer that would enable me to easily see the time, distance, and heart rate of my favorite climbs after the fact. Alas, the plastic bits enabling that computer to snap into the handlebar mount started to wear out to the point that I had to rubber-band it in place.


That wasn’t foolproof either so eventually I epoxied it to the mount, meaning once the battery dies I’m probably screwed—plus I can’t move it from bike to bike. So I wasn’t in a hurry to replace the computer, but it needed to be done.

I sense your interest waning—I know mine is—so here are a few good names for a rock band:

Duck Husband

Repetitive Stress Disorder

Nipple Confusion

Loofa Harvest

Good thing I wasn’t in a rush, because the new computer took forever to arrive. Tracking the shipment online was like trying to measure continental drift. It made its way across Europe in not much more than a week, but then was stuck in the Netherlands for twelve days. I emailed support and the retailer wrote, in an incredibly long, mostly boilerplate email, “Your parcel is currently on its way and it is due to be delivered to you very soon… Based on our experience, Customs can take between 15-60 days to unblock your parcel and proceed with delivery.”

Rox 4.0 documentation

I never did manage to find a complete list of specifications for this computer, even on the Sigma Sport website, so I guess I can’t complain that it didn’t come with a complete owner’s manual either. There was a nice thick booklet, but it’s only thick because it’s in ten languages, including Czechoslovakian and Polish. (I guess I should be grateful English is even among them.) The manual is actually just a “quick guide,” with a QR code for the “detailed instructions” web page which is mostly just little videos that cover only what is in the quick guide. There are no instructions anywhere, for example, on how to sync the computer to the heart rate monitor strap.

Here’s an example of the quick guide quirkiness:


“Active” and “Auto-Pause” aren’t actually defined. You start a workout by pressing the big button, and stop it the same way, and there’s actually a way to tell the state (running vs. stopped) on the screen—but the instructions don’t tell you what it is! And why are these “most important settings” anything you’d want to mess with during training? Think about it: you’re in the middle of a workout, hopefully not in the middle of a fast descent, and suddenly you think, “I need to calibrate the altimeter!” Why would you think this? And, if you wanted to manually set the altitude, how would you even know what altitude you’re at, other than to check the altimeter that’s right in front of you? Okay, maybe you’ve reached an elevation sign, but a) are those really common enough to make this among the most important settings, and b) why would you trust the sign, which is after all placed wherever it’s convenient to dig a hole, over a device that auto-calibrates itself via GPS, with an easy way to true itself up? It makes no sense.

First ride

I set out on the first ride with the new computer without having messed with the display settings. The display is highly configurable, which is pretty cool, but of the thirty touted functions, not all can be included in your configuration. That is, you have to choose your favorites. I figured while I was getting my feet wet, I’d just go with the factory configuration. I didn’t have any heart rate data because I searched too long in vain to learn how to set that up and was running out of daylight.

The first thing I noticed was a compass, which is nifty but totally needless because I seldom journey anywhere. There was also this weird directional arrow that seemed to point around randomly. Descending Wildcat Canyon Road, I noticed my speed fluctuating quite a bit, which you’d expect with GPS due to the satellite signal being blocked by tree cover, etc., but I had paid extra for the wheel sensor, so this shouldn’t have happened. Kind of annoying, but whatever … I was enjoying the big bold letters on the display, anyway.

But then, about ten miles into my ride, I noticed the mileage only read five miles. WTF?! Was this thing a total piece of crap, unable to actually measure distance? But the duration looked correct, and the speed (other than the occasional fluctuations) also looked about right, so it wasn’t totally whacked. But then things got even weirder. My confusion became outright bewilderment when the mileage number actually started dropping.

You’re probably just dying to learn the solution to this paradox, but I’m going to interrupt this post with a proposed title for a country & western song:

No one wears a mullet anymore

Two-thirds of my way through the ride, the mileage number was lower than ever, and it just dropped the whole rest of the way. By now you’ve surely figured this out, as I finally did too. The hypothesis I formed a few miles from home proved correct as I rolled down my street and the numbers went from fractions of a mile to matter of feet, and reached almost zero when I hit the driveway. That’s right, the device was showing my distance from home (presumably as the crow flies). So the accuracy was not an issue … but what a weird thing to want to display on your computer. I’m still scratching my head on that one.

The phone app & sharing

My old Sigma Sport uploaded its ride files to my phone over NFC (near-field communication) which was kind of a manual process and took a little while. The new one uses BLE (Bluetooth low-energy) and is swift and automatic. Look at the pretty display of my ride today:


I can share the ride, in Strava-like detail, via a URL to a (presumably) private website, with a much larger map, and I can drag my mouse along the graphs and such. (The units shown here are, alas, metric but I’ve already figured out how to fix that.)


I even figured out how to export these rides into a format that my old Sigma Data Center software can import, so I can still have an unbroken record of my rides going back years. And I think I’ve mastered the various features of this thing (other than integration with komoot, which I may never need).

And now it’s time for a few more rock band names:

Pack Shrapnel

Clear Rectal Discharge

The Harried Parents

Dark Yarn

Now that the Android app and PC software are dialed in, and I know how to operate the computer, the only remaining problem is…

The speed & mileage mystery

I’ve got this fancy sensor mounted on my hub to provide “even greater accuracy,” so why do all the totals for my standard loop come out low? And why does my reported speed suddenly drop from 28 to 14 mph and then pop up to 32? I decided to query my bike team, to see if they have this issue, and if it’s even worth having that sensor on there (since it’s kind of ugly).

Right away, I received replies from six teammates. Two of them actually answered the question (short answer: no difference between GPS and sensor measurement), and the others provided a variety of interesting tidbits:

  • The mph display often lags (jumps) while under tree cover, as does the elevation gain/loss. Piece of shit
  • The device connects with a satellite. The choice of satellite affects the data. The device usually has a Satellite setting. Galileo is US satellites. GLANOSS is Russian satellites. If you set your device to choose both then supposedly you’ll get more accurate data. (There may be a third set of satellites available now, too.) If you ride a lot in one location, then travel  (like if you ride from Oakland every day then one day start in Sacramento or France) this can confuse the device. The solution is to find the necessary obscure setting and leave it outside for a specified length of time. (Read the instructions. You’re on your own.) The device works better facing certain directions, like north, I think. Something to do with astronomy.
  • Dana if you get on Strava all your problems will disappear Do it! Do it! Do it!
  • GPS based measurements aren’t perfect. Absolute GPS accuracy is typically in the 5-10 meter range for consumer devices, so the GPS measurement is typically combined with an inertial measurement unit (IMU), which gives accelerations and rate of rotations that are then integrated to get linear and angular velocities using a Kalman filter. This also means that if the GPS signal is degraded due to building or tree, your velocity doesn’t suddenly read zero. Since the IMU in consumer devices generally sucks, it’s not going to be perfect.

