Friday, December 6, 2019

Interview with Santa Claus


In his most in-depth and personal interview in years, Santa Claus reveals the trials and travails, the pressure and preoccupations surrounding this most hectic season.

Interview with Santa

Santa Claus breezes through the kitchen into the family room of his North Pole home, rosy-cheeked and jolly and looking very much like he might say “Ho, ho, ho.” No, he’s not rocking a bright red suit with white trim and a wide black belt, and he’s not as rotund as most pictures portray him, but it’s unmistakably Santa. He’s dressed casually in a comfy button-down shirt that turns out to be a Saturday Stretch Flannel from Lucky Brand. His wife bustles in the background, brewing coffee and baking cookies in honor of my visit. Other than the dark windows—there hasn’t been sunlight or even twilight here since October—and the near-chaos in the nearby workshop, we could be in any nice old couple’s cozy home.

Santa, thanks for having me up again … it’s been too long. You’re looking good—have you lost weight?
Well, yeah, I think I’ve dropped about twenty pounds, so I’m getting around a bit easier—but of course, I’m still as old as ever. Older, even!

Are you on some kind of diet? Paleo, maybe? Ketogenic?
Heavens no, I never dabble in that stuff. The main thing is, my contract with Coca-Cola came up for renewal and we just couldn’t agree on terms. Decades of partnership, up in smoke. So I’m not drinking that stuff anymore, which is the only change, but the pounds have just melted off!

Well, that’s good to hear. I’ve always wondered, frankly, how you can be as spry as you are, with millions of families leaving cookies out for you on Christmas Eve. Do you gain a lot of weight on the big night?
Not at all, I’m running around in a frenzy the whole time, and remember, I’m going back up those chimneys as well! And those cookies people leave me … not to sound ungrateful or anything, but I bring most of those back to my elves. They really dig that.

Speaking of the Christmas Eve frenzy, of course the holiday season is starting to build toward that crescendo. How are you holding up?
Well, it’s always kind of terrifying to think of how much has to happen between now and the 25th, but I’m used to it. In some ways I guess it’s actually getting easier.

How so?
Well, to be honest, business is falling off a bit. More and more, the kids are asking for digital products, and that’s never been my bailiwick. And these Gen-Z kids are all about “experiences” which means even less stuff for me to manufacture and deliver.

Does that bother you at all?
No, no … it’s never been my job to shape anybody’s tastes. I just need to make sure that what kids ask for, they get.

Provided they’ve been good, of course…
Oh, don’t get me started on that!

Actually, I was going to wait a bit for the uncomfortable question, but since we’ve stumbled into it, let’s just bash on. You’ve been under some pressure about privacy concerns … would you care to talk a bit about that?
Well, sure … everyone else has had their say, I don’t mind having mine. Look, it’s no secret I have a long tradition of making it my business which kids are naughty, which ones are nice, and so forth, and naturally I’ll leverage technology to do that efficiently. My business is all about scale—I mean, look at the population growth I have to deal with—so efficiency is always front and center. How could I not leverage the Internet for that? But I have never shared any of my customer data with third parties. In principle I collect and use personal data only to the extent necessary to determine which kids get gifts and which ones don’t. I do receive letters from kids via email but I have secure servers and a strict data retention policy around that. And to be honest, this might be the last year I even bother to try to differentiate among these kids anyway.

Wow—that’s kind of a bombshell actually. You’re talking about just giving gifts to everybody?
Yeah, the Santa Claus brand has really taken a beating because of the public’s growing—and, let’s face it, overdue—focus on privacy. There’s so much abuse of personal information by Facebook and Google and all these other platforms, I feel like the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. And don’t even get me started on achieving GDPR compliance … that was a complete nightmare. Honestly, the costs to my business are so high with these regulations, it’s almost not worth it. I can think of worse things than naughty kids getting gifts on Christmas morning. Maybe if I just throw out the surveillance completely, and give presents to everybody, those wayward kids will stop nicking their siblings’ stuff—and I’ll save a bundle on all the effort I’m no longer making, all that data I’m no longer sifting through!

That seems really magnanimous of you…
Hey, I’m Santa! What do you expect?

Since we’re already kind of in the muck here, can we talk about the scrutiny you’ve had around workplace conditions and labor concerns?
Wow, I was kind of expecting more softballs from you! But hey, it’s all good. Look, I run a fair operation here—it’s always been a union shop and I’ve never fought that. I pay these elves a solid living wage year-round despite the highly seasonal nature of our business. I invite you to walk out on the floor yourself and ask any of these elves if they’re happy here. Well, not right now, obviously—they’re busier than a cat burying crap on a marble floor—but hit them up after New Year’s and they’ll tell you how reasonable a guy I am to work for.

Well, I’m sure you’re aware some elves have been lighting you up on Twitter…
Look, any workforce will have disgruntled types … and remember, this is the North Pole. Epidemiologists have long studied how seasonal affective disorder worsens the farther north you get. How many negative tweets from my elves do you get in summer? Go check—I’ll bet you don’t find any. All summer these elves party like rock stars … they don’t even need to sleep!

Fair enough. Now, you have perhaps the most non-diverse workforce in the world … is this by design?
I’m an equal-opportunity employer and if Chris Hemsworth applied for a job I’d gladly grant him an interview. The fact is, I don’t get a lot of applicants and most of my employees are related to one another. You’ve got siblings, offspring, fathers, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and on and on, some of them third, fourth, fifth generation. Lots of companies talk about being like a family; we practically are. We’re like a family-run business times a thousand. And it works out because we’ve tailored the workshop to the elves’ size, so we’ve got a great ergonomic match there where Chris Hemsworth literally wouldn’t be a good fit.

Have you tried to diversify?
Back in the sixties I hired a lot of Oompa-Loompas, but they didn’t really integrate with our elves, and ultimately just couldn’t handle the conditions up here. The North Pole isn’t for everybody. But I never laid off a single one of those Oompa-Loompas. In fact, I’ve never laid off an elf either.

Let’s talk for a minute about Amazon. You’ve got kind of a love/hate thing going on there…
Well, yeah. It’s complicated. On the one hand, they’re eating into my business like anybody else’s, but since I’ve never had a single paying customer, this just eases my burden operationally. Of course I wonder if there’ll be a day when I become completely irrelevant, but I think the charm of a stuffed stocking and piles of beautifully wrapped presents left under the tree, instead of brown boxes left on the porch, will always have their cachet. And yes, it’s true I’ve partnered with Amazon for certain deliveries which has drawn some scrutiny.

Yes, if there’s an opposite of the halo effect you seem to be getting a bit of that…
Well, exactly. I’ve been delivering gifts to homes without fireplaces for centuries—I mean, think of all those New York and London apartments with radiators, or rural homes with propane tanks out back—but still people are shocked—shocked!—to learn that I don’t always slide down the chimney. So anything that challenges their Norman Rockwell sensibilities is suddenly a crime. The reality is, I’ve used a variety of courier services for ages, and a bunch of them have recently been bought up by Amazon. What am I gonna do, upset my whole system by changing providers on principle? The guy who schleps a hundred packages up the freight elevator on Christmas Eve doesn’t care that the company name on his pay stub has changed, nor does the doorman who knows to let him in. A million details go into delivering a billion packages on a single night and I can’t be reinventing the wheel every time Amazon buys someone. It’s not an ideal situation but in the final analysis, two billion gleeful children couldn’t care less.

At this point in the interview Mrs. Claus comes in with a large tray and serves us fresh-baked star-shaped cookies and hot coffee. She smiles demurely and, without a word, heads back toward the kitchen. “Thanks, Meg,” Santa says kindly, peering at her lovingly over his spectacles.

Wow … “Meg.” It’s funny, but I never knew Mrs. Claus’s first name. I didn’t really think about her even having a name.
It’s short for Margaret.

Would she … should we ask her to join us?
Oh, she has no use for journalists. And the way you’ve been grilling me, I can see why! (Laughs.) But seriously, she is a very private person, even more so than I, which is saying something. She’s perfectly happy to work behind the scenes, running the household and so forth. She’s very old-school.

