Sunday, January 24, 2021

Should You Eat Less Salt?

Introduction

I am not a doctor or nutritionist, nor a scientist of any kind. I’m not in the business of making specific health recommendations to anybody. That said, I think blanket advice from nutrition experts to the population at large can be imprecise. This post examines the question of whether you, dear reader, need to worry about your salt intake. I don’t know who you are, of course, but I aim to slice and dice the question of “who” more finely than other sources you might encounter. I also review here the results of a simple survey I sent out to my cycling friends. You won’t (and shouldn’t) come away with a new approach to your diet, but perhaps with a few good questions and some (low-fat, all-natural, free-range) food for thought.

Why do I care?

Humans need salt. And so does food. As a dumb kid I thought salt just made food salty, but that’s wrong. Salt makes food yummy. As I learned to cook I was astonished at how you can have a dish 99% done and it won’t taste right until you salt it, and then suddenly it can go from edible to delicious. The end result doesn’t necessary taste salty; it just tastes right.

Now, if salt were utterly, incontrovertibly bad for you, I might consider it a necessary evil. I’m not willing to go without it, despite being sufficiently health conscious that I’ve essentially given up bacon and other cured meats. But the amount of added salt needed for a complete gastronomic apotheosis doesn’t need to be large. Have you ever tried to eat unsalted peanut butter? It’s revolting. I’d rather eat my scabs. Hell, I’d almost rather eat your scabs. If salted peanut butter had three times the FDA’s recommended daily allowance of sodium in it, and cost twice as much as unsalted, I’d still eat it.

But you know how much sodium regular peanut butter actually has? A mere 140 mg, just 6% of the recommended daily value. (Note that trying to go lower than this wouldn’t necessarily be beneficial: humans actually need about 500 mg of sodium a day to conduct vital functions, as described here.)


So why does unsalted peanut butter exist, other than as a specialty product for sufferers of hypertension? I’ll tell you my hunch: many people who buy it are reacting to the vague sense that less sodium is always better for you. And peanut butter is just one example of this phenomenon. It breaks my heart that well-meaning people are eating inferior meals based on rule of thumb that may or may not apply to them.


[Above: this PBJ was such a work of art, my daughter asked for a bite and then made off with half of it. This never would have happened in my household growing up. More on this later.]

Does sodium actually increase blood pressure?

I won’t bother to provide a wide survey of the science on this, but here are the high points of an article from the Harvard Medical School, based on an interview with Dr. Nancy Cook, a professor of medicine there:

  • On average, Americans eat too much salt
  • Whether or not sodium is bad for everybody, vs. only those with certain risk factors, has been a matter of some debate
  • There is a fairly undisputed effect of sodium on blood pressure, and it’s stronger in people with hypertension
  • People respond differently to salt, one to the next

Regarding the mechanism of sodium’s effect on blood pressure, Cook explains, “When you eat too much salt, your body holds on to water in an effort to dilute it. This extra water increases your blood volume, which means your heart works harder because it’s pushing more liquid through your blood vessels. More strenuous pumping by the heart puts more force on the blood vessels. Over time, this increased force can raise blood pressure and damage blood vessels, making them stiffer, which increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and heart failure.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I read that, I didn’t immediately have an “Oh, shit!” reaction. Perhaps my salt intake does cause water retention, but not for long because every time I exercise, which is generally around four times a week, I sweat a lot, and in fact after a particularly hard ride I’ll get these head rushes every time I stand up—a classic symptom of low blood pressure—until I rehydrate. Not that I expect Dr. Cook to base her guidelines on my particular case. Given that a fairly recent CDC study concluded that only 22.9% of Americans get enough exercise, it’s not hard to see why Dr. Cook would advocate for reducing sodium intake when addressing the general public.

Meanwhile, the CDC reckons that “Americans consume an average of more than 3,400 mg of sodium each day,” which is far more than the 2,300 that the U.S. Department of Health recommends. Clearly, overconsumption of sodium is a public health problem in this country.

But does this mean you and I and everyone should all cut down? I think that would be a problematic conclusion. If Americans by and large use too much petroleum and create too much pollution by driving giant SUVs, then yeah, I can try to mitigate the damage by driving a Prius. But if someone eats too much salt and doesn’t exercise enough, I can’t help him by lowering my salt intake. In other words, I may or may not be implicated in this public health crisis. (Again, I can’t fault the article; the safe bet when advising a wide audience is to advocate caution and restraint.)

As is so often the case, there’s a bit of a conundrum here: the people who are concerned about their health and go looking for dietary advice are often not the ones recklessly eating a lot of processed food, fast food, and salty snacks, and thereby creating frightening statistics around widespread hypertension. A good many conscientious folks may well be depriving themselves of the goodness of salt for no legitimate reason.

My own experience

In brief, I’ve been seeing borderline high systolic blood pressure readings since high school, while my diastolic numbers are always nice and low. Meanwhile, my blood fats (cholesterol etc.) are remarkably good, my body mass index is spang in the middle of normal, and my resting heart rate is in the low 40s. I’ve never had a doctor recommend a change in diet, and over time my systolic reading has come down a bit. I chalk this up to being less of a hothead than I used to be. In general I suspect the benefits of life balance, of stress release achieved through exercise or yoga, and of emotional hygiene such as self-compassion are underrated. Modern life has people working too much, exercising too little, over-consuming news and social media, and then trying to undo all the damage by eating less salt. Nice try.

My survey

I surveyed a bunch of my cycling pals, because they’ve always been an insightful and amusing bunch. Being cyclists, most of them seem to eat basically whatever they want, and they’re all pretty much fit as a fiddle. That said, they take their health seriously, which statement I base on a couple of decades of riding and eating together, and also on their reactions to a couple of articles that have come out about too much exercise possibly damaging your heart. I was curious about my cycling team’s approach to salt so I emailed them this simple question: Do you make any effort to limit your salt intake for health reasons?

Of the 23 responses I got back, 17 were some version of no (i.e., they eat all the salt they want) and 6 were yes (they limit their salt). Of course I got some interesting comments, too:

  • No, but I’m also pretty naturally salt-averse. One of my most frequent complaints about restaurant food is that it’s too salty, and one of my family’s most common complaints about my cooking is that there’s not enough salt in it.
  • No. But then again, I don’t really make any effort to limit my intake of anything. I’m a gluttonous hedonist. What could possibly go wrong with that philosophy???
  • I double down on salt - I’ve got low blood pressure and find getting light headed when I stand up a bit irritating.
  • How can a person cook without salt? It’s my understanding (possibly inaccurate) that salt is only a problem if you have high blood pressure, so not really an issue for healthy people with normal blood pressure.
  • Switched to dry brining with kosher salt. Definitely healthier and tastes better but I cannot speak to any metaphysical benefit.
  • I’m casually aware of salt intake but never limit myself vs. what tastes appropriate. I don’t buy potato chips very often but when I do I want ‘em salty.
  • No. But I know when I’ve had too much and I don’t necessarily enjoy that feeling.
  • No. Well, maybe. I salt liberally from the shaker/cellar, but I do try to be aware of how much sodium certain prepared foods contain, and err on the side of less is better there…
  • Well, occasionally I think about limiting my salt intake but it doesn’t really happen.
  • Yes and yes - Simply put, Salt= Hypertension, Sugar= diabetes. Controlling these substances through diet can extended the life of several organs. It’s no secret that food companies fill processed food with these as a preservative and as a sales angle. We don’t even realize how much is added … I haven’t added salt to anything in years.
  • Several years ago, I went to the doctor and my blood pressure was slightly higher than it used to be, almost 140/70. (Getting older sucks...) Since then I’ve generally cut back on the Mexican and Korean foods, and now it’s back to 120/60. However, if I ride 4+ hours in the heat, then I’ll always reward myself with some Mexican food.