Wow, that’s a lot to digest. I for one am not interested in having the Russian government tracking my movements, and I’m not sure which device (the bike computer or my phone) is doing the actual GPS work and would have the necessary obscure calibration setting to true it up. I’m sure I don’t want to start doing northbound-only rides and coming back on a bus or something. Above all else, I think it’s time for some more cool rock band names:

The Incestuous Mollies

The Quasi-Vegans

Leap Smear

Hard Floor Tool

Getting back to my teammates’ feedback, I reckon that the hub-mounted sensor I’m using is indeed the highly sophisticated IMU described, and it’s just not engineered well enough to be that accurate … which is a bit of a shame, since the old-school ones, which had a magnet attached to a spoke that passed by a sensor that counted the wheel rotations, was utterly simple and infallible. Perhaps part of my problem is that I’ve mounted this IMU on the rear hub (so I don’t have to look at it). I have just discovered (via a video buried within its website) that Sigma Sport recommends front hub mounting for “optimum reception.” Is it worth moving it, or do I ditch it entirely? That brings me to my next question.

Does any of this matter?

My friend Craig, who wrote about the IMU, went on to say:

Of course, you never precisely defined what you’re trying to measure. Do you want to know how far the tire patch of your front tire travelled? Or, do you care more about your rear tire patch? Even a rider trying to go in a straight line makes micro adjustments while pedaling, so the front tire travels ~0.25% farther! The more you turn, the greater the difference between the front and rear tire path will be. Or, perhaps you care more about your center of gravity? In that case, every time you rail a corner, your center of gravity takes a route that might be ~1% less (depending on the radius of the turn and your lean) than your rear tire patch. Of course, does it matter? Did you do less work because your new device showed that your ride was 2% shorter?

I think he’s being diplomatic here; the more direct version of his question might be, “Who cares what your mileage and speed are when the bigger question is, when are you going to start training harder so you don’t fall off my wheel when I’m trying to be nice and drag you through a headwind?” And he would have a point.

The answer is, at least in the short term, I want credit for every last foot of my rides because I’m doing a friendly competition called Cycle Around the Globe to raise awareness around the problem of suicide, and to engage in the collaborative effort to help prevent it. (My personal fundraising page is here.) Currently I’m sitting in 15th place with 540 kilometers ridden, though the leader has 14,000 kilometers, which he achieved in a single ride … so I’m guessing he’s not using a consumer-grade IMU. In fact, I think he’s even worse than those mopeds and e-bikes on Strava … he’s just making shit up. But for a good cause!

Lap timer

Alas, there is no lap timer on the Rox 4.0 (even though this very basic feature is available on a $14 Casio watch). I think I know why: the vast majority of cyclists are on Strava, which tells them their time on any segment they could want, automatically. But no, I won’t join Strava. That kind of thing’s not my bag.

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Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Wine Tasting - Castello di Amorosa

Introduction

Oh, shit! I just realized I’ve got only 45 minutes to write up my freelance article for Wine Spectator magazine, about my visit to the Castello di Amorosa winery! I better get right to it.


Wine Tasting  – Castello di Amorosa

The environs

The site of the winery, or terroir in viticulture parlance, is quite extravagant, almost exquisite. The castle is so imposing, I have to wonder if our military has an arrangement in place to appropriate the property in the case of an attack. It’s kind of hard to believe that all that goes on in this mighty fortress is the production, tasting, and sale of wine. Oddly, the grapevines themselves are virtually unprotected and in fact during our visit several goats escaped and started chowing down on them! Fortunately, stone walls are not the only protection: the castle turrets have arrowslits, aka balistraria, which are those tall slots that an archer can shoot arrows through. Or, a crossbowman can launch bolts through them. How badass is that? So let’s say I’m not even tempted to return under dark of night to steal grapes from this place. Besides, they just finished their harvest.

(Note: I’ve just been advised, by someone reading over my shoulder, that terroir has nothing to do with territory and in fact pertains to the combination of soil, climate, etc. that influences the character of a fine wine. Yes, I’m embarrassed. But honestly, that sentence reads so well, I’m going to leave it.)

You might be wondering if there’s a moat. Hell yeah there is! It doesn’t look very deep, nor are there crocodiles, but who knows … maybe it has piranhas? Or maybe there’s an underwater cage of piranhas they can release on command, if anyone storms the moat? That would be so cool. Now, no moat would be complete without a drawbridge … so does this Castello have one? Yes! I’m not sure if it’s operational, though. The brochure says, “The heavy iron chains would be used to raise the drawbridge to prevent marauders from entering through the main entrance.” Well, yeah … it’s not like it’d keep marauders from coming through the side entrance. Or from doing something other than entering. But what really bothers me about that sentence is that the verb is in the hypothetical subjunctive, “would be used...” There’s such a whiff of “never” about that. How about “The heavy iron chains can be used…”? Or, since we all grasp the concept, how about just saying “the drawbridge totally works”?

So, does the castle live up to its reputation as “a magical place which will transport you to medieval Italy”? I can’t say for sure, since I’ve never been to Italy, but at a minimum the Castello transported me to modern Anaheim, home of Disneyland. But in a good way.

The tasting room is down a flight of stone steps. My party had been warned that it’s a cave and can be quite chilly, but in fact a) it’s not a cave, and b) it’s not chilly. Could my daughter have confused the Castello with some other winery she researched? Easily. The brick ceilings are hand-built which seems remarkable unless you consider the alternative: robot-built? Is that even a thing? The arches are impressively vaulted, if that makes any sense. The bars are travertine stone and present an impressive and quite functional surface on which to place glasses of wine and fill out our tasting forms. I’ll bet you could hand-mix ice cream or fudge on this bar, like at those tourist places. Or you could lay out a corpse on the stone surface. It’s like marble.

Here I am filling out my tasting form.


That’s not my purse, by the way. I don’t carry a purse. (It’s not that a purse would compromise my masculine dignity; I could totally carry it off. I just don’t happen to desire one. If I did though, it would be soft kid leather like the one you see here.)

White wines

Castello wines are sold only at the winery. I’m sure the vintner is tempted to say, “Not sold in stores!” but that phrase has such a strong association with the QVC network and/or Ginsu steak knives, it cannot be uttered. But it’s true: you cannot buy this Castello di Amorosa wine at any restaurant or store. So what happens if you’re entertaining late and run out of wine? Perhaps that is where the fortress, with its moat and drawbridge, come in to play. Don’t even try it.

During our tasting we were cared for by Elisa, who is new to the Castello, having just arrived from Italy. She spoke with a charming Italian accent, as in “We-a will-a start-a with-a the white-a wines-a and-a work-a our way-a down.” Come to think of it, it’s possible her name is Elise, and it just sounded like Elisa. (Full disclosure: as I mentioned before, I’ve never been to Italy, so it’s possible she’s not Italian at all and has just mastered a fake Italian accent. If so, she-a had-a me fooled!)

Pinot Grigio

At Castello the Pinot Grigio is vintned with a young Malvasia grape. (An old grape would be a raisin, from which wine cannot be reliably produced.) This being an Italian style wine, it is more acidic than a traditional American wine such as Thunderbird, or a soft drink like Kool-Aid. The fragrance, or nose, is beguiling, almost coquettish, with hints of come-hither. The taste is light and frisky, almost meretricious, like the sassy tongue of a young prostitute. Overall I find the wine very sippable. I cannot say whether it would be quaffable or guzzle-able since I was given only about an ounce. (The exact tasting amount is unknown, because Elisa knows only the metric system and I was too enthralled with the terroir to calculate the conversion.)

