Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2013 - The Year In Review

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for mature themes.


If you’re familiar with this blog, you know it’s about nothing in particular. That’s not going to change, though today’s topic—a review of the previous year’s big news, month by month—has become a tradition. Read on, and you may discover that this “blog about nothing” has actually had its finger on the pulse of the most pressing issues and themes of our time. At least, that’s what I’m going to bend over backwards trying to prove. To the extent I fail, you can silently mock me. What could be more fun than that?


The big news in January was that, after fourteen years of lying through his teeth, Lance Armstrong finally admitted he’d doped throughout his cycling career. Of course I felt hurt by this, not just because I’d stupidly believed in him and even defended him for years, but because this über-athlete had now beaten me at my own game: writing. That is, he’d produced two so-called autobiographies that ended up being works of pure fiction, and far more convincing than anything I’ve written. When Lance spilled his guts to Oprah Winfrey, and she asked him why he’d been such a bully for all those years, he said he’d felt a need to “control the narrative.” How literary of him!

Not long after that interview, I felt duly inspired by The King all over again and I tried to “control the narrative” myself. I blogged about an on-the-road showdown with a rude stranger who thought that, despite being kind of chubby for a cyclist, he could get medieval on my heinie on a brutal climb. A climb, in fact, that’s one of my very favorites. Of course, I wanted my narrative to resemble something mellow and thoughtful, perhaps whimsical—something, in short, befitting my bike club’s byline, “Sweetness & Light,” rather than the Lance-style narrative which is more like “Silence of the Lambs.” So instead of giving my opponent “the look” and then brutally attacking him, I rolled by him gradually, as if silently offering him my wheel: “Really, take my wheel. I want you to. I want you to have it … really.” Yes, I managed to best the guy, but in the process assured myself that, Lance’s example notwithstanding, you can succeed at sport without being a jerk about it. (Full disclosure: I loved watching Lance give Ullrich “the look.” It’s even fun to watch now, in the same way it’s kind of fun watching WWF wrestling.)


No matter how much hard-hitting news is offered up in February, all most people care about is the Academy Awards. (If you disagree, count yourself among the most socially conscious people on Earth. Congratulations!) And perhaps no film got more buzz than the winner of the Oscar for the Best Short Non-Animated Film, “Curfew.” Frankly, I was as caught up in the ensuing Curfew-Mania as everybody.

And yet, I couldn’t help but feel snubbed, because even though I cannot deny a strong bias, I really felt that my own film, “Tire Lever Demo,” should have won that Oscar. I think it’s fair to say that most critics would agree about this, and yet my movie lost. The fact is, not all of us have the financial resources to mount a massive hype-fest to turn the media into a giant Oscar-buzz machine on behalf of our film. It’s unfair voting. It’s who you know. Or is it “it’s whom you know”? Is there an implicit “whom” in “It’s who you know,” i.e., “It’s who [whom] you know”? I don’t know. English is a tough language. Anyway, for the full story on that tire lever demo, click here.


As if my crushing Oscar defeat in February weren’t bad enough, in March I failed to sell my beautiful dining table, with matching chairs, on craigslist. (I almost called it a “dinette set” just now, but the first time I did that—when I bought the set—I felt my hairline recede about a centimeter and my bones become at least 10% less dense.) Not getting any money was bad enough, but it’s particularly annoying to have my top-quality (if somewhat soiled) merchandise vetted by the kind of highly particular and discerning consumer who somehow manages to forget that he or she is paying bottom dollar. It was all I could do to keep from verbally insulting those who interrogated me about the cleanliness of the chairs. In fact, I did end up insulting everybody who read the second version of my ad, which I also published in these pages.

Of course I don’t need to tell you how this all fit in with the big world news of March, which was the sale of a precious little bowl that sold for $2.2 million at an auction despite having been purchased at a garage sale. Will my dining room table and chairs ever be worth that much? Well, yeah, once this blog makes me world-famous and becomes the basis of the blockbuster movie “Curfew II – The Spawning”! Then the family friends who bought my table and chairs for $150 will be laughing in your face, “craig”!


The big national news in April read like the script for a really lousy episode of “Magnum, P.I.” I’m talking about how a former martial arts instructor tried to send poisonous ricin-laced mail to members of our government, including President Obama, in a complicated plot to frame his nemesis, all over a feud involving the Internet, social media, and a counterfeit Mensa credential. So the perp, Everett Dutschke, is going to prison for twenty-five years, following which he’s sure to launch a new type of martial arts that he “perfected in prison,” so he can be annoying all over again.

It was with a sense of relief, then, that I posted in April about the only type of toxic mail most of us have to deal with, which is e-mail spam. Of course there’s not much in common between ricin-laced paper mail and spam, but the stupidity of the average spammer and the stupidity of Mr. Dutschke are closely related. The most salient statement in my April “Open Letter To Spammers” could easily apply to deranged imbeciles like Dutschke: “It’s natural to be lured toward a grudging respect for the really cunning criminal, like the jewel thief who slips into a museum during the dark of night, outwits all the laser-beam motion detectors, and makes off with the big diamond. But your methods are so grossly ineffective, the fitting criminal analogy would be the last guy who siphoned gasoline from my old Volvo, puking his guts out in the process.”