My favorite comments were from the two MDs in my survey:

  • I maximize salt intake!
  • Salt is not a major contributor to hypertension. The processed food that contains a lot of salt probably is. (I spent a 1/3rd of a course in college studying sodium.) However, from a public health perspective, telling the public to limit salt probably has beneficial effects.

Now, there are (at least) two conclusions I could draw from these results. One, I could assume that by not worrying about salt whatsoever, we are consuming huge amounts of sodium and yet somehow getting away with it. On the other hand, we could be well within the recommended range of sodium consumption quite by accident. Granted, we cyclists love us some big, rich meals, but we tend to cook them ourselves. I’ve never known any of these pals to eat fast food, and as health-conscious types we avoid processed food like frozen entrees, “lunch meat,” and snack foods, because of all the other crap in them (trans fats, nitrates), refined flour, artificial flavors, etc.) and because we’re frankly too epicurean. (I get frozen pizza for my kids a couple times a year as a guilty pleasure, and indeed, only the scarcity of it makes it a treat.)

Honestly, the Recommended Daily Value of sodium, 2,300 mg, seems pretty generous. I tallied up the amount of sodium I get from my typical lunch, and found no cause for alarm. Lunch is often my biggest meal of the day, and it’s invariably a big burrito (basically homemade but with canned refried or whole beans and store-bought tortillas). Look, here’s one now.


I just read some labels and have calculated that one of my big-ass burritos contains about 1,400 mg of sodium. Of the US Recommended DV of not more than 2,300 mg, that leaves just 900 mg free for dinner (since I don’t eat breakfast). This is probably okay because my wife does most of the cooking and seldom resorts to things like canned beans. Besides, even if I’m a bit over the guideline, I’m a big guy and my daily caloric intake is very high—some would say legendary. But I guarantee I’m far from the 3,400 mg of sodium that the average American takes in, without even trying … that is, without compromising the tastiness of my food.

According to the CDC, “Most of the sodium Americans eat comes from packaged, processed, store-bought, and restaurant foods. Only a small amount comes from salt added during cooking or at the table.” A Harvard medical school article concurs: “At least 75% of the sodium in the average American diet comes from processed foods, such as cold cuts and cured meats, pizza, burgers, and sandwiches.”

This makes perfect sense, of course. Food is big business, and if sacrificing the health of consumers is what it takes to ensure shareholder value, so be it. Take the case of Campbell’s soup: they were famously required by the FDA to desist using their old slogan “Soup is good food” because their soup had too much sodium to be called “good.” More recently, Campbell’s experimented with lowering sodium, but then reversed course when sales dropped. As described here, their new CEO announced at an investors’ meeting, “For me it’s about stabilizing [sales] first.” Campbell’s contends that “the proposed nutritional principles ‘describe products that manufacturers will not produce because children and teens will not eat them.’”

Obviously we can’t stake our health on the companies that pander to philistine tastes. But that doesn’t mean when we cook at home we should gild the lily and err on the side of blandness. If anything, that will just tempt us to eat out more. And with restaurants, of course, all bets are off.

Conclusion

Again, I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, but I think I can you give this bit of advice: before you automatically seek to lower your sodium intake based on the general messaging we get from the FDA, CDC, etc., find out what your own blood pressure is and ask your doctor if you’re at any risk. And if you do have a need to keep an eye on your sodium intake, do so with precision, by reading labels and knowing what goes into your food. It could well be, for example, that a person with mild hypertension could still afford the amount of sodium in regular peanut butter, and doesn’t need to be shaking Mr. Dash on his or her dinner.

Appendix A – salt in peanut butter

I grew up eating a lot of PBJs. My mom was a great cook, but these sandwiches were atrocious. The bread was fine, and the jam (generally homemade) was great, but the peanut butter was awful. It was a brand called Deaf Smith, and as detailed here, it was the first organic peanut butter on the market. It came in a giant plastic bucket—it had to be at least a few gallons—and it looked like a cross between diarrhea and that old-fashioned Dijon mustard with all the seeds in it. It was a roiling, gritty, grainy, wet mess and we called it quicksand because if you lost your grip on the knife (which happened a lot because it’d get oily), the knife would quickly sink and you wouldn’t see it again until you eventually got to the bottom of the tub and there’d be like five knives there.

But you have to understand, my brothers and I were not picky eaters, and all this would have been completely forgivable if Deaf Smith didn’t taste so damn bad. It was just awful. We suffered through those PBJs because we had to—we were growing boys, after all—but it was just so gross. As soon as I moved away from home I switched to Skippy and discovered that peanut butter could be delicious.

A few decades later, though I’d moved on to natural, non-hydrogenated peanut butter, usually Adams or the Trader Joe’s brand, I was still totally digging it. And then one day my wife bought unsalted by mistake. The horror! It tasted exactly like Deaf Smith! Completely disgusting—I was right back in my miserable elementary school lunchroom! This was an epiphany. I realized that there had never actually been anything really wrong with Deaf Smith except the lack of salt. This omission was totally unnecessary and surely not why my mom chose that brand. She has always maintained that salt won’t hurt you if you don’t already have high blood pressure—it can only exacerbate it. She probably chose Deaf Smith simply because it was organic and available in bulk. So why did Deaf Smith eschew salt? Probably because they were a bunch of hippies and salt seemed evil to them somehow.

Postscript to this sad tale: a few decades later I mixed up a fresh batch of Trader Joe’s peanut butter (yes, this mixing is a pain in the ass and I do miss the hydrogenation of Skippy at times), and then made a PBJ. Yuck! Foiled again! Staring, enraged, at the label, wondering why my wife would poison the family again by buying more unsalted peanut butter, I realized this jar wasn’t actually labeled as unsalted. It was their organic variety, which had just 40 mg of sodium per serving, vs. 140 mg in the normal version. I guess they decided those who like organic food automatically want less sodium. I wrote an angry email to Trader Joes, which I’ve just found and reread. It ends, “When this jar is empty I will probably remove the label and burn it in effigy.” (In fairness, Trader Joe’s did apologize and gave me a refund.)

Appendix B – fact-checking the Deaf Smith tale

I fact-checked the bit about Deaf Smith peanut butter with my mom, to confirm that lowering our sodium intake wasn’t her goal in choosing it. This she corroborated, but she denied that we ate it that much. “I got it from the co-op, and hadn’t tried it before,” she said. “I think I only bought it once, and had no idea it wouldn’t be salted. It probably just seemed like we got it a lot, because it took so long to get through that giant drum.”

I thought this might have been wishful thinking … after all, no mother wants to admit she tortured her offspring for a protracted period. So I asked my brother Bryan. He responded, “It was just for a time as I recall, we didn’t really like it because it was so natural, and it separated so badly that the last few gallons of it were like concrete.”

My brother Max had a host of other memories around the Deaf Smith. “As I recall, the Deaf Smith was from ‘the co-op,’” he told me (via text). “That’s where those ginormous cylindrical loafs of Colby and Colby-Jack cheeses came from as well. I think there was more than just one five-gallon tub of Deaf Smith that came through [our household]. The Deaf Smith was really good in rice crispy squares. I remember that! When we complained about the Deaf Smith mom would laugh … for some reason she just didn’t believe that we really hated it.