Gew├╝rztraminer

The Traminer grapes producing this varietal are notoriously difficult to grow, given their unstable genome, especially in Napa County, where the climate is a bit hot for them. As a result, the young grapes are often exposed to routine profanity and even abuse at the hands of frustrated growers. This results in traumatized grapes and a final product that’s easily the most hard-bitten bad-boy of whites I’ve ever sampled. The wine is initially sharp on the palate with notes of anguish (or agnosia in wine parlance) but tamped down by subtle hints of musk, lychee, and leach. The flavor starts out rather boldly and strongly, like a German with a megaphone, but then softens and dissipates like evaporating solvent and ultimately resolves into a graceful waft of gingerbread nostalgia as it rolls past your lingual frenulum.

Breadsticks

The breadsticks come lovingly wrapped in a form-fitting plastic bag, suggestive of both high density polyethylene and old-school cellophane. Presentation is in a simple glass, and I had the small thrill of tearing into the bag myself. The sticks are long and pale, like a British rocker’s slender fingers, but the flavor is pure Tuscany, with tones of airy sifted flour and extra virgin olive oil. The finish is salty, like a good sea shanty, and left me yearning for more wine, ideally right out of the spigot like how I used to get it in my childhood home.

Red wines

The reds are justifiably famous at the Castello, earning a loyal following among wine aficionados and culinary epicures, along with a begrudging but undeniable sense of street cred. Two of the reds on offer for the tasting have won awards from the SFC, which (I admit, I had to look this up) stands for Sucka Free City, i.e., San Francisco. Imagine all those ballers from the Western Addition or the Mission district rolling up to the castle in their low-riders or souped-up Acuras with aftermarket spoilers, subwoofers booming. “Don’t gimme no Clos du Bois, we don’t swill that shit in tha SFC.”

Pinot Noir

After much hemming and hawing, I settled on the Pinot Noir Morning Dew, known among local tech millionaires as a perfect breakfast wine and a nice replacement for their beloved Mountain Dew, now that they’ve graduated from coding in the garage to grandstanding in the boardroom. The flavor awakens the tongue with all the sharpness and clarity of a modern OLED digital display, accompanied by the bold stride of berry and accented with a tannic spice reminiscent of silicon. For all its cutting edge spine, though, there’s a reassuring coziness to the mouth-feel: a tongue-numbing cloak of gentle clove, summoning wistful affection for one’s youth, such as one might experience stumbling across a Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM at a yard sale.

Cabernet Sauvignon

It is said a winery can be fairly judged by its cab, and the Castello’s has plenty of swagger, with a flavor-forward bite that electrifies the tongue. The zesty tones of pepper grinder, like those very long wooden grinders favored by fancy restaurants, put you on notice just before the strong-armed tannins kick in. This is a big proud cab that quickens your pulse. If you met this wine in a bar it would challenge you to punch it in the stomach as hard as you can … but you won’t find it in a bar because, again, Castello di Amorosa is available only right here at the castle!

Sweet wines

If you travel widely among the many wineries in Napa and Sonoma, you’ll start to realize the age cohort is edging upward. Let’s face it, with the global ascension of California wines driving up prices, the only people who can afford it are those who’ve broken the backs of their home mortgages and whose 401(k)s are well into seven figures. There’s a reason Tesla charging stations dot the Napa landscape: these people are as foggy and forgetful as they are rich. So what is the industry to do, as its ageing patrons gradually die off? The Castello has taken a page from the cannabis gummy playbook and is clearly courting the younger set with a nice array of unapologetically sweet dessert wines. Think Hawaiian Punch or Hi-C, but with legs—and plenty of alcohol.

Simpatica

After being pushed around so much by the Cab, I needed a friend—so when I saw the word Simpatica I was hooked right in. But I hesitated because this was last wine I’d get to taste. Would I be selling myself short by skipping the Moscato? Perhaps, but I couldn’t get past the “mosca” part, that being Italian for “fly,” and I just knew I’d take the bait and make a corny joke like “Elisa, there’s a fly in my wine, and he thinks it’s gazpacho.” (I’d already lost a bet that Elisa would make a joke about the wine-spitting bowl, along the lines of “We send that down to Charles Shaw and they bottle it.” She didn’t say anything of the kind. But like I said, she’s new.) In the event, the Simpatica did not let me down: this was a bright wine, redolent of pears and honey, that caressed my tongue, but then took an unexpected detour into light fizz, like fermented peaches at a salad bar, with just a hint of bong water. It’s a highly drinkable wine that says, “Hey, buddy, lighten up.” I could totally see myself drinking this out of a bota bag at a sweltering music festival. It would pair nicely with those weird cream cheese appetizers at P.F. Chang’s, or with Rice Krispies.

Il Passito

I only had a little sip of this, when my tasting companion insisted I try it. I know that, as a wine critic, I should use words like “remarkable,” but my honest reaction was OMG! This is by far the sweetest liquid I’ve ever had in my mouth. Honey is so over. The flavor is so fawningly unctuous, I thought this wine would try to sell me a timeshare in Honolulu. But as it lingers on the tongue it’s all Sweetness & Light, like old school Grade-A maple syrup without the maple. I suddenly had a craving for the totally crusty, blackened pork ribs you find in the dark corner of the grill toward the end of a barbecue. But Il Passito also has a regal flair; if this wine could talk, it’d tell a Bartles & James wine cooler, “You’re just a vulgar little street urchin.”

The scoring

Nobody in my party remembered to fill out the score card. Or maybe it’s not a memory thing; for me, numeric scores kind of seemed beside the point. I mean, would you give a point rating to the color of your child’s eyes, or to the length of your cat’s tale? Suffice to say, I shall surely return to the Castello di Amorosa, next time I need a full lineup of artisanal wines, or am fleeing a zombie apocalypse. As for which wine impressed us the most, I suppose that can be answered by the one we ended up deciding to buy: the Simpatica, at $30 for a 750ml bottle. I have a feeling it’s gonna go great with chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream.


Epilogue

No, Wine Spectator never did run my story. This may have something to do with the fact that I never submitted it. Why would I bother, when I haven’t arranged for the Castello di Amarosa winery to place an ad with the magazine?

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Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

What’s Wrong With Shimano?

Introduction

Some weeks ago, a cycling pal emailed around this article concerning the new Shimano 105 electronic (aka Di2) groupset. I suppose the new 105 release was just a hook, to make the article timely. Most of what the writer focused on was Shimano’s decision to discontinue non-electronic shifting. Surely the point of my teammate’s group email was to kick off a spirited discussion.

Ten years ago, the discussion might have been a lot more lively and long-lived; this group is not shy about expressing themselves, as you can see here. But this time around, though the responses were as insightful and funny as ever, there were only nine of them. I sense we’re gradually tiring of such worldly matters. That said, after some reflection I decided to take the bait—hence this post.

