Wednesday, February 24, 2010



Wøw, whåt’s ůp wíth thís tėxt? Why åll thė stråy mårks? Ås yøů shåll sėė å bít låtėr, Í’vė crėåtėd å tėxt-líttėríng tøøl tø cømbåt whåt Í sėė ås å vėry ånnøyíng tėchnøløgy crėåtėd by Gøøglė.

The technology is called Adsense, and it’s what generates the Sponsored Links (i.e., advertisements) that you see alongside Google searches and Gmail. These ads never bothered me when I saw them in Google’s search engine; even when I starting using Gmail, I found the ads unobtrusive and ignored them—at first. But over time I’ve come to dislike, and fear, where Adsense is taking the advertisement industry. This post describes my misgivings, and my humble attempt to combat Google’s technology.

My problem with ads

Google aside, I dislike ads. They’re a nuisance, like telemarketers. It bothers me that ads of all kinds are becoming more and more ubiquitous. Now you get them in movie theaters, in elevators, at the gas pump, even on the back of hotel room keys. I assert that a company’s need to advertise is generally based on one (or both) of two scenarios:

  1. Their product isn’t good enough to compete in the marketplace on its own merit;
  2. Their product isn’t really necessary, so demand for it must be created.

Notice how best-of-breed products don’t need to advertise. Think of your favorite restaurant: does it advertise? It probably doesn’t need to: word of mouth and good food are probably all it needs to thrive. On a larger scale, when’s the last time you saw a Google billboard? (No one can deny the quality of products like Google search, Picasa, Blogger, and Google maps. Similarly, Google doesn’t need to tout them.)

The ads that create demand for unnecessary products usually do so by suggesting that we’re somehow not complete or optimized without them. Many years ago I came across a really memorable quote in a profile of George Meyer, a writer for the TV show “The Simpsons”: “I hate [advertising] because it irresponsibly induces discontent in people for one myopic goal, and then it leaves the debris of that process out there in the culture.” Think of the fictitious syndromes created by advertisers, like ring around the collar (which I’ve never seen in my life). Or, “Cute guy, but he’s scratching his head … could be dandruff!”

That said, I see many kinds of advertising as generally harmless—a necessary evil, perhaps—especially in traditional forms such as print ads. From an environmental perspective I’m against publications like fashion magazines or newspapers where the ads greatly outnumber the pages of actual content, but I can live with the ads in, say, the “New Yorker.” These ads are generally for things I would never consider buying, so I don’t really notice them, and I can prove it: from time to time the magazine sends out online surveys, and the first page will ask, “Do you recall an ad for [such-and-such] in the issue of [date]?” I (honestly) answer “no,” and then the next screen shows me the ad: “Does this look familiar?” D’oh! It does! So I have a vague awareness of these ads, but I can count on zero hands how many Rolex watches I’ve bought as a result of seeing them.

How Adsense changes the game

Adsense, however, tailors the ads to other text on the page—your text. If you search on, say, “computer printers,” above your search results will be sponsored links from, say, HP, Epson, and Geek Squad. Or if you’re a Gmail user and, in an e-mail to your brother, you describe a problem you’re having with your printer, you shouldn’t be surprised to see similar ads alongside your message and his response. The ads are tailored to you, which the Gmail folks pretend is a service. (New this year: if Adsense can’t tailor an ad to a current Gmail message, it’ll give you ads based on other messages in your Inbox. Presumably this could allow unopened quasi-spam messages, like solicitations from charities you’ve supported in the past, to spawn solicitations alongside a message you did choose to open.)

I don’t have a problem with Adsense as a part of Google’s search engine, because when I visit I’m looking for something. Likewise, I have no problem with suggesting that if I like Radiohead I might also like Coldplay, because is a retail site—I’m there to look for things and buy them, after all. But putting ads alongside my personal e-mail is obnoxious—I’m there to enjoy correspondence, not to shop. Google isn’t the first e-mail provider to do this, of course, but Adsense greatly increases the chances that I might actually pay attention to an ad: that is, it increases the chances that the blurring of lines between personal and retail time will be successful, which I don’t want it to be.

What’s the problem?

Okay, fine—if I don’t like ads in Gmail, I just don’t use it. So what’s the problem? Well, I do use another company’s e-mail product (paying $10/month for the privilege of ad-free e-mail), but I’m still involved in the Adsense scheme every time I send an e-mail to a friend or family member’s Gmail account. My e-mail content will dish up sponsored links that my recipient might be inclined to click on. I want no part of this, but I can’t opt out. I have discouraged my brothers from using Gmail, but they can’t resist its great design. Tyranny doesn’t have to come via brute force: we’re all too susceptible to being lulled into it. As an Aesop’s fable has said, “Persuasion is better than force.”

Which brings me to another issue I have with Adsense: it’s furthering the widespread acceptance of ads in general. People used to pay extra for cable TV because it didn’t have ads; now it does. People grumbled at first when commercials started playing in movie theaters—imagine, paying good money to see ads!—but once they showed up those ads never went away. Now I see ads alongside blogs. Adsense can be invoked on any blog hosted by Blogger (aka Blogspot, aka Google). One of the main links on my Blogger dashboard is “Monetize,” and by clicking it I get breathtakingly close to changing albertnet from a place to read in peace to a vehicle for advertisers. Suddenly, your average Joe can go from ad audience to ad generator with just a few mouse clicks. Google is the kind of juggernaut that can influence society in untoward directions; that their corporate motto is “Don’t be evil” isn’t much of a comfort.

What is to be done?

It’s probably too late to recommend that people not use Gmail for their primary personal e-mail (by one count it currently has 146 million subscribers). Moreover, anybody who uses Blogger or Picasa (myself included) is required to maintain a Gmail account. Some anti-Gmail websites advise people not to send e-mail to Gmail addresses, but this is similarly impractical.