“Remember the story of how Deaf Smith became deaf? He was a San Francisco kid and he had to take the trolley to school. One day he was a little running behind, as they say, and the trolley was already taking off. He ran up to the trolley and a man, who was just trying to be helpful, used the young Smith’s ears as handles to haul him up onto the trolley and he was deafened.”

At this point I replied, “I do not remember that story. Is that from the archives or did you just make that up?” Max’s answer: “True story as I remember it. I recall feeling that we had to eat this peanut butter because mom felt sorry for Deaf Smith. It may have been that the man ‘boxed’ his ears to punish him for his tardiness. I remember asking Mom what that meant, boxing the ears. I guess it was common back then for men to box the ears of wayward youths. As she described it, boxing the ears involves essentially punching a kid in both ears at the same time with the fists turned inward so the contact with the ears is made with the fleshy part of the hand between the wrist and bottom knuckle of the pinky finger.

“I recall that she may have been unsure whether the man dragged him up by his ears or dragged him up and then boxed his ears, but either way it resulted in two sure things: Smith became deaf and there was nothing more for him but to make peanut butter.

“Everyone who buys this product feels a bit guilty and a bit absolved simultaneously. I always tried to like the Deaf Smith out of guilt for the human condition. I’d think about the trauma that that kid endured, having his life ruined by some a-hole on the trolley, and how he had to crush peanuts for the rest of his miserable existence.

“It had to have been a miserable existence. If he had made any sort of meaningful recovery, he might have put some sugar or at least some salt in the peanut butter. It was almost as though he accepted being boxed in the ears. As though he deserved it for being late. That peanut butter was practically a punishment. Austerity in a five gallon tub.”

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Friday, January 15, 2021

A Wide Net Approach to New Year’s Resolutions

Vlog

A couple of successful bloggers have advised me that my posts should always include a vlog version. I think this advice totally makes sense if the blogger is really good looking. As for myself, I’m a bit skeptical anyone could really enjoy this, but I’ll do my best. Tip: the below vlog is also a podcast if you don’t look. And it becomes a regular old blog if you scroll down.

Introduction

In years past in these pages, I’ve offered general suggestions on how to formulate New Year’s Resolutions. Well, it never worked … the closest I’ve had to getting a comment like “this changed my life!” is “This unique in fact perhaps even a very good arrange that i believe it or not in fact really enjoyed looking into. It is not necessarily consequently routine that i range from the substitute for verify a precise detail. trusted medicine.”

So this year, I’m taking the cast-a-wide-net approach: I’ll just throw a ton of suggested Resolutions out there and maybe a few will grab you. It’s kind of like the speed-dating concept.

Personal brand

Stop worrying about cultivating your “personal brand.” Consider that every so often a winery tries to produce a really special wine but loses their nerve at the last minute, and releases it under a fictitious label, only to see that wine win all kinds of awards. Shouldn’t your intrinsic value, if any, also speak for itself? 

COVID tents

Do you live in a community that sets up outdoor tents to get around the pandemic-instituted prohibition on indoor dining? This is exactly like tenting a house for termite mitigation, except instead of fumigating with poisonous methyl bromide they let diners bring their own coronavirus-rich CO2. This practice is pretty much Kevorkian. They should call them Superspreader Tents. Don’t go in there.


Shampoo

Stop reading the instructions on the shampoo bottle. This product is just not that complicated. Really … you’ve got this.

Physical comedy

Stop syncing up your loud belches and/or bursts of flatulence with fist pumps, as if you were cranking them out. Family members witnessing your little spectacle probably don’t find it nearly as funny as you do. I suppose you could resolve to do this only when you’re alone, but really … ask yourself if that makes any more sense.

Hacks

Stop calling things “hacks” that don’t represent a major circumvention. If you use yogurt instead of butter in box mac ‘n’ cheese, that’s not a hack. That’s a tweak. Using the uncooked elbows for your kid’s art project, and then using the powdered cheese mix as a propellant in an improvised explosive device—now that’s a hack. I hasten to point out that I don’t advocate building IEDs. For that matter, I don’t advocate box mac ‘n’ cheese.

Eating

If you find yourself short of breath while eating, you might be going too fast. Another sign is if you keep getting grains of rice or short bits of noodle caught in your nasal passages. Considering eating a bit more slowly.

Crickets

Crickets themselves are fine. But saying “crickets” to draw attention to a general lack of response to something someone has said (e.g., a joke) is both hackneyed and stupid. Just be frank: “Clearly nobody is very impressed with you. I hope you feel bad about yourself. I, meanwhile, am quite clever.”

Mute button

Did you know that the COVID pandemic has sped up global digital transformation by at least ten years? Wait, come back, I’m sorry, I was blathering ironically!

But seriously: we might as well face the fact that videoconferences aren’t going anywhere. So how about mastering the mute button? So you know at all times whether you’re muted or not? So you don’t ever have to say, “Sorry, I was talking on mute”? And nobody ever has to say, “Bob, you’re muted”? And so nobody hears you bawling out your kid or your pet? Practice a lot, do drills, hold a clinic, I don’t care what it takes—just become aces at this because things are really getting annoying.

Timing

When you pee, stop timing the operation by counting in your head, “One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand …” unless your doctor has recommended this.

Cleaning the drain

When you scoop the wad of hair out of the bathtub drain before your shower, stop throwing the wet clump at the tile wall where it will stick. If you’ve been doing this for fifteen years and your family members still haven’t taken the hint, they’re not going to. Just throw the wad away, or better yet, recycle it.

Zeal inflation

If every single thing you recommend is the most amazing thing ever, you may be overdoing your enthusiasm. Consider ratcheting it down a bit: instead of “Oh my God, you have got to try their burger,” consider something like, “I really think you should try the burger.”

Veganism

Look, vegans, I grant that you have the moral upper-hand. But please, no meat-shaming. Meat is just a weakness I have. Besides, by insisting on grass-fed beef I’m helping to create a market for it, to gradually shift the ranching industry. What example are you setting? Carnivores just think you’re crazy!

Pizza

Stop eating pizza with a fork and knife, even if it’s deep-dish. Consider that Miss Manners gives you her blessing to eat asparagus with your fingers. Pizza is finger food. So what if you make a little mess? That’s what napkins are for.

When you order takeout pizza, ask them to cut the pie into 12 slices instead of just 8. This makes it easier to share and may slightly increase your chances of having leftovers. (Note: this is not a “hack.”)

Bedtime

Make a playlist of calm, mellow songs to listen to before bed. This probably won’t keep your dreams from featuring hard rock or heavy metal soundtracks (which is likely a sign of too much stress in your life) but it’s worth a shot.

Names

When emailing a colleague you don’t know very well, whose name is Michael or Christopher or Elizabeth, stop fretting about whether you should be addressing him or her as Mike or Chris or Liz. If this person can’t put his or her preferred name in his or her auto-signature, that’s not your problem. Also, if you have an Aussie colleague who has always gone by Mick but suddenly wants to go by Michael, probably in an effort to be taken more seriously, don’t give him the satisfaction. Keep calling him Mick. You’re grandfathered.

Filling

When you fill a carafe or bottle, and the rising water makes a slightly flute-y whooshing sound that gets higher in pitch as the level rises, stop pursing your lips as though they were making the sound. This is ridiculous and if your fiancée saw you doing this she’d break off the engagement.

What do you do?

Have an unhelpful answer all staged up for when someone asks you what you do for a living. Some examples:

  • I do bratwurst rehab.
  • I do PR for a money laundering firm in the Caymans.
  • I stuff envelopes for a blockchain startup incubator in Bangalore.
  • I’m a cattle buyer for Office Depot.
  • I refurbish gnome ornaments.