Don’t worry, my thesis isn’t actually as pedestrian as “what’s wrong with Shimano?” but something closer to “is there anything funny, as in ha-ha-funny, about the society that has produced this nonsense from Shimano?” If you don’t get a chuckle out of this post, please be sure to leave a nasty comment below it that will spark an endless, mean-spirited debate sure to propel me from an unseen, unheralded blogger to a global Internet celebrity with my own line of spaghetti sauces and fake Oreos.


In a nutshell

The thoughtful and well-written article, in a column called “Jim’s Tech Talk,” gives four reasons why “it’s a mistake for Shimano to only offer electric shifting road groups.” Jim’s reasons are as follows:

  1. Higher prices
  2. [Planned] obsolescence
  3. Electric derailleurs wear out
  4. Greater chance of user error

I won’t go into each reason because a) you can read the article yourself—it’s not that long, and b) everything he said seems reasonable and doesn’t warrant a critique. But he missed a couple points, which to me are the most important ones. Those I’ll cover.

Shifting is already easy

First and foremost, modern mechanical shifting is fricking awesome on any halfway legit road bike (and I’ll define “halfway legit” as “Shimano 105 mechanical or equivalent on up, from about 1996 onward”). Electronic shifting is a solution looking for a problem. It’s erroneous to suggest that the ostensibly improved performance justifies the expense (to the extent that we shouldn’t even be given the opportunity to save money on traditional cable-pull gear).

This Shimano 105 Di2 video enumerates the supposed benefits. We’re told Di2 “makes shifting much easier” with “more consistent performance.” Bullshit. Ever since the introduction of Hyperglide cassette cogs and chains, modern chainrings, and indexed shifters, gear shifting has been consistently easy. (Before that, shifting was more difficult but I didn’t care, just like I don’t mind making drip coffee instead of insisting on the brainless ease of a Keurig.) The Shimano 105 promo video says there are “no cables to stretch over time,” but so what? Adjusting cable tension is really easy. You just turn the little barrel adjuster on your derailleur counter-clockwise a quarter turn to see if it gets better. If so, you’re done. If not, turn it half a turn to the right. It’s simple trial and error, and if you don’t even have a bike stand, you can just do it while riding.

(Yes, there is a simpler way to do this. Put the chain on the second-smallest cog, and look at the derailleur pulleys. They should be directly below, or perhaps very slightly to the left, of the cog. A thousand YouTube videos are just waiting to teach you this. Just like there are a thousand videos to teach you how to adjust your electronic shifting.]

But wait, there’s more!

To be fair, the Shimano 105 video’s initial claims are kind of hard to evaluate as they’re pretty subjective. But what really annoys me is that the video goes on to state something that’s plainly untrue, in the most patronizing and degrading language possible:

“Unlike mechanical shifting you can shift under load. Now, that’s a fancy way of saying you can keep pedaling while changing gears. So you can keep going, even on that steep hill.”

I shift under full load all the time. I’m riding Shimano Dura-Ace 9-speed levers that I bought used, over ten years ago, for $100. They’re beat to hell at this point, but still work perfectly. I routinely shift from a smaller cog into a larger one (i.e., the harder type of shift) under full load, while riding out of the saddle, on serious grades like Lomas Cantadas. I’m similarly aggressive with front shifts. I shift under load for fun. I do it because I can. I’m delighted how well it works because I couldn’t do this before about 1997.


And what’s this shit about “shifting under load” being “a fancy way of saying you can keep pedaling while changing gears”? Does the presumed viewer of this video, who’s supposed to drop close to two grand for a 105 Di2 groupset, or spend more than three grand for a 105-Di2-equipped bike, not know what “shift under load” means? And actually, except with internal-geared hubs, don’t cyclists have to keep pedaling while changing gears? And this bit about “you can keep going, even on a steep hill”—what the hell are they even saying? That with mechanical shifting you can’t keep going? You try to shift, it doesn’t work, so you just turn around and find a flatter route home? Or call an Uber?

The video concludes, “The 105 Di2 energizes you. Now there is nothing holding you back.” I got news for you, Shimano: even if mechanical shifting were inferior, poor shifting almost never holds anyone back. When I’m held back, it’s sometimes age that does it, but more often it’s time, because I’m too busy working (so I can afford my disconcertingly expensive lifestyle). And I’m one of the lucky ones. You know what holds a lot of people back? How damned expensive bikes have become. They’re a luxury item now, pretty much by design: companies like Shimano are obviously happy to cater only to the high end customer, and the more ignorant the better.

I wish this were a live demo instead of a video so I could say to the guy, “Wait, hold on. You lost me with that ‘shift under load’ thing. Despite my vast bicycle budget I’m a complete novice.” And then when the Shimano guy happily explained what that “fancy” language means, I could say, “But shifting while pedaling … does that help? Does a bicycle need to be pedaled at all times?” No, he would explain patiently, but pedaling is always necessary when you’re pointed uphill. He’d be all too happy to dumb it down for me because I would seem like the perfect customer: I’m just absolutely shitting money but I’ll never wear anything out or demand a warranty. I’ll just upgrade my fleet in a couple of years despite everything being in mint condition, so I’ll always have the latest and greatest technology, just like with my smartphone.

(Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against technical innovation and in fact really dig it—when it produces a tangible benefit. I have waxed rhapsodic about Dura-Ace aero wheels, here. And I actually dig Shimano components—I’ve equipped my road and mountain bikes with them for decades. And lest you think I’ve never even tried electronic shifting, I have: click here for a full report.)

Then and now

When I started racing, there was no planned obsolescence in bicycle components. My first Campagnolo derailleur, a Nuovo Record, which I bought used (of course), was from 1974. I knew because the year was embossed right on it. The shifting performance was only okay, which was fine, because the derailleur was light, cool looking, and above all durable (e.g., unfazed by crashes). Back then you could open up a Bike Warehouse catalog to the Campy small parts section and order any replacement bit you could want for the component you needed to repair. (This was the mail-order outfit that changed its name to Bike Nashbar because too many people, particularly teenagers, affectionately called it “Bike Whorehouse,” or at least that’s what I’ve always assumed.)


Back then, an aspiring racer could afford the sport since there was lots of used gear out there, because it didn’t wear out. And components weren’t that expensive to begin with. In high school, I could afford great stuff on a paperboy’s salary: in 1985 I bought a brand new full Dura-Ace groupset via mail-order for $400. According to a quick Google search, that’s around $1,000 in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation. A Dura-Ace Di2 groupset today, meanwhile, costs $4,600 online (and this no longer even includes hubs). That huge price tag isn’t the end of the world, of course, because nobody needs Dura-Ace, but remember: the new entry-level Shimano 105 is now almost two grand … almost twice the inflation-adjusted cost of early Dura-Ace. Yes, of course 105 Di2 shifts better than my 1985 Dura-Ace, but so what? What good does all that technology do for someone who can’t afford to buy it? What middle-class teenager today has an extra two or three grand available for entry level equipment?