I kicked off May with a post about arguing. The ostensible topic was grammar, but the real point of my essay was how wonderful it is when people engage in lively debate over differing points of view, even if in the big picture they mostly agree. For example, as recounted in this post, a dinner guest gleefully danced on my (rhetorical) grave when he discovered that a word pronunciation I’d denounced—that is, the last syllable of “processes” being pronounced “eez”—was supported by a creditable dictionary. I suffered the agonies of defeat until I found another dictionary that called this pronunciation “a bungled affectation.” The good news is, we both care about language enough to spar about it.

Our behavior was eerily prescient: not long after, no less an intellect than President Obama got into a lively debate with a Code Pink anti-war protester during a press conference. Despite the protester becoming a bit too heated and having to get dragged away by the Secret Service, Obama did subsequently take the opportunity to point out that the woman had brought up important ideas that deserve to be debated. Maybe I’ll invite the President to my next dinner party! Or the Code Red protester!


Okay, it has occurred to me that a mischievous reader or two, inspired by all this talk of debate, might feel like playing the devil’s advocate by pretending not to have heard of the movie “Curfew” that I mentioned earlier. Well, that’s fine, but nobody could pretend not to know of the big news in June, of an NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, blowing the whistle on PRISM, the US government’s Internet spying program.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I blogged in June about social networks and texting, trying to warn teens (and their parents) about the perils of dopamine-fueled social one-upmanship and how all these tweets and texts are like a morphine drip of social approval. Obviously it would have been beside the point to warn teens about safeguarding their privacy, since the current batch seems to be totally unconcerned with it. But I did touch on the odd nexus of freedom and our modern always-on communication style: “If your parents can reach you whenever they want, that’s not really freedom at all. Freedom is having enough trust that your parents don’t need to know where you are.”

Substitute “NSA” or “government” for “parents” and my statement seems truer than ever, does it not?


I spent most of July ignoring all the big, important, unpleasant mainstream news and focusing mainly on the Tour de France. (I provided a blow-by-blow report of several stages, via peer-to-peer instant messaging and a blog post wrap-up after each stage; I wasn’t about to “live tweet” anything because that would just annoy my one Twitter follower, who has chosen to follow me for no reason I can think of since I’ve never sent a single tweet.) It’s too bad I never bothered to consider this great bike race in a larger current-events context that might have given me some insight.

What am I talking about, you ask? Well, in my coverage of Stage 8, I asked the rhetorical question, “Isn’t that sweet, how the French still pretend one of their own could place high in the overall?” Somebody needs to come up with a term for a question that’s not only rhetorical but is also only implied; in this case the question was, “Why do the French cyclists suck so bad, having failed to win their home race for the last 28 years?” Had I kept my eye on breaking world news, I’d have found the answer: it’s simply that the French are more interested in other things, like beauty, as shown by an article titled “Could Snail Slime Be France’s Next Miracle Beauty Cure?”  Louis-Marie Guedon, a Franch snail farmer, “says the mucus secreted by snails are full of collagen, glycolic acid, antibiotics and other compounds that regenerate skin cells and heal cuts,” and “has developed a secret technique to harvest the slime ... turning the innovation into France’s first industrial-scale snail mucus extraction operation with a target to harvest 15 tonnes of it next year.”

It’s hard to fault France for focusing on aesthetics ... after all, somebody has to. Beauty is becoming increasingly rare throughout the developed world, and not just due to obesity. Some of the thinnest people in Europe are getting uglier every year. I’m talking, of course, about professional bike racers. Veteran race announcer Phil Liggett, also in coverage of Stage 8, said of Tour de France winner Christopher Froome, “He’s not the prettiest of bike riders, but he is the most effective.” This is an understatement. Froome is so grotesquely emaciated I wouldn’t be surprised if Kate Moss told him, “Dude, go get half a sandwich or something!”

Let’s face it, society doesn’t need bike racers to be more effective; incrementally increased speeds don’t equal increased excitement. What the peloton needs is to follow the lead of the French and get back to looking better!


Well, there’s no point beating about the bush: August was all about fear of shrinking genitals. Look, guys, it’s pointless to pretend you didn’t go to Hewlett Packard’s website and download their genital-measuring app, “Chubby Checkers.” And don’t insult my intelligence by insisting that you were totally ignorant of how the app suddenly vanished and you had to go back to low-tech methods of assessing your masculinity. I guess I’ll cut you some slack if you didn’t get the full story of how the app was removed when the sixties-era pop singer Chubby Checkers sued HP for using his trademarked name without permission, and how this month a judge ruled that the lawsuit can move forward. But it’s all true.

