Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 Holiday Newsletter


Every year I write a Holiday Newsletter and send it with my holiday cards.  As newsletters go, mine isn’t very useful; it doesn’t, for example, describe the highlights of the year.  Actually, I usually focus on a single low point of my year, just to counter-balance all the highlights you’ll read about in other people’s newsletters.  Or it’s simply random—the “secret Santa” of holiday newsletters, you might say.

This year I was stumped for awhile finding a topic.  Amazing as this may seem, I didn’t do anything particularly humiliating in 2012.  So I asked my kids for some ideas, and my daughter Lindsay gave me the idea for this newsletter.  Normally this thing goes to a very small, understanding audience, but as a special treat I’ve decided to extend my Holiday Newsletter to my extended albertnet “family.”  Please just don’t quit after the first paragraph … either read two or more paragraphs or skip the whole thing.

Holiday Newsletter - 2012


I’ll start by saying I’m very happy for this newsletter—it’s nice to be given my say.  So ... what can I report?  Things are pretty good.  Sure, they could be better.  Running and jumping aren’t nearly as easy as they used to be.  I’m getting old.  At least I’ve still got my looks.  And I’ve got shelter and warmth, a fine family, and the food is good.  It’s exactly the same food I’ve been getting my entire life, but I still just love it!  I only wish there were more of it, and I didn’t have to wait so long.  I keep telling them, “Now!  Now!  Now!  Now!” but they never seem to listen.  They often talk back but never actually hurry.

For awhile there things were better than ever.  I’m thinking back to the long-ago cold stretch, around the time we got the previous ornament tree, when the man was in bed all the time.  We lounged around together constantly.  I had to watch out for one of his legs—he’d yowl like crazy whenever I stepped on it.  I could never keep straight which leg it was.  The other thing is, several times a day the man would suddenly start growling and sometimes yowling, and then he’d go for this odd food he kept right next to the bed.  It rattled like my crunchies, but didn’t smell like anything I’d want to eat.  But he’d only eat one, and he never chewed.  Then he’d quiet down again.  But right about the time they got rid of the tree, he stopped eating the crunchies, telling the woman, “If I don’t knock this off I’ll end up an obese misogynist with my own hit radio show!”  (I don’t know what this meant but it made the woman laugh.) 

Anyway, it was a grand time being in bed with him all day, but I got worried after awhile.  He often didn’t even get up to use his litter box (or litter bowl, whatever they call it).  The woman brought him all his food … were his active days over?  I missed hunting with him:  he likes to pick me up and bring me near moths.  I’m still pretty fast with my paws so that’s good fun.  Better yet, he likes to catch a fly by the wing and throw it forcefully to the floor.  For a few seconds the fly is stunned and, unable to fly, tries to run for it.  Easy prey.  Not as much sport, but sooooo tasty:  perfectly crisp—you can’t beat a living, wriggling creature for good mouth-feel.  Anyway, I needn’t have worried about the man.  Eventually he was able to make it downstairs to the office, where I’d get to sit on his lap for most of the day.  Often he’d even put his feet up and make a bridge for me.  By the time the days got warm again, we were hunting partners once more!

Even without a constant bed companion, I’m managing to stay warm.  The bigger of the two small humans—and she’s way bigger than she used to be—is more predictable now.  She pets me a bit too much and too hard and takes inappropriate liberties with the extra-soft fur on my belly, and she talks too much at me, going on and on about my “thick, lush, soft fur,” my “beautiful stripes,” my “enchanting glacier-green eyes,” my “proud Mackerel Tabby lineage,” etc.  But she does provide a good lap.  It’s hard to believe she used to pull my tail.  Oh, and she contrived this amazing thing in the backyard.  It’s full of bird bait, and the birds really flock to it.  But the human never attacks!  She just watches the birds and flips through a book and makes nonsense noises like “chickadee” and “titmouse.”  It’s hard to watch.  If she would just lower that thing a bit, I could kill the birds myself, but I’m too old to leap that high.  So I just watch.  The worst part is when this one squirrel raids the thing.  I hate that squirrel.  He’s so vain, grooming his tail to make it super-fluffy, to take everyone’s attention off his big gut.  He’s surprisingly spry, though, and climbs right down the string, head first, and steals the bird bait.  It pains me that I lack the courage to fight him.  I mean, here I am, a born predator, and I’m afraid of a vegan half my size!  I guess I could chase him, just to save face, and hope he runs up the tree, but what if he stood his ground?

Did I mention my humans don’t feed me enough?  Or often enough?  Maybe you could put in a word for me in your next newsletter.

I do have my pleasures, though.  Sometimes I wander by my bowl, just to check, and discover it’s actually got some milk or something in it!  The small humans are a lot tidier than they used to be, which is too bad, but there are still plenty of scraps on the floor after they feed.  I wish they wouldn’t all put their plates on the counter right after they eat—it’s a lot harder to get up there these days.  The man often puts pans on the floor for me to lick, which is great, but the small humans—forbidden, for some reason, to lick their plates—have started going over them with a rubber spatula if it’s a really tasty sauce.  Thanks a lot, guys.  On a positive note, the humans have started keeping their compost in an open bowl on the counter.  Tasty stuff, but again, it’s getting so hard to jump up there.  One time the bigger small human picked me up and actually set me on the counter, and I was so stoked—until the man started yowling at her and made her put me back down.  What is it with that guy?