Also back then, teenagers racing their bikes on a paperboy’s salary had to learn how to maintain their own bikes. This was doable because the components just weren’t that complicated. It was a great learning opportunity which for many of us led to gainful employment during high school and/or college. Now, with the more advanced designs, it’s a lot harder.

The yuppie problem

Despite many years working in bike shops, I was initially apprehensive about bleeding the hydraulic brakes on my mountain bike. That repair seemed complicated to me in the sense that I actually don’t have much understanding about how these brakes even work. After putting off my hypothetical DIY “learning project” for many weeks, I finally just took my bike to a local shop to have them do it. I was a bit disappointed in myself, sure, but also figured heck, I have money, why not support a local business? But then the mechanic breezily said it’d be $60 per brake caliper, and he could have it done in two weeks. WTF?! $120 for a routine bit of maintenance? That doesn’t sound like a reasonable labor rate designed to give a bike mechanic a living wage. That sounds like kind of a luxury tax based on the supposition that the modern bike customer is a totally helpless, ignorant yuppie with a limitless budget. (Needless to say, I balked, bought some tools and brake fluid, checked out some YouTube DIY videos, and now I do this repair myself. And I’ll even do yours for you, for $30 a caliper.)

The attitude shown by these shops may be the new normal as cycling becomes an increasingly yuppified sport. A teammate of mine, an accomplished racer well acquainted with the art of bike repair, took his bike to a local shop recently to have the bearings replaced in the headset and bottom bracket. He knows how to do the work, but didn’t have the specific tools required. He told the shop that the brand of bearings he’d selected last time didn’t end up lasting very long, and asked what other brands they carried. “Don’t worry, we always source the most appropriate bearings,” they told him. “Just drop your bike off and we’ll go over the whole thing and figure out what it needs.” In other words, “Based on our assumption that you’re totally gullible and unconcerned with how much anything costs, we’ll print our own money by doing all kinds of unnecessary ‘repairs’ that you don’t need to worry your pretty little head about.” (My friend, duly insulted, bailed and bought the tools he needed.)

I want to be clear here: I have no issue with wealthy cycling enthusiasts paying top dollar to bike shops if they don’t feel like getting their hands dirty. But what I cannot stand is the overall effect that the bias towards the high end is having on the industry, which seems to have learned to equate wealth with helplessness. It’s as though they assume money actually strips us of capability, to where we’re at their mercy.

This business model isn’t restricted to the bicycle industry, of course; modern cars are more difficult to work on as well, and increasingly expensive. As this Wall Street Journal article explains, “Detroit has jettisoned many of their lower-priced compact and subcompact cars like the Ford Fiesta and Chevy Cruze that have traditionally been starter cars for young buyers.” Modern auto makers prefer the higher profit margins of higher-end vehicles targeted at wealthier customers. Remind you of anyone?

But wait, things get worse as you go up the luxury scale. As detailed in this article, in some markets BMW is now charging customers a monthly subscription fee to enable their built-in seat warmers. The cars are all outfitted with this feature at the factory, but it’s locked out in software until you pay up. This seems inconceivably greedy and cynical to me. I totally get it that a tech company like Cisco Meraki charges a license fee for the software on their Internet/WiFi products, because they are constantly working to improve the software, making updates to protect against new security threats. But seat warmers are nothing new, are available in virtually every new car built by any company, and don’t require any updates. This subscription fee is BMW saying, “We know you have enough money to just throw it unthinkingly at any obstacle that you bump up against, so we’re cashing in on that. Because we can.”

Reading that article was painful enough … but what really threw me were the reader comments below it, some of which justified and accepted BMW’s business model. It’s as though wealth is actually making these customers stupid; that is, excess discretionary income apparently leads just shrugging and accepting absurd price-gouging behaviors. Another of my teammates, responding to the “Jim’s Tech Talk” article, wrote, “The next step will be Shifting-as-a-Service: $10/month to use your derailleurs.  Discount for single chainring.” His irony is closer to reality than he might have thought.

So when I see Shimano throwing itself into this model, where the target customer has gobs of money but doesn’t know what “shift under load” means, I feel a little embarrassed to be part of the sport. A neighbor of mine speaks fondly of his childhood in South America playing soccer in a dirt field with all his friends; their ball didn’t even hold air. I love the idea of kids playing stickball in the street in a big city, or pickup basketball on a public court (never mind if the hoop doesn’t even have a net). And then there’s cycling: wealthy and privileged patrons only, please. And the only tools you’ll need are a trash can and a credit card.

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Tuesday, August 30, 2022

From the Archives - Journal for my Younger Daughter

Introduction

Around the time Lindsay, my second daughter, was born, I started keeping a journal about her life. (I did the same for her older sister, and you can see an excerpt here.) My journal project was inspired by those baby books where you put in footprints, birth size and weight, developmental milestones, etc. Those baby books are typically surpassed only by exercise bikes and crock pots in unfulfilled good intentions. Usually the first couple of pages are diligently filled out, and then the new parents get overwhelmed and the rest of the book is blank. 

I endeavored to do better. The result? A mammoth 400-page document, spanning my daughter’s entire life thus far, which I presented to her when dropping her off at college. Here’s an excerpt, emphasizing episodes I think are funny (but which shouldn’t embarrass my kid, who after all has suffered enough, what with me as her dad).

A note on the text: it’s written in the second person (i.e., “you”) because the journal’s real audience is my daughter. You albertnet readers just get a taste.

(Art in this post is by Lindsay’s Grandma Coral, except one picture by Lindsay.)


September 15, 2004 (age almost-1)

I’d forgotten how messy it is when a baby tries to feed herself. You’ll sit at the high chair happily for twenty minutes or more, grabbing everything on your tray, shoving much of it in your mouth, spitting much of this back out, and dropping a lot. Watermelon is a favorite, as are Cheerios (or “ring shaped oat cereal,” as the parenting books call them), refried beans (cold), little blocks of cheese, pieces of bread, cut-up fruit . . . just about everything except baby food, which you never really took a shine to. I’ll be all stoked at how much you ate, until clean-up time when I discover what looks like at least 90% of it on the floor, in your chair, and in the pouch of your bib (when we manage to get the bib on you, which is seldom). When you’re done you scream and cry throughout the clean-up, just like your sister used to do. Then you want to be held, which is a problem because I don’t want to have to change my outfit in addition to yours.

April 7, 2005 (age 1-½)

When I say, “Where’s your nose?” you grin, grab my finger, and touch your nose with it. Then you touch my nose with it. Then you start moving my hand around to different parts of my head: “That’s my ear,” I’ll say, “and that’s my mouth … that’s my cheek.” It’s not entirely clear how much you’re directing the hand and how much I am; it’s like a Ouija board.

You love throwing things away. Every time I empty the trash I have to watch out. The cat’s dish gets thrown out a lot. You’re just like your mother.