I’m not expecting happy Gmail users to abandon their e-mail provider; I would just like them to think about what Google is doing with Adsense. I would like people to recognize that by using Gmail, they’re giving up something: not privacy, per se, but another little corner of their world not infected by marketing. I would like people to take a moment pondering exactly what brave new world they’re being lulled into. And I think Gmail users ought to accept responsibility for helping to inch society ever closer to an advertising climate like what we saw in “Minority Report,” where a person’s every waking moment is spent being bombarded with targeted solicitations.

If you would like to prod Gmail users into considering these things, and/or don’t want your e-mails to generate content-specific ads for your friends or family members who use Gmail, you might consider using my Anti-Adsense macro. It turns your e-mail text into something Adsense cannot decipher. Spėcífícålly, ít rėplåcės yøůr vøwėls wíth qůåsí-ėqůívålėnts thåt thė hůmån bråín cån håndlė, bůt whích tůrn yøůr wørds íntø gíbbėrísh frøm thė Ådsėnsė tėxt-scånníng pėrspėctívė. Here’s a short video showing how simple the macro is to use:

Below are a couple of screen shots showing how the macro foils Adsense. The first snapshot shows you a normal-text sample e-mail with the customized ads alongside. The second snapshot shows you the same e-mail with macro-revised, fouled-vowel text, with Adsense forced to dish up unrelated ads alongside the message. Click to enlarge each image:

The macro-revised text is a bit annoying to read, of course, but that’s half the point: when your Gmail recipient asks about the funny marks above the vowels in your e-mail, you can send him or her a link to this blog post, and ask (rhetorically) what’s worse: stray marks around the vowels, or customized ads turning personal correspondence into a retail opportunity?

I doubt anybody would actually bother to use my macro, but I’d be happy to send it to whoever wants it (e-mail me at I’m sure there are much cleverer ways to foil Adsense than I’ve come up with; I’m just a recovering English major, after all. I’m sure a good programmer could quickly code something that would hook right into the browser and twėåk thė vøwėls, or perahps mkae smoe ohter chaneg ni teh tetx thta aslo fiol Adsesne. I’ve pondered an e-mail footer in a tiny white font containing just the right text to elicit a bunch of inline ads for innocuous products like Carmex or Rolex, ignoring the real e-mail text. If you have any ideas, please feel free to post them below, or e-mail them to me.

Ad-haters of the world, unite!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bedtime Stories


Somehow I’ve set the expectation with my kids that they get an original bedtime story every night. This is no easy matter—they can be a pretty tough audience, and have the power to refuse to sleep if the story doesn’t satisfy. So every night, after the pajamas are on and teeth brushed, I crawl into the lower bunk with Lindsay and try to think something up.

I suppose a stronger parent might simply refuse to tell these stories, but in this matter I’m inclined to indulge my daughters. After all, the story tradition cuts both ways: not only do they get entertained, but I have a rapt audience whose beliefs, values, and worldview are still highly malleable. One of my greatest joys as a parent is the opportunity to inculcate young minds literally from birth with the stamp of my own predilections.

I mentioned these bedtime stories to a few friends at a cocktail party, and they suggested I set up a bedtime story blog, selling stories to other parents. But before I get all entrepreneurial, I need to deeply ponder the question of whether these friends were being sarcastic. (From time to time, since childhood, I’ve suspected my “friends” are mocking me, and not infrequently I’ve been right.) In any event, I think the topic deserves at least a post. What follows is a brief how-to of bedtime stories, an examination of my story-rotation system, and a sampling of recent tales that were well received.

The making of … bedtime stories

I’ve taken some creative writing classes in my lifetime, and the most prescriptive of them made much of the classic “arc of the story”: exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. When I first encountered this concept, I was skeptical; however, looking at how my bedtime stories have evolved, I realize they fit this model pretty well. In fact, if I don’t apply this dramatic structure, I get complaints: “It doesn’t seem like it’s over,” “Nothing happened,” or “That was boring.” To satisfy Alexa, I have to build in just enough conflict and excitement that Lindsay clutches my arm and says, “I’m scared!” but not so much that Lindsay starts to cry. The balancing act is not easy.

This doesn’t mean I strive to create lasting, high-quality tales. By bedtime, I’m almost desperate to get the kids down and salvage what’s left of my grown-up time before exhaustion claims me. My holy grail is a story that is extremely short but still satisfies the kids. I dare not start a story without having the plot worked out in my head; making it up as you go can lead to a rambling mess that lasts half an hour or more. The idea of a rote, formulaic story actually holds great appeal for me, and in the early days I managed to float a lot of cheap retreads before I started getting complaints. Still, kids do like structure, so while I’ve gotten away from totally modular stories, we’ve settled into a rotation of characters and plot elements.

The story rotation

For some reason, probably related to how fried my brain is in the evening, I haven’t managed to memorize our story rotation. Only Alexa knows the exact schedule, and often has to tell me which kind of story I’m to do. (She has to whisper it in my ear because Lindsay insists on its being a surprise.) As luck would have it, as I was here typing Alexa wandered by and I asked her, at long last, for the official story schedule.

Monday – Princess Dariella, without Astavus Gadolphus
Tuesday – Choice Night
Wednesday - Princess Dariella, with Astavus Gadolphus
Thursday – Jimella/Carmella/Len
Friday – Flujee
Saturday – Jimella/Carmella, no Len
Sunday – Peter & Edwin (with Ken every other Sunday)

Dariella is the princess of Monaco. (I actually know very little about Monaco, but fortunately my kids know even less.) Astavus Gadolphus is Dariella’s nemesis, a former suitor who is always trying to ruin her plans. Jimella, Carmella, Peter, and Edwin are all mountain lions who live in Tilden Park. (I wish I’d never introduced them, because they mostly run together in my mind, except for Carmella, who was raised by Wildcare.) Len is a mountain lion cub who can’t wait to grow up. Ken is a bobcat with a Napoleon complex. Flujee is a non-extinct backwards-flying dodo bird (a character thought up decades ago by a babysitter who delighted my brothers and me with a long series of Flujee stories). There have been other stock stories that I’ve discontinued, and Choice Night (anything you want) has begun to feature Alexa and Lindsay as special guest storytellers.