Speaking of wives, and before I forget: my wife wanted me to ask you what you think of all these shopping mall Santas.
Well, historically I haven’t had any problem with them, as they’re fun for the kids and they mean well. There was always the worry that one would get drunk during his lunch break, then climb back in the chair and do something regrettable that would tarnish my image, but I can’t sweat all the what-ifs. But more recently I’ve started to worry about how skepticism is on the rise everywhere, what with fake news and Internet conspiracy theories and all that, and that kids will start putting two and two together—like, “Hey, I saw Santa at Macy’s last weekend, and then today I see him at Nordstrom and he’s like a foot shorter!”—and will stop believing in me as a result. I’m not a demanding person, I don’t seek a lot of attention or gratitude or anything, but the idea that a growing number of cynical kids are thinking the gifts I provided actually came from Mom and Dad … that really gets me down. So the white lie of mall Santas is starting to chafe a bit more these days, but in the end I just have to shrug it off with everything else.

Thanks Santa. And now I have just one more question. I know I’ve asked some tough ones today, so I’m going to lay off and instead turn it around to you: what’s the hands-down dumbest question any journalist has ever asked you?
That’s an easy one. Some dork said to me once, “Santa, you’re more than 1,700 years old. Almost nobody lives that long, the main exception being vampires. How can you convince me you’re not a vampire?”

I hope you put him in his place!
Of course I did.

Um … what exactly did you say?
Well, duh! I can’t be a vampire because vampires have to be invited in! There isn’t a soul on this planet who enters more homes without a spoken invitation. Didn’t that dickweed see “Let the Right One In”? Besides, I really only leave the North Pole once a year … whose blood am I supposed to drink all year? The elves’?

Wow, great points Santa. And thanks so much for sitting down with me today. And please thank Mrs. Claus for the goodies!
Thank you. And sorry a got a bit worked up just now … as you can imagine, I’m under a lot of stress these days. In fact, I’d better get back to work!

Original artwork by Lindsay Albert.
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Friday, November 29, 2019

From the Archives: Return to La Marmotte Part II


This is the Part II of the heart-racing (for me) tale of racing La Marmotte, a 108-mile cyclosportive race in the French Alps. This was my second attempt at this race after my disastrous effort three years before.

Where Part I left off, I was a bit more than halfway through the race, and about three quarters of the way up the infamous Col du Galibier, a brutal 11-mile climb to a summit of almost 8,700 feet. I hadn’t cracked like in 2003, but I was really tiring out. My legs were getting heavier and heavier. I was having trouble keeping up with a Belgian guy I’d ridden with the whole race, who was smooth and consistent and whom, not long before, I’d actually suspected of holding me back. Ha! As if.

Return to La Marmotte Part II – July 8, 2006

We passed a guy who had cracked—I could tell by how he was slumped over the handlebars, and by his sunken face, and by his expression. Poor bastard. He looked miserable, and hateful. He hated me for passing him. He hated himself for having cracked. He hated the mountain for what it was doing to him. My heart went out to the guy. Thinking back three years to my first horrible trial on the Galibier, I knew exactly what he was going through. I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t blown up this year. At least, not thus far…

Three kilometers from the summit the Belgian was incredulous. “How long does it stay this steep?” he asked. For some reason it gave me some relief to say, “It actually only gets harder from here to the summit.” I guess I was reassured to know that everybody else on this mountain was suffering too. Of course I’m dying! Everybody’s dying! That’s just what you do on the Galibier, you die! That’s what it’s for!

But even if my spirits were restored slightly, my legs were as bad as ever. Gradually I began to slip back from the Belgian. I was on the ropes. But I still hadn’t cracked … thank God I’d been pacing myself. (Looking at my performance graphs later, I see that I hadn’t really slowed that much. My power went from 242 watts on the first half of the climb to 232 on the second; my heart rate dropped from 154 to 151. Not huge losses, considering the cumulative effort and the sheer altitude of the Galibier.)

About a kilometer from the top (I was thinking in metric units now, probably because they’re smaller), the Belgian had a clear gap, but he looked back, saw me, and slowed up a bit. I’d been completely wrong earlier—he was stronger than I, after all—but I was also right: he knew he’d benefit from my help on the descent, and now he was willing to lose a few seconds on the climb to get it.

We crested the summit and I checked my stopwatch: almost exactly five hours. In terms of our goal of finishing in under 7 hours, we were fifteen minutes behind schedule. But who said it takes an hour fifteen to get to the base of Alpe d’Huez? It was a friend of the Belgian’s who’d said that, and he was probably a climber, meaning a smallish rider. I knew full well from team time trailing that the biggest guys are best suited to flat or downhill terrain. I wasn’t ready to concede my goal of seven hours for the race—not here, forty miles from the finish. I decided to hold nothing back on the descent, and then take my lumps on Alpe d’Huez.

We flew along the road, beautifully carving up the corners. The Belgian was fearless, and—better yet—skillful. We started passing guys, and they latched on. We took a sharp right after the summit of the Col de Lautaret and the grade lessened. I hammered at the front of our group to keep the speed up. Very few guys in our group, which numbered about ten, were willing to help. I gestured, silently exhorting the guys to take their turns, but largely in vain. The Belgian and a couple others took some pulls, but I was driving most of the time. I wasn’t bitter: I didn’t think anybody was taking advantage, per se—they were just fried. Besides, it didn’t really matter; if I could rest even a quarter of the time, that was a huge benefit. My legs felt really good. Not counting a couple of short climbs, the average grade was only about 3%, yet we averaged about 28 miles per hour.

But that second short climb . . . ouch. It really slapped me down. It was only about three quarters of a mile at 4%, but I almost got dropped from the group. My legs were burning and alarms were going off in my head. I was right on the edge, trying to keep from getting gapped, when the Belgian came by. (He’d actually gotten dropped from our group earlier, and had had to claw his way back on.) “Don’t give up,” he said. I dug deep and stayed with the group. Thankfully, I was fine again once we resumed descending.

Through the last tunnel, I forgot to put my sunglasses up. It so was poorly lit in there, I couldn’t see a thing, and to stay in my lane I had to sight along the headlights of oncoming cars. A big gob of sludgy water dropped from the ceiling of the tunnel right through a vent in my helmet, and oozed over my head like a cracked egg.

Shortly before the base of Alpe d’Huez, we caught a large group, at least twenty riders. As I’d seen before, on the flat section before the Télégraphe, nobody wanted to pull hard. This time I didn’t mind—I appreciated the short rest before the big climb. I certainly hadn’t held anything back; the question now was, how much would I have left in the tank? We turned right, to begin our final climb. I looked at my stopwatch: 6:02:00. We’d made up a ton of time.

Before I could attack Alpe d’Huez, I had to stop to refuel. My bottles were empty and I’d eaten all eight of my gels. I don’t know how the guys in my group had managed to save anything in their bottles, but almost all of them, the Belgian included, blew right past the feed station. I never even considered doing that—it would be like ignoring the oil light on my car’s dashboard. I handed my bottle over and asked for Coke. It was handed back filled with about two inches of Coke and six inches of foam, and I had to beg for more. I got my other bottle filled with water, and, hands shaking, poured in powdered drink mix from a baggie I’d brought along. The stop took me less than two minutes but felt like a lot more.

Right away I knew I wasn’t going to make it up Alpe d’Huez in anything close to an hour. My legs were toast. I couldn’t get my heart up to 150. Still, I didn’t have the sensation of having cracked. I was like a flashlight when the battery is slowly dying and the bulb burns orange instead of white. The important thing was to hold out hope, to keep my head together, to fight off despair. I thought back to my last Marmotte, and how for the entire Alpe d’Huez climb I had Ravel’s “Bolero” stuck in my head—that plodding, repetitive prison sentence of a song—and now I searched around my brain for something more upbeat, more energizing, more inspirational. I came up with Soundgarden’s “Like Suicide.” There is of course nothing suicidal about bicycle racing but this song had the right energy.

It’s hard to describe the rush that comes from being an American amateur getting to race on a legendary French climb like Alpe d’Huez. I suppose it’s like a Little League baseball player getting to play in Yankee Stadium. The problem is, it’s like that Little Leaguer is also batting against a professional pitcher, swinging wildly at a ball that’s going 100 mph—yeah, like I’m going to hit that! After three other brutal climbs, getting past the first switchback of Alpe d’Huez felt like enough work for the day. And I had twenty more?

Still, I wasn’t beaten yet. Occasionally my spirits were lifted when I’d need to shift into a higher gear. After each switchback, the grade eases slightly, and if you can overcome the instinct to rest on these sections, you can shave some time and increase your speed slightly. Shifting up really helped my morale, by reminding me that I still had some control over my pace, instead of simply trying to survive.