Then, turn it around with a more direct version of the same question: “What good are you?”

Dressing

When you put on a jacket over a sweater, hold down the cuffs of the sweater sleeves with your ring and middle finger. Otherwise, the sleeves will get all bunched up. If you don’t grasp what I’m saying, watch any child put on a jacket. They’ve all figured this out for themselves; what’s your problem?

Proud parent

Stop humble-bragging about your kid(s). Humble-bragging is still bragging. In fact, answering a simple question honestly can still be bragging. If somebody asks where your kid is going to college and the honest answer is “MIT,” you cannot answer honestly without being boastful. And don’t settle for a dodge, either. If you say “near Boston” that’s still bragging because you know what the next question will be. The only acceptable answer is “He’s enrolled in the DeVry Technical Institute,” even if it’s not true.

Bucket list

Stop using the term “bucket list.” It’s lame. And no, adding air quotes doesn’t help. Just stop. We don’t even need this phrase because nobody is actually very interested in things you hope to do during your lifetime. Get over yourself.

Vlogging

Before you record your vlog, do a 10-second trial recording and scrutinize it to make sure you don’t have a weird, wiry, paper-white hair growing right out the edge of your ear, or conspicuous dandruff on your dark garment, or anything else that’s grossly human. Also, as you record, resist the temptation to periodically moisten your lips with your tongue, which makes you look like a frog. In short, don’t make your vlog any more painful to watch than it has to be.

Superstitions

Stop beating yourself up over indulging a silly superstition, like not putting a hat on a bed just because you watched Drugstore Cowboy back in 1989. Yes, superstitions are silly, but as habits go they’re pretty harmless, so why waste brain cycles worrying about it? Just don’t embroil others in your superstition. Keep it to yourself.

Fever?

If you need to sneeze while using an oral thermometer, take the dang thing out of your mouth and cover your face completely. Trying to keep the thermometer in and just cover your nose isn’t going to work—no kleenex can withstand that kind of focused spray. Yes, you’ll have to start all over again taking your temperature. That’s just how it goes.

Cheers

Stop fretting about using “cheers” to sign off an email even though you’re not British. We Americans stole the rest of their language; why shouldn’t this expression be fair game too?

But seriously

Here are some less flippant suggestions:

Epilogue

Is there actually any point in this annual ritual? Has anybody ever stuck with his or her Resolutions? Well, I looked back at my own from last year, fearing the worst, and was surprised to find that I’d stuck with some of them … sort of:

#1: Get a colonoscopy … it’s time – Done!

#2: Work with a physical therapist – This was supposed to be for my back as a preventive thing. I did end up working with a physical therapist, quite a bit in fact, but because I broke my collarbone. So … done? Sort of?

#3: Research 401(k) catch-up contributions – I actually looked into these, discovered it’s kind of complicated, and decided to leave well enough alone. Done? Ish?

Here’s a Resolution my brother Max suggested last year, which was prescient to say the least:

Be alone with someone else who likes to be left alone and leave each other alone.

Nailed it!

Further reading

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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

What’s Wrong with Wonder Woman?

Vlog

I offer this post as a vlog for those suffering from bibliophobia (fear of reading), along with anybody else who prefers to passively receive words rather than having to decipher them. If you tire of my face, I cannot blame you for closing your eyes and pretending this is a podcast. Be ready to open them, though, for the Wonder Woman photos sprinkled throughout.

Introduction

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Wonder Woman as a concept. And there’s nothing wrong with Gal Gadot. (For that matter, I don’t see anything wrong with Barbie, but that’s another post.) The problem is actually with Wonder Woman 1984, the new movie.

I recently watched this with my family (as we somehow have HBO Max now). I frankly didn’t expect to enjoy it much, but in the event found it surprisingly annoying.

To be honest, I’d probably be writing about WW1984 anyway, simply so I could include some photos. Like this one:


Admit it: you’re enjoying albertnet more than usual right now. In fact, you probably decided to check out this post simply because the photo grabbed you. I get that. I’ve noticed lately that my local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, has a tendency to build stories around Wonder Woman photos. I read one about Hollywood’s strategy toward blockbuster movie launches during the pandemic—and I confess, I was pulled in by the Wonder Woman photo more than the subject matter. (I’m sure that was the point in including it, as neither Wonder Woman nor Gal Gadot featured prominently in the story).

There was another Chronicle story recently about one of the WW1984 producers switching to decaf in the afternoons (if I’m remembering correctly). This ran, of course, alongside another Wonder Woman shot. Needless to say the latest humdrum story, about WW1984’s opening week box office take, gave us another great photo. I decided albertnet really needs to get in on this action.

But actually, I have a serious bone to pick with this WW1984 movie, beyond standard-issue lameness, so read on. Here’s another photo, just to fuel you. (Rest assured, there will be more.)


Typical flaws

Needless to say, the movie had the usual flaws associated with movies based on comic books. (I hope I can say this without offending comics lovers; consider that these movies invariably could and should do better at the job of honoring your beloved childhood memories.) As I said, I didn’t expect to love this movie; I only watched it because my kids wanted to (and because as a human I’m absolutely hardwired to enjoy watching Gal Gadot in her awesome costume). But it was a particularly lame movie, not nearly as cool as the first installment. WW1984’s story was needlessly complicated, there wasn’t enough action, and the whole magic-golden-rope thing was lame to begin with. (If the original comic books had Wonder Woman on a pogo stick, would the movie honor that, too? Who cares about fealty to the source material? Jettison the damn lasso already!)

What particularly irked me was the lost opportunity to have a truly strong female hero. This movie (and franchise) had a golden opportunity here and they inexplicably fumbled it.

(In case you’re wondering, my concern with strong female representation isn’t some attempt to be “woke” or selfless or self-congratulatory. As someone who has benefited from the wage gap, unconscious bias around gender, and the ability to pee standing up, you might assume I should be fine with the status quo. But as a parent of daughters, I naturally want humanity to get its act together.)

Is it fair to demand a strong heroine?

When I broached this topic with my 19-year-old daughter, she initially stuck up for the movie, arguing that it’s a comic book action movie, not a work of art or a public service. Does every movie with a woman in it have to be progressive? She’s right, partly—though frankly, one of the big flaws of this movie was how it tried to be deep and have some higher meaning, which goal was far beyond the capabilities of its screenwriters, and nothing the audience asked for anyway.

As the conversation with my daughter progressed (and her sister, who soon joined in), they cried foul as well. We all agree that things started to fall apart the moment the love interest, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) showed up. Look, I get that the movie needed to have eye candy for all viewers, and I don’t have a problem with Steve per se, but Diana just got all soft and mushy as soon as he arrived. She stopped being badass and was mainly clingy and needy, pining for him (I know, bad pun, I couldn’t resist), which was distracting and annoying.

Was this really necessary? Is it that hard to develop strong female characters? We’ve certainly seen a number of great ones. Right off the bat we’ve got Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max Fury Road; Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) in True Grit; Judy Hopps in Zootopia; Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) in Silver Linings Playbook, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in Fargo, and Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Ex Machina. These are not highbrow films designed fundamentally as social commentary; they’re just cool flicks with great female characters who more than hold their own. Furiosa, far from swooning over Max, isn’t particularly interested in him and has bigger fish to fry (and bigger asses to kick). Mattie Ross, at age 14, upstages all the adults around her, calling the shots and never flinching. Judy Hopps, though a tiny rabbit, refuses to accept the lame traffic cop job given to her after she’d finished at the top of her police academy class. Tiffany puts a roomful of retrograde men in their place with the greatest sports-based diatribe I’ve ever heard. Marge Gunderson is just generally badass, this big pregnant unflappable Midwest cop. (I won’t tell you about Ava in case you haven’t yet seen Ex Machina, in which case you should do that right away.)