And now, here are a few tales, which are as faithful to the originals as my memory permits. I’ve included some commentary as well.

Princess Dariella and the African Safari

My first sample story is a Princess Dariella. On the night I told it, just before the kids’ bedtime, I was reading a brilliant short story in the “New Yorker,” and I stole from it not only my plot but several important particulars. (I don’t often steal ideas this blatantly, but, like a decorator crab, I’ll tend to use whatever I come across.) In this story I also included a special guest character, Kim, whom I appropriated from Rudyard Kipling’s novel. Kim shows up in a number of my stories, though in my stories he lives not in India but at the San Francisco zoo. (Now, in case you think it’s wrong for me to borrow characters and plots like this, I’ll remind you that Shakespeare stole the plot of “Romeo and Juliet” from the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.”)

____“Alexa and Lindsay were playing Sorry in the living room when the phone rang. The ring tone was ‘Madame Butterfly.’”
____[Alexa breaks in, “I know who that is!”]
____“Sure enough, it was Princess Dariella, inviting Alexa and Lindsay to go on an African safari with her. Since the Princess was a family friend, their parents let them go with her. So, less than two weeks later, Alexa and Lindsay found themselves in Africa, sitting next to Princess Dariella in the back seat of a Land Rover. There were a couple of tourists in the middle seat whom they didn’t know, a hired driver up front, and in the seat next to him a slender fellow who seemed vaguely familiar to Alexa and Lindsay. They couldn’t see up there well enough to figure out who it was, though.”
____[“Not Astavus Gadolphus!” says Lindsay, sounding concerned.]
____[“No, because it’s not his night,” Alexa says.]
____“Girls, please be quiet and let me tell the story. Now, the girls were enjoying the sights when suddenly the driver stopped and shut off the engine. Amazingly, there were three lions only about twenty feet from the Rover. Alexa and Lindsay were so interested in the lions they didn’t even notice that one of the tourists had gotten out of the Rover and gotten closer to the lion to take a picture.
____“Now, that was a really dumb thing to do, because one of the lions was provoked to attack the tourist. And what happened next was truly amazing. Several things happened almost at once, within a split second, but during the crisis time seemed to slow down and Alexa and Lindsay could watch everything unfold, like in slow motion. Just as one of the lions prepared to leap at the tourist—”
____[“I’m scared!” cries Lindsay, clutching my arm. Alexa, rapt, shushes her, but Lindsay is on the verge of crying. “Is he going to be okay?” she whimpers. This frequently happens: she needs to be assured that things will come out well, but Alexa doesn’t want the surprise spoiled, so she (Alexa) plugs her ears and sings an impromptu barebones la-la-la song in her upper bunk while I whisper assurances in Lindsay’s ear. Either my kids have failed to observe that things always come out okay in my stories, or they assume past performance does not guarantee future results.]
____“So just as the lion was preparing to leap, Alexa and Lindsay cried out. This caught the attention of the person in the front seat next to the driver—the one who had looked familiar to Alexa and Lindsay—who had been looking elsewhere. Once he saw what was going on, he did something remarkable. He leapt straight up out of his seat, and straight through the open sun roof of the rover. Then he did a somersault down the windshield, and sprang again straight up in the air, extending his arms and legs as far as possible, to make himself as large as he could, while sounding a very loud cry. The girls suddenly recognized him: this was their good friend Kim!
____“Kim’s leap distracted the lion for just an instant—long enough for the driver to pull out a gun and fire it, straight up in the air. The tourist scrambled out of the way, and though the lion did leap, that moment of distraction caused him to narrowly miss his prey. And because of the gunshot, all three lions then ran away as fast as they could.”
____[“All this within a split second,” Lindsay says in wonderment.]
____“The tourist with the camera was so scared he wet his pants.” [I don’t often include potty talk in my stories, but occasionally I indulge the immature tastes of my daughters. Sure enough, they laugh uproariously, right on cue.] “Kim got back in the rover and was congratulated for his quick thinking and his acrobatic feat. The driver, totally disgusted at the tourist, began to drive away, leaving the tourist standing there. ‘I’m not driving anybody around who has soiled his pants,’ he muttered.” [More tittering from the girls.] “But once the rover was about fifty feet away, the driver sighed, shook his head, and drove pack to pick up the tourist. ‘The fool wouldn’t last half an hour out here by himself,’ he growled.”
____[Lindsay knows the story is over and comes in for her goodnight hug and kiss, and I can hear Alexa swing down to the bunk bed ladder to receive hers.]

Flujee and the Peacocks

It’s hard to know where the ideas from my stories come from, as hastily contrived as they are. I often consider the idea of working on a story idea in advance, but it never happens; I don’t have room to think until I’m lying in the bunk, in the dark, and have managed to shush my children. It’s actually kind of fun to reflect on a story after the fact. It can be a glimpse into my subconscious, I suppose. In the following story, the key environmental factor I lifted from the memory of my pre-dawn bike ride that day.