There were a lot of spectators. Not the mobs you get at the Tour de France, of course, but it’s impressive that anybody at all turned out to stand along this sweltering, exposed road and watch a few thousand amateurs flogging themselves, with nothing on the line but their pride. I was also struck by the low-key response of this audience. Though the event was enough of a spectacle to bring them to the mountain, it wasn’t enough to draw them into the emotional swelter of the racers’ collective psyche. It’s a real contrast to what I’m accustomed to; American spectators scream and yell and clap, no matter who or where you are, as though they’re conditioned to do it. At La Marmotte, spectators seldom yell; they seem to be quietly witnessing the athletes’ progress up the hill, occasionally clapping softly and murmuring appreciation (I heard one man say “Chapeau”). If spectators were pets, Americans would be dogs—barking, jumping around, tails wagging—and the French would be cats, coolly observing from a comfortable perch.

The entire time I cranked up Alpe d’Huez I felt I was on the verge of cracking. I wasn’t even thinking about seven hours anymore; that milestone came and went without my notice. Every few minutes I passed somebody; a little more often somebody passed me. The oppressive heat gradually subsided as I gained altitude.

[The photo above is at the penultimate switchback, about two miles from the finish. Note the spectator kicking back in the lawn chair.]

Finally I passed the last switchback sign and started the final slog. When I saw the last uphill section, there were three or four guys struggling up it, and I poured on as much power as I could muster, passing them just before the top. Now I’d done it—I’d have to hammer the flat stretch to the finish to stay ahead of them. I put it in the big ring and sprinted along, riding on fumes, trying to will the home stretch to come into view. I was more than blown, more than knackered. I’d had the stuffing knocked out of me. I was . . . rendered.

I hit the downhill, fenced-off section and felt like I was flying, until I came around the final left-hand turn. To my surprise and horror, the final straightaway was slightly uphill this year, and I could barely keep the big ring turning. I was underwater. I heard my mom cheering, and I crossed the line.

I looked at cyclometer: my riding time was 7:18:00: about five minutes faster than the last time. A bit better, but just a bit. Then I looked for the patch of grass I’d collapsed on last time. But everything was changed around. I found a plastic chair and slumped into it. My mom came and found me. She was excited; I was relieved. For well over an hour I’d felt like I was going to fall apart, but here I was intact. No tears like last time; no medical tent.

I had no idea how I’d finished. Of course I’d hoped for a faster time; the question now was, given the detour in the course, was this even an improvement? My mom was convinced I’d finished higher; she guessed around 150 riders had come through before me. It was a long time before I found the gumption to go check the results.

I had butterflies in my stomach as I approached the postings. I scanned down the time column, looking for 7:18:00, and found my name. My mom’s guess was darn close: I was 155th. That’s 34 places higher than I’d finished before. Not bad. I scanned up the results list, honing in on the “pays” (country) column, looking for “ETA” (Etats-Unis)—and, happily, not finding it: no American had beaten me. Being the top American had been one of my goals for the race.

Turning from the board, I encountered a fairly large cyclist, vaguely familiar, grinning from ear to ear. He thrust out his hand. “Great job,” he said, in an accent I couldn’t place. “I was one of those guys you towed along on the descent and I wanted to thank you for all your work.” Man. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, or why. We shook hands and parted, and now I had a big grin of my own.

Still, I was surprised that after all my training and my greater knowledge of the course, my result was so similar to the time before. My official time was 07:19:42, vs. 07:27:23 in 2003. Three minutes of this improvement was a simple logistic matter of getting to the start line earlier and avoiding traffic. Pondering this has settled me into a fatalistic view: I could probably approach my conditioning for such a race, and my pacing during it, in any of a hundred different ways and chances are, with more or less pain or anguish, I’d achieve about the same result—a result that was predestined by my genes, and by the circumstances of the first thirty-seven years of my life. I guess I can live with that.

My brothers were a long time in showing up: not long after I passed the grizzly crash scene on the descent of the Glandon, the Marmotte organizers had shut down the race for an hour and a half so they could get an ambulance up there. Geoff and Bryan had been stuck behind the road closure. But now they arrived intact and in great spirits. We all had stories for days about our ride in the French Alps….

My Stats 
  • Placing: 155th out of 4,134 finishers (62nd in my 30-39 age category, out of 1,295); about 2,000 riders dropped out
  • Diploma: Gold
  • Real time: 7 hours 18 minutes 0 seconds rolling time
  • Real average speed: 15.0 mph
  • Official time: 7 hours 19 minutes 42 seconds (includes stops and time spent getting from my staging area to the official start line)
  • Official average speed: 14.7 mph
  • My climbing stats:
    • 3,565 ft/hr on Col du Glandon (262 watts, 0.35 horsepower) at 157 bpm;
    • 3,381 ft/hr on Col du Télégraphe (264 watts, 0.35 hp) at 158 bpm;
    • 3,002 ft/hr on Col du Galibier (237 watts, 0.32 hp) at 153 bpm;
    • 2,941 ft/hr on Alpe d’Huez (226 watts, 0.3 hp) at 147 bpm
  • Time heart rate above 160 bpm: 19 min (compared to 1 hr 44 min during Marmotte ’03)
  • Average heart rate: 152 beats per minute (80% of maximum), not including descents (vs. 153 bpm, 81% in ‘03)

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Friday, November 22, 2019

From the Archives: Return to La Marmotte - Part I


I used to be an occasional contributor to the Daily Peloton . A few years ago, server problems took the magazine offline. Since then it’s come back up, but all of their archives are gone. I don’t know if these will ever be restored, so over time I will re-post my Daily Peloton stories here. What follows concerns my return visit to La Marmotte, a brutal bike race in the French Alps that crushed me like a grape my first time out.

What is La Marmotte?

La Marmotte is a “cyclosportive” (like a granfondo), which pits riders against each other but also scores each rider according to his or her time. The top riders really race, while the less sportive aim for a bronze, silver, or gold “diploma.” Many of the 6,000+ riders are just hoping to finish. The Marmotte route is a 100-mile circuit over three of the toughest Alpine passes of the Tour de France, followed by the 8-mile slog up the legendary Hors Categorie Alpe d’Huez, for a total of about 17,000 feet of climbing.


I rode La Marmotte in 2003 and completely cracked about halfway through, limping for some fifty miles to the finish as rider after rider passed me. I returned to France this July [i.e., 2006] to have another crack at it. (You can read my 2003 story by clicking here.) I finished that report with this declaration: “Now that I know the course, and what not to do, it seems a shame not to put that knowledge to use … so I hereby resolve to return to France one day to settle my score with La Marmotte…”

My Preparation

In 2003, this race punished me severely for overestimating my condition. This year I decided if I trained harder maybe I’d get off a little easier on race day. I developed a standard weekday training ride featuring over 4,000 feet of vertical gain in under 25 miles, with two one-mile climbs averaging 10% and a third climb of two miles at 11. I nicknamed this ride the “Hill Climb Extravaganza,” or “HCE” for short, and a number of my teammates either adopted the format, decried it as needlessly difficult, or both.

When the weather sucked (we had a record 29 days of rain in March alone), I rode through it, or endured a couple hours on the trainer. Several times I was turned around by snow on Mount Diablo. My new training regimen brought to my mind a notion from the novel The Body Artist by Don DeLillo: “You are making your own little totalitarian society ... where you are the dictator, absolutely, and also the oppressed people.” (Quote used by permission of the Wallace Literary Agency.)

Of course I had to keep my regimen from cutting too far into my home life, so I made a tradition of heading out just before dawn. I’d get home just as my kids (age three and five) were getting out of bed; often, one would bring me juice and stretch out with me on the living room floor afterward.

This time around two of my brothers joined me for the race, and our mom came along to support us.


We arrived in France five days before the race so we could ride some of the climbs beforehand. We learned that, due to roadwork, the course would take a detour near the top of the Col de la Croix de Fer, heading instead over the Col du Glandon. The descent of the Glandon is trickier than that of the Croix de Fer. We heard from a fellow hotel guest that a very accomplished amateur racer died on this descent the previous year, having crashed on a switchback.

On the Tuesday before the race we rode up Alpe d’Huez. In my training run prior to my first Marmotte, I rode the climb in 47 minutes; this year, it took 55. After all that training, what could be the problem? Alas, this practice ride confirmed what I’d been trying to ignore all year: my endurance had improved, but I wasn’t climbing that well. I was a good seven pounds heavier than in 2003, and felt it.