April 3, 2006 (age 2-½)

[Our cat] Misha kept getting on the table during dinner. I admonished her, “Get out of here Misha! Go catch some bugs!” (My point was that she’s supposed to be a hunter, not a scavenger, and yet I wouldn’t encourage her to catch birds.) Well, you and Alexa really liked this utterance. I’m not sure whether you grasped the point or not; you may just have seen it as a stock put-down or something. Anyway, the other day we were getting in the car and you and Alexa had some dispute, perhaps over who got what car seat. With a somewhat self-satisfied air (I think you’d prevailed in the dispute), you said, “Go away, Alexa! Go catch some bugs!” Man, she was pissed ... especially, I think, because your mom and I were laughing at what you said. I think this was your first joke ever, or at least your first joke that actually made somebody laugh out loud. I know plenty of adults who haven’t yet achieved that milestone.


April 11, 2006 (age 2-½)

I was reading No No, Jo to you. It’s about a kitten who’s always making messes by trying to help, and each page ends, “But does Sam [or whoever] thank that kitten? Sam says...” Then you open out a flap that shows the kid reacting to Jo’s mess, saying, “No no, Jo!” The idea is that the child to whom you’re reading the book can provide the chorus, or punch line, for each page. But you weren’t doing it. You’d done it before, but this time you were in a needy, weepy way because you’d just awoken from your nap to find the babysitter was here. You like the sitter okay, but of course you recognized that her presence meant your mom would be leaving. (I would be leaving too, but that’s no big deal for you.) It was tough even getting you to let me read to you to cheer you up. I thought you might be coaxed into helping me say the “No no, Jo!” part, so I prompted you. “What does Sam say?” I asked. “Please?” you whimpered.

April 18, 2006 (age 2-½)

We had Easter at your Grandma Judy’s house up in Oregon. After the egg hunt we had breakfast and then a walk. Your mom was enjoying the walking so much that she asked me to administer the chocolate bunnies to you and Alexa while she and my mom walked some more. This seemed like a fine work detail at first, until I saw the size of the rabbits. They were huge! Probably four inches tall, and solid chocolate. Of course you and your sister were thrilled and started gnawing on them right away. Soon you had chocolate all over your mouth and hands. As your mom was leaving she’d said, “Dana, it’s up to you to keep them from making a mess!” I gave you and Alexa each a paper napkin. I policed the devouring of the chocolate for a long while, maybe fifteen minutes, but man, what a tedious job. At several points I thought of taking the chocolate away because it was just too much, but of course that would be like taking candy from a baby. A lot like that in fact. So I tried to encourage you to save some for later. I gave you each a bag to put your bunny in. You dutifully wrapped the bunny in the napkin and put it in the bag, and then, once the delight of this operation wore off, you took it back out and started gnawing again. Finally I couldn’t bear the tedium, not to mention the ghastliness of it all, any longer and started to pack for our trip home. Your mom returned to discover that you (and/or Alexa) had smeared melted chocolate all over the cream-colored upholstery of one of Grandma Judy’s dining room chairs. Your mom snapped at me, I snapped back at her, my mom was hurt because she’d actually bought the bunnies and they’d cost a lot, and at last we fully appreciated the glory of Christ’s resurrection and the thrilling mystery of the rabbit that lays eggs.

June 7, 2006 (age 2-¾)

You were going to tag along with your mom to your sister’s ballet class, but I got home from work right before they left. Your mom saw an opportunity and changed her plan, leaving you home with me (vs. chasing you around the community center for 45 minutes). Oh, man, you were not happy about this—in fact, you had a complete meltdown. I was so exhausted from work, I went straight to my last-resort solution to the crisis: I put in a video for you, which is a rare treat. Then I put a beer in the freezer (we didn’t have any cold) and set a timer to remind me it was in there, lest it get forgotten and burst. When that timer went off, some 10-15 minutes into your video, you thought I’d set it for you, to limit your video time (a standard practice, but one which frankly hadn’t occurred to me in this instance). To my pleasant surprise, you ejected the tape and brought it to me, without any fuss. After that we seemed to be reconciled. It just goes to show, beer is probably the solution to most parenting difficulties.

September 26, 2006 (age almost-3)

You often use the word “instead” when you’re not actually comparing two options. “I want milk instead,” you’ll say, apropos of nothing. I guess it makes sense, because whenever you propose the having of something you’re also implicitly rejecting the not-having of that thing; i.e., “I want milk instead of no milk,” or “I want milk instead of nothing.” Very philosophical of you.

January 23, 2007 (age 3)

Your mom used code words the other night so you wouldn’t understand an idea she proposed to me. She referred to me as “the paternal guardian” or some such thing. “Call him ‘Daddy,’” you told her. Ah, the power of context (though in this case, for her to refer to me in the third person, when talking to me, should have helped throw you off the scent).

April 4, 2007 (age 3-½)

You call butter “toast,” as in, “I want more toast for my bread.” You call your lacy shawl “my marriage.” You call guinea pigs “bunny pigs.”

April 7, 2008 (age 4-½)

Last night at dinner, you had a bite of your mom’s dinner roll. “I don’t like this,” you said. “It tastes like Play-Doh.” I asked you how you knew what Play-Doh tasted like. You said, quite reasonably and matter-of-factly, “Because of this [roll].” This is a nice example of the logical fallacy of “Petitio Principii,” and you delivered it expertly, even convincingly.

July 16, 2008 (age 4-¾)

I sent in proofs-of-purchase from a cereal box and ordered you and Alexa these “Mommy and me” matching wristwatches (big and small). To my surprise, both you and Alexa wanted the black Hot Wheels watches instead of the pink Barbie ones. They arrived yesterday. They feel like they’re made of rubber. They’re black, with a tire tread texture. I asked if you liked them (and may have asked how you would rate them vs. the Barbie version, I can’t recall). You said, “These are cool. Cool is better than beautiful, because beautiful is just paint.”

August 25, 2008 (age almost-5)

You and Alexa were awake, first thing in the morning, and stayed in your beds, talking. I sneaked the door open, and silently peered in. Alexa asked you, “Lindsay, who’s your favorite person in the whole world?” You replied, “That Otto kid at Dandelion [preschool].” Alexa didn’t like this answer at all; as became evident, she wanted you to say that she was your favorite. She told you you’d hurt her feelings, and lectured you on how family is supposed to be more important than mere friends, but you wouldn’t back down. This discussion repeated itself a week or two later, and this time, though he was still your favorite, you couldn’t even remember Otto’s name. (I reminded you, but you seemed unsure that you’d had this right to begin with.)

December 18, 2008 (age 5)

We bought a new[er] car. I had cautioned you and Alexa to behave during our visit to the dealer, and you and Alexa really did. I had also said, almost as an aside, that it would be better if you didn’t appear too excited about the car, since it wouldn’t help our negotiating leverage for the dealer to know we were in love with it. I was a bit concerned about how excited you and Alexa would be about the built-in booster seats (which really are cool). Not surprisingly, that was the first thing the dealer brought to your and Alexa’s attention. I’m sure he recognized that if he could get you girls jazzed on that feature, we’d have a hard time walking away if he didn’t meet our price—sort of the “threat of tantrum” technique that grocery stores use, stocking every aisle with crappy toys and hoping parents will just bite the bullet and buy them, to lubricate the grocery shopping process.