____“Alexa and Lindsay were having a picnic in Tilden Park with their good friend Flujee. They had some good food, flew a Frisbee around, and rested awhile, and then Flujee had to go. She thanked them for the picnic and flew off, backwards of course. Shortly after she left two beautiful peacocks walked out and said hello to Alexa and Lindsay. Their tails were all fanned out and were brilliantly colored.
____“‘You can talk!’ Alexa and Lindsay said, amazed. ‘Yes, of course we can talk,’ said one of the peacocks. ‘That’s amazing!’ Alexa and Lindsay said.” [As characters, Alexa and Lindsay aren’t well developed in my stories. I frequently have them sharing an action or a bit of dialog. This is to keep them from getting jealous, fearing that the other has a better part in the story. They may outgrow this—or not. I’ve read that William Shatner’s “Star Trek” contract guaranteed him more lines of dialog, in every episode, than Leonard Nimoy was given.]
____“‘Why is that amazing? Your friend could talk,’ one peacock said. ‘Yeah, but she’s a non-extinct, backward-flying dodo bird,’ Alexa and Lindsay explained. ‘I noticed that—her flying was very impressive,’ the other peacock replied. ‘In fact, the reason we came to talk to you is that we were intrigued by your friend, and wanted to see if we could hang out with her sometime.’ Alexa and Lindsay replied, ‘Why didn’t you just come out and strike up a conversation then?’ The peacocks looked at each other, then back at the girls. ‘We’re shy,’ one of them said.
____“So Lindsay and Alexa promised to talk to Flujee about the peacocks, and arranged to meet the peacocks at the same picnic area the next afternoon, bringing Flujee with them. They found Flujee at Terrace Park and mentioned the birds’ desire to meet her. To their surprise, Flujee wasn’t interested. ‘I don’t really like peacocks,’ she explained. ‘They’re so flamboyant, so proud, always wanting to be the center of attention.’ Alexa and Lindsay explained that no, these peacocks were actually kind of shy, and seemed really friendly. But Flujee was having none of it, and changed the subject.
____“This was a real shame, of course, because as Lindsay and Alexa well knew, Flujee was a very lonely bird. Her entire species had gone extinct three hundred years ago, and other birds either teased her, like the pigeons did, or intimidated her, like the hawks did. The girls felt sure that Flujee would hit it off with the peacocks and be glad to have met them.”
____[“Hit it off?” Lindsay asks. “It’s a figure of speech,” I explain. “It means to get along well.”]
____“So after talking it over for some time, the girls devised a plan. They invited Flujee to join them the following morning in Tilden Park, way up on the ridge at the top of South Park road, to watch the sun rise. Then they found the peacocks, and invited them as well. On the appointed morning, Alexa and Lindsay met up with Flujee at 5:30 a.m.
____“Why so early? Well, it was important to be up on the ridge before civil twilight, so that their eyes would be adjusted to the dark and they’d get the full effect of the sunrise, from its faint beginning glow to the first thin rind of sun popping up over the horizon. When the girls and Flujee arrived, the peacocks were already waiting there. Alexa and Lindsay were nervous about Flujee’s reaction to the peacocks, but their scheme worked perfectly: because there was so little light, nobody could see the brilliant colors of the peacocks’ feathers. All the colors were so muted and dull, Flujee couldn’t even tell what kind of birds they were.
____“As they waited for the sunrise, every chatted and got along really well. But Alexa and Lindsay were still nervous about what would happen as it got lighter and lighter and the peacocks’ colors became visible. Would Flujee turn on the peacocks? And would she be upset with Alexa and Lindsay?” [Lindsay starts to worry aloud here, and as Alexa plugs her ears and la-la-la’s, I assure Lindsay that everything will work out.]
____“It gradually got lighter and lighter, but as the horizon began to glow orange, the birds were so transfixed they didn’t take their eyes off it—so they were no longer looking at each other, though they continued to chat. It was a wonderfully clear morning and everyone enjoyed an exquisite sunrise, and by the time Flujee realized she’d been hanging out with a couple of peacocks, it was too late—they were all already friends.
____“Eventually both the peacocks and Flujee figured out that Alexa and Lindsay had set up the whole thing, but how could they be angry? Thanks to the creative arrangement the girls had made, all three birds had a new friend. And Alexa and Lindsay had two!”

Farm Story

A year or so ago, I hit on a plug-n-play story idea that gave me some really easy breaks in the rotation. One rote plotline concerned Francis, a hen, and another was about Marilyn, a cow. Depending on the bedtime stories these animals were told, they’d have crazy dreams that would affect what food they produced. The hen’s eggs would have something besides a white and a yolk in them, and the cow would give something other than milk. The dreams that caused these oddities wouldn’t be revealed until the end, so there was a slight element of mystery in the stories, but really they were largely unimaginative and utterly simple to contrive. The kids eventually protested, and we retired the series. But on Choice Night recently, I made a fairly successful play at injecting new life into the tired old genre.

____“A farmer was being audited by a government inspector.” [Some tedious explanation of the USDA is omitted here.] “The inspector took a tour of the farm, starting with the barn. He watched as the farmer milked his cow, Marilyn. The farmer did this the old-fashioned way, with a pail and a stool. But what came out of Marilyn’s udders wasn’t white—it was yellow! The inspector raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything. The farmer shook his head, then moved on to his next chore. He collected several eggs from Francis, and brought them into the kitchen, the inspector tagging along. The farmer looked carefully at the viscous yellow liquid in the pail, sniffed it, thought a moment, and then melted some butter in a pan. When the pan was good and hot he poured in the yellow liquid, which sizzled and began to set up. ‘Aha—I guessed right,’ he said. ‘Scrambled eggs.’
____“The farmer cracked one of Francis’s eggs into a bowl. What came out wasn’t a white and a yolk. Instead, out fell a couple of strips of raw bacon, folded up like an accordion. The farmer shrugged, pushed the eggs to the side of the pan, and threw the bacon in. Then he cracked open the rest of the eggshells, which also contained folded bacon. The inspector was incredulous. ‘We have some strange animals,’ the farmer explained. ‘It’s because my farmhands tell such outlandish bedtime stories.’
____“At that very moment Alexa and Lindsay came through the kitchen. ‘Hang on, I want to talk to you,’ the farmer said. ‘By any chance did you tell my livestock some strange stories last night?’ The girls explained that they’d simply described, to each animal, what life was like for the other animals, so all the animals could better relate to one another. The farmer showed them what Marilyn had produced instead of milk, and what came out of Francis’s eggshells. The girls giggled. The inspector, savoring the delicious smells, no longer seemed upset by anything. ‘Would you girls like to stay for breakfast?’ the farmer asked.
____“‘That sounds lovely, but we’ll have to pass,’ the girls replied. ‘We have to go milk the pig.’”

