Monday, March 31, 2014

From the Archives - The TechCorp Files, Part I: Interview


Introduction

Short stories are a slippery thing. If a story is true, it can be spun as a simple yarn, and no more is expected of it. Formal fiction, though, gets subjected to all kinds of critical evaluation. Is there a story arc? Is some kind of Truth revealed? Does the main character grow? After all, with all the freedom in the world to contrive characters and actions to make your point, you’d better say something.

I’ve found that if you try to dress up a true story as fiction, you’ll crash and burn. I tried this, in a writing class. Amazing things that actually happened to me were dismissed by the instructor as “totally unrealistic.”

One problem with my earlier writing is that I didn’t bother separating fact from fiction. I thought this was playful and fun, but I’ve come to realize it probably just confuses the reader. Besides, it deprives him or her of a sense of wonder when something unbelievable is actually true.

So it is with the following story, which is essentially nonfictional. Except where clearly noted (e.g., “Okay, I didn’t really say that”), almost everything happened exactly as I tell it. For example, I describe a pre-employment aptitude test, which was real. And, on my way to take the test, a homeless person really did pick a fight with me. I faithfully documented what he really said, and he really did seem to attempt to wring the neck of a parking meter. That said, there’s some hyperbole too; for example, the parking meter’s neck didn’t break. By exaggerating like this, I inadvertently pushed the whole episode into the realm of fantasy, where it didn’t belong.

I could go fix those problems in this archival tale, but a) that’s too much work, and b) the hyperbole is kind of fun. So instead I’ll preface what follows by itemizing what is truly fictional, so you can appreciate that everything else is true. Here are the other fictionalized bits:
  • The interviewer’s abrasiveness is exaggerated through dressed-up dialogue;
  • Names of corporations have been changed;
  • Other job candidates’ credentials have been exaggerated;
  • The Swan’s Oyster Depot episode is entirely fictitious.
A final prefatory note: given the length of this introduction and of the story itself, I have broken this post into two parts. No, I’m not indulging people’s shortening attention spans, à la Twitter. I’m just getting more mileage out of this story, like the magazines from Dickens’s time that used to publish novels serially. My second and final installment will go up in about a week, freeing me to work on my tax return.


The TechCorp Files, Part I – June 9, 1995

Last week I had an interview with TechCorp. A stern, cheerless woman scanned through my résumé.

ooooo“1350 Filbert Street?” she asked.
ooooo“That’s the apartment.” I said. “Where I live.”
ooooo“Nice place?”
ooooo“It’s all right.”
ooooo“Dana, imagine you’re in the desert—”
ooooo“Which desert?” I asked, uneasily.
oooooShe stared at me, exasperated. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “The Sahara.” She paused. “You’re walking, and you see a tortoise...”
ooooo“What’s a tortoise?” I demanded, with some trepidation.
ooooo“You know what a turtle is?” she said, quietly, disgusted. “Same thing.” She paused again. “You flip the tortoise onto its back. Its stomach is baking in the hot sun. You could flip it back over, but you don’t. Why is that, Dana?”
oooooI glared at her.
ooooo“They’re just questions, Dana,” she said soothingly. “Designed to provoke an emotional response. Now I want you to tell me the first thing that comes to mind about … your mother.”

Well, actually, that’s not how it happened. That was from a movie. Just once I’d like to have an interviewer say those things. I know I’ve been tempted, when interviewing somebody myself, to mix it up a little.

Of course, it’s much easier to relax and have a good time when you’re holding all the cards. I was far less comfortable here. My chair, a modern grey mesh fabric one that you might find on the Starship Enterprise, was improperly adjusted, and it was all I could do to keep it from pitching back. Somebody had configured it for lounging, feet up on the desk. Is this a ruse, I wondered, to see if I will modify my environment to best suit me? I’m a guest here; do I dare attempt a complex adjustment?

I tried to relax. I devoted my energies to leaning forward, sitting up straight, making eye contact, and trying to impress this rather severe woman. Not being a professional recruiter, she only pretended to know what to ask, and what to say.

ooooo“Now, the role of this division of TechCorp has nothing to do with the consumer-oriented service that you surely associate it with,” she told me. “It’s kind of difficult to explain. It takes a long time working here to realize exactly what it is we do.”

oooooIs it something found in the home?” I asked, helpfully.  No, I didn’t really say this—I only thought it. And once I’d thought of it, I couldn’t think of anything else. So I said nothing. My chair was now swallowing me up completely. I was shrinking, rapidly, approaching the size of a small child.

ooooo“Our products,” she said flatly, “involve high-speed packet network data transfer. We sell to huge companies. Our biggest account is MegaFi. You surely never knew this before, but MegaFi itself is not a corporation. It is a non-profit organization that makes money for banks. It makes gobs of money. And what we do for them, is. . . .” She paused again. “Look,” she said, “I am communicating to you across a vast gulf of ignorance and darkness.”