Determined to master my dread of Col du Glabier, the mythic mountain pass that so destroyed me last time, I rode it with my brothers the next day. For the most part we road easy, but near the top hammered a bit. It was cold and windy up there, and just starting to rain . . . totally epic. By the top my heart rate climbed precipitously even as my power was dropping off, but it didn’t matter. I was controlling my pace, feeling like I was in charge instead of the mountain. Maybe the Galibier was just flesh and blood like me, I thought. Oh, but wait—of course it isn’t. It’s rock, and harder than any man. I was making no sense. Must have been the altitude.

The Race

Race day: July 8, 2006. I slept poorly the night before, because my brother Geoff was snoring. He slept poorly too, because I kept hitting him. After a pasta breakfast we made it to the start good and early. Based on my top-200 finish in 2003, I got to start in the third group, numbers 400-2,000. (My brothers were way farther back in the 4,000s, so I wouldn’t see them until the finish.) I waited around in the cold for an hour. You’ve never seen such a frigid bunch of low-fat racer types. Goose bumps, shivering, chattering teeth….

The race started, and I went out hard. At the base of the Col du Glandon, I could see the leaders, minutes up the road, led by a car with flashing lights. Well, maybe I could catch some of them.

On the Glandon, I kept in mind what a couple of Marmotte veterans had advised me: keep your heart rate about five beats lower than you normally would. I did about 157 bpm, putting out 280 watts, instead of 162 bpm and 300 watts. The riders were fluid around me as I passed some and were overtaken by others. Some guys I’d see several times, like they couldn’t figure out a good rhythm.

I came upon a rider who looked especially accomplished. His pedaling was fluid, his back straight, his posture relaxed, and above all I had the sense he was holding something back, not straining himself. I rode behind him awhile, judging how consistent his pace was. Sure enough, my heart rate and power were totally steady. It was like cruise control. I figured I’d pace myself on this guy.

We passed a couple of spectators who called out encouragement. We both said “Merci,” and the guy looked at me. In that one word I’d showcased my terrible French pronunciation. “Nederlander?”  he asked me. In a way, I was flattered. Being recognized as American is, to me, somehow like being recognized as a tourist. I paused. How to answer? In French it’s “Etats-Unis,” but where was this guy from? “No, America,” I answered. I immediately wished I’d said “United States.” I felt like a redneck saying “Amer’ca.” The rider didn’t seem to care, though. We chatted a bit. He said he was from Belgium, from the Dutch-speaking region. “Like Boonen,” he grinned.

The Belgian and I kept the same pace the whole way up the Col du Glandon, and though I had the strange sensation of loafing, I held my position and felt I was still pretty close to the front of the race. I’d followed the five-heartbeats rule … was this holding too much back? I wasn’t too worried—the rest of the course would give me plenty of opportunity to use up any “extra” energy.

Toward the top, despite the surprisingly thick mass of spectators, I spotted my mom right away in her bright orange East Bay Velo Club jersey. We’d forgotten to practice passing up the musette bag, but it went without a hitch. I was so relieved—there were so many things (e.g., parking, congestion) that could have prevented my mom from making it up there. I stuffed my pockets full of gels and put fresh bottles in my cages without losing a pedal stroke. I heard my mom call after me: “Go, tiger!” Where’d she get that? I guess it had been about twenty years since she’d watched me in a race. (My mom would go on to have her own Marmotte adventure, rocking out to Pink Floyd while threading past throngs of cars and straggling riders and navigating a shortcut to Alpe d’Huez that took her over a road barely wider than the car, with a sheer cliff on one side.)

I got a slow start to the descent as I put on my jacket, and lost contact with the Belgian. Coming around one of the early switchbacks I came upon a chilling sight: a rider had crashed and was sprawled on the side of the road. He wasn’t moving, and blood pooled beneath his head. A couple course marshals were attending to him. The race was pretty split up at this point, as lots of guys had grabbed food or water. I passed a number of racers on the winding road, and though not all of them were going blindingly fast, everybody looked confident and capable.

I pushed on, and after a while had the strange sense of being utterly alone. Nobody in sight ahead of me, and nobody behind. What the hell? Had I taken a wrong turn? It was eerie.

Eventually I caught a few more riders, a really fast guy caught us from behind, and as the road flattened and straightened we started to gather into a small pack. At the bottom of the descent, near St. Jean de Maurienne, we caught a very large group, at least sixty guys. Oddly, they weren’t going that fast. I realized why: we had a bit of a headwind, and there was little incentive for anybody to drag this giant group along by himself. Nor was it easy to motivate a small number of guys to pull hard. Say I got five guys to hammer with me: we’d each do a fifth of the work for the next ten miles, getting us only incrementally closer to the unknown number of riders ahead. Then we’d hit the base of the Col du Télégraphe with sixty daisy-fresh guys behind us. But going it alone would be even worse. I tried riding off and opening a big gap, hoping some guys would jump across, but nobody did.

Once I resigned myself to rolling along at 20 miles per hour with the group, it was pretty fun. It wasn’t hard, of course, and I got to hear idle chatter in half a dozen languages. This brought home the fact that I was actually racing in another country, in a truly international field—exactly the kind of thing I’d fantasized about as a kid. I’ve never really gotten over the notion that what we call bike racing in the U.S. can feel like a facsimile of the real sport as it’s practiced in Europe. Sure, we have our big races, like the Tour of California, but those are for the pros. The average amateur event in the U.S. is a rinky-dink criterium in a business park, with nobody in attendance who isn’t himself racing. Sure, it’s fast, and hard, but you never feel like you’re involved in something big. We have our epic courses, of course, like the Death Ride, but those aren’t races. People start whenever they feel like it, most just hoping to finish. It’s hard to feel like an elite racer when you’re passing some guy on a mountain bike who hit the road at 5 a.m. What the U.S. needs is a cyclosportive circuit, and maybe 10,000 more superb riders. Then I wouldn’t have to cross the Atlantic to get this rush.

Just before the start of the Télégraphe, I came across the Belgian guy again. We started the climb in the front of the group. “This is good,” he said. “Just keep an even pace, and most of these guys will fall away.” Sure enough, as the climb progressed our group thinned out until we were basically alone, occasionally passing somebody and occasionally being passed.

We discussed our strategy: he, too, had been advised to ride at five bpm below his normal level. We both had the same main goal: to finish in seven hours or less. This was his first Marmotte, but he’d discussed the race at length with an experienced friend who said that it takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to get from the top of the Galibier to the base of Alpe d’Huez. Leaving an hour for that climb, we’d have to reach the Galibier summit at hour 4:45. We weren’t sure how long the Galibier would take, but by the top of the Télégraphe we both had the feeling we were a bit behind schedule.

I still had a full bottle of energy drink, and had been diligently eating my gels. We both stopped to fill a bottle, losing no more than ten or fifteen seconds. We flew down through Valloire to the base of the Galibier and started to climb again. I was feeling a bit stressed: it didn’t look possible to reach the summit by 4:45. Was I going too easy? I felt great, like maybe I’d held too much back. Maybe it was time to pick up the pace. On the other hand, my goal of seven hours was somewhat arbitrary; who ever said I could achieve that, anyway? Maybe I was pacing myself just right; after all, last time I’d done this race I went out too hard and paid dearly. What to do? I took it up a notch. My heart rate immediately began to climb. Was I being foolish? I wished I had some Yoda figure to come to me in a vision and tell me exactly how to proceed.

Instead, I heard from the Belgian, right behind me: “Not too hard. Keep it even.” I paused. Who was this guy, anyway? Sure, he was smooth and everything, but how could I know he wasn’t just taking advantage of me? Maybe he just needed my size for the descent. He wasn’t one of those tiny little climbers (the Dutch call them “pocket climbers”) who can’t roll downhill worth a damn, but neither was he big enough to punch through the wind like I could. (We’d both noted this on the short descent to Valloire.) What if he realized he wasn’t as strong, and that his best bet was to get me to hold back, just enough for him to keep up? On the other hand, maybe he was smarter. I finally decided to hold back. I wasn’t going to crack again and limp along for the rest of the race. Not again.

Well, a lot can happen on a long climb like the Galibier. Ten or fifteen minutes after my tactical crossroads, I found myself struggling to keep on the Belgian’s wheel. He hadn’t sped up—he was as consistent as ever. I was simply tiring out. My legs got heavier and heavier and I no longer felt like the master of my pace. The mountain was getting the better of me. I took the lead again—a psychological game, fooling myself into confidence. (After all, I told myself, how could I be weak when I’m leading this guy?) I tried every trick in the book to shore up my psyche. I tried to smile, like Ivan Basso and Chris Horner (and George Mount before them). But doubt kept creeping in. Not despair—I was still in the game—but serious doubt. A climb like that can really crush your spirit.