Well, we all piled in for a test drive, and within minutes you said loudly, “I don’t like this booster!” I asked why not. You replied, again loudly, “It doesn’t have any armrests!” This was going well. The dealer’s implicit “You wouldn’t deprive these delightful children of their beloved built-in boosters, would you?” was being answered with an implicit, “Try me. Your boosters are overrated.” I decided to take a gamble and pretend to try to resolve your misgivings, figuring that you’ve never yet accepted a token bone thrown your way: “But Lindsay, if I weren’t sitting in the middle seat, we could fold down the middle armrest and you’d have that!” You replied, with an irritated don’t-you-patronize-me tone, “I want two armrests! I have two arms, so I want two armrests! I don’t want this booster!” So the booster seats were effectively neutralized as a bargaining tool. Yesssss!

July 22, 2010 (age 6-¾)

Alexa finished a meal recently and instead of taking her plate to the counter, she took it into the dining room. “Alexa, I know you’re licking your plate. Stop that and bring it in here,” I told her. She commented that if nobody sees her, it shouldn’t matter. “God can see you,” I said, just to see what my daughters’ reactions would be. You replied, “Does he care?” This was a departure: at other times, you’d referred to God as a she. I asked, “So God is a he, huh?” You replied, “Yes, God is a he and Goddess is a she.” I asked you who is in charge. You paused for a moment, reflecting, and then said, “They fight a lot.”

June 6, 2011 (age 7-½)

You read more and more picture books by yourself, but with chapter books you still prefer being read to. Right now I’m reading aloud Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now. Every so often I pause and ask you questions to see if you’re catching all the details and subtexts. Yesterday I asked, “Do you think Clarice should have told Betty that she had tickets to the ‘Ruby Redfort’ movie premier, to cheer her up?” You replied, “No, that would make it worse because Betty wouldn’t be able to go—her family is moving away, but she hasn’t told Clarice that yet.” I said, “That’s right, we know something that Clarice doesn’t. And what is that an example of?” Without missing a beat, you replied, “Dramatic irony.” That’s my girl!

July 31, 2011 (age 7-¾)

You and Alexa were complaining about not having enough little Lego dudes to play with. Your mom suggested you make your own little Lego guys out of Lego bricks. Alexa complained, “That’ll never work!” Your mom replied, “Then the Lego set has failed the whole family and we’ll never buy them again.” This infuriated Alexa, who cried, “That’s not funny in the least! We don’t have the right kind of bricks for that!” Always acting in solidarity with your sister, you wailed, in an equally affronted tone, “It’s like trying to do a math problem but you don’t even have a brain!

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Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Ask an Empty Nester

Dear Empty Nester,

I’m about to send my youngest off to college, and the way she’s talking, I doubt I’ll even see her over the summers. It seems she’s gone for good, which I guess is the whole idea. My question is: what should be done with her bedroom? I don’t want to make it into a shrine or anything, but to eliminate all trace of her seems a bit callous. Any suggestions?

Jeannie E, Seattle, WA

Dear Jeannie,

To some degree, this is a matter of real estate: how large is your home? If you lived in a land of giant houses, like, say, Houston, any modification to that room might not be worth the bother. But if your home is typical of Seattle, sounds like you could really use a proper guest room. So you’ll want to make that room attractive to your friends and relatives, which means pulling down the BTS or Monsta X poster, ditching the stuffed animals, upgrading the battered old bumper-sticker-plastered dresser, and if necessary (e.g., if the walls are red or black), repainting.

That being said, if you want to preserve something of your daughter’s essence, in an aesthetically pleasing way, leave her bookshelf exactly as is. Perhaps you have fond memories of seeing her behind this or that book, and after all you probably bought her some of them, especially if your daughter was wise enough to insist you hold on to her favorite children’s picture books. (Note that if your kid doesn’t have a bookshelf full of books to leave behind, you’re a shitty parent and all bets are off.) (Kidding!) (Sort of!) (No seriously, I’m kidding!)


Dear Empty Nester,

My son’s grand European tour dovetailed right into his departure for college, so my husband and I got an early start on our empty nester experience. The main thing I’ve noticed so far is that we’re kind of snippy with each other, especially about—of all things—the perennially low gas gauge in our car. We used to blame our kid for this (and frankly he earned that), but with him gone it’s still going on. My husband swears he doesn’t run out the tank, and while he’s not known to be delusional, I’m sure I’m not the culprit either. Are we losing our minds?

Emily K, Portland, OR

Dear Emily,

This could just be a phase as you adjust to life without your son around. Perhaps both you and your husband are flakier than you think when it comes to filling the tank, having long scapegoated your kid, and now the size of this problem is being exaggerated. You might also reasonably chalk some of this up to sky-high gas prices; maybe you’re getting just a few gallons at a time because you keep finding yourself almost out of gas without a reasonably cheap gas station nearby.

There’s a silver lining here, by the way: at least your son learned to drive! As described in this Wall Street Journal article, a growing number of Gen-Z kids aren’t bothering to learn; in 1983, 46% of 16-year-olds got their driver licenses, whereas in 2014 that had fallen to 24.5%. Don’t get me wrong, cars suck and we should all be biking instead, but knowing how to drive is an inarguably useful skill.

Dear Empty Nester,

It’s been almost a year since we dropped our child (er, adult, I guess) off at college, and when he didn’t even come home for summer break, my wife and I relapsed right into the empty nester funk we’d suffered originally. It might even be worse this time. It’s so bad, my wife is talking about getting a dog. This initially struck me as a really weird, hail-Mary type of notion, but I’m starting to think I’m just crazy enough to try it. What do you think?

Malcolm R, Oakland, CA

Dear Malcolm,

First of all, I am not a dog person, so I am fundamentally unqualified to answer this question, but I’ll give it my best shot anyway.

If you have never had a dog, this seems like a strange time to get one; or, to put it another way, if you’ve lived this long without a dog, do you actually fancy yourself suddenly becoming a dog person? Meanwhile, there are practical things to consider: as an empty nester you now have the opportunity to travel more, but a dog can seriously cramp your style. You should probably interview your dog-owning friends see what you’re getting into.

It also strikes me that a dog would be a questionable replacement for a typical teenaged human, with their moodiness, their tendency to hole up in their room, and their inevitable lack of greeting when you arrive home. In short, it’s likely your departed teen behaved more like a cat. Wouldn’t that be a more realistic surrogate?

Dear Empty Nester,

Why are we called empty nesters, anyway? It’s not like the nest is gone; we parents are still in it, thank you very much!

John S, Ashburn, VA

Dear John,

I wondered the same thing, before learning more about the avian behavior underlying the metaphor. For one thing, as described by Audubon, a bird’s nest exists purely for the eggs and hatchlings, and is then abandoned. If we want to be pedantic about it, the empty nest metaphor isn’t very apt unless the parents sell their home and move.


But it actually gets even more complicated than that. The real power of this metaphor derives from its allusion to brood parasitism, the practice of a bird laying its egg in another bird’s nest, manipulating the creator of that nest (the “host”) into raising its young. Isn’t this how all parents feel, before their nest empties out—as in, “Who are these evil teenagers and where did my sweet little children go?!” (This is related to the concept of “soiling the nest,” wherein—perhaps by biological design—your teenager becomes more and more annoying over time, to make his her departure a relief rather than cause for lament.)