Okay, that’s not really what she said. That’s from a book. But what she did say, which I can’t precisely remember, had the same effect. At this point it was do or die. I needed to take control of this interview, dammit. So I began to just talk, with little regard to my interlocutor’s opening salvo. Through a series of carefully arranged statements, I gradually tried to insinuate myself into the job, so that eventually my employment at TechCorp would be automatic. Over the next hour, I hoped, I could move right into a discussion about promotion, and maybe even early retirement—ultimately, I could come out of the interview with a handsome severance package.

But she would have none of it. For her part, she continually buried the prospect of my employment deeply within the hypothetical realm. When I gave her my references, she said, “We will contact these people in the event that you happen to make it that far into the interview process.” She went into a cruel discussion of the myriad invisible opponents I was up against, most of them Oxford Rhodes scholars with “F-15 fighter jock” listed under “hobbies” on their résumés. She hammered home the point that I had come late into the game, which was in fact a source of irritation to her because I was dragging out the recruiting process. But eventually, and begrudgingly, she told me to make an appointment to take a written exam designed to evaluate … what? My intelligence? My worth as a human being?

ooooo“Funny you should mention a test,” I remarked. “I dreamed I had to take a test at a Dairy Queen on another planet.”  Actually, I didn’t say this. It’s from a song. But just once I’d like to use that, in context, and my little story here may the best chance I ever have.

I was actually eager to take the test. Not since 1992, when I took my last multiple-choice exam, had I enjoyed the opportunity to undergo such a straightforward and concrete challenge. Since graduating from college, in fact, life has taken on a rather nasty guerrilla-warfare bent, where performance is measured by subtle, person-to-person, tactical coups de grâce instead of by objective test results.

ooooo“You may be expecting something easy,” she warned, “but many people find our test very difficult. If you think this will be a routine ‘do-you-have-a-pulse’ kind of assessment, I think you’re in for a shock. I repeat, it is a very difficult test. Many people have complained. Some become outraged. Some never fully recover from the experience.” She paused. “But you appear to be young and healthy.” She gave me a packet of information about TechCorp, along with a two-page explanation of the exam itself. I took it home and read it. I have it in front of me. I will quote from it.

“Please come prepared....” it begins. “As the interviewing process proceeds you will be asked to take a test designed to measure your ability with numbers and your reasoning and logic skills.” I believed this was right down my alley. I believe I am rational and logical, and those who know me believe, at least, that I have a heart of stone. I looked over the sample questions, and this is one of them:

“Select the next letter in the sequence.

bakrmvmvkr_ 1 2 3 4 5

ooooooooooooa b k l m

The alternate letters in the first part of the series (b,k,m) repeat themselves in reverse in the last part of the series (m,k,_). Therefore, the next letter should be “b”, which is in column 2 of the possible answers.”


The part about “b” being in column 2 of the possible answers made perfect sense. I looked at the number 2, scanned straight down, and indeed “b” was right there. The part about “b” being the right answer, however, gave me more difficulty. True, I have had similar test questions throughout my life, and as a youth was often able to solve them. On “Sesame Street,” or perhaps it was “Electric Company,” a person (or perhaps a clown, or a mime—I don’t remember) would pace back and forth along a row of similar objects, while an unseen singer sang, “One of these things is not like the others/ One of these things does not belong. . . .” Usually the objects were three rabbits and a hare, or three turtles and a tortoise, but sometimes they were more obvious: three beach balls and a basketball. On these latter occasions I solved the riddle even before the mime did.

But this sample test question seemed much, much harder. Perhaps you got the answer, right off. Perhaps you’re smirking a bit, trying to imagine my mental struggle. Perhaps the only confusing thing about the problem for you is deciding how it could have presented me with any difficulty. But I’m just an English major, okay?  Yeah, I know it’s a pattern of letters, from the English alphabet, and yeah, I’m familiar with these letters and can handily recite the alphabet . I could even recite the alphabet backwards if I had to pass a drunk-driving test. But I don’t drink, and I don’t drive, and knowing the alphabet has nothing whatever to do with the solution to the problem. Letters and even words don’t give me a leg up unless they’re written by a long-ago dead British writer like William Blake, okay? My sweet spot is appreciating wonderful, colorful, deeply expressive phrases like “cold hot dog.”  Sequences like “bakrmvmvkr” don’t do a lot for me.

The test description (warning, really) went on to advise that “some people have found that practicing with a standardized test prep book has helped quite a bit.” But the handout they gave me had only half a dozen questions, and with the test looming—it would be first thing the next morning—I had no time to visit bookstores asking for prep books. The test warning might as well say, “Study all you want, but we cannot imagine anything could save you, you miserable pudknocker.”

With the “letter series” problems exemplified above, the test would allow 10 minutes for completing 26 questions. That allows 23 seconds per problem, not counting the time I would spend doubled over in pain. Allowing for about 15 doubled-over seconds per problem, I came to realize that I simply lacked the brain power required to obtain a respectable score. I decided to seek outside assistance.