So why shouldn’t Wonder Woman 1984 give us a character who’s a real leader? Why should we settle for mere eye candy, like what we see below?


Well, I will concede that as eye candy goes, she’s pretty awesome … so I would have settled for merely ho-hum. But what we get is actually insulting.

The crux of the matter

So what exactly do I take such objection to? I shall now explain (and yes, there are tons of spoilers here). The basic plot of the movie is that there’s this “dreamstone” that works like a genie in a bottle. You ask for a wish, and you get it, but there are consequences such as becoming really weak eventually, just like the movie. The main villain, Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), whose looks must appeal to somebody because he gets way too much screen time, is all clever so his wish is to become the dreamstone, so he can grant wishes to others, with the caveat that Lord will now take whatever he wants from the person. (It’s even dumber in the movie than I’m making it sound.) Lord takes to the airwaves over military satellites to grant virtually everyone in the world their wishes, which almost causes a nuclear war. Diana thwarts Lord by lassoing his ankle and declaring to the world (by proxy, over the airwaves) that everyone needs to voluntarily rescind his or her wish and get back to truth and love etc., which backs out the bad magic.

So, this willingness to freely give up your big wish is the entire moral center of the movie, and the simple communication of it makes a bigger difference than all the punching, kicking, lassoing, and flying around that Wonder Woman could ever do. And yet, she never would have survived long enough to deliver this message if it weren’t for Steve. You see, Diana had her own wish, which was to have him back (since he’d died in the first movie). So he is reincarnated, inhabiting the body of some random guy (and by the way, this was in no way consensual, but the movie doesn’t seem concerned with that).


So after Diana moons over Steve for at least half an hour, while her strength gradually ebbs, he realizes that to continue on, and save the world, she needs to renounce her wish and give him up. She refuses. She becomes, in fact, stubborn and irrational and petulant about it (just like a woman, we’re apparently meant to conclude), and Steve has to very sternly mansplain the whole thing to her until she eventually capitulates. Only when she obeys him does her strength return. And then she takes his message and saves the world with it. Yay Steve! Way to save the day since obviously Diana was just botching the job!

What the hell is going on here?! Steve isn’t even a superhero! How does he have so much sway, and since when do superheroes rely on average joes to save their bacon? Imagine if Superman became paralyzed with anxiety and indecision until his life coach came and gave him a pep talk, or if Captain America became listless and dissipated and stopped being heroic until some glib politician reminded him how special the USA is. Ridiculous.

Meanwhile (and as my daughter pointed out), how realistic is it that the absolutely gorgeous Diana would be voluntarily single for forty years because she’d been so in love with Steve? Wouldn’t she move on? How heroic is it to be lonely for ever and ever because you heart belongs to one man (whom you knew only for a matter of days), who’s dead and gone? I think it’d have been so much cooler if Steve had shown up suddenly in 1984 only for Diana to say, “Uh, sorry Steve … I’m actually in a relationship.”

But wait, there’s more!

All of this would be bad enough by itself. But there’s also a weak female villain in the movie, which just stinks everything up even more. She’s this meek, nerdily pretty character named Barbara Ann Minerva who is very sweet but awkward, and her wish is to have the same charm, strength, and beauty that Diana has. This being granted, she immediately becomes totally evil. Huh? How does that work? Is that the natural consequence of empowering women—that they become total bitches?


There’s one scene in particular where Barbara, who is gradually turning into The Cheetah (no, she doesn’t seduce a younger man, this is apparently some pre-existing DC Comics character), is walking down a dark alley and some dickhead man, who appears to be homeless or close to it, starts coming on to her. (He’d done this before and Diana saved the day with a single punch to his solar plexus.) Furious, Barbara beats the crap out of the guy. She doesn’t just stop him, she proceeds to give him a total beatdown, kicking the shit out of him for what seems like several minutes. I don’t know how we were supposed to react to this, but it was as awkward for me as the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty. Granted, I don’t know what it’s like to field unwanted advances, but my daughters and wife were weirded out, too.

Again, there’s no reason this movie, with its $200 million budget, couldn’t have done better. Think of the great female villains we’ve enjoyed: Annie Wilkes (Cathy Bates) in Misery; Greta (Isabelle Huppert) in, well, Greta; Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) in Sherlock Holmes; Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome; and May Day (Grace Jones) in A View to a Kill. These are intriguing, multi-dimensional characters or at least a lot of fun, or both. In the case of A View to a Kill, Grace Jones was the only good thing about the movie. Is WW1984’s Cheetah good for anything besides running around, beating on people, and shrieking? Well, she does fall in love with the other villain, the douchebag Lord, but that’s hardly endearing. The audience has zero temptation to root for the Cheetah, and I say this as someone who found the character of Satan oddly beguiling in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.

To make matters worse, the Cheetah in this movie isn’t even fun to watch. She doesn’t have the grace of a cat (which many ballet dancers totally do); she takes you into uncanny valley territory; and she’s pretty much the opposite of eye candy:


Look, WW1984 people, why go for anything like verisimilitude? It’s a person who’s also a cat … could that ever be realistic? Why try, when the viewers of this movie obviously have a weakness for pleasing images and that’s mainly why they showed up? You could have made the Cheetah more like Catwoman:


Sure, this Catwoman doesn’t look much like a cat; I’ve never seen a cat wearing leather. And yet, there’s something catlike—or, if nothing else, something awesome—about the Catwoman above. And speaking of eye candy, let’s have another look at Wonder Woman:


Why is she shushing us? Beats me, but I’m really not complaining. The modern Wonder Woman looks so good … how did they screw this up?

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

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

From the Archives - Marin Headlands Big Ring Tale

Vlog

This post goes well beyond the 160-character length of an SMS text, not to mention the 180-character limit of a tweet. Since I cannot reasonably expect anybody to read more than that in a single sitting, I have made this available as a vlog. Here:

If, on the other hand, you cannot stand to look at my face for 13 minutes, either close your eyes throughout the video playback, or read the text below like I originally intended.

Introduction 

As I wrap up 2020, I’ve made a challenge for myself: can I finish the year with more cycling miles than I logged in 2019? This means riding the rollers six days in a row, which at my age feels nearly impossible. But this self-directed age-shaming is a bit silly, really … of course I can keep right on cycling hard, well into middle age. It’s not like I’m in the NFL or something.

My defeatist thinking goes way back. I felt utterly washed up as a cyclist as far back as 1998, having no idea back then how much glorious hammering still lay ahead. The following Big Ring Tale, from my archives, showcases this self-delusion. (To put this story in context, I was just 28 years old at the time, living and working in San Francisco, and I’d quit racing—temporarily, as it would turn out—about six years before.) 


Marin Headlands Big Ring Tale – April 28, 1998

I was outbound on Greenwich street, half a mile into my ride, when I passed a bike messenger with a huge, stuffed-full messenger bag. It was a windy evening, a headwind, and I figured if she wanted to slip in behind me for a draft, I was fine with that. She’d probably had a hard day dodging cars, etc. I was vaguely aware of her presence on my wheel most of the way through the Presidio before he passed me—that is, someone besides the messenger; a racer-type who had traded places with the messenger somewhere along the line. He was a tall guy, with a US Postal Service jersey, a Dura-Ace equipped Serotta, and shaved legs. By this point I was sick of the headwind myself and dropped in behind him. He was setting a good pace.