With about five kilometers to go I was really worried: how far would my performance slip? I really needed a race radio with Johan Bruyneel reassuring me: “Come on Dana. Come on. Okay, Dana, don’t panic, don’t panic, eh? You can do this. You’re the best, eh? Okay, 5K to the summit. Very good. Very good. Come on. That’s it. Yes.” Instead all I had was my own inner voice: “Who said you could climb? Look at you. You’re huge. You weren’t made for this. What are you doing here, anyway?” I was having an epiphany on the mountain: I was going against nature—the Galibier, to be precise, which was the evil Mother Nature of the margarine commercial.

We passed a guy who had cracked. I could tell by how he was slumped over the handlebars, and by his sunken face, and by his expression. Poor bastard. He looked miserable, and hateful. He hated me for passing him. He hated himself for having cracked. He hated the mountain for what it was doing to him. My heart went out to the guy. Thinking back three years to my horrible trial on the Galibier, I knew exactly what he was going through. I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t cracked this year. At least, not thus far….

To be continued…

Check back next week for the second half of my tale: the heart(rate) of darkness!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Election Follies II Part II - The Spawning


Right off the bat, I love sequels: not the ones Hollywood cranks out, but the opportunities I sometimes get, with this blog, to piggyback on a previous topic. If you even remotely enjoyed my last post, or enjoyed hating it, my second installment of Prop 7, One Year Later should grab you even more forcefully. Perhaps it’ll even shake you around, like a dog with a rag doll!

In this post I explore in some detail the complete and total clusterfuck Prop 7 would create, if it were actually approved by Congress.

First, a correction                                                                          

In a response to the survey I sent around about Prop 7, one respondent wrote, “Hawaii and Arizona don't observe daylight savings time, so I didn't think Congress would care if California opted out of it.” I commented in my post, “Ah, this is a confused voter (or abstainer). Prop 7 isn’t about staying on standard time—it’s about staying on DST year-round.”

Well, I misconstrued the respondent’s meaning. He replied (via email) that by “it” he meant “opting out of the Uniform Time Act of 1966,” not “opting out of DST.” He did understand that Prop 7 was about year-round DST, and his point is that if Congress already lets two states choose not to conform to the Uniform Time Act, they should tolerate California opting out as well (even if it’s a different flavor of opting out).

Can technology help?

This same respondent opined that modern technology platforms such as Google Calendar and smartphones should make it feasible to handle the complexity of three concurrent flavors of time observance—those being a) the status quo; b) never observing DST; and c) observing DST year-round. He described his exceedingly complicated workday routine and how it’s exacerbated by his kids’ byzantine schedules, but how it’s all manageable because he and his wife can rely their electronic calendars.

I have to disagree with this albertnet reader. You might imagine that my dissent is based on the fact of not everybody using smartphones or calendar software. Actually, that doesn’t bother me so much … if these outliers complain, we can just tell them to get with the program. (I know, terrible pun—I couldn’t resist.) It’s also possible to fault technology in general where DST is concerned. For example, my modern car clock has a setting for automatically adjusting to DST but it quite simply doesn’t work. Meanwhile, my microwave oven has a setting to automatically switch to DST, but it couldn’t work because there’s no way to program the oven with the date. But this is also just static. I have a much bigger issue with my friend’s assertion. The fact is, where deviance from the Uniform Time Act is concerned, computer calendars are absolutely no help.

These electronic tools work great for a complicated family schedule because everyone is in the same time zone, so whatever tweaks are made to DST will affect all family members the same. But interstate business, when DST outliers are involved, is another story entirely. As I wrote in my first Prop 7 post, “Today, Monday, was rough. At work, an 11:00 a.m. conference call threw people into a tailspin because the recurring appointment had been set up by somebody in the Arizona time zone, where DST is not observed. For those outside Arizona, the call automatically jumped forward by an hour on our electronic calendars.”

To make this clearer: at the beginning of March, before DST started, the 11:00 a.m. PST call was at noon MST (or to be more precise, noon Arizona time because Arizona is given its own time zone in Microsoft Outlook and Google Calendar). A week later when DST kicked in for CA, AZ hadn’t changed, so the call was still at noon Arizona time. But since CA was now synced with AZ (because PDT is the same as MST), the call suddenly moved to noon for the Californians. This presented conflicts with other noon calls already set up with other non-Arizonians. Despite everybody’s groovy electronic calendar technology, these humans have to bicker about this situation twice a year … and that’s all because one state is doing one type of Uniform Time Act exception.

If states could switch to year-round DST…

If California were allowed to switch to year-round DST, of course that would set precedent for other states to do the same. Suppose New Mexico copied Arizona and stopped observing DST, while Colorado stayed as-is, and then Wyoming went to year-round DST to be like the cool kids in California. Clocks in this case would cease to reliably align with geography. The weekly call for the Mountain/Desert Sales Region that covers these states would get unbelievably screwed up twice a year when the time changed, as you shall see.

Let’s say the calendar event was created by the Regional Director who works in Colorado. And let’s say it’s a 2:00 p.m. call: on November 1, this would be 2:00 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time (MDT), which equates to 1:00 p.m. Mountain Standard Time (MST) in New Mexico (due south of Colorado, in case your sense of geography is worse than The Donald’s) and 2:00 p.m. MDT in Wyoming (due north). So that’s your status quo. But a week later, on November 8 when CO falls back, all hell breaks loose. For the CO folks, nothing changes except the call goes from 2:00 p.m. MDT to 2:00 p.m. MST; their calendars aren’t really affected. But the call moves from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. for the NM folks (because NM is now synced with CO) so the NM folks would have to reschedule their other 2:00 calls. On top of that, this same call would become a 3:00 p.m. Wyoming call (because they’d still be on MDT, so they’re now an hour ahead of CA). So Wyoming would also have to move their other calls to accommodate this!

How is this simpler than everybody changing their clocks twice a year? It’s a complete debacle! You’ve got a call that, depending on the state and the time of year, can take place at 1 p.m., 2 p.m., or 3 p.m., despite all these states being at basically the same longitude!

And that’s just one state opting out of DST and one state going to year-round DST. Imagine if even just a handful of other states started exercising their freedom to deviate from the Uniform Time Act in this way. Electronic calendars notwithstanding, millions of Americans would be totally confused. Time zones would become so variable, and so disconnected from geography, people would go nuts.

Slippery slope?

Now, you might accuse me of a slippery slope fallacy—that is, of overstating the downstream consequences of California getting its way. But if you think about it, it’s highly likely other states would adopt year-round DST if California was doing it. Imagine Washington state, with all the tech companies headquartered there (e.g., Microsoft, Amazon, SAP Concur). Surely they’re on conference calls with Silicon Valley companies all the time, and would get tired of the rigmarole every time the clocks changed. Supposing Washington state followed California’s lead, what do you think Oregon would do, sandwiched as it is between the two? It would probably fall in line and adopt year-round DST. With the entire west coast on year-round DST, other states with west coast vendors, customers, and partners—like New York and Virginia—might be tempted, too.

Many states wouldn’t, though. Montana isn’t exactly a hive of interstate corporate activity, and if they went to year-round DST, the sun wouldn’t rise in their northernmost city until 9:21 a.m. at the end of December. It could be that northern states in general would tend to frown on year-round DST due to such impractically late mornings. Southern states would probably stay away from year-round DST too, because they have such hot weather. (Arizona’s earlier sunrise gives its denizens a chance to exercise before it gets hotter than balls out, and their earlier sunset means they don’t have to run their air conditioning so late.) If anything, with this new shift away from the Uniform Time Act, southern states might take the opportunity to copy Arizona and give up DST completely.

With all this in mind it’s not hard to imagine a hopelessly unmanageable situation with mass confusion every March and November, if Congress decided to allow states to observe year-round DST. I highly doubt the authors of CA Prop 7 every considered any of this. Hopefully Congress has, and will hold their ground when California comes around asking to do their own thing.

Who cares?

If you’re still reading this, I’d guess you’re in the minority of people who will bother to ponder such stuff. As I was trying to discuss this with my wife (and already approaching the outer limits of her attention), our daughter chimed in, “Why do we have to change the clocks at all?!” I replied, “Well, if that’s not just a rhetorical question, I’m happy to answer it.” Before she could even reply, my wife cut in: “No, no, she didn’t mean it!” My wife might as well have added, “For God’s sake spare her … she’s just a child!” My daughter was quick to pile on: “Please don’t explain. I really don’t want to know.” (If you do want to know, click here and search the page for “Should we have DST?”)