I strolled down to Swan’s Oyster Depot, and Ralph, the guy behind the counter said, “We got fresh sea scallops on special today. Just $45 for a half-pound. They’re so fresh, we haven’t even caught ‘em yet! Have a seat, it’ll take us ten minutes to haul in the nets. By then we’ll have processed your loan application.”
oooooI shook my head. “Not today, Ralph,” I said.
ooooo“You sure? They’re mighty fresh. God made them just this morning.”
ooooo“No, I need brains today. You got anything smart? An engineer, maybe?”
ooooo“Hey, we got a doctor. Hauled him in this morning. I know, that’s not so fresh, but the price is good. No engineers though. Almost had one, but he figured out how to dismantle our nets. Made off with a lot of bait, too. Have to harpoon him one day. So how about the doctor brains?”

I came home with a small, paper-wrapped bundle of brains. Ralph said he gave me the best part, all left-brain stuff. I booted up my computer, set the brains on my mouse pad, selected “Run” from the “File” menu, then typed “a:\install.” My hard drive chattered for a while, and moments later my intelligence had increased dramatically. I instantly had a new understanding of the world, and I became deeply depressed.

The morning of the test, I showed up early. Nobody was there. What to do? I took a walk around the block, and gave a homeless man a dollar in change. He tried to give me a Street Sheet but I was trying to achieve a total mind vacuum and didn’t need any more information, especially about life on the streets, to gum up my brain. He said, “It’s okay, man, I’m just another of God’s chilluns.” Then another homeless man intentionally stepped in my way and I bumped into him.

ooooo“DO YOU WANNA SEE A FIGHT!?” he cried. “I’LL SHOW YOU A FIGHT, MAN! I’LL SHOW YOU ONE!”

I assured him, politely but firmly, that I did not want to see a fight. He made the offer several more times, and, perhaps for effect, began wringing the neck of a nearby parking meter. It bent like a reed in the wind. When he finished, its neck was broken, its dial said “VIOLATION,” and the man was still yelling, “DO YOU WANNA SEE A FIGHT!?” At this point I noticed he was wearing a rather nice suit, and I wondered if he’d torn it off a guy like me. I extricated myself from the situation somehow, but showed up at the test a frayed bundle of nerves.

I was handed the test booklet. You may raise an eyebrow here at my use of the passive voice: “I was handed the test booklet.” We are taught to use the active voice— “I betook the test booklet”—because the active voice is more powerful. I, however, have deliberately chosen the passive voice here to describe the powerlessness of my position. I was not the master of my destiny, in this room, with my plastic Choice #2 pencil and my two somehow sad pieces of scratch paper. I was to be merely the passive recipient of one and one half hours of intellectual assault. A mental punching bag, if you will.

Tune in next week for the thrilling finale of “The TechCorp Files.”

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Milan-San Remo 2014


Introduction

Last year I covered the cycling “Grand Tours,” the three most important stage races, online for a very select audience (i.e., like one guy).  Leveraging the blog format, I took full advantage of not needing to follow any rules of journalistic integrity, so I could call a spade a spade (and sometimes call a heart a spade—close enough) to get at the truth, if not the facts, of what was going on.  Meaning that when Froomestrong crushed everybody I could explain why (hint:  it has nothing to do with his “training during the winter” explanation).

This is the first time I’m reporting a “classic” in real time.  If you don’t know what a classic is, you’ve come to the right place:  I’ll explain it.  It’s a bike race that’s been held annually for many, many, many decades.  Such races make America’s Super Bowl look like a flash in the pan.  Milan-San Remo (say it “Mee-LAWN san RAY-mo”) first ran in 1907 and has been held every year since except for three years total due to the world wars.  (Yes, in this sport, a real sport, it takes more than an athletes’ strike to shut things down.)

In addition to being a classic, Milan San-Remo is a “monument.”  These are the oldest and longest of the classics.  The other four monuments are Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Tour of Lombardia, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.  Milan-San Remo is (I believe) the longest, at almost 300 kilometers.  It’s also considered one of the “easiest,” as if a pro bike race were ever easy.  The point is, it’s flatter than the others (except maybe Paris-Roubaix, which has a lot of cobblestone roads).

By the way, if you’re an expert on cycling and can’t stand me spoon-feeding you basic information like this, rest assured that you’ve still come to the right place.  Once the action starts I won’t have time for background info, and I pledge not to use all the hackneyed expressions other cycling commentators are addicted to, like “keeping his powder dry,” “the gallop to the finish,” “game of cat and mouse,” etc.

Biased Blow-By-Blow

There’s not a whole lot going on right now.  The riders have 72km to go (about 45 miles, a couple hours) and there’s a breakaway of five up the road.  I’m not going to share their names with you because there’s no point.  These breakaway riders are exactly like the red-shirted security guards you see at the beginning of a “Star Trek” episode who are usually toast before the opening credits even roll.

Ah, Sean Kelly just recounted (briefly) his 1992 victory in this race.  (Sean Kelly announces bike races for Eurosport, which is a treat, not just because of his thick Irish brogue but because he knows what he’s talking about.)  He said this was one of his favorite wins because it was late in his career and he wasn’t considered a favorite. (Kind of an understatement ... he was well past his prime and had very little punch left.  Those were leaner times in cycling, when even a top racer couldn’t necessarily afford to quit at the top of his game just to protect his ego.  Kelly came from a family of dairy farmers and figured it was probably what he’d go back to after his cycling career.  I have it on good authority that even during his peak, as one of the best racers in the world, he’d drive for three hours to do some crummy nothing race, just for the start money.)