So … what else?  Well, they brought in this amazing chair they call “La-Z-Boy.”  Once somebody settles into that, I’m in for some great lap time.  If the woman pulls up a blanket, I have time to wash and nap.  Even the smaller humans will reliably give me a good long lap on that chair, especially if they have a book.  If I hear the words “Percy Jackson” or “Mysterious Benedict Society” I know they’ll be there awhile—unless (as often happens) one of the large humans yells, “Get up and practice your music!”  (Both small humans make nice music on the piano.  The bigger one is doing well with the violin, too:  it no longer sounds like an old animal shelter comrade shrieking.)  The new chair does have a downside:  I’m constantly wanting to sharpen my claws on it, but whenever I do this somebody rushes at me, screeching.  I mean, what am I supposed to do, when the woman keeps moving my scratching post into the garage?  It’s just as well—I can no longer easily reach the scratchy rope wound around the top.  What did they call that rope?  Oh yeah:  “Hemp—a gateway to catnip,” whatever that means.

The man is getting really good at tricking me.  He sits at the computer, all peaceful-like, and lets me get on his lap.  After just a few minutes—about the time my motor starts to wind down—he starts messing with my paws.  At first I’m like, “Aaaah, a little paw massage,” but then I realize he’s cutting the tips off my claws!  I can’t believe I fall for it every time.

Gosh, I’m hungry.  Say, that reminds me.  Every once in awhile the whole family starts bringing all this luggage over to the front door, and things get really exciting.  For some reason, after they’ve done this awhile, they give me a giant bowl, sometimes two bowls, of crunchies!  It’s like the mother lode!  Best of all, right after putting the food down they all leave, so I can eat in peace without worrying about somebody having second thoughts and taking it all away.  I just eat and eat until I can barely move, and then I have a good wash and a good nap, and there’s still food left over!  It’s a paradise of eat/wash/nap the whole day, with nobody around to stop me, and then the whole night, and part of the next day until the food is all gone.  By then I’m too bloated even to wash and I just collapse next to the bowl.  But then there’s no food, and no humans, for the whole day!  I hate it!

I guess the only other thing to report is how puzzled I get with the humans’ behavior at night.  They’re always closing doors and I keep getting trapped downstairs.  I don’t really mind until I’ve slept most of the night and gotten bored, and want to do something fun like walking on a human’s face.  But I can’t get up to the bedroom!  I stand at the downstairs door yelling “Now!  Now!  Now!  Now!” but they never come down.  Not the smartest creatures, but they do know how to scruffle me under the chin and around the ears, just how I like it.  So I guess I’ll let them live.  (Kidding!)

I guess that’s about it.  I hope you’re all getting plenty of food, plenty of warmth, and plenty of sleep!




Drawing by Alexa, March 3, 2008

Saturday, December 15, 2012

No Mo' NoDoz


My beloved NoDoz has been off the shelves for almost a year. (Okay, it’s not actually beloved. I don’t love NoDoz the way I love, say, a good burrito, or the way you love a good cup of coffee.) This post concerns a slightly frightening peek into the drug manufacturing business; why I don’t drink coffee; why I value NoDoz enough to miss it; and ultimately why caffeine pills are underrated.

No mo’ NoDoz

I ran out of NoDoz early last spring. First I just figured Safeway was all out. So I went to Elephant Pharmacy, then Rite Aid. None there either. Nobody could tell me why they didn’t have it. Finally, at Walgreens, the clerk referred me to the pharmacist, who said there had been a recall. He didn’t have any details, so I went online.

As it turns out, the company that makes No-Doz, Novartis, recalled several of its drugs, including Excedrin, NoDoz, Bufferin, and Gas-X, because it “became aware of … broken and chipped pills, and inconsistent bottle packaging that could cause pills to be mixed up.” One reader commented on the article, “I feel sorry for the people who thought they took Gas-X, but got NoDoz ... Now they’re up all night farting!” But seriously, this could be a big problem because Novartis also manufactures prescription drugs such as Percocet and extended-release morphine at this plant. Imagine a long-distance trucker getting Percocet instead of NoDoz.

Another article described the desperate measures some took because of the recall: “Can’t find No-Doz? No problem, just drink more coffee. But migraine sufferers are posting on blogs that they are unable to relieve their massive headaches that are too strong for Tylenol or Motrin. Bidders were running up the price of Excedrin bottles to $50 or more on eBay, that’s how desperate they are for relief.” As the article points out, what these hapless bidders missed is that Excedrin is just a combination of Acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine—all easy to find. Their advice to NoDozers, though, doesn’t apply to me. I’ve never been a coffee drinker and am not about to start.