We cruised pretty fast through the rest of the Presidio, and on the Golden Gate bridge kept up the pace, taking turns pulling. I was grateful for the help since I didn’t have all that much time to ride before dark. A third of the way across the bridge I was trying to predict whether this guy was riding into the headlands, like me, or turning off toward Sausalito after the first short, steep section of the headlands road. A lot of guys who go fast over the bridge do so because they know they have a long coast into Sausalito afterward. They kind of irk me because they can afford to hammer and I . . . well, I guess I can afford to, too, but it’s not a great way to start that longish headlands climb.

This guy looked pretty legit: decent form, back pretty flat, reasonably relaxed on the bike. His pedaling was smooth too, but frankly too fast, as though he were a modern fitness cyclist who reads Prevention magazine, takes antioxidants, and worries about his knees (even though he was a fair bit younger than I). It was like he was slapping at the wind instead of throwing big punches. And yet, something about him was just a little too fresh, a little too springy. He somehow wasn’t brittle enough; he seemed like the ‘98 model, freshly minted. Whatever a crusty old veteran is, he wasn’t.

I thought about how I must look on the bike. Let’s face it, I’m a mosher. I stay on top of the biggest gear I can (on principle or because I have no patience for a high cadence). There’s not much sparkle in my eye. I’m visibly worn. Not just my clothing, either—although it’s pretty sad these days, the side panels on my shorts going translucent, the once neon jersey now completely pale. But as I said, it’s not just my clothing. My form is fine, my position right, but I think I probably look tired most of the time. My pedal stroke is smooth enough, but surely looks unenthusiastic somehow. I don’t pop out of the saddle—I drag myself out of it. I think I must give the impression of an old, beaten-up Dodge Dart; not zippy like those new Neons.

Perhaps as a reflex against feeling intimidated, I began to make judgments about my companion, and probably unfair ones. I mused that although he certainly seemed fitter than I, he didn’t seem the type to have deep wells of guts, either. He seemed the kind of rider who might cave in at the first sign (be it real or a ruse) that he’s outgunned. It dawned on me that I was doomed to mix it up with him—my motivation mixed up between the foolish aggression of aging prizefighter and the detached eye of a scientist conducting an experiment.

I decided to take the last long pull just before the final section of the bridge. The last stretch is always super windy, and can cut your speed significantly, enough to make you feel weak and worthless. Thus, I wanted to make sure this guy had to lead through it, not me. I wanted to arrange it so he pulled good and hard there, so I could hope to demoralize him on that short, steep rise before he (presumably) turned right towards Sausalito and I turned left toward the headlands. When I took the lead for my last pull, I accelerated slightly, upshifting noisily. I hoped this would make him feel slighted, like his previous pull hadn’t been fast enough, and thus shame him into expending too much energy on this last flat bit.

Well, he took the bait, and hammered through the last section of the bridge, while I did my best to achieve cardiovascular hibernation in his draft. Just as the climb started, I punched it. A foolish pace given the length of my climb, but I couldn’t bear to let this guy dust me at the end before his cowardly downhill turn. Well, it worked, and I got a pretty decent gap by the top of that first rise, but then something terrible happened. He turned left, too, to follow me up the hill. He’d planned the same headlands loop I had, all along.


This must be what the dog feels like when it finally catches the mailman. What now? Well, suffer, stupid! It would be humiliating indeed to falter now, and besides, I had the psychological edge. He must have felt pretty outclassed to let me open up such a gap, and so quickly, and he probably had no idea how hard I was going. My heart rate was 189, which isn’t high at all for an adrenaline-engorged junior, but for me that zone is almost off-limits, like that far wing of the house you close off to save on the heating bill. I decided that pacing myself would give him too much hope and he might close the gap—or worse, counterattack me. It’s sure happened enough times before; one time, my assailant had a Fuji Road Look saddle, or seemed to. It’s a humiliating thing. So I decided to stretch out my lead by really kicking it in the guts. A foolish plan, but such recklessness had gotten me this far, hadn’t it?

I rounded the first bend at the Golden Gate Bridge Lookout overlook (not very scenic today, with the bridge engulfed in fog) and the wind switched slightly, now in my favor. This cheered me up a little (luckily, since my body may have been planning a biological mutiny), and I humored myself with the notion that my nemesis was still facing the headwind. Through the next section I cranked up the pace even higher, my throat getting raw and bloody-tasting. Towards where the road flattens out in the twisty section, I really started to bog down. The wind was now against me once again, and I was starting to pay for my ill-considered aggression.

This shallow part of the climb is normally where you can throw her in the big ring, and indeed the propriety of calling this a “big ring tale” demands that I did. But I couldn’t do it. My pace was slowing and I didn’t dare look behind me. I could just picture my opponent seeing my weakness and gliding by me with that jaunty springiness of his. So, despite the apparent impossibility of honoring the gesture, I did put her in the big ring.

It was to avenge the widespread demise of thousands of losers like me that I dug even deeper now, with the pathetic desperation of Ichabod Crane in his final flight from the Headless Horseman. My opponent was a winner: clean bike, clean jersey, shaven legs, real fitness, verve and vigor incarnate. He was probably chuckling at the earnest, flailing efforts of this ragged, washed-up has-been. Well, he could chuckle all he wanted, but he was still behind me. I pushed the big ring all the way to the four-way intersection where you head left toward the summit. By the time I had to go back to the little ring, something important had happened: I had become sick.

Not physically sick, mind you (though that didn’t seem far away). No, I became psychologically sick. This is a dark and disturbing place, the point at which my opponent no longer mattered, my pace no longer mattered, my vital signs—heart rate, speed, rate of vertical gain, elapsed time—all ceased to matter. All that mattered was that I increase the suffering. Some switch had been flipped, some crazy trip-wire had been tripped, some natural system had been deeply subverted. Sometimes a lioness washing her cubs loses track of normal biology and begins actually eating her young instead, and this quirk of nature couldn’t be far from the strong need I had now to increase my own suffering. Like a junkie who craves more and more of what is killing him, I now increased my effort.

You know how some athletes are described (or describe themselves) as having the ability to “turn off” pain? Well that’s total bullshit. Whoever says that just doesn’t get it—the extreme athlete learns now to turn on the pain, how to hurt himself badly and seem to thrive in the process. I was tapped into something sick and wrong, and exhilarating. (How come I so rarely found this spot back when I used to race? Astute tactics tended to get in the way.)

This near-frenzy didn’t last long, but it didn’t end abruptly either. It mellowed out a little; I came off the rush. I came to realize how awful I sounded—my breath a horrible, rattling wheeze. In all the excitement I forgot to look at my heart rate. I finally looked behind me, and . . . my rival was just plain gone. My pace had now dropped a bit, but I was close to the top now [the blue dot in the map] and victory was assured. But what a hollow victory it somehow seemed now; all that hyperbolic effort and near-psychosis, all wasted on an opponent who wasn’t even in sight. And when I reached the top and checked my stopwatch, my time was an unimpressive 10:12. My record is 8:54 … so what happened? Did I misgauge the size of my effort, and the strength of my opponent? Did I just beat up a fifth-grader with a bat?

No, I reassured myself—I had suffered dearly. I had simulated actual fitness, which isn’t easy to do. And by the bottom of the descent on the backside, after it no longer mattered, my rival had caught up with me. (I’d convinced myself my rear tire was half-flat and took the corners wide.) He couldn’t have been that far behind to catch me so quickly.