Anyway, as Kelly just described it, he made sure (during the ‘92 race) not to follow any attacks because it’s too long a race and you have to save your energy. He saw Moreno Argentin close down 3 moves on the final climb, the Poggio, before breaking clear.  He said that the news accounts said Argentin had 7 or 8 seconds but actually he had 20. Kelly decided to go for second place and attacked on the downhill with 3km to go. That’s where he left off describing it, probably because he didn’t want to describe the wheel-sucking he then did. 

You can watch the finale of that race on YouTube, and it’s worth doing.  (I only got to read about it back in ‘92 but even that was thrilling enough.)  I just re-watched it with my daughters yesterday and it’s brilliant.  (Even my daughters, who normally don’t care much for bike racing, were on the edge of their seats.)  Kelly catches Argentin and they just have a handful of seconds over the peloton.  Argentin was no slouch—he won the World Championship road race in 1986 (I watched it in person, with better-than-front-row seats on top of a camper parked at the finish line) and Argentin handily crushed Charly Mottet in the uphill sprint.  So he had a good kick and was fully six years younger than Kelly (still is).  So he probably figures he can take Kelly, but not if he tows him all the way to the line.  Kelly, of course, has to be pretty blown from chasing him down.  (Most of why he was able to bridge was his fearless bike handling, but it’s not that steep a downhill so they were all still working.)

So Kelly absolutely refuses to take his turn at the front.  Argentin, being Italian, gesticulates wildly but Kelly just sits on his wheel.  Finally Argentin commits himself to holding off the pack, which you can see barreling toward them; he’s banking on his youth to hold off Kelly and Kelly is banking on Argentin to keep him ahead of the pack.  Finally Kelly launches his sprint and just blows Argentin away.  It’s so glorious I even forgive Kelly his terrible dome-shaped Brancale helmet, shown below (which bears a striking resemblance to the modern so-called “aero” helmets that Kelly’s fellow commentator has just been talking about, saying that they are in fact more aero, which a) cannot possibly be true, and b) is beside the point because they’re ugly, and I’m sure—or at least I hope—no rider would wear nipple rings, with jersey cutouts to display them, if it were found they increase your speed, and I wish the riders would show this same discretion with these modern ugly helmets, but I digress).


So yeah, Kelly did some major wheel-sucking there, which some riders and fans would look down on, but not me.  To me, it was an example of the intersection between fair play and professionalism.  Fair play because there’s no rule that you have to share the work.  Professionalism because Kelly needed to win because cycling was his career and he needed to give his team what they were paying him for—and to get paid himself, frankly—more than he needed to look like a chivalrous, gallant fellow.

In contrast, look at, say, Lance Armstrong “gifting” the Mount Ventoux stage of the Tour de France to Pantani.  Lance was clearly trying to further polish his image as a fair, honest, even generous champion, probably in pursuit of yet more endorsement money, but of course it wasn’t actual fair play because he was lubed to the gills.  Only a doper can win so much he has the luxury of giving away victories.  Dopers protect their image by lying out their asses.  Kelly sucked Argentin dry in full view of everybody, and haters be damned.  Ah, the good old days, when men were men.

Wow, a Eurosport ad just showed a power-weight-lifter hoisting a massive weight over his head, and in that final jerk his rolls of belly fat jiggled like a full tray of Jell-O atop a paint shaker.  “Athlete” indeed.

A final note on doping:  it plays, I think, less of a role in these one-day races where cunning, boldness, bike handling, and teamwork matter more than in stage races such as the Tour de France.  In a stage race, recovery is absolutely key, and one of the main benefits of EPO is its ability to help you recover (specifically, to keep your blood from losing its ability to carry oxygen).  So the classics are generally more exciting than the stage races.  So why haven’t I been saying more about the race?  Well, it’s long, and largely flat, and until the riders get to the two big climbs, the Cipressa and the Poggio, not much happens.  So it is today:  still no real action with 43km (~27 miles) to go.  The breakaway is down to three riders and has about five minutes (though they had over ten minutes earlier).

Have I mentioned it’s rainy and wet out there?  I’m glad I’m not in it.  As I documented a couple weeks ago, I’ve had enough rain riding for the year. 

Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma - Quickstep) looks cold and miserable but he’s in good position.  He’s won this race before (in 2009) and is a favorite this year.  Interestingly, he only recently decided to do this race (whereas other riders have been training specifically for it all winter).  The promotors had added another climb, between the final two, to make the race more exciting, and on that basis the pure sprinters decided to skip it.  It’s hard enough for them to hang on over the Cipressa and the Poggio, with the non-sprinters and their teams desperately working to drop them; with a third climb, they’d no longer have that much of a chance.  But terrible weather in the area this past winter caused a landslide and the promoters had to take the new climb out.  This shuffled the start list accordingly. 