Prop 7, especially given that it passed, is a great example of the limitations of democracy. Most voters don’t want to wade very deep into complicated matters of policy, but they still want to have their say. They demand simple answers, but sometimes simple answers just don’t exist.

Consider this: seven out of ten Americans want to stop changing their clocks, according to an Associated Press poll, as described here. The problem is, four in ten want to get rid of DST, and three in ten want to adopt it year-round. Factoring in the three out of ten who are fine with the status quo (i.e., changing the clocks twice a year), putting this matter to a simple vote creates, essentially, a three-way tie. (Handing victory to the slightly larger group, the four in ten who oppose DST completely, would disappoint six in ten Americans … hardly a good solution.)

In the case of Prop 7, the Federal government needs to ignore the California voters and do what’s right for the country. I know that sounds brash, but I’m serious. Imagine if our government decided that states should decide everything for themselves. Texas, for example, could decide airport security was a pain in the ass, and that they didn’t need metal detectors. I can envision a Texan politician arguing, “Why shouldn’t an American carry a gun on a plane? How better to stop terrorists?!” Voters in Texas would love this because they’re tired of standing in lines at airports, taking off their wristwatches and belts and shoes and so forth, and might vote for the change as breezily as Californians voted for Prop 7. If Congress honored the wishes of these voters, you’d have armed Texans flying everywhere, and the burden of disarming them would fall to airports around the world, who would need metal detectors at the egress points of each terminal. Why doesn’t this happen? Because, so far, the lawmakers in Washington have the good sense to maintain the FAA as a nationwide body applying the same rules in every state (and Texas hasn’t thought to propose such a thing … that I’m aware of, anyway).

I’m optimistic, then, that Congress is thinking harder about DST (or will, when the time comes) than the voters in California did, and the simple-minded knobs that introduced Prop 7. If Americans across all fifty states were to agree that changing the clocks twice a year wasn’t worth doing, then Congress could come to some consensus about the best way forward: we could all either abandon DST nationwide, or all adopt it year-round. Until and unless that happens, I sincerely hope Washington tells California, “Go away, kid … ya bother me.”

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Election Follies II - California Prop 7, One Year Later


Well, yesterday’s election was sure dull. My city and county didn’t have anything on the ballot so it was a non-event. But that’s how I like it … I detest politics. I’m not one to discuss such matters, nor—usually—to write about them. But I did take an interest, a year ago, in California’s Proposition 7, which was titled “CONFORMS CALIFORNIA DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME TO FEDERAL LAW. ALLOWS LEGISLATURE TO CHANGE DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME PERIOD.”

All the summary stuff in that proposal suggested only that we wouldn’t have to change the clocks twice a year, and the brief summary was really vague about exactly what was being proposed. You have to be one of those really punctilious  readers, who go to the actual text of the proposition, to discover the real purpose, which was “to provide for the year-round application of daylight saving time” (with an important caveat, “if federal law authorizes the state”—a very big “if”). You can read the full text here.

My take on Prop 7

In my previous Prop 7 blog post, I thoroughly dismantled every argument in support of this proposal; considered one legitimate argument for permanent DST that the Prop 7 proponents didn’t mention; explained what’s wrong with permanent DST; pondered how Prop 7 managed to pass (my best guess being that it’s related to Prop 64 from the previous election, which legalized marijuana in California); and explained why this absurd and delusional bit of legislation cannot possibly ever affect anything in the real world.

So Prop 7 passed … now what?

Well, a year has passed, and all of us Californians just turned back the clocks, as usual. So far, Prop 7 hasn’t done a thing—just like I predicted. The only forward motion, as detailed here, is that a California Representative now promises that in January, 2020 he “will introduce an Assembly Joint Resolution urging Congress to authorize states to practice permanent daylight saving time.” Um … that’s 15 months after Prop 7 passed. What the hell has this guy been doing for the past year? Preparing his case? I’ll concede it will be an uphill battle, especially if it’s just this one guy as opposed to a giant task force.

I decided to survey my bike team friends about this (via our group email list). I wanted to see whether they remember this proposition at all; what they remembered; whether they remember the outcome (i.e., passed or not); and what they would expect to have happened by now. Finally, I’ve asked them if they were aware of what this California Representative was looking to do, and how they felt about that. Not surprisingly, the results were interesting, and the (often cheeky) comments amusing.

Who remembers Prop 7?

Of 19 respondents, five had no recollection of Prop 7. Ten recalled that it dealt with California’s approach to Daylight Saving Time (though the title of my survey must’ve given them a good hint). Four respondents (including myself)  “remember perfectly well exactly what it was all about.”

I guess I’m not surprised to be in the minority of people who have kept tabs on this. My wife and teenaged kids profess to be totally bored by any topic related to Daylight Saving Time. I can’t understand this … after all, how our society observes DST affects our daily lives. It determines whether I’m trying to sneak in a bike ride before the workday starts, or eke one out with my remaining energy at the end of the day. It determines whether or not our morning commute, or our children’s, takes place in the dark. Beyond these quotidian matters, I find DST intrinsically fascinating (as I detailed in a non-Prop-7 DST post many years ago). But then, as my kids are fond of pointing out, I’m obviously a crazy mutant from another planet.

I guess I also shouldn’t be surprised that half my respondents had no recollection of whether or not Prop 7 passed. Maybe some of them didn’t pay attention because that outcome is irrelevant, given California’s inability to tell Congress what to do.

Who accurately recalls what Prop 7 aimed for?

Of my 19 respondents, none took the bait on the first multiple-choice response, “Brings CA back into compliance with federal law around DST” even though this bears striking resemblance to the title of the proposition. Well done, friends! I also didn’t fool anybody with “Rolls back the DST extension created during the second Bush administration,” a false response contrived based on what I heard from a couple of confused voters a year ago. However, no fewer than nine respondents thought that Prop 7 sought to allow California to consider opting out of DST entirely. That’s kind of almost the opposite of its real purpose, which only six respondents correctly recalled. (Only one major nation has tried year-round DST: Russia. After four years they admitted their mistake and went back to normal.)

Bringing up the rear, four respondents chose “None of the above,” and unfortunately I forgot to provide a comment section for them to write in what they thought Prop 7 was trying to do. That’s a shame, though I expect at least one comment would have been something like “Hell if I know!”

Given that Prop 7 did pass, what do folks expect to happen?

Nobody clicked on my first multiple-choice response, “I'm wondering why I just changed the clocks back ... wasn't Prop 7 supposed to make this unnecessary?” I think this outcome nicely showcases the widespread cynicism we all have about whether voting really matters and/or whether our governments can actually bring about change.

Four respondents chose “I'm wondering whether anything has happened in terms of pushing legislation through Congress to deliver the promise of Prop 7.” That’s a fair question and I’m surprised more people didn’t choose this response.

Nobody chose “I'm wondering why there is nothing on the ballot today to take the next step and vote on exactly what California will ask Congress to do.” I’m a bit surprised by this. The original proposition, if you didn’t read it carefully, insinuated that all we were doing with Prop 7 was abolishing the clock-changing nonsense, and we’d worry about the fine details later.

Six respondents (including me) chose “I grasped immediately, a year ago, that Prop 7 could never actually deliver any change, because Congress has no incentive to let California be out of whack with the rest of the country for four months a year.” Yeah, exactly. It’s one thing to be a leader in something like a smoking ban, a soft drink tax, or mandatory composting—these are laws California can enforce within our own borders without anyone else having a say. But pretending we can just overturn the federal law around DST makes barely more sense than passing a law declaring, “Disadvantaged Californians may now steal one car or truck apiece from our neighbors in Nevada, Oregon, or Arizona with impunity.”

Disappointingly, not a single respondent chose “Oh, crap, I assumed Prop 7 was in full effect, and I didn't roll my clocks back last weekend!”

That leaves nine more responses. One survey recipient declined to answer this one. (Probably he or she had fallen asleep, as a consequence of a totally befouled circadian rhythm due to the time change.) Two respondents declined to select any of my responses because they didn’t remember Prop 7 that well … fair enough. One respondent apparently thought this test was open-book and wrote, “I realized after reading a short article on the subject that it will take additional action through the state legislature to put it into effect.” That’s cheating! I was trying to get a read on what people felt would be appropriate. I guess with Google, nobody bothers to ponder anything anymore—they just go straight for the answer.