The metaphor of brood parasitism is also a means to understand the guilt you are feeling now: just to get this kid out of your hair, you’ve planted her in a college dorm, making her her RA’s and roommates’ problem. They can try to get her to turn her stereo down, stop slamming doors at night, and not leave piles of laundry all over the floor. Offloading your chick to someone else’s nest feels  downright irresponsible, doesn’t it? Yeah … she learned from the best.

Dear Empty Nester,

This is really weird: although I think I’m coping pretty well with the empty nest (it’s only been a week), I startled myself the other day by calling my husband by our son’s name! Even more surprising, my husband says this was the second time I’ve done it. Am I losing it, or is this a known phenomenon?

Tracy A, Castle Rock, CO

Dear Tracy,

I have not only heard of this, but I did it myself! I wouldn’t read too much into it … just a brain glitch I think, based on your departed kid being on your mind. Perhaps it’s like that game where you tell somebody to say “stop” fifty times in a row, and then you ask him, real quick, “What do you do when you see a green light?” and he answers, “Stop!”

If, on the other hand, you start calling your husband by your ex-boyfriend’s name, then you might have bigger issues, like you’re reverting too far back to your previous life…

Dear Empty Nester,

I am having a disagreement with my wife about how much contact we should have with our son during his first couple weeks at college. She thinks he might be shy about reaching out to us for assistance, but I’m guessing he’ll love the independent feeling and would prefer to be left alone. When it comes to phoning, emailing, or texting a recently fledged kid, how much is too much? Please reply soon … we’re sending him off next week!

Rob S, Council Bluffs, IA

Dear Rob,

This will certainly vary from kid to kid, and based on where yours falls on the spectrum from already independent to totally coddled. I guess I would err on the side of less contact, since there are so many resources available to kids these days, with their parents likely being be a last resort. Remember, when our generation started college there was no Internet; most students lacked cell phones; and there was no Amazon … and yet, we somehow survived.

My younger daughter, a freshly minted college freshman, mentioned recently during an (albeit brief) phone call home that her alarm clock had broken and she had no idea how she’d wake up in time for her first class on Monday. So I suggested she use her (non-smart) cell phone, which surely has an alarm clock feature. She seemed to shrug off this idea, and dropped the subject. Well, the next day I downloaded the owner’s manual and sent her the instructions via email. Shortly after that, I sent her an unrelated email about some college lecture notes from thirty years ago I’d just stumbled across, relating to Nikolai Gogol, a writer we both enjoy.


Well, guess which email my daughter responded to first? Correct: the random one with no practical purpose, about how Gogol was a disgusting little kid, etc. To be fair, my daughter did reply to the alarm clock one too, but only to say she’d figured it out on her own. I have to say, I felt much better about the Gogol email. Her response to it told me she was alive and well and on top of her correspondence, and I didn’t feel like a mother hen. (Frankly, I’m more of a father rooster at heart.)

Dear Empty Nester,

I’m going to be an empty nester soon, along with a few of my friends and neighbors, and at some point someone was talking about silver linings and said something about free stuff. Is there some way to get free stuff out of this deal? I hope it’s not just bumper stickers or ball caps from the university…

Peter L, Albany, CA

Dear Peter,

You’re in luck! It just so happens there’s plenty of free stuff in our community, thanks to parents cleaning out their kids’ rooms. I’m seeing all kinds of perfectly good things dragged out to the curb: desks, chairs, old lamps, a clock radio, a boom box … you get the picture. My wife set out the six or seven stuffed animals our kids didn’t insist on keeping, and they were all taken … even the home-sewn turtle whose head was starting to come off. If you hurry, you might still nab this stereo cabinet (if that’s what it is) though I already scored the little alarm clock:


Dear Empty Nester,

My son, who starts his freshman year in a couple weeks, shocked me the other day by casually mentioning he’d be coming home once a month or so to do his laundry. (His college is only a couple hours away.) Is this a standard behavior? Should I allow it?

Lisa N, Sacramento, CA

Dear Lisa,

Look, this kid has a lot on his plate. He’s got his grades to think about, and making friends besides! I think you should drive out there twice a month, pick up his laundry, and do it for him. And bring him lots of baked goods while you’re at it (cookies, brownies, etc.). And if you really care about him succeeding socially, you should probably do his roommates’ laundry as well. And then write all their papers for them.

Have I made my point? Your son presumably has his tuition and dorm fees covered … he shouldn’t even be asking about laundry.

Dear Empty Nester,

I just have to say it: my youngest is going off to college soon and I’m already feeling pretty down. One way I try to process these kinds of feelings is through art, literature, etc. that goes into the problem Im grappling with. That said, I don’t want to spend a lot of time wallowing in my grief by reading a 400-page novel on the topic. Any recommendations for a good empty nester movie or something?

Aaron W, Minneapolis, MN

Dear Aaron,

I know just the thing: “Bao,” an animated short film from Pixar (available on Amazon Prime Video). There’s a nice interview with the director and the producer here.

Dear Empty Nester,

That bit about brood parasitism being part of the empty nest metaphor ... you totally made that up, didn't you.

Mike R, Sheridan, WY

Dear Mike,

Yeah. I did.

Dear Empty Nester,

I’m getting ready to drive my kid cross-country to drop her off at college, and I completely grasp that this is the intended outcome of her upbringing, that things are going to plan, and that the best case scenario is that she immediately adjusts, thrives socially, and doesn’t give her family a lot of thought. At the same time, I must confess I’d feel heartbroken if she didn’t miss her father and me at least a little. Is there any way for me to tell if she does, or will, and is that even realistic to hope for?

Kaitlin C, Fairfax, CA

Dear Kaitlin,

This is a common question (fielded not so long ago by the columnist College Dad as well). The fact is, you should brace yourself for your daughter to be totally unemotional during the final sendoff (even if you’re crying your eyes out), and pretty blas├ę in the weeks to come as well. Bear in mind, she’s blasting off into an exciting future, and all her hormones are united in jettisoning her old life with extreme prejudice. You are correct that the best case scenario is a swift and complete detachment.

That said, if your family has a pet, your daughter will surely miss him or her. Pets are much more attractive and cuddly than parents, and never pester the kids for anything but food (which after all is easy and fun to serve up). I also wonder if longing for the family pet is a kid’s way to sublimate homesickness into a more acceptable form.

Our younger daughter’s big goodbye took place last week, and it was predictably brief and offhanded (especially for her). But during her final week at home, she was moved to write a poem about our cat Freya. The poem ponders how little we can understand our cat; how differently she perceives the world; how she likely doesn’t differentiate between dream and recollection; and how little she perceives absence. The poem concludes:

Yet when I’m gone
Perhaps the slightest lack is felt, she’ll start
At one more cold place in the house.
And so I’ve left, within her scattered mind,
A memory of warmth


An Empty Nester is a syndicated journalist whose advice column, “Ask an Empty Nester,” appears in over 0 blogs worldwide.

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