Not a coffee achiever

Do you remember the TV ads put out by the National Coffee Association in the ‘80s? The most memorable is the one featuring the washed-up rock band Heart. “You are the new American society … the movers and the shakers … you are the new coffee generation! Join the coffee achievers!” As it happened, when these ads came out I was at the age where I could have started drinking coffee. The idea of a drink that could help me achieve was appealing (more appealing at that point than alcohol; no alcohol industry trade association has tried to launch an “alcohol achiever” campaign). My brother did get into coffee, and took to brewing up some pretty thick stuff—the coffee that eats like a meal, you could say. “So are you a coffee achiever now?” I asked him. “Well, I got the coffee part down,” he replied. His coffee didn’t appeal to me and I never did pick up the habit.

By now perhaps you’re exasperated. If I don’t drink coffee, why do I mess around with NoDoz? And more importantly, why don’t I drink coffee to begin with, when it’s so darn good?

Well, to begin with, I’m cheap, and yet tend toward expensive tastes. For years I never much liked beer, but only because I was sampling Coors and Meister Brau. When I tried good beer (I think Fat Tire, when it first came out, was the eye-opener for me), I liked it right away. That naturally led to an appreciation for Belgian beers like Duvel, and for pricey microbrews (my latest find being Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA at like $13 for a 4-pack). The only way to keep expensive tastes in line with my Bay Area mortgage is to avoid cultivating an appreciation for expensive stuff like fine wine and coffee.

Meanwhile, caffeine is addictive. Of course, so is alcohol, but there’s a difference: most beer drinkers are not alcoholics, while most coffee drinkers are caffeine addicts. An article I wrote years ago about caffeine ruffled a few feathers; some people really don’t like that “addict” label. But I don’t mean it pejoratively; I am talking about addiction not in terms of junkies, but as a simple matter of whether or not your habit involves withdrawal symptoms when you don’t get your beverage.

Needless to say, coffee shop chains will exploit this. Consider this article about Starbucks raising the price of a 12-oz. coffee in Manhattan to $2.01 (with tax), forcing customers to either carry change or use a credit card. Asked about this, a Starbucks VP said that “only a small proportion of customers buy just a tall coffee when they visit a Starbucks.” How nice for them. I don’t think it’s overly cynical to suppose that the extra cent is designed to drive customers toward paying with credit, which is known to drive up a customer’s total tab. Without a coffee habit, I avoid that entire retail temptation.

Coffee, of course, is much more than an addictive beverage. For so many people it is a life pleasure, and a habit, and often a ritual. The habit and ritual, I’d guess, have at least as strong a pull as the addiction. The guy with his own very expensive Italian-made espresso machine, who grinds his own beans, is at one end of a coffee spectrum; at the other end is Folgers and/or the free stuff you get at the office. I’m not on this spectrum. My use of caffeine is less a ritual than a technique: I use it to boost my athletic performance.

Why NoDoz?

“But wait,” anybody with half a clue is saying. “Why not get your performance-boosting caffeine and enjoy a delicious, steaming mug of joe at the same time by being a non-addicted, occasional coffee achiever?” One: like I said, I’m cheap (a NoDoz tablet costs like a dime). Two, I don’t have much time to ride, and if I’m fussing with grinding beans and then waiting for the coffee to drip into a pot, I’m cutting into my riding time. The very prospect of moving quietly around the kitchen brewing coffee at 5:30 in the morning is enough to keep me in bed.

But, you protest, the club ride meets at the coffee shop … what could make more sense than grabbing a cup there? Well, brewed coffee isn’t a very precise dose. I base this on an article I read about Starbucks. I gather that Starbucks’ popularity, as with so many chains, derives from its quality control—it must be among the leading chains in this domain. And yet its quality control isn’t actually that good, in terms of predictable caffeine quantity per cup. Maybe that doesn’t matter to a coffee achiever with a tolerance for caffeine, but it matters to me. NoDoz delivers exactly 200 mg of caffeine per tablet. They claim this is about the same as a cup of coffee. (I could swear that when I started using it, the package said it was about the same as two cups of coffee.) But, the article states, “A recent laboratory test [McCusker R.R.; Goldberger B.A.; Cone E.J., Caffeine Content of Specialty Coffees, Journal of Analytical Toxicology, Vol. 27, October 2003, pp 520-522] sampled a series of Starbucks Breakfast Blend brewed coffees. The caffeine dose varied from 299.5mg right up to a massive 564.4mg per 16oz cup! What’s astonishing is that the 6 samples were obtained from the same outlet on 6 consecutive days.” Man … 565 mg. If I got that much caffeine I think I’d be hallucinating.

And another thing!

My tradition of NoDozing has been further reinforced by another article I came across recently comparing the benefit of coffee vs. pure caffeine. In a recent study, athletes’ performance was measured in five separate trials with different products administered: placebo pill, caffeinated coffee, decaffeinated coffee, decaffeinated coffee with caffeine added back in, and pure caffeine. The results? “Surprisingly, the only trial which resulted in any improvement in performance was when subjects ingested pure caffeine. In other words, ingesting caffeine in the form of coffee did not affect performance compared to the placebo trial. Thus, it was concluded that there is a compound in coffee that appears to inhibit the performance enhancing effects of caffeine, and to obtain the performance enhancing effects of this drug, pure caffeine needs to be ingested.”