The size of—and frankly the decline of—my own genitals was also a prominent albertnet theme in August; consider this post, “Blogger Eats Crow Over Compact Crank!”  Here I chronicled the (much deserved) abuse I got from by biking pals when I switched to a lower-geared compact bike crankset. Trevor wrote, “The compact crank is the cycling equivalent of the old man’s walker. Don’t forget the tennis balls or, instead, you might as well dangle your own off the back of your saddle since you’re apparently not using them anymore. Display them like the now useless withered tokens they’ve become.” Paul advised, “Now that shrinking genitals are a reality for you, please consider that it impacts others … of most note, your wife. I consulted with [my girlfriend] before I made the switch [to a compact crank]. After buying her a bunch of expensive jewelry she caved.”

Now that we ageing cyclists don’t have the Chubby Checkers app anymore, maybe it’s time to Kickstart a new genital measurement product, perhaps something built in to a bicycle saddle….


In September I was pleasantly surprised to see that my favorite magazine, “The New Yorker,” had published a letter I’d sent them. Drunk on the idea that I’d actually said something useful, I elaborated at length in a blog post about doping vs. talent. Could this longer piece have been labeled a “bizarre missive”? Could my readers have been “confused by” it? If so, what a nice tie-in to the other big news of September, “Chinese Left Confused By Bizarre Missive on Xi’s Ring.”

It seems there had been a lot of buzz in the social media about whether or not China’s President Xi Jinping wore a wedding ring on state television. The official Chinese news agency responded with a one-line report, “Talk on the Internet about Xi Jinping wearing a wedding ring at the G20 summit is fake information.” Did a member of this news agency also comment on my blog post, calling it “fake information”? They might have. But you know I can censor such things.


Can ignorance be charming? Well, of course! Just look at kids misspelling simple words, or believing in Santa. Is ignorance among adults also charming? Well, not so much, though lack of prescience can at least be refreshing. At least, that was my hope in October when I ran a “from the archives” post from 1989 about entering the computer age. Among the brilliant technologies I mentioned were fax, long distance calling cards, remote-controlled phone answering machines, laser printers, and the computer mouse. I was vaguely aware of the existence of e-mail at that time, but didn’t know enough to write about it.

Well, perhaps in another fourteen years you’ll think it charmingly non-prescient of me to declare that the very pinnacle of the Internet’s global reach thus far was achieved this past October. I’m talking about a crazy confluence of government, social media, and dignified adults behaving like children in the most charming way possible. If you’re having trouble remembering that far back, here is the news story about a Chinese government official who was visiting flood victims the Zhejiang province and accepted a piggyback ride from a local, so as to keep his nice shoes from being spoiled by a puddle. If you think this made a charming “local color” item for the local paper, think again. Someone snapped a photo, posted it to a blog, and the government official was promptly sacked. It’s kind of sad that the great online global village must mean the end of adult piggyback rides, but there you have it. On the plus side, without the Internet I’d never have believed that government officials enjoyed such perks.


In November I did a post celebrating the amazing ability of children to memorize vast amounts of seemingly trivial information, such as (in my kid’s case) the Periodic Table of the Elements and a bazillion digits of Pi, or (in the case of my own childhood) terabytes worth of rock lyrics and “Star Wars” lore. The point of the post was to teach parents how to exploit this amazing faculty, but the implicit rhetorical question (there it is again!) was something like, “Should we be worried about where these kids will end up, since they memorize all this trivia at the expense of their schoolwork?”

Again, a closer eye on the news would have answered this question, at least if “Well, yes and no” can be considered an answer. Consider this November news story about a school dropout in Nepal who taught himself how to imitate the sounds of 251 different kinds of birds. This isn’t the quasi-skill of the weird birder you might have encountered on an Audubon Society outing, who makes sounds that, to his ear and maybe even yours, sound kind of like a bird. No, the guy in Nepal can actually summon hundreds of crows and command them about. He’s kind of like the Kurtz of the bird world. So you see, just because knowledge can seem trivial doesn’t mean it is, which gives me hope for my own children.


The release of my second (non-) blockbuster movie of 2013 should have been news in itself, despite (or because of) the scathing review I magnanimously posted in December. Who could have predicted that a strange movie like “Lego Dude vs. Dinosaurs Run Amok” would produce one of those “life imitates art” moments? And yet that’s exactly what happened this month, when a disgruntled theatre director rammed his car into the French presidential palace as a protest, just as (in my film) a motorist rammed his car into—well, not a gate of a palace, but a dinosaur. I guess another difference is that the French theatre director was merely arrested rather than being attacked by dinosaurs. But still, the similarity is uncanny, is it not? (Don’t answer that.)

Thank you

Thank you for another great year. Or better yet, how about you thank me? That is, if you’re still there. Do you hear any trees falling near you?

But seriously, you’ve been great, really. I know I couldn’t do this blog without you, though I actually probably could, and actually probably do. Anyway, if there’s anybody out there, have a great 2014, a year in which I hope more of the breaking world news is trivial. And if you’re reading this way after the fact, I hope you found this a nostalgic look back at 2013: The Year Of The Social-Media Scandals (e.g., Ricin, Piggyback, Jinping, NSA, and of course Chubby-Checker).

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