Other favorites are sprinters like Andre Greipel of Lotto-Belisol (another last-minute entrant), John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), and last year’s surprise winner Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka), along with great classics racers like Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Fabian Cancellara (Trek), and last but not least Peter Sagan (Cannondale) who blew it last year by being overconfident and starting his sprint too early.  Sagan is an interesting case because he’s an all-rounder (i.e., is far more versatile on climbs and in long solo efforts than a sprinter), but has a fast enough sprint to mix it up with the best of them, at least after almost 300km of racing.

Riders are ditching their jackets because the rain has let up.  Surely they know it’s raining harder at the finish, because they’re spoon-fed all kinds of information through their race radios.  I’m against the radios because they make the racers more like drones.  Back in Kelly’s day, riders had to make their own decisions, which favored savvy and experience and intuition, which is part of why a tired-out old rider like Kelly in ‘92—the human equivalent of a spent tea bag—could still eke out a victory in a major race.

The riders are approaching the final climbs so I’m going to have to take a little break here while I still can...


Perhaps you’re frustrated by how this supposed blow-by-blow has been nothing but digressions.  Well, that’s how bike racing is.  It’s like a piece of classical music that builds up slowly, unlike, say, basketball which, with its constant action and scoring, is more like rap.  Cycling is a great sport to watch if a) you’re a patient person, b) you enjoy looking at the scenery and the bikes, and c) Chris Froome isn’t there bludgeoning the pack to death on drugs alone, without the need for tactics.  (No, he’s not doing this race.  He wouldn’t dare.)

The break is on the Cipressa.  It can’t be that hard a climb because it sounds like a salad.  Ah, the peloton is on the climb too, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) attacks!  Cannondale is going after him, working for Sagan of course.  Wow, Nibali’s got a big gap!  Only Cannondale is chasing.  The other teams are no doubt hoping Cannondale will wear itself out with the chase.  Kind of risky ... they wouldn’t want Nibali to be able to solo.

Whether he can hold it depends a lot on the wind.  With a tailwind, he’d have a great shot.  With a headwind, he’d be doomed.  I can’t tell what the wind is doing.  Nibali looks solid, even comfortable.  He’d a good descender but I think this move was too early.  Kelly rightly points out that if one other rider bridges to Nibali, he could have a chance.

Nibali has 33 seconds accourding to the video feed, but the commentators say 20 seconds.  There are still two riders ahead of Nibali:  Marc de Maar (United Healthcare) and Maarten Tjallingii (Belkin).  Their breakaway is doomed, but at least Tjallingii can take comfort in having the hardest name to spell in the entire pro peloton, if not in all of sport.

The leaders have finished the Cipressa and are moving on to their cioppino course and their breadsticks.

The peloton is now descending at great speed on the shiny, wet road. 

One of my real-time readers (okay, my real-time reader) has written in to say that he once did a 300km race (during the Tour du Pont) and found it “totally boring.”  There are probably bored riders in this peloton (domestiques without much to do) but all the contenders and their better teammates are probably experiencing a severe pucker-factor now, with 18 km (~11 miles) to go.  (Note:  I am not talking about their cold lips.)

A six-man group has broken from the main peloton.  Cancellara, clad in all-black, is in the group.  The peloton, which has been peeled down to about 30 riders, isn’t having any of it.

Sagan and Gilbert are working hard on the front, doing what they can to keep this from coming down to a bunch sprint.

Nibali is still slogging away on his own.  He looks pretty good, but he’ll have to really fly on the Poggio.  He’s got about 45 seconds.  Somebody knowledgeable (I can’t remember who, perhaps past winner Oscar Friere) said that with this race, you can only play one card.  Meaning that there is no Plan B, since the race is too long for anybody to try something, fail, rest up, and have enough energy left to try anything else.  Nibali has clearly committed to this one move.  He’s probably doomed, but you never know.

I’m very interested to see if Cav can hang on over the Poggio.  The lead group is going to be flying.

Nibali is on the Poggio, all alone.  He’s passed the remains of the breakaway.  He’s got about 40 seconds now.  For those of you not terribly familiar with the sport, Nibali won the Giro d’Italia last year, and almost won the Vuelta a España.  (Click here and here for my blow-by-blow accounts of key stages.)

The main group is flying up the Poggio.  At least, they were before this annoying pop-up ad obscured my view.

My correspondent asks, “You think Sagan could go across?”  Yeah, he’d have to really launch himself to get clear of that bunch, though if a rider like Cancellara or Gilbert joined him, he’d have good odds to win.

Looks like it’s all over for Nibali.  They’ve got him in their sights.  Man, the field is just crushing it.  After 275 km no less.

Gregory Rast (Trek) has attacked.  Perhaps he’s figuring his teammate Cancellara can counter-attack once he (Rast) is caught.  He’s going faster up this climb than I could go down it, I think.

Enrico Battaglin (Bardiani-CSF) has attacked.  He’s a nobody (I’d never heard of him) on a team I’ve never heard of, but then so was Ciolek last year.  You just never knew.

Battaglin has joined Rast.  By the way, I have heard of “Battaglin,” as a bike brand.  Not sure if this guy is related.  Maybe “Battaglin” is like “Smith” or “Jones” over in Italy.