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

From the Archives - Farewell, ‘84 Volvo


A year ago today I drove my beloved ’84 Volvo to a wrecking yard to be utterly destroyed (in exchange for $650 that Alameda County paid me to get my “gross polluter” off the road). To commemorate this anniversary I am posting here my farewell letter for the car (that I’d sent around as my holiday newsletter that year). But first, here is a movie I made at the Goodbye Volvo party that morning:

Farewell, ’84 Volvo - December 23, 2008

I’m going to share with you a long goodbye to the only car I’ve ever owned.

For awhile it seemed the car would live forever, a position emphatically held by our stellar Volvo mechanic. But alas, after more than a decade of solid service the car began to deteriorate rapidly, such that our program of maintenance came to seem like one of hospice. A shocking turn of events this past June led us to finally replace our beloved car. What follows is a eulogy of sorts, in the form of a timeline of the car’s life, told in fond memories.

AD 1984 – Our car, a grey Volvo 240GL wagon, is born in Gothenburg, Sweden. Over the next twelve years, it has at least one owner, perhaps several—who knows? Eventually it is sold to an independent used Volvo shop in Richmond, California where it becomes the errand vehicle during its Corduroy-like wait to be given a good home.

February 16, 1996 – We haven’t had a car in two years (since Erin had a company car), but Erin now needs a car for her new job. She meets our mechanic for the first time, and purchases our Volvo from his shop for $3,994.45 ($3,500 plus the tax, smog, license, registration, etc.). Mileage: 206,000 (with a newly rebuilt engine).

February 20, 1996 – My second time driving the Volvo. Erin is fighting a flu, and—after a terrible hour-long commute in the dark and rain from Fremont to San Francisco—doesn’t feel like driving around looking for a parking spot. I head to Hyde Street, a grade so fiendishly steep that most people won’t park there. Using a driveway to turn around, I stall the car. I sit there trying to crank the engine, with a chorus of angry honking cars piling up behind me. I decide to try roll-starting the car. I roll backwards down the hill, in the rain, in the dark, and did I mention on one of the steepest hills on planet earth? Soon enough I have a good head of speed, and I pop the clutch. The car dry-heaves, but I get nothing out of it. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, I am losing vacuum pressure in the power brakes, and they began to get harder and harder to apply. (No engine means no power brakes; as a freshly minted motorist, I don’t understand any of this at the time. I simply assume things are taking on the semblance of a nightmare, the one where your car is rolling toward a precipice and you can’t brake hard enough to stop it.) Now I’m starting to get closer to Bay Street, a major thoroughfare; after that, open ocean. I’m not dead yet, but I’m fairly hurtling down the street with an occasional heave as I pop the clutch. Suddenly I spot a gap between two cars: if I can just get the car pulled in there, I’ll be saved! Miraculously, I end up perfectly parked, two inches from the curb. Lessons learned: 1) this car has a loose ignition wire; and, 2) this car is easy to parallel-park because it’s got a really tight turning circle.

October 20, 1996 – An airport shuttle van backs into our Volvo at an intersection. The driver tries to claim Erin rear-ended him. Witnesses scare him into submission. $987.48 in damages.

November 30, 1997 – A huge pickup truck backs into our Volvo at a gas station. Because the driver starts his trajectory from at least fifty feet away, I watch in horror as the disaster unfolds before me. I don’t have time to start the engine and back up, but I have time to honk the horn, which gets the attention of the gas station cashier, who becomes our star witness. The driver tries to weasel out of paying for the repair, and I eventually have to call his insurance company directly. Why do these jerks have it in for the grille of our innocent car?

February 15, 1998 – As of the two-year mark, the car has been costing us six cents a mile to operate. We have virtually no problems until a ski trip with Kari, Erin’s friend from the newspaper. On the way back from a ski resort near Truckee, we get stuck in a horrible blizzard, and the windshield wipers go out. I have to drive along with my window down, manually dragging the left wiper across the windshield, the car sliding all over the road. Kari seems certain that we are all going to die. The blizzard closes the highway and we have to get a motel in nearby Reno. When we have finally returned to the Bay Area, Kari affectionately dubs our car “the PLP” (from its license plate, 3PLP090), and to this day she looks back fondly on our shared ordeal, as one would a mining shaft cave-in we survived together.

February 27 thru March 6, 1999 – The PLP, parked on Lombard Street at Hyde, won’t start, despite my attempts to roll-start it, jump-start it, and charge the battery. I put in a new battery but it still won’t start. So I decide to just leave the car for awhile and at some point have it towed to the shop in Richmond. The following Friday, walking home from dinner, Erin and I decide to visit the car. Imagine our surprise when it’s gone! Turns out it’s been towed because a TV crew was filming “Nash Bridges,” and it’s actually illegal to park on the street where a TV crew is filming, even if you were there first. So I have to go to the police impound lot, pay a ticket, and pay for the towing and storage of the car ($275). But I can’t get the car out, even after dinking with some fuses and attempting another roll-start. I end up getting a tow truck driver there to tow the car to his shop for $70 in cash. I don’t actually have the money, so our mechanic spots me, in the process unknowingly achieving legendary status with the Albert family. He discovers that when I installed the new battery I neglected to attach some secondary cable to the positive post. He shakes his head in disbelief at my cluelessness, but doesn’t charge me for the repair—the black comedy of my utter humiliation is more than adequate compensation for his work, at least this time.