Naturally, I wouldn’t blindly assume this study was valid. I like to do my own tests (such as this one) to see how such reports match my own experience. You might assume that my own bias might skew the results of my test. Well, the beauty of this is that I happened to run the tests long before the article came out. I wasn’t drinking coffee pre-ride to measure anything; I just tried it out. Because I keep an absurdly detailed training diary, the results of these efforts are well documented.

In both trials, I had a poor performance riding the indoor trainer after drinking coffee. I measure performance by how high I was able to get my heart rate, and how long over my target zone. (In the following accounts, “TAZ” means “time above zone.”) In both workouts I averaged far below the 19 minutes of TAZ I normally get (i.e., when using No-Doz alone). Here are the accounts of my coffee-fueled efforts.
12/14/10 Tuesday, 1:35:39 duration, 8:24 TAZ

I felt I needed a secret weapon this morning and got out the Folgers crystals. I’d never tried it before. I guess my wife’s mom must have bought them in frustration at our not having any coffee around here. So this is in addition to my NoDoz. I already have a strong association between this brand and my workouts, because on the trainer I listen to a lot of rap, including Eminem, who in one song raps, “Wake up and smell the Folgers crystals!” So I figured that literally smelling the Folgers, and of course drinking it, might inspire me to go harder. I know … grasping at straws. Anyhow, I managed to get a bit of TAZ toward the end of this tour, but mostly it just sucked.

12/16/10 Thursday, 1:00:56, 1:04 TAZ

I tried to motivate for a big effort this morning, but to no avail. My new game-changing secret weapon, Folgers coffee, is actually useless. I was trying to figure out, as I made the coffee this morning, what the Folgers crystals remind me of, and finally it hit me: Drano. They’re like brown Drano, and they have the same effect on my plumbing. Not much other effect, though. None of my other trainer tricks were doing much good either. The rap music was almost demoralizing. As Obie Trice yelled in my ear, “I’m hittin’ harder than those Hiroshima-type bombs!” I was thinking, “I’m hitting weaker than those plastic Wiffle-type bats.”
(If you think I fabricated the above study for the purpose of this post, click here.)

Meanwhile, I have other anecdotal evidence of the power of pure caffeine. About 2/3 of the way through a brutal 130-mile ride over Mount Hamilton, through Livermore, and back to Berkeley with some guys on my bike club, I was feeling pretty shot and went for a NoDoz. I split it with one of the guys, Steve Kromer, because he’d already been dragging the rest of us around and I hoped to draft him all the way home. This backfired, though: he started to feel so good following the half-NoDoz that he split off from our ride to set off alone on something more ambitious. He rode solo over Morgan Territory Road, then up and down Mount Diablo before returning home over Lomas Cantadas, a brutal climb. He ended up with 170 miles on the day with 15,000 feet of climbing. Was it the NoDoz? Well, I’d seen him drink coffee plenty of times without getting a crazy surge like that.

Still no mo’ NoDoz

Amazingly, Novartis still hasn’t gotten NoDoz back on the shelves. It’s not a problem for me. My brand loyalty to NoDoz over Vivarin is based only on a) Vivarin being unaccountably more expensive, and b) Vivarin being a round tablet that cannot be broken in half, while NoDoz is a narrow, scored tablet that I can easily divide. (A whole tablet before an evening ride would keep me up all night.) In case you’re thinking of becoming a non-coffeee caffeine achiever, Walgreens has a NoDoz-shaped house-brand caffeine tablet that’s nicely scored for sharing. (You getting this, Kromer?)
For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Conundrum of the Lost Sock

NOTE:  This post is available as an MP3 podcast. Please e-mail me if you are interested.


Everybody knows the problem of lost socks.  They get lost in the dryer—usually at least one per load.  It’s tempting to think we exaggerate about the problem, but we don’t.  I had proof of this a couple years ago when a Clarks shoe store was offering socks with an unconditional lifetime guarantee.  It seemed to good to be true, but while I was in there, a guy came in and dumped a bunch of worn-out socks on the counter.  The clerk cheerfully replaced them.  How could this be? I wondered.  Then it hit me:  most of the time, any halfway decent pair of socks will get lost in the dryer long before it wears out.  Clearly, if this savvy retailer is banking on this fact, it must be more than an anecdotal phenomenon.  Since then I’ve been paying close attention, and my personal sock attrition rate has been staggering.

In this post I explore possible causes of, and solutions to, this ubiquitous problem.

Possible explanations

How can we explain this extraordinary phenomenon?  It spans geography, households, cultures, owning vs. renting, laundry room vs. Laundromat, urban vs. rural … you can’t escape it.  Why socks?  Why does the dryer seem to have it in for this one article of clothing?