One respondent wrote, “Hawaii and Arizona don't observe daylight savings time, so I didn't think Congress would care if California opted out of it.” Ah, this is a confused voter (or abstainer). Prop 7 isn’t about staying on standard time—it’s about staying on DST. That’s what’s so annoying to me: the way it was written was very confusing (probably deliberately so) which is why I suspect so many Californians didn’t realize what they were actually voting on.

Other responses were pretty funny:
  • “I am totally out of it, I go where I’m told, tell me when to wake up and I will.”
  •  “I’m so glad I moved to a state that doesn’t have a gazillion silly measures on every ballot.” I believe this would have come from either an Oregonian or a Texan (based on where my post-California friends live). So, fair point—but  Oregon and Texas have their own sillinesses, eh?
  • “I advocate eliminating all DST & all time zones globally & using GMT everywhere & 24 hr clocks. Here in CA we’d arise at 2200 and retire at 1300.” Yeah, that would be pretty cool, and would completely eliminate the problem of jet lag!
  • “Every season should be, ‘Fall Back’. I love ‘Fall Back’. I hate ‘Spring Forward’. I’m in favor of having ‘Fall Back’ every six months or so.” Great idea! We’d just slip further and further out of whack with the rest of the world. Just think … eight years in, we’d be on the same time as England, and the sun would rise at like 3pm. Daylight would cease to have any meaning in our lives. Tourists here would be so disoriented, our tourism industry could fleece them more efficiently than ever!
Did people realize California would now pursue year-round DST?

I would love to know what all the California voters, particularly the majority of voters who supported Prop 7, expected to happen. Possibly like half of them thought we’d go to Standard time year-round. We’ll have to settle for what my survey respondents had to say.

Two of them were both aware that a lawmaker would use Prop 7 to push for year-round DST and were glad that California voters are having their wishes carried out. Three respondents weren’t aware of this outcome but are glad to hear voters are being served. This attitude presupposes that these voters actually knew what they were voting for. I guess these five are less cynical than I.

One respondent was aware that Prop 7’s passage would lead to the year-round DST effort and doubts this is what California voters wanted. Hear, hear.

Five respondents (including me) chose “No, and frankly I couldn't care less because obviously Congress will nix this with a quickness.”

Again, the most interesting responses were “Other” with a comment:
  • “No, and I have no idea what ‘most California voters want.’” Great point. Hell, probably a lot of California voters don’t know what California voters (i.e., they themselves) want.
  • “Not interested, other than wondering what the promoters of this prop think they stand to gain. What’s their angle?” Great question! I have puzzled over this myself. They can’t actually believe that changing the clocks is life-threatening, can they?
  • “Just be sure to put signs up on your northern border to remind people crossing over that you all are out of whack. Of course, you already were whacky, just more so if this happens.” I would love to design this sign. I’m guessing this is the Oregonian, because—what about our eastern borders? Or are Nevadans and Arizonians just as wacky as us? (Now, if you take me to task for “as us” vs. “as we,” I’m going to nitpick about “whacky” vs. “wacky.” Let’s jest be mellow and colloquial, okay?)
  • “Huh?” Yeah, no kidding.
  • “No they won’t take my suggestion either.” Um … what exactly is your suggestion? I’d love to hear it.
  • “I have no idea. This seems like a trivial matter compared with the problem of humans paving over the planet.” Wow … great point. And I’d say it applies to the majority of ballot measures, innit?
To be continued…

Check back every few years … I’ll continue to monitor the slow, wasting death of this totally pointless and doomed legislation. 

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Stop Pushing STEM!


From time to time in these pages, I’ve scoffed at the idea that American students need to focus more on STEM. It’s time I tackled this topic head-on.

The rhetoric

Perhaps I don’t even need to establish that there’s a huge push in this country for more students to pursue STEM. I hear it constantly: from my neighbors, from politicians, from fellow parents, from my employer, and from the mass media. But just to substantiate the prevalence of this idea, here are some glib quotes from our nation’s leaders:
Do these politicos speak from personal experience? Of course not. Obama majored in Political Science with a specialty in International Relations and English Literature. Senator Rosen got her degree in Psychology. Senator Rubio studied Political Science. Governor Scott studied Business. Senator Kirk studied History. Governor Bevin majored in East Asian Studies. What a bunch of hypocrites! Do they think they’re special—that they alone can be gainfully employed with a liberal arts degree, while our kids will be doomed if they aren’t suckled on the breast of high tech? Or do these politicians think the job market has fundamentally and permanently changed?

The flaw in this STEM-or-else idea is that it simply isn’t substantiated historically. For most of its history, America has seen most of its people gainfully employed, and only a minority have worked in tech. According to this analysis by the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1996 just under 10% of US employment was in high-tech industries. Twenty years later, in 2016, the percentage of tech jobs was—guess what?—still about 10%. The BLS’s projection for the tech sector’s percentage of jobs in 2026? Wait for it … about 10%. Sure, there are spectacular instances of people making a killing in this realm, but that’s not the same thing as a new status quo. Meanwhile, plenty of people work in tech who don’t have STEM degrees. (More on this later.)

So where are these politicians getting their information? Probably from one another. Or maybe it’s their perception of what the voters are thinking, and they’re simply pandering. Who knows. The only thing that’s obvious to me is a serious lack of skepticism about STEM’s applicability to the majority of our students.

The earnings myth

A prevalent idea in my community is that unless our kids study STEM and get the kickass tech jobs, they won’t be able to afford to live here. True, real estate is famously expensive in the Bay Area, but I object to this chicken-little thinking. For one thing, my neighbors aren’t all (or even mostly) STEM types themselves, yet they do manage to afford their mortgages. And when it comes to their kids, they seem to automatically accept the widespread belief that STEM fields actually assure higher earnings. In fact they don’t.

I’m basing this bold statement on real data you can see for yourself here. This website enables you to see earnings over time across a huge spectrum of college majors. You don’t just see the median income, but how the income range varies according to how well the worker is doing in his or her field.

At first glance, the graphs generated by this website do support the idea that STEM fields pay better. Here’s how all the majors play out over time:

Zoom in. You’ll see that Chemical Engineering clearly pays better than any of the other majors; the lack of a college degree brings up the rear in earnings; and the lowest-earning college degree (the grey line) is Theology. When we use the handy-dandy filtering feature to look at just two majors, we see an apparently similar story:

I picked Computer Science because it seems to be the darling of STEM proponents, and I chose English because it’s what I studied in college. It’s plain to see that on average, the middle-of-the-road (50th percentile) Comp Sci grad does earn more: $3.3 million over his or her career, vs. the roughly $2.5 million an English grad would earn. But this comparison assumes that all humans are equally good at everything, which is patently false. Ask yourself: are you equally good at analyzing literature and programming a computer? Is your appreciation of fine art equal to your math ability? It seems obvious that when choosing a major, a person should factor in his or her interests and capabilities.

That’s where the graphs get very interesting. Let’s say you’re a bookish type and consider yourself smarter than the average bear at appreciating a work of literature. And let’s say you struggle just a bit with math. Should you still pursue STEM? Well, let’s ask the question this way: how much better would you have to be at English to break even on this presumably less lucrative choice of major?

The answer would probably surprise the STEMsters. An English lit major at the 70th percentile will make, on average, $3.1 million over his or her career, which is more than the slightly-below-par Computer Science major; at the 40th percentile, the Comp Sci major makes only $3 million. In other words, if liberal arts are your thing, sticking with them will make you more money than working your ass off trying to fake it in STEM.

Consider now that for the example above, I cherry-picked one of the most lucrative STEM majors. Consider the spread when we compare English to Chemistry:

In this case, you only have to be slightly better than average—55th percentile—in English to make more money than a somewhat substandard—40th percentile—Chem major. (The former would make $2.61 million over his or her career; the latter, $2.58 million.) Comparing English to Biology, the gap is even smaller: you’d only have to be at 55th percentile for English to make more than a 50th-percentile Bio major. To reiterate: the STEM fields are only more lucrative to those who are particularly suited to them.

(I was turned on to this website by this slide deck, put together by the UC Santa Barbara Associate Vice Chancellor, who is also a math professor, to promote liberal arts. This same data set is cited by The New York Times in this article, which declares it a myth that “for the big money, STEM always delivers.”)