September, 1999 – Erin and I drive the PLP to Moab, Utah for vacation. The car performs very well—in fact, we make remarkably good time. On the way back, we’re pulled over in Nevada. “Do you know why I pulled you over?” the cop asks. I tell him, “Frankly, no, officer.” My speedometer said 100, and since the odometer has always read 30% high (I know this from watching mile markers), I’d always figured 100 was actually 70, the legal speed limit. I explain this. “I clocked you at 85,” he says. “Well, then, I’d say my speedometer is only 15% high, officer. My mistake.” He writes me up for 80 mph—a misdemeanor in Nevada, with no insurance repercussions—and dings me $40. A small price to pay, after 3½ years of unbeknownst speeding.

August 17, 2001 – We drive the PLP to Sacramento to Erin’s friend Melissa’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Erin, more than eight months pregnant, is suffering in the terrible heat because our A/C isn’t working (never did). We arrive drenched in sweat, Erin’s face bright red, her damp, limp hair plastered to her forehead, a stark contrast to her cool, perfumed friends in their crisp dresses. As these friends worry aloud about Erin’s health and safety, and we think about all their shiny, late-model cars in the lot outside, we feel like sheepish martyrs to a liberal Berkeley Volvo-belt ideology. We take to bringing a spray bottle in the car for summer trips to Sacramento, to spray the mist directly into the vents.

September 9, 2001 – Alexa Coral Albert, age two days, is taken home from the hospital in the Volvo. Unlike my brother Bryan’s first child, who started bawling upon seeing the ‘67 Dodge Coronet she’d be riding home in, Alexa has no response to this first indication of the kind of family she’s been born into. Erin and I are unable to believe that Alexa is actually coming to live with us, that we’re not just having her over for a visit before returning her to the experts at Alta Bates hospital.

January 27, 2002 – Two weeks after Erin has returned to work after maternity leave, we take a day trip to Sacramento to visit her family. That night on the way home, Alexa starts screaming, for no apparent reason, and then suddenly three terrible things happen at once: Erin says, “Oh [drat]!”; the oil light of the car comes on; and the PLP loses all power and—in a crazy parody of sports car marketing claims—goes from 60 to zero in 2.9 seconds, grinding to a halt on a narrow median between I-80 and an on-ramp. Erin tries in vain to restart the car. We wait for a break in traffic and I push the car over to the shoulder. As we wait for the CHP to notice us, we realize Alexa is running a fever—her first childhood illness. Eventually a towing guy happens upon us. Erin and Alexa ride in the tow truck cab while I ride illegally in the PLP, and he drops us off at Erin’s grandma’s house. The towing guy agrees to tow the car all the way to Richmond and drop it off at the shop. The next day, Erin’s mom drives us home, where Alexa’s fever hits 101. I call our mechanic and ask if my car got there, fearing the towing guy has dumped it off the side of the road somewhere, or sold it to a moneyed, insane person with a fetish for ancient Volvos. To my surprise, he replies, “It’s fixed!” So: AAA roadside assistance (including tip): $20. New timing belt, oil change, and smog: $303.96. Our mechanic: priceless.

Oct 31, 2003 – Lindsay Reese Albert, age two days, is taken home from the hospital in the PLP.

Summer 2004 – My boss and a colleague mount a campaign to get me to replace my car. “I know you can afford it,” my boss says. This campaign will continue for four more years.

Dec 26, 2004 – Our family gets caught in the snow driving back from Oregon. Lighted signs declare that drivers must use tire chains. I pull onto the shoulder and screw with our chains for awhile. The instructions are gone. The chains seem much, much too short. Given the needlessness of chains here—the snow is melting upon impact with the road—I become too angry to continue my effort. I get back in the car and drive on until I find a tire chain professional. He spends a good 20-30 minutes fighting with the chains, during which time he has me pull forward and then roll back dozens of times. He finally finishes, and I breath a sigh of relief that I didn’t gas him or run him over. Now the car drives like hell, tires thumping every revolution—WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! Five miles from Yreka, the starboard chain burns up in the atmosphere and leaves the car. A couple of miles later, the left chain breaks and wraps around axle—my worst fear realized. I stop in town and buy a pair of bolt cutters, and drive to a garage. Their jacks are broken, but the mechanic lets me pull under his overhang to get out of the snow. I’m terribly claustrophobic, but have no choice but to crawl under the car on my back to cut the chains off. The car continuously drools black water into my eyes and ears, and I fight off the panic of my claustrophobia, but from the first successful snap of a link I know motivation is not going to be a problem. God that feels good, hurting the tire chain. I have to have that feeling again! It’s a rare thing to commit vandalism and effect a repair at the same time. Again and again I open the jaws, hunt around for a good bite, and crush them shut. I come up for a break. My t-shirt is soaked, my arms and hands filthy, my numb fingers cut up from dragging on the undercarriage of the car. I spit filth from my mouth and wipe it from my eyes and then get back to work. Finally I finish the heinous job and we’re back on the road. Twenty miles later, chains are required again, but I ignore the sign. We drive the rest of the way home without chains, among the careening cars and occasional accidents. Total duration of the 330-mile drive: fourteen hours.

Summer 2005 – On my way out to the PLP with Alexa, I see a baby squirrel fall out of the tree overhead, and it lands with a terrible thud on the roof of the car and bounces to the ground. As its mother races down the tree trunk after its precious child, our cat Misha comes out of nowhere and sprints towards it. Erin catches the cat while I investigate the baby squirrel. It is obviously suffering terribly and won’t make it. “Alexa, look the other way!” I yell, before smashing the baby squirrel to death with a rock in front of its horrified mother. A bad omen for our car?