One explanation I’ve considered is that we actually lose all kinds of clothes in the dryer, but that we just don’t notice because there isn’t a surviving mate that draws our attention to the loss. 

This notion is bolstered by my experience with cycling gloves, which I launder pretty often.  (One of the main functions of a cycling glove, after all, is wiping snot off my upper lip.)  I’ve had loads of laundry where I’ll end up with three right cycling gloves and zero left ones.  I stare in astonishment:  you’ve gotta be kidding me.  But this explanation falls down for three reasons.  One, losing gloves is simply less frequent a phenomenon—it lacks the utter inevitability of losing socks.  Two, my cycling gloves usually do reappear eventually, whereas socks never do.  Three—and this is the kicker—I don’t even put my cycling gloves through the dryer.  I line-dry them.  So this glove comparison is a dead lead.

Another flaw with the “ we notice because they’re pairs” explanation is that it doesn’t explain why the dryer doesn’t “disappear” socks uniformly—instead, it seems to pick high-value targets.  All kinds of my socks have made it through the laundry cycle, in pairs, load after load, for years.  For example, I have these stupid Tuxedo-theme cycling socks I bought at Sports Basement a decade ago, which I wear on the trainer.  They go through the wash again and again but are still with me.  Oddly, I seldom wear them in the summer but they still show up in the dryer, ready for service, time and time again. 

Meanwhile, those  amazing lifetime-warranty Clarks socks I bought, which are as soft and just generally awesome now as the day I bought them, suffer routine casualties.  Half of them are gone, I think.  The strategy of the Clarks home office is unfolding exactly according to plan.

Worst of all is when I see one of my Smartwool socks in the fresh laundry basket.  I’m immediately filled with unbearable anxiety as I do a Search & Rescue for its mate.  A Smartwool sock is like that unfamiliar security guard you see at the beginning of a “Star Trek” episode, and you’re like, “Uh-oh, this guy is toast, probably even before the opening credits.”  Except that unlike the security guard, I care deeply for my Smartwools.  I only own a few pairs because they’re so damn expensive, and are such amazing socks.  My brother Max, who has bought me most of my Smartwools, commiserates.  “It’s almost like a fetish,” I told him recently, “except it’s not actually sexual.”  He replied, “Yeah, I know.  It’s like a platonic fetish.  A good slogan would be ‘I love my Smartwools, but we’re just friends.’”  So every time I spy a Smartwool, I dive into the laundry pile, frantic, sometimes even calling out to the lost sock, “Smartwool, where are you?  You’ve lost your wingman!”  Clearly, the simple explanation that we only notice lost socks doesn’t come close to answering the high-value target question.  (Here is a photo of one of my Smartwool orphans.)

Another theory is that the socks are being converted into dryer lint.  There’s something compelling about this idea, given how much lint a single load of laundry can produce.  Sometimes a dryer load will include some really cheap garment that colors the lint dramatically—as in, 90% of that batch of lint is from that one garment.  Could it be that the higher quality socks are more vulnerable?  I do have clothes that are gradually dissolving.  A t-shirt I’ve had for twenty years is becoming transparent, and at one point an entire sleeve broke off, like a glacier calving, but the process is so gradual.  The socks that survive the dryer stay pretty much as good as new, while Smartwools that are actually new abruptly go missing.

As the obvious explanations don’t pan out, we have to think more creatively.  Could the dryer somehow be acting like a wormhole to other dryers?  I’ve had to consider this.  One day, completely out of the blue, a black Smartwool cycling sock miraculously appeared in the fresh laundry.  I’ve never owned black cycling socks, but my brother Max has.  Could his sock have passed through his laundry into mine, perhaps through some wrinkle in the space-time continuum?  (Max doesn’t have its mate—he probably threw it out years ago.)  I guess I don’t need to mention that this sock shows up regularly in laundry loads despite the fact that I have never worn it.

Alas, the wormhole explanation doesn’t bear up under scrutiny for the simple reason that I’ve lost hundreds of socks over the years but very seldom happen upon an interloper.  Unless somebody is getting tons of socks this way, this theory violates the Law of Conservation of Matter.

The closest I can come to closing the book on this mystery is to acknowledge that it is, in fact, a mystery, of the “Why are we here?” and “How did the universe come into being?” kind.  I take the sock conundrum to be a fleeting glimpse into a higher realm.  If a divine creator decided to use a metaphor to rebuke our human affectation of understanding everything, he could do worse than saying, in effect, “You can’t even keep track of your socks—how can you pretend you can explain the universe?”  Personally, I’d like to hold the scientists’ feet to the fire on this sock thing, because I’ve never been satisfied with their Big Bang theory, and their smugness about it irks me.  Sure, Stephen Hawking can feel confident in scientific explanations, but maybe that’s just because he’s never had to do his own laundry.

What is to be done?