As if to further reassure me he was a legitimate Goliath, he dragged my sorry ass up the short climb on the backside [not shown in the map above, but heading back to the four-way intersection]. I was too proud to fall off his pace, but too blown out to try anything else. This was normal, regular suffering, and I was back to disliking it. At the intersection, he turned right to do another lap.

Yes, he was the better cyclist—thus I’d scored an (albeit pyrrhic) victory for lesser men everywhere when I shelled him on the first climb.

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Last-Minute Online Holiday Gift Guide!

Introduction 

If, like me, you’ve put off holiday shopping for too long, and find yourself in a community lockdown due to COVID-19, and are now forced to buy all your gifts online, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve got the hottest deals on the best merchandise this side of Amazon! Naw, just kidding … but I will help you navigate the world of strange and unique gifts, highlighting the salient features—and the most helpful reviews—of a number of products available online. (My blogging budget—i.e., zero—does not allow me to actually purchase and try these things, but at least I’ve saved you the legwork.)

M3 Naturals Himalayan Salt Scrub - $33

This M3 Naturals Natural Exfoliating Body and Face Soufflé is a very special product because it contains both collagen and stem cells. This strikes me as the kind of product that lotion snipers would be demo’ing if the malls were all open right now.


So is this the real deal? Well, these aren’t the same stem cells that help treat cancer. The product details explain that this scrub contains “a preparation of apple stem cells derived from the ‘Uttwiler Spätlauber’, a rare Swiss apple variety.” Now, I realize “Spätlauber” sounds a lot like “spit-lobber,” so you may suspect I made that up, but honestly I didn’t. (I wish I did.) Is it obvious this would help your skin? Beats me.

The most important positive review I found declared, “I have battled with have little pimple looking bumps all over my legs and arms cause by ingrown hairs under skin since I was in high school. I would pick them and make ugly places on myself which would make me look awful and made me feel so bad about myself. This product took care of that and more!” I have zero reason to suspect this reviewer is dishonest. In fact she is heartbreakingly candid. So at a bare minimum we can assume this product is a strong placebo. But can a placebo be given as a gift? That’s a tough one … how well do you know the intended recipient?

The top negative review, however, ought to give you some pause: “TERRIBLE PRODUCT, PLEASE DO NOT SWALLOW OR USE OR SENSITIVE AREA'S - GENITAL'S. This product is from the devil .. I have only seen bad effect's from this product. it is highly toxic & dangerous if swallowed also please heed advice and do not use on sensitive skin area's !!!!!!” So, knowing this … is it conscionable to give this as a gift without providing the disclaimer? But wouldn’t that kind of warning cast a pall? I’d say proceed very cautiously here…

Internet password journal - $9

This journal is unlike any other in that it has the phrase “Internet Passwords” embossed right on the cover.


Now, the cynic might say, “Couldn’t I just write my passwords down in the back of an existing journal, or even on the blank pages at the back of a paperback novel?” Well, yeah … you could, but that wouldn’t create the security risk of a burglar finding it and stealing your identity along with your silverware and electronics if he acts quickly. And more to the point, that wouldn’t enable your children to find all your passwords and start snooping on your email, checking out your bank balances, removing firewall restrictions, etc. How is your child supposed to become a hacker when you give her nothing to work with? Where has this journal been all your life?!

White sage stick - $7

The White Sage Stick from OurAncestorsRoots is the gift that says, “What the hell is it for?”


It’s surely worth $7 just to watch the recipient try to figure out what this thing is. Prolong the magic by helpfully explaining, “White Sage sticks are great for clearing and cleansing the energy around you and in your spaces.” The most helpful positive review declares, “The sage stick smells wonderful and I can't wait to get the smudging.” Smudging? Beats me. But this is helpful, in the sense that by quoting this, you can further draw out the sacred giving ceremony. And what about the most helpful negative review? There aren’t any! After all, on what basis could anybody possibly be disappointed by this product?

Beer chiller sticks - $33

These beer chiller sticks for bottles purport to solve the problem of forgetting to put beers in the fridge and facing the chilling terrifying prospect of drinking them warm. All you have to do is remember to put these sticks in the freezer at least 45 minutes advance of wanting to drink beer, and then insert them in your warm beer to cool it off.


Granted, you have to sip some of the warm beer to make room for the stick, but that may be nostalgic for you, taking you back to your college days when you’d occasionally find a can of warm Meister Brau in your roommate’s car and guzzle it down before he could stop you.

It’s hard to choose a single most helpful positive review so I’ll just do a mash-up: “I was impressed by the packaging and he loved it,” “I liked the gift package,” “More than expected the package was amazing top quality works great,” “The design and presentation of this product is excellent! I did give it as a gift, and don't know how well it actually functions, but it was spot on as a Christmas gift.”

As for the most useful negative review, it could be this: “Not sure what happen … put it in my beer and took a few sips then pulled it out to look at it and noticed the cap inside the tube popped out and the coolant had been seeping out in my beer the whole time..” Okay, maybe this guy just got unlucky. Another 1-star review: “Doesn't work. Followed directions, and just looking at the design, it does not direct beer through the cold part of it for long enough to make a difference. There is no way to make this heat transfer work out.” Should we take this amateur scientist at his word? Well … there are about 40 other reviews saying the same thing. An alternative to this gift might be a 3x5 card with the following message written in your very best handwriting: “Next time you forget to put beers in the fridge, just chuck a couple in the freezer for 20 minutes. Thank me later!”

Wallet card for Mom - $14

This engraved wallet card tells your mom exactly how you feel about her, in the eloquent words of an anonymous sage:


The amazing thing about this Engraved Wallet Card is that it doesn’t have a single grammatical gaff in it. That’s saying something, when the product manufacturer describes it thus: “The most aspiration words you want to say to your mom are engraved on the wallet. He will feel the deep love of you when he takes it out and sees it.”

Is this special enough to fork out $14 for? Well, the elephant pictures really are top notch, and aluminum is notoriously difficult to work with. Still, it’s hard not to suggest an alternative, such as a 3x5 card with the same message, written in your very best handwriting. Worried about copyright infringement? Don’t be. I’m not an intellectual property lawyer, but I can say confidently it wouldn’t be difficult to establish that every single sentiment on the card is the epitome of cliché. It’s the cumulative fusillade effect that makes it so sweet.

Whiskey glass with cigar rest - $26

This Kollea Cigar Whiskey Glass with Cigar Rest Holder is perfect for assholes. They’re always looking for a way to kick of a long stream of bloviating, and this “conversation starter” does the job. Meanwhile, it frees them from needing to have an ashtray to set their cigar down on, so now they can spread both foul smoke and ashes across their environment.


Do we care what the negative reviews have to say? Naw. The recipient of this gift is such an asshole, you almost hope he’ll hate it.

Death discussion starter - $10

It can be difficult for a father, especially the strong, silent type, to discuss his own mortality with his daughter. And yet, it needs to happen. This talisman necklace, reminiscent of military dog tags, does the job beautifully.


At first, the inscription just seems like an expression of love, but upon reflection the message is clear: “In all likelihood you are going to outlive me. I will die during your lifetime and you will need to deal with that. And then I will not be around to love you anymore.” And that bit about safety? It reminds her that nothing is for sure: she herself could die in an accident or something. These are hard things to discuss. The talisman does it for you. Brilliant!

And the reviews? My favorite 5-star review simply reads, “Wonderful gift – made my daughter cry.” The most useful 1-star may be this: “Broke withing 2 days of my daughter wearing it xxx disappointed.” But the metaphor of the broken chain kind of helps make the point, huh?