July, 2006 – I spend a couple of weeks in France without Erin or the kids, and Alexa, who’s five, decides I must not be coming back. Remembering how highly Erin had praised our Volvo mechanic, Alexa suggests that she marry him, to replace me.

April 11, 2008 – Our last big road trip in the PLP, to Colorado during spring break. Having barely made it over Vail Pass during a blizzard on the way out, we decide to take I-80 home, which is the northern route, through Wyoming. Here, we come upon a stretch of highway where howling winds blow snow across the road in places, and the traffic polishes it to ice. Caught off-guard by a semi, I fail to spot a patch of black ice and we go into a terrible fishtail at 60 mph. Back and forth the PLP slides, and though I feel I’m on the verge of regaining control, I can’t quite right the car. Most of my brain is focused on trying to stop the sliding, but small part is saying “I’m about to crash this car at high speed!” and another part is saying, “At least this is a big safe Volvo!” Finally I give up and ditch the car off the side into the median, where we sink so deep into the snow that it comes up to our doors.

We wait for an hour and a half for a tow truck, while a stream of big rigs whiz past us, seemingly mere inches from our car. So much snow and slush is flung at us, the car gets sheathed in two inches of ice and comes to resemble a giant grimy grey Popsicle, or an artifact encased in filthy grey amber. Finally we’re towed back onto the road, and we continue our trip through a series of micro-blizzards. Through it all, and for the rest of the trip home, the PLP performs like a champ and attains hero status with the kids.

June 11, 2008 – Midway through Alexa’s end-of-school party at a park near our house, I run home to grab something and discover that a teenager has just plowed into the PLP with her parents’ car. The Volvo’s rear passenger door is caved in, and the exhaust pipe and muffler are on the ground. For the next several weeks I fight with the driver’s insurance company’s Total Loss Department, going through three useless (but stubborn) reps before finally prevailing and rescuing the Volvo from the salvage yard. Our mechanic fixes the car for $680 (some $5,000 less than the insurance estimate), but the used replacement door doesn’t match that well, and the remaining body damage—guaranteed to rust—begins the official countdown to the end of the PLP’s life.

June 15, 2008 – Erin calls Kari (the friend who’d been trapped in the blizzard with us in ‘98) and tells her the bad news about the PLP. Erin neglects to mention that I was hit by a car on my bike the day before, ending up in the ER with a separated shoulder and broken elbow. Kari is very upset about the car.

November 12, 2008 – Erin volunteers to drive two of Alexa’s classmates on a school field trip. One of the kids complains, “Your car smells like gas”—and she’s right, the whole cabin is engulfed in fumes. Erin is mortified, imagining how she would explain this to the girls’ parents (“At least the car didn’t explode or anything.… ”). Our mechanic discovers that the gas tank aperture has been damaged by a fuel thief. (The PLP’s gas has been stolen at least three times; in one case we found, beside the car, a short piece of hose and a pile of vomit from a poorly executed siphoning operation.) Our mechanic fixes the problem as best he can without replacing a bunch of parts, as we’re determined not to put any more money into the car.

December 7, 2008 – On a Christmas-tree-cutting trip to Sebastopol, the PLP performs just fine until about four blocks from home, when the cabin again fills up with gas fumes. We must now officially doom the car, and we begin shopping for a replacement. When Alexa catches wind of this, she begins weeping, protesting that she doesn’t want any other car, ever. Lindsay joins in the wailing protest. We promise them a “Goodbye Volvo” party, which only partly assuages their grief.

December 17, 2008 – We procure a replacement car (another used Volvo wagon), and the PLP is officially retired. We decide to junk our old friend through a local air quality buyback program. Total mileage: 375,166. Adjusting for the inaccurate odometer, we’ve put about 120,000 miles on the car in the last 13 years, and have spent $11,336 on repairs, which works out to $0.095 per mile driven. Total operational costs—fuel, insurance, repairs, registration, parking tags, smog, everything but the car itself—total $20,112.10 ($0.168 per mile, less than a third of the $0.505 per mile IRS mileage-reimbursement rate).

February 9, 2009 – I drive the car to Deal Auto Wrecking to be destroyed. The car still drives just fine. It starts up on the first try (though I’ve been charging the battery all morning, an extension cord snaked across the sidewalk in front of the house). Sure, the engine is loud, drowning out the radio, which croaks from the last blown speaker whose wiring is still intact. The seat isn’t that comfortable, the adjustment knob having broken off some months ago, but the car’s acceleration is smooth, the ride solid. As I approach the wrecking yard, I consciously enjoy my last-ever double-clutch.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sean’s Fiery Wreck


An otherwise perfect ride with my bike club on Sunday was marred by a crash toward the end. No, it wasn’t a fiery wreck as promised in the title, but it was pretty spectacular. The guy who crashed, Sean, wasn’t seriously hurt, or I wouldn’t be so cavalier about treating his crash like fodder for cheap blog entertainment. I e-mailed the club with a photo I’d snapped with my smartphone (below), and naturally those who weren’t there wanted to know what happened. As Sean’s e-mailed rendering of the tale ran barely over fifty words, I decided to flesh it out a bit. So here’s my version of what happened, as seen from about fifty meters behind.