On a more practical note, there may be steps we can take to combat this problem, whether we understand it or not.  For example, in my household it’s standard practice to put all the unpaired socks in a cloth bag so that when the next dryer load comes out you can try pairing them up again.  (Is there a standard term for unpaired socks?  Growing up we always called them “missing mates,” but this isn’t actually correct.  How can you store something that’s “missing”?)  Occasionally, I’ll discover that we actually have two cloth missing-mate bags going, and I’ll get really excited thinking that when both bags are dumped out on the bed I’ll pair up all kinds of socks.  But it never works out that way.  I end up with fifty socks on the bed and only one pair.  It’s totally depressing, like a mass grave.  This “solution” is nothing more than self-delusion.  Those socks are gone, and they’re not coming back!

Another tactic I’ve tried is to buy tons of identical socks at the same time, so that no matter how many socks are lost in a load, you’ll only ever have a single missing mate.  This is a nice theory, but hard to put into practice.  First of all, it’s dangerous to buy too many pairs of socks if you don’t know how good they will prove to be.  I bought five pairs of work socks at Discount Shoe Warehouse ten or twelve years ago, and hated them almost right away.  Though from a lost-sock perspective they’ve been amazing—I haven’t lost a single one—they get thinner, scratchier, and more brittle with time.  I only wear them when nothing better is clean, and yet they continue showing up in the fresh laundry, as if just to taunt me.  The other problem is that even socks from the same manufacturer vary from batch to batch.  For example, look at this:

The DeFeet socks are great, and I got a good deal because two of the three shown are technically defective.  They’re all supposed to say “Performance Bicycle” on them, but a huge batch was made lacking this logo.  So Performance sold them as manufacturer’s seconds.  I’d have bought six pairs, but they didn’t have that many, so I have a mix of large and extra-large, which is a disaster.  Look at the non-defective sock on the far left:  the logo isn’t the only difference.  It’s a slightly thinner sock, and has a strange pseudo-cuff at the top.  I cannot mix-and-match it with the others—I refuse. 

Now look at the EBVC socks below those.  All are the same size (L/XL) but the ones on the far right have shrunk more.  I can’t wear them so I gave them to my wife.  She constantly pairs them with the other ones, which makes me crazy.  There are actually three generations of sock here.  Two say “Sweetness & Light” on them, and at first glance these two seem to match.  But if you look closely (zoom in!) you’ll see that the shade of orange is slightly different.  That’s only the visible difference between the socks.  They feel a lot different on my feet, too.  I don’t expect my wife to pay attention to the difference in color, but I do ask her to keep her socks—which are the only ones that don’t say “Sweetness & Light”—separate.  She cannot be bothered to follow this simple rule, so I’m forever un-pairing these socks.

To recap:  of the six socks shown above, no two can be paired up to my satisfaction.  Meanwhile, once a pair of socks has been worn in the rain, its color no longer matches the others even if they did start out being identical.  Clearly, the all-identical-sock strategy doesn’t really work. 

Another tactic is to use special clips or bags to keep pairs of socks together in the washer and dryer.  Kind of a neat idea I guess, but as particular as I am, I instinctively recoil from it.  Dozens of plastic clips or bulky bags going through the laundry?  Really?  Can I picture myself sitting on the edge of the bed, perhaps whistling merrily, as I root through the dirty laundry for matching socks so I can clip or bag them?   I cannot.  And yet (as you’ve doubtless already gathered) I’m far more pedantic than my wife.  No way in hell would I ask her to do clip or bag socks.  If she won’t take pains to properly match up my freshly laundered cycling socks, is she really going to match up the ones I’ve just sweated in for six hours?  I suspect there are very few households that could pull this off, and if fate did pair up two people compulsive enough to use sock clips, that couple would have bigger problems ahead of it than lost socks.

What about single people, though?  They have total control over their laundry and nobody to answer to!  Might they use a sock clip or sock bag?  Well, again I see a couple of potential problems.  Many single people are the younger crowd who still go to Laundromats, and many of them see the Laundromat as a possible pick-up spot.  Something about a sock clip seems unwise as a singles-scene tactic:  there’s something twee about sock clips, an aura of enthusiastic thrift, or of Hints-From-Heloise practicality, that a single person might want to avoid projecting. 

Meanwhile, anybody who uses clips or bags needs to face the fact that this practice is like trying to save someone from drowning only to get dragged under yourself.  Sure, that sock is clipped to another, but what’s to keep them both from getting lost?  The prospect of clipping a couple of Smartwools together, only to have neither of them make it out of the dryer, is too hideous to contemplate.

Here’s an innovative solution:  how about just going barefoot?  Obviously, most climates wouldn’t support this, at least not year-round, and there are other issues.  Living in the Berkeley area, I could probably swing the no-sock thing by wearing sandals, but if you wear sandals around here you may project a certain image that carries negative consequences.  Depending on the neighborhood, a stranger may try to sell you either marijuana or handmade crafts.

Sockless cycling is an even bigger quagmire.  Show up at a club ride and you’ll be spurned, because riding sockless makes you look like a triathlete.  Don’t get me wrong, I respect and even admire triathletes, but there’s a certain code in road riding that says don’t even think about looking like one.