Job security

Now, the STEM-pushers might naturally reply, “Great, fine, those who manage to find work in non-STEM fields do okay. But all the modern jobs are in tech! Do you want to work as a barista because your liberal arts degree didn’t equip you for the modern workforce?”

The short answer is what I already showed: tech doesn’t actually employ more of the workforce than it did twenty years ago, and that’s not expected to change. The long answer, meanwhile, looks even worse for STEM. When we compare the number of STEM jobs available to the number of students majoring in STEM subjects, we discover a frightening gap. To put it bluntly, the widespread promotion of STEM has already produced a glut of majors in those subjects. Check out this article in The New York Times, and particularly the graph at the top. It shows that there were 169,000 Engineering degrees (undergrad & graduate) awarded in 2015-2016, while that field only expects 51,000 job openings for 2014 through 2024. Life Sciences is even worse, with 183,000 degrees awarded and only  12,000 openings for those grads. Math isn’t much better, with 7,000 jobs forecast and 33,000 degrees awarded.

With this in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that studying STEM doesn’t guarantee getting a STEM-related job. Far from it, in fact. “Unemployment rates for STEM majors may be low,” the Times article states, “but not all of those with undergraduate degrees end up in their field of study — only 13 percent in life sciences and 17 percent in physical sciences, according to a 2013 National Science Foundation survey. Computer Science is the only STEM field where more than half of graduates are employed in their field.”

According to an expert quoted in the Times article, STEM advocates are “often executives and lobbyists for technology companies,” which makes sense. I can’t blame a tech company for wanting to have more graduates to choose from, and for wanting the best and brightest of our youth to be added to that pool. But this doesn’t mean America’s tech companies have room for all these people, and they certainly feel no responsibility to hire all of them. So who’s looking out for all the STEM grads whose résumés end up in the recycling?

The biggest myth

I hope I’ve helped you realize that a) studying STEM doesn’t necessarily lead to greater income, and 2) studying STEM doesn’t increase the likelihood of finding a job. But those are the easier cases to make. I have a more fundamental bone to pick: even if STEM were more lucrative and reliable, that doesn’t mean we should push it on our kids. To me, the greatest myth of all is an implicit one: that job security and income are the most important factors in a person’s happiness.

I won’t deny that job stability and wealth are great things to have. Frankly, I love money, and I’d be thrilled if I could relax a bit more about my own job security. But I naturally bristle at the pressure our kids are getting—from their peers, their parents, pundits, and the media—to pursue STEM regardless of their natural inclinations. The FUD being sowed here really bothers me, when you consider how hard it already is to be a teenager. I’m also irked by the idea that we parents know what’s best for our youth, when most of us—raised in the “Me Generation” of the ‘70s, with an abundance of laissez-faire parents—got to chart our own course, and most of us are doing just fine.

I think the external pressure put on our kids is inherently malignant. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to do as they please? Parents are saying, “Follow this path” instead of “Find your own path,” and I take this as a vote of no-confidence.

“Be realistic,” the STEMist might say. “All this follow-your-dream ideology just isn’t practical.” I beg to differ. How practical is it to add extra stress to a teenager’s life by saying “You’d better do X-Y-Z or you’ll never be able to afford to [live here] [buy a home] [have a family] [pay off your loans] [be financially secure]”? Consider how rampant mental health issues are across our society: according to this article, more than 44 million American adults (almost one in five) suffer from a mental health condition. That’s a hell of a lot higher than our nation’s rate of unemployment.

I read a fascinating but sobering book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine, a child psychologist in nearby Marin County. She describes the often disastrous results of affluent parents pressuring their kids to achieve a certain standard of worldly success:
As long as kids are not afforded the opportunity to craft a sense of self that feels authentic, a sense of self that truly comes from within, psychologists like myself will continue to see more and more youngsters at risk for profound feelings of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and emptiness.
The authentic self

Let’s examine what a truly authentic STEM kid might look like. A generation ago, only oddball nerds dug computers. Consider my brother Bryan, for example. He naturally gravitated toward programming and in junior high spent countless hours in front of a teletype, which was a type of primitive computer that didn’t even have a monitor: it was connected to a printer and to a mainframe somewhere. Nobody knows what the hell he and his rare ilk were actually doing with these machines. Baseline Junior High had exactly two teletypes, and Bryan didn’t have to compete with very many others for access. (He did, however, have to talk his teachers into letting him cut typing class and study hall to get that precious computer time.) He was a dyed-in-the-wool computer geek, who loved the pure logic of programming, and that was that.

And now we have politicians, corporate spokespeople, the media, and parents saying everybody should be diving into technology, engineering, and such. Sure, everybody uses computers and smartphones now, but does that mean everyone should be designing, building, or programming them? Does the idea (however exaggerated) that all the good jobs are in STEM fields suddenly mean this is what actually ought to interest your typical kid? Is everybody a tech-geek now, just because society has decided we need more of them?

Allow me a playful analogy: what if the experts determined that, as far as pets go, dogs had a brighter future than cats? What if we decided that it just wasn’t practical, in the 21st century, to behave in a feline fashion? Would anybody try to teach a housecat to tolerate a leash, to ride in the car, to bark, and to wag its tail to show happiness? Of course this would be decried as nonsense: nobody could ask a cat to change its very nature. But how are humans any different?

And yet, there’s this widespread idea that everybody now ought to be immersed in this specialized world of bits and bytes, vectors and trajectories, atoms and angles. The profit motive seems to have warped everybody’s sensibility here. Let’s face it: kids throughout time have had plenty of math and science instruction in school … those subjects were never really neglected. What’s changed is this idea, suddenly, that what schools have been offering isn’t enough and we should all have our knickers in a twist about it, with new programs, new legislation, and budget cuts for the liberal arts.

My community’s progressive and well-run school district provides plenty of opportunities in STEM. A year or so ago, my older daughter even signed up for a high school Computer Science course, and I was all for it—because it was her idea. I even offered to help her mess around with our family’s Arduino programmable microcontroller when the time came. However, a couple weeks into the term my daughter decided that she just didn’t dig the class, and ultimately dropped it. (She was sad about this, since she really liked the teacher, but knew herself well enough to recognize a bad fit. Not that she’s anti-STEM; she’s in college now, majoring in Psychological & Brain Sciences.)

Looking at the wider realm of STEM—the non-T, non-E part—certainly the realms of science and math are capacious enough to accommodate a wide variety of interests. But the decline in Humanities majors deserves to be wondered about. How much of this can be chalked up to parental influence around what our kids pursue, and why?

My own story

I couldn’t blame you for assuming that my skepticism toward STEM is a case of sour grapes, or a defensive crouch based on my own (supposedly) humble liberal arts education. But in fact, I’ve worked in STEM for my whole career. (Though I didn’t set out to be an engineer, my dormant technical ability was discovered when I took a programming aptitude test during recruitment by an Internet company.) I was able to learn Internet routing, shell scripting, network troubleshooting, traffic shaping, access control, and network design on the job, but my career growth has been largely based on so-called “soft skills”—including the ability to communicate, write, negotiate, and imagine others’ points of view—which all came from my liberal education. As my work has evolved, what I learned in college has only become more important. I am truly grateful I didn’t “play it safe” by studying Computer Science, Engineering, or Math (like my dad, ahead of his time in Humanities-bashing, exhorted me to).

What employers really want

So your next question might be, isn’t my case kind of an anomaly? Not necessarily. Certain fields, like Chemical Engineering, do require specific credentials. But high tech seems to prioritize the ability to learn above having specific credentials, and employs a wide variety of people. As described in this article, featured in the UCSB Vice Chancellor’s pro-liberal-arts presentation, Google appreciates many capabilities typically associated with a liberal education:
In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others’ different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.
This Forbes article, also cited by the UCSB Vice Chancellor, declares that “That ‘useless’ liberal arts education has become tech’s hottest ticket.” It goes on to say:
Software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger… At disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers—and make progress seem pleasant.
Conclusion: what is to be done?

I hope that I’ve made a compelling case here that the widespread effort to push more kids into STEM is myopic at best. STEM doesn’t guarantee a higher income; doesn’t increase the likelihood of gainful employment; and, moreover, doesn’t support our kids and their need for a true sense of self. Ultimately, where a young person lands isn’t a simple plug-and-play matter of what degree he or she earned. I truly believe that when it comes to the next generation, all of us—the parents, the politicians, and the pundits—would do well to just shut up and stand aside. Let’s let our kids follow their own interests, trusting in themselves, in higher education, and in the vast and varied job market.

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