Seans fiery wreck

Well, there’s not much to tell about Sean’s crash that he didn’t already mention, but upon reflection I realize the crash was all but prefigured at several points in our ride. Consider: at Royal, EZ commented on my Road ID bracelet (I said I wore it to appease the wife; he thought that might backfire by merely reminding her of the danger). This isn’t remarkable in itself, except that we seldom talk about crashing; it’s almost a taboo topic for some of us. Then, at the top of Tunnel, several guys chided me for continuing to ride a cracked bike frame; several theories were put forth on how catastrophic a seat tube failure could be. Then, as we prepared to descend Skyline, Campbell (noting the wet roads) facetiously advised the guys up front to take the curves as fast as possible, perhaps locking up the rear wheel to slide it around. “That works in mountain biking,” I pointed out, sparking a discussion of the physics of high-siding and a tale of my ill-fated attempt, while drunk, to do a 180 in snow without planting my foot. Later in the ride, not ten minutes before the actual crash, a few of us discussed Sean’s odd sartorial technique of removing the chamois from an old pair of shorts so he can layer two pairs of shorts on cold days. Muzzy asked, “How much insulation do you get from 1/8” of Lycra?” I pointed out (or did I only think it?), “Probably good for limiting crash damage, anyway.” All this crash talk … could we sense fate lurking in the background? It wasn’t a day for the Grim Reaper to come looking for a soul, but perhaps we had a collective hunch that the Grim Weed-Whacker might be seeking a flesh offering…

So: the crash itself. We were coming down Nine Mile … okay, I’ll confess, I have no idea what the road was called, and if I’d gotten dropped on the ride I’d still be out there trying to find my way home. We were … somewhere. We’d just finished sprinting for some city limit sign … okay, I didn’t sprint. I was in the middle of a fascinating conversation with Muzzy about the fallacy of treating economics as a hard science (when no two economists can agree on a past observed phenomenon, much less the current state of affairs and what we can expect in the future), and it would have been very rude to suddenly abandon the discussion to sprint, especially when I would’ve gotten my ass kicked anyway. So we were still chatting away on this downhill, our group spread out pretty well after the sprint, when suddenly—BLAM!

The loud noise was all it took: my mental reins were passed over to the brain stem, which is so good at rapid, instinctive computation that time seemed to slow waaaaaay down such that the next five or ten seconds felt like minutes. (On a pre-dawn ride recently, my field of vision limited to the sweep of my headlight, my conscious mind thought, “Hey, why the hell am I stopping?” only after I’d slammed on the brakes. The lizard brain replied, “Because there’s some big object in your way.” The frontal cortex said, “My god, you’re right! It’s a fricking deer! Good eye, Albert!”) This is where split-second reaction time seems like child’s play. I had all the time in the world to wonder if perhaps somebody had been shot. (The brain stem, though quick, isn’t very bright.) Am I hit? Am I bleeding? Eventually I realized, okay, that was not a gunshot, somebody blew a tire. It wasn’t immediately obvious who, though, or how. (Evidently there was a pothole; I never saw it.)

Up ahead, Sean went into a gnarly fishtail. If he’d been on a snowmobile, deliberately oversteering and goosing the throttle, he’d have thrown up a glorious roostertail of snow. A nonverbal snippet of my earlier high-siding conversation with Campbell flitted by. But Sean didn’t flip; instead his rear tire reversed its course and fished across to the left. For a millisecond a memory flashed in my mind like distant lightning: I was racing a criterium in Colorado Springs, and a guy who’d just taken a flyer lost control in a chicane and fishtailed, and I knew—complete conviction—that he was doomed, and he was. Now, however, with a connoisseur’s appreciation of bike handling, I marveled at the certainty that Sean would save this one. Even when he fishtailed again, back to the right, I just knew he’d ultimately pull it out. Except he didn’t.

As he crashed, I continued to occupy that roomy brain space where everything seemed to happen in slo-mo. Have you ever seen the Star Trek episode where Kirk enters some special physical realm and is sped up so everybody on the Enterprise (except a beautiful babe from the planet) seems to be moving so slowly as to almost be stationary? It was kind of like that, only without the babe. Now I was watching Sean fall, assessing his falling skill like a sommelier sampling a fine wine. His hand slapped the ground, but he didn’t stupidly plant it, as though he could keep his body off the ground, like so many hapless newbies would do, breaking a shoulder in the process. Nor did he tense up, nor did he sprawl like a sack of potatoes. Kind of a nice springy landing, and it wouldn’t have surprised me to see him end up on his feet like Pee Wee Herman. But it was a pretty bad crash. By the time we got there he was just sitting there, trying to scream with his face ripped off.

Whoah! That totally wasn’t the case. I thought I might have lost your interest there and figured I better snap you back to attention. (That was, of course, a line from “Mad Max.”) As you know from the photo, Sean’s face was never in danger—he didn’t so much as scuff his helmet. I knew he’d be okay because he jumped right up and got himself and his bike out of the road. When a guy really slaps down hard, and lies there dazed for a few seconds, then it’s time to worry. You could probably develop a model for predicting the severity of injuries based solely on how many seconds elapse before a crashed cyclist takes care of himself. (When I got hit by a car two summers ago, it was at least five seconds before I even started cussing.) Somehow, Sean had managed to shed a lot of speed before finally hitting the asphalt. We must have been going fast—my bike was still in the highest gear when I stopped—and if he hadn’t managed to slow down a lot, he’d have cartwheeled like Jan did on Highway 24 last summer.

Sean’s hand was ripped up, right through his glove. No road rash was visible, but he knew he was bleeding underneath his layers of shorts. The bike looked to be unrideable: both tires had peeled off their rims, and holes had been ripped in their sidewalls; his rear rim was badly dented. These were spanking new Ksyriums, too … both totaled, what a shame. Campbell, closest to home, pedaled off to get his car. After gawking at the bike damage for awhile, we did some Flat Repair by Committee. No longer was my brain stretching out seconds for better reaction time; rather, our actual progress was truly happening in slow motion. Let’s face it, crashes are exciting, and so long as nobody’s seriously hurt, it’s hard not to chatter away about everything, much as I’m doing now, at the expense of efficiency. We booted both tires, pumped the rear up to about forty pounds (anything more and the tire could blow off the damaged rim), called Campbell to cancel the car-lift, and escorted our fallen hero on home.