The only other solution I can think of concerns attitude.  Why not just lighten up, and stock up on identical socks even if they turn out to be of inferior quality, or allow yourself to wear slightly mismatched socks once in awhile?  Even if I could take that advice—which I can’t—lots of people wouldn’t.  Those who care deeply about socks are probably less of a minority than you might think.  For example, when asked why he wore black cycling socks for the Alpe d’Huez time trial in the 2004 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong replied, “That’s what came out of the bag this morning.” He suggested, in other words, that it wasn’t a conscious choice to wear black socks.  Needless to say he was lying.  (How do we know he was lying?  Come on, he’s Lance Armstrong!)  When we consider how widespread deceit was during Armstrong’s era, we can safely conclude that any cyclist who claimed not to care much about socks was also lying.  Ergo, no matter what they say, people care a great deal about socks and cannot be reasonably asked to lighten up about the lost-sock phenomenon.

So, if we’re not supposed to lighten up, how can attitude help?  The solution is to commiserate.  My recent lost-sock conversation with my brother, which inspired this post, was deeply satisfying.  You could and should have that discussion with your friends and family.  They need to know that they’re not alone in losing socks in the dryer.  Talk about it.  Make light of it.  Delve deeply into it.  Use this mystery as a jumping-off point for scientific, spiritual, philosophical, and/or ontological discussions.  And never, ever stop wondering about it.  After all, someday somebody may have a breakthrough.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

From the Archives - UCSB Final Exam Maelstrom


When I was a college kid I wrote essays, much like the posts on this blog, and mailed photocopies to family and friends.  (Did all that writing practice help?  Well, as you’ll see below, I once had an addiction to m-dashes—the long horizontal bars that set off clauses like this one—and over the years I have gradually learned how to use these m-dashes more responsibly.  So that’s something.)

I spent my freshman and sophomore years at UC Santa Barbara, and wrote a multi-part guide on How To Be a UCSB Student.  Chapter Three was Taking Final Exams.  Since Dead Week at UCSB starts next week, and final exams the week after, I think this is a good time to post these basic instructions.  (Needless to say, this is a humor piece, not an actual guide, so the target audience is anybody who ever went to college, plus anybody who hasnt and wonders what college is like.)

How to Take Final Exams — March 20, 1989

Part One:  Organizing your Exams

Organize your exam schedule when you sign up for classes before the quarter starts.  The Schedule of Classes lists the exam time for every class; sign up carefully so that you never have two finals in one day.

Often, you won’t get one (or any) of your classes, and you must enter the Schedule Adjustment arena and fight for anything you can get.  Since you usually end settling for classes like Immunology or Twelfth Century Bulgarian Studies just to keep your status as a full‑time student, it actually isn’t very likely that you’ll be able to select your classes with the above guideline in mind.  You may well end up with all your hardest exams on the same day.  This is normal.

Part Two:  Staying on Top of Things

Preparation for final exams actually starts during the first week of the quarter.   I know, that sounds early, but to be properly prepared, you must begin blowing off school early in the first week, and stick with your neglect until a week before finals.  Otherwise, you’ll be hopelessly unprepared for Dead Week, because impending doom won’t hang over you like a dark cloud.  To get that week‑long adrenaline rush you must be well behind in all your classes. 

If there is any reading assigned during the quarter, it can be done during the last weekend before Dead Week.  If you read it before then, you will forget everything and have to reread it all anyway, so save yourself the trouble.  (Actually, you’ll probably forget it all before the test anyway, so don’t even buy your textbooks.  That can save you precious time, and precious money, as the average cost of a UCSB textbook is $140.)

Sometimes your subconscious tells you, “Aw, c’mon, you know this stuff.  You don’t need to study it.  Just look over it the night before the test.”  Listen to your subconscious!  It knows what it’s doing!  Besides, you can always change your mind two days before the test.  I always do. 

Part Three:  Dead Week

Dead Week is the week right before Finals, during which teachers are not to assign any homework or give any tests.  French teachers always give a unit test during Dead Week, English teachers always assign a major paper, and routine assignments are never cancelled.  So why is it called Dead Week?  Well, after you stay up past midnight every day of the week, cancel all your appointments (including meals), and read 4,000 pages per day, you’ll know why.

Dead Week is a very good time to find out exactly what classes you are signed up for.  Nothing is worse than finding out you’re enrolled in a Third World Studies course two days before the exam.  Check into that now, or you might have to cram during Finals Week.

Part Four:  Staking Your Claim in the Library

Many students forget, during the quarter, that the library exists.  However, word travels fast and from Dead Week on, everybody will be fighting for a spot as it literally reaches maximum capacity.

The first indicator of Finals will be the 4.5 billion bikes parked out front.  If you work at a bike shop, a few strategically thrown hand grenades will double business for at least a month.  If you’ve come to study, though, you’ll need to find a place to park.  Be VERY CAREFUL walking around the bikes that are leaning on their kickstands.  I’ve seen the “Domino Effect,” and it’s ugly.  Lock everything; many thieves rely on Finals to feed their familieshow else can they get every bike on campus in one place at midnight with nobody around to watch?