Only 7.5km to go and these two are well ahead of the group.  In fact, it’s kind of remarkable—whoah, there goes Gilbert!—how far ahead they’ve managed to get.  The group chases Gilbert right down, and just like that they’ve caught Battaglin and Rast too. 

The group is stretched out in a long line so you know they’re completely drilling it.  They’ve now reached the top of the Poggio.  I think the sprinters have managed to hang.  Greipel is hanging at the back by the skin of his teeth.  I can’t tell if Cavendish is still in there.

This is such a great descent.  Loads of switchbacks.  It’s getting strung out now with gaps developing between riders.

Bauke Mollema (Belkin) is doing a great job at the front.  There’s just 4km to go.  It’s deceptive how big the gaps look ... at such high speed, separation in distance doesn’t represent much separation in time, and you can get a good draft from pretty far back.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) has attacked, but gets nowhere.  Mollema is right on him.  The group has come back together after being stretched tight on the descent. 

Some guy in a chartreuse jersey has attacked and I hope he gets caught because I can’t tell who he is.  With 2km to go, he’s doomed.  The peloton is swarming and the sprinters’ teams will be setting up their leadout train.  Lots of Katusha riders.  Wow, Greipel is just latching onto the back now!  He’s got to be dying.

I think Sagan is sitting fifth, but it’s hard to say.  My postcard-sized video feed is blurry.

They’ve got less than 1km to go!  About 30 guys in the group.  My pulse is racing.  There’s been a crash at the back.  Ah, there’s Cav up near the front.

Dammit!  My feed froze right at the key moment!  At least I can see the replay.  After his Katusha team’s great leadout, Alexander Kristoff, whom I’ve never heard of in my life, took the win.


So typical.  After watching for over two hours, and seeing absolutely nothing that shaped the outcome in any meaningful way, I lose my video feed in the final, crucial 30 seconds.

Cancellara was second, Ben Swift (Team Sky) was third.  Cancellara did a lot of good work lolling his tongue out of his mouth during the sprint, but it wasn’t quite enough.  He did a great scowl and downward-punching non-victory salute though.

I’m not going to try to form an opinion, on the spot, of this relative nobody winning the race, other than to say a) it’s always nice to see a fresh face making his mark on the sport, especially when the Tour de France result is all too predictable, and b) his helmet is not only ugly, but crooked.

Even though these racers finished well ahead of schedule, it looks like the coverage is ending so I’m not able to report on the podium girls.  So that’s it for today ... I hope you’ve enjoyed this coverage.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Bitcoin Explained!


Introduction

On  the face of it, I’m not the ideal person to explain Bitcoin to you.  As far as you know, I don’t work in the financial industry.   Why shouldn’t you just look at, say, Wikipedia to finally understand what Bitcoin is? 

The answer is, you’re too impatient.  Who wouldn’t be?  This is the kind of topic it’s hard to dabble in.  Ten words of the techie mumbo-jumbo and your eyes start to roll and your brain browns out.  So, you should read my explanation because I feel your pain.  I am writing from a perspective comprising equal parts curiosity and impatience.  Plus, I’ll work hard to understand a related question, which is “What’s so funny about  Bitcoin?”


Basic explanation

Wikipedia says that Bitcoin is “a cryptocurrency, so-called because it uses cryptography to control the creation and transfer of money,” and that “Bitcoins are created by a process called mining, in which computer network participants, i.e. users who provide their computing power, verify and record payments into a public ledger in exchange for transaction fees and newly minted bitcoins.”  Got that?  You “mine” them by doing something with a computer that rewards you with “newly minted bitcoins.”  Who minted them?  Well, that’s where it gets confusing.  So I’ll use an analogy to help clarify.

Suppose you’re playing with your children, making play money out of construction paper.  Of course this paper will never give you actual buying power, because no government stands behind it guaranteeing that it isn’t counterfeit.  For it to be legitimate, the currency must be produced by the government mint.  But, if you take the letters that spell out “TEN DOLLARS” and rearrange them to spell “DLTN ELOSRA,” and write this on the paper and have your child bring it to her mother, there’s a pretty good chance her mother will let her “buy” lemonade with it.  The act of encryption generates the lemonade-buying wealth pretty much out of thin air.  (This isn’t a perfect analogy, because anagrams are not really encryption, but you get the idea.)

Why does this work?  Well, in the olden days, people made coins out of pure gold, and the rarity of that metal gave the gold value.  Then they started using coins and paper markers that only represented gold, but for every bit of currency minted, there was a corresponding amount of gold, most of it (or at least most of ours) stored in Fort Knox.  If anybody got nervous about the actual value of his currency he could exchange it for gold, no questions asked.  (In practice nobody did this because gold is so heavy.)  Eventually, there wasn’t enough gold to back the currency, and many feared the whole system would collapse.  But governments kept right on minting currency, with no gold behind it, and nothing bad happened.  Money went on working simply because people continued to believe in it.

So why don’t governments just print more and more money, and give it as handouts?  Well, smart governments, like ours, know that would be killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.  As with diamonds, the money supply must be artificially suppressed so the value doesn’t diminish.  (Some of the more stupid governments get this wrong somehow, and their currency tanks.)