Mug for dangerous father - $10

This Protective Dad Mug is the gift that says, “I recognize that you are a dangerous man, possibly psychotic, but far from wanting to hide this disturbing fact, I think it should be celebrated, and by the way I consider myself pretty and you should know that.”


There is only one 1-star review and it’s blank. That’s too bad … I would like to know what the problem was. Either the mug arrived broken, or the printing was poor, or this gal learned the hard way that her dad is either a liberal or doesn’t consider her pretty enough to kill for. There are 19 5-star reviews but they’re all blank, too … I guess this mug speaks for itself.

Stainless steel “soap” - $9

The AMCO 8402 Rub-a-Way Bar Stainless Steel Odor Absorber purports to remove cooking odors, like that of crushed garlic, from your fingers.


This is one of those products that’s so wacky, it’d be super cool if it actually worked. And yet, how could it? Fortunately, there are over 10,000 consumer reviews of it, so establishing is effectiveness should be pretty easy … right?

Well, over 70% of reviewers gave it five stars, which seems compelling at first blush. But the 1-star and 2-star reviews all say pretty much the same thing: it doesn’t work. (Why would someone give 2-stars to a product that fundamentally fails to deliver on its primary function? I have no idea. I guess people are just nice.) So, over 600 people attest it does nothing. And it’s not like they’re doing it wrong … I mean, how hard could rubbing your fingers on steel be?

I researched this, and discovered that almost nobody has tested this who doesn’t have a vested interest in promoting it. NPR did a spot on the concept for “All Things Considered” and, based on hands-on testing by a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, concluded it’s bogus. The New York Times also ran an article on it, but all they did was cite the NPR article with the caveat that was an awfully small study.

I’d try this out for you and report my findings here, but who am I to weigh in when a professor emeritus has already done so? Besides, I’m highly skeptical and don’t want to have stinky hands for the rest of this blog post. Next time I handle garlic or onions I’ll rub my fingers on the side of a chef’s knife and see. For now, here are my favorite reviews. Positive: “Works like a charm. Even gets dead mouse smell off your hands.” Median (3-star): “I gave my mom one of these and she was confused, she thought it was an actual bar of soap.” Negative: “Tried this ‘wonder bar’ which removed ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! Don't know about others who have reviewed it removes armpit odors! Really??? Use deodorant or something. Just the though groused me out.”

Lip balm for insecure men - $5

Macho men of the old school may think it unbecoming—effete, even—to fuss over their lips. Well, help is here at last. Well, not help exactly, it’s not like these big tough men need help—it’s just, well, look:


Check out those tough, soiled working man’s hands. He’s not some little girlie-man working a desk. He’s rugged even though he’s dapper. So is this Rugged & Dapper Lip Balm good stuff? Well, as the manufacturer tells us, it’s “TESTED ON MEN, NOT ANIMALS.” Think how cruel it would be to try this on, say, a pig. Haven’t the pigs suffered enough, with the lipstick? And of course this isn’t tested on women. That would be weird.

Pro and con reviews? Pro: “Its just so sleek and simple.” Con: “First off, this is not matte. It's misleading to claim it to be matte when it leaves your lips shiny, like lip gloss.” Gosh, that might be tough given the target market … what man wants to have glossy lips?

And does Rugged & Dapper offer SPF protection? Naw … that’s for sissies!

Phone sanitizer - $70

The UV Sanitizer & Wireless Charger kills bacteria using UV light. That’s what differentiates it from other Qi phone chargers (which typically cost only $13-20). All you do is place your phone in the special chamber, turn it on, and wait three minutes. Now all the invisible bacteria are, apparently, gone!


So does it work? Well, that’s a tough question because … well, this product reminds me of a joke. A guy boards a city bus and sees a fellow passenger holding an imaginary box, from which he pinches an imaginary powder that he then flings around in the air. The first guy says, “What are you doing?” The second guy replies, “It’s to keep away lions!” The first guy says, “There are no lions on this bus!” and the second guy says, “See? It’s working!”

But wait, there’s more to this product! It also does aromatherapy. “Add a few drops of plant-based essential oils (not included) to the built-in essence box and take in the soothing scents.” Um … could you add the oils to, say, a napkin or a kleenex and smell them that way? Well, yeah, you could … but how high-tech is that?

As for reviews, that’s easy because there’s only one (five stars!) and it’s so short I can quote the whole thing: “He uses it at home. When he gets home from work he puts it in the case to clean and sanitize his phone very practical.” And who is “he”? I have no idea. But I’ll bet he knows his stuff.

So yeah, you could drop $70 on this if the intended recipient isn’t the skeptical sort. If he is, you might consider instead giving him a 3x5 card with the following message written in your very best handwriting: “Next time your phone seems grubby, just wipe it on your pants!”

Wine filter – 8-pack for $20

The Wand Wine Filter by PureWine is a metal thingy you put in your wine glass. If you stir your wine with it intermittently for eight minutes it will remove 95% of the histamines and sulfites that make some people get “Headaches, Stuffy Nose, Skin Flush, Next-Day Hangovers and Upset Stomach.”


How’s it supposed to work? Beats me. One Amazon customer asked, “Could you publish results of any independent testing you have done, comparing the level of histamines and sulfites before and after using the wand?” Alas, the only response was, “I love it and it works.”

I suppose one risk of using this (after the pandemic, anyway) is that when you explain what it is to a fellow drinker, he’ll say, “Get a fucking backbone!” But then, this is speculation. I have no idea how wine people actually talk. I drink with beer people who a) never put wands in their glasses; b) never take anything close to eight minutes to drink a beer; and c) never have a histamine response to anything they drink.

My favorite positive review: “My boyfriend has never been able to drink wine due to an allergy to the sulfites … after one taste he would begin to get itchy and wheezy so I'd give him a Benadryl and take his glass away before we had more severe issues. These wands are super easy to use and we have been able to enjoy multiple bottles of wine together with no reactions!” Imagine being that guy, having his glass snatched away like that. These wands probably saved his relationship! I want to find that guy and give him—no, not a hug, you fool! Give him a tube of Rugged & Dapper lip balm.

But you should be aware of this negative review, too: “I ordered 8 wands to start and then a case because they work so well for the histamines. But every time I use them I have a problem with loose stool. It's now gotten so bad that I am having severe cramps and have had to give the wands away.” While this could obviously be a problem, I see opportunity here, too … somebody should market these as a stool softener! Say, that reminds me: wouldn’t “Loose Stool Event” be a good name for a rock band?

18k Gold Paper Clip - $1,500

Tiffany describes this product on their website: “An oversized paper clip is reimagined in 18k gold as a whimsical bookmark.”


Wow, what a generous and beautiful gift! The tricky part is to tactfully mention to the lucky recipient that a) this thing cost $1,500 so don’t you dare lose it, and b) since 18k gold is so soft, it’s actually very poorly suited to the task of clipping paper, so the paper clip should just be closed flat in the book, or employed solely as an objet d’art.

Care should also be taken to choose the right recipient; i.e., somebody callous enough to ignore the fact that over 12 million Americans are currently unemployed. We’re talking about somebody with a sufficient sense of entitlement that he would simply enjoy this curio for its beauty, ignoring the reality that for $1,500 you could provide lifesaving vaccinations for 8,000 children, or feed a malnourished child for almost 2½ years.

Any reviews for this product? Naw. Tiffany customers evidently don’t worry about such things.

A gift for the blogger?

I’ll bet I know just what you’re thinking: what gift should I get for Dana, as a reward for his tireless blogging all year? Aw, shucks … you don’t have to get me anything! But if you feel you must, I sure wouldn’t mind a stack a 3x5 cards…

Other albertnet holiday posts

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