[Here’s a photo of the bikes parked in front of the UCSB library on a typical day in 1988.  During finals the number of bikes is like double this.]

Lining up at the library is a lot like lining up at a rock concert, although I haven’t had to camp out yet.  Show up early, and you may be one of the first to stampede the library looking for a study booth.  Normally, there’s room for everyone, but not during Dead Week—booths that haven’t been used for months will be filled instantly.  Once you have your booth, you must place within it a minimum of $1,000 worth of textbooks and supplies to verify your claim.  Once you have done this, leave.  This will infuriate all who pace the aisles late looking for a seat.

If you must go to class or to the store, leave everything behind.  Otherwise you will never get a booth in the library again—until Finals are over.  Often, your things will be looted.  This is normal.  Having a place to study is usually a  matter of who will risk the most to get it.

Part Five:  Attitude Enhancement Through Chemistry

After staying up until 2 a.m. all week and still being behind, a student will often ask himself, “Is it worth it?”  The answer is, of course, no.  But that shouldn’t discourage the tenacious student.  If it does, however, he must resort to chemicals to trick his brain into thinking it either likes studying, or will die without it (as is often the case). 

Brain Steroids, if used frequently, cause an elongation of the head into, well, an egg‑shape.  Most professional scholars agree that this just isn’t worth it (although you have to wonder how they got to where they are today).  Hence, you should use the next best thing:  No‑Doz.  Don’t worry, it’s as safe as coffee—one tablet is as safe as three pots of coffee.  If you usually sleep nights during the quarter, your tolerance will be low and one tablet a night will be plenty—until the third or fourth night, when your body will need ten to twelve tablets.  You’ll know the drug is working when, fifteen minutes after consumption, you beat your chest and yell, “YEEEEEEEAH!  LET’S GO STUDY!  WOOO‑HOOO!”

Part Six:  Making a Little Money on the Side

Set up a booth in the library selling pencils, index cards, and No‑Doz.  You can sell magazines, too—it’s amazing just how many breaks students take while studying.  And you can sell your booth—ones by the window will get top dollar.  I know a guy who made $300 in one Dead Week.  Of course, he had to drop out of school after that.  Now he’s a millionaire.

Part Seven:  Getting to the Final on Time

There are three possible scenarios for your Final Exam departure. The first scenario involves the lazy student who lies around “collecting his thoughts” until two minutes before the test, and must race to campus.  The second scenario involves the well-meaning but absentminded student who loses track of time while doing his last‑minute studying—which is often his only studying—and shows up like half an hour late to his test.  The third scenario involves the responsible student who ... no, I guess there are only two scenarios.

Some students believe in locating the testing room beforehand.  People like me know better.  I mean, racing around looking for the testing room, when the exam has already started, will do wonders for your adrenaline.  Besides, it’s not often that you get to walk in late and actually interrupt something!

Part Eight:  Taking the Final

Above all, don’t panic.  Sure, you’re winging three hour‑long essay questions.  Sure, this test is 80% of your grade and represents the culmination of ten weeks of hard ... okay, ten weeks of neglect.  Sure, you need a perfect score to get an A/B/C/D (choose one) in the course.  Sure, the guy next to you has body odor and is encroaching on your desk ... wait a second, time to panic!

If the proper No‑Doz/adrenaline rush has been achieved, just hold on to your pen and try to keep it on the blue book—responses written on the desk will not be graded.  If you do this right, the pen scribblings from your shaking hand will actually be construed as words by the professor.  He may even like what he thinks you’ve written.

There are two possible scenarios for finishing the test.  You may finish in 45 minutes while everybody else is still writing furiously.  This means your essays were much too vague, and you will do very poorly on the test.  The other scenario involves scribbling like mad all the way through the three hours and beyond—even though everybody else left after 45 minutes.  This means you over-thought the questions and have wasted over two hours of your time.  That’s time that could be devoted to what life’s really about:  hanging out.

Part Nine:  Doping Control

Immediately after finishing the exam, you must report to the drug testing booth.  You must show your registration card when you pick up your vial.  When you get into the booth, do not read the “CLEAN CATCH SPECIMEN COLLECTION” instructions listed for the women.  They are disgusting.  If you have been taking No‑Doz or have eaten dorm food within a week, don’t expect to pass the drug test.  In this case, you’ve only brought this problem on yourself.  Take heart; administrators only analyze the doping control results for top 15% of the grade curve, so your sample will likely be thrown out.  And usually, your grade will improve after others are penalized.

Part Ten:  How Did I Do?

You can check your grade by seeing the Teaching Assistant in his office two weeks after the Final.  Of course, nobody in the history of higher education has ever done this.  After despising your T.A. for ten weeks, would you visit him on your own time?  Not a chance.  You can find out your final grade when your report card comes—unless your T.A. forgot to send his grade report to the Registrar, or filled out the form incorrectly.  In this case, you will receive no credit for the class.  This is normal.