But there’s no government behind Bitcoin!  No obvious mechanism to keep it from being produced ad infinitum, willy-nilly!  So how does it work?  This is the wrong question.  The right question is, does Bitcoin work?

Does Bitcoin work?

The answer is, Bitcoin sort of works, kind of in the way that Ross Perot’s campaign sort of worked.  Yes, some people believe in Bitcoin, so it’s possible to buy stuff with it, and it’s even possible to steal it.

Steal it?  You mean, the way you can steal credit card numbers?  Well, not exactly.  Stealing credit card numbers is stealing information of a very useful nature.  That information represents an established form of payment that everybody believes in.  By putting that information to work—i.e., stealing the access it gives to somebody’s real credit account—you can buy stuff.  But a Bitcoin isn’t really information.  It’s a notion, and an encrypted one at that.

Still confused?  Let’s go with another analogy.  Remember the story “Stone Soup?”  A penniless traveler picks up a stone on the way into a town, where he asks people for food and is turned down.  So he gets somebody to loan him a cauldron, builds a fire, and starts boiling the stone in water, saying it’s soup.  In return for throwing vegetables and stuff in there, people get to share the soup with him.  By the end he’s had a full meal based solely on the stone he’s contributed, which of course he then pitches.  In like fashion, Bitcoin is the idea of money, and so long as people pony up actual money for bitcoins, or accept bitcoins as payment, they’re as real as that stone.

So all that Bitcoin is missing is that ubiquitous acceptance.  The problem is, anytime your average joe comes across a matter involving arcane abstractions like public/private key exchanges, digital cryptography, and the sliding scale of the value of a currency, he’s going to rightly feel out of his depth, and will generally look to somebody else, somebody in a position of authority, to validate the thing for him so he can know whether to accept it or not.  (This isn’t a bad explanation of some people’s approach to religion, actually, but I digress.)  Where Bitcoin is concerned, the question is:  in the absence of a government and a grandfathered-in acceptance of a currency once backed by gold, who will step up and vouch for it?

Who will validate Bitcoin?

Alas, many governments are unfriendly to Bitcoin and warn their people that it lacks consumer protections.  Economists, unsurprisingly, cannot agree on whether Bitcoin is legit.  (I say “unsurprisingly” because no two economists ever agreed on anything, except for one pair of mental lightweights I’ve already excoriated in these pages).  It doesn’t help that the most prominent Bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, collapsed recently and filed for bankruptcy. It also doesn’t help that “Mt. Gox” sounds like something straight out of Dr. Seuss.

However, it does help that some merchants have started accepting bitcoins as payment for actual goods.  Some prominent examples:  the Sacramento Kings, Clearly Canadian, University of Nicosia, Zynga, Overstock.com and most recently the faux-British department store Lord & Taylor.

There are some caveats with these.  The Sacramento Kings is a pro sports team, which means you’re paying to see a bunch of doped-up cheaters—so the game is a sham anyway.  Meanwhile, Clearly Canadian is basically flavored water sold at the price of something legitimately nutritive.  Zynga is a video game, which—unlike productivity software—can be given away widely without costing the supplier anything, nor providing users with anything of value.  The University of Nicosia is in Greece, whose economy is so bad you could probably get anything you want there just by asking nicely.  And the last two retailers, Overstock.com and Lord & Taylor, while perfectly valid retailers, accept bitcoins with a very large asterisk.

The asterisk is that these retailers convert the bitcoins to something legit at the last second, so they’re not really accepting bitcoins at all.  According to Digital Transactions magazine, “Overstock tempers its currency risk by having Coinbase convert its Bitcoins instantly into dollars” and “Lord & Taylor will not accept Bitcoin directly from customers.  Instead, customers will use the Pounce app, from Israeli technology company BuyCode Inc.”

So, the validation Bitcoin gets from being accepted by two major brand-name retailers must be tempered by the fact that they’re actually transferring all the risk to more companies you’ve never heard of.  It’s tempting to call this “lipstick on a pig,” but it’s actually called “reintermediation.”  Whether or not this fancy label restores your faith in Bitcoin is your business, but I for one am not impressed. 

Now, you may accuse me of cherry-picking examples of unimpressive merchant acceptance of Bitcoin, so I guess should fess up:  I left out TigerDirect.  They’re a pretty sizeable retailer, who have been mired in various controversies such as being investigated and ruled against by the Fair Trade Commission; being sued by Dell; being sued by the State of Florida; and being investigated by the SEC.

Restoring faith

After the Mt. Gox disaster, Bitcoin is on shaky ground and badly needs to be propped up.  And, to renew faith in the population at large, the Bitcoin folks need to restore our nation’s faith in electronic commerce in general, thanks to the Target breach, which by some measures has directly affected one in three Americans.  And going back a bit further, I think we’re all a little more wary these days of the financial genius types that broke all the rules around subprime mortgages and various overly complicated financial instruments and caused the great economic meltdown of 2008.

Well, guess what:  we have the answer!  All we have to do, apparently, is lock up our bitcoins in big vaults.  According to a “Wall Street Journal” article, “a Silicon Valley startup called Xapo is among a handful of young companies trying to become the Fort Knox of bitcoin, building secret bank vaults deep in the earth that would safely store millions of dollars worth of bitcoin on computer drives.”  Xapo has raised $20 million in venture capital for this effort.  (Needless to say, “Xapo”—one of those names you can’t even pronounce—is, from a psychological perspective, the polar opposite of “Lloyd’s of London.”)

Now, I know I’m just a simple caveman and everything, but aren’t we missing something here—namely, the fact that the Mt. Gox theft was not of the hands-on, grab-and-dash type?   Nobody held up Mt. Gox at gunpoint or burgled it in the dead of night.  The Mt. Gox bitcoin theft was termed a “malleability-related theft.”  For my money, Bitcoin needs to fix its malleability problem.  How does Xapo intend to do this with vaults, video surveillance, and armed guards?  To think of it another way, how did Target incur $61 million in losses through its data breach:  by having its stores and headquarters overrun with Ninjas or bandits?  No!  The thieves were all the way over in Russia.  They almost literally “phoned in” the theft.

Perhaps the $20 million in venture capital is itself supposed to buoy up Bitcoin:  the idea that if this venture capital firm, run by geniuses, has that much faith in Xapo and Bitcoin, that we should, too.  The problem is, these venture capitalists have flamed out before:  we all watched the dot-com bubble burst.  (I myself saw $20,000 of my on-paper profits—that is, my pretend Internet money—evaporate almost overnight.)

Why should we care?

Okay, I guess it’s pretty obvious by now that I think you’d have to be crazy to mess around with Bitcoin.  But aren’t there all kinds of investment schemes to avoid, like swampland in Florida and Internet-sourced Nigerian inheritances?  Why bother writing about this one?  Well, the reason I care about Bitcoin is that I’m afraid if it gets popular, and then goes supernova, it’ll take the rest of the financial world with it, throwing the world into utter anarchy.  Because frankly, I’m already nervous about the traditional notion of money.

Why?  Well, let’s do a thought exercise.  I derive a lot of comfort from the protections available with conventional finance.  For example, when I discovered that a clothing company in China, from whom I made a legitimate purchase in January, had mysteriously dinged my credit card again in March, I didn’t freak out.  I know I can call my bank and say, “This charge is bogus, make it go away” and they’ll say, “Right away, sir!”  But what would happen if you logged into your online banking account and found it almost completely depleted but for no clear reason?  Whom would you call then?  Imagine your reaction if you complained to your bank and they retorted, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  You never had that much money.  Go away, kid, ya bother me.” 

Sure, you’d probably have some recourse, but it wouldn’t be easy.  We take it for granted that our money, which exists electronically as a data point in some unseen database, won’t just go away.  Our entire system is already founded on trust, and on the universal agreement that this unseen money—not hard currency or gold, but numbers represented electronically by zeroes and ones—is real.  With this much riding on blind faith, the last thing we need is a Bitcoin bubble.

But you shouldn’t take my word for it—I’m no expert.  You’re probably better off listening to the financial gurus who live and breathe this stuff.  Take the 40-year-old CEO of Xapo:  the son of Patagonian sheep ranchers in Argentina, he got educated and “developed Patagon, one of Argentina’s first online financial-services firms … [and] also founded Banco Lemon, a Brazilian bank for the underbanked.”

What’s that?  You’ve never heard of the underbanked?  Well, I must confess, I hadn’t either.  And, after spending all this time thinking about Bitcoin, Mt. Gox, Xapo, and financial malleability, I’m starting to feel a bit overbanked.  In fact, I’m strongly considering turning some of my liquid assets into expensive bicycle wheels that can’t just vanish like a puff of smoke.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Complete albertnet Index


Introduction

I originally created this index as part of a post celebrating the fifth anniversary of albertnet.  You can read that post farther down the page, after the index.  It presents a discussion of site navigation, categorization schemes, pageview rankings, and a photo of my little kids holding celebratory balloons.

Here’s how this index is set up:  I have posts listed in chronological order within various categories I decided were useful.  The category list appears first, so if you see a category that interests you, you can hit Ctrl-F and search on it.

The categories
  • Most popular
  • Advice & How-To Guides
  • Fiction
  • Food
  • Parenting
  • Poetry
  • Polemics & opinion
  • Reviews
  • Travel
  • Cycling – My first-hand experience of the sport
  • Cycling tech – Equipment, technique, and culture
  • Cycling – Coverage (pro races, etc.)
  • Cycling – Doping
  • Bits & Bobs – Odd posts (humor, memoir, etc.) that didn’t fit other categories 
Within these lists of posts, each item is (of course) a link to the post itself.  Within each category, the posts are listed in chronological order (newest at the top), except the most popular, which are listed in order of popularity (most popular at the top).

Most popular (as of September, 2019)

Advice & How-To Guides


Food

Parenting


Polemics & opinion


Cycling – My first-hand experience

Cycling tech – Equipment, technique, and culture

Cycling – Coverage (pro races, etc.)

Bits & Bobs
Index current as of September 30, 2019

A final note

As I continue adding posts to this blog, I’ll list them here, in whatever category list(s) they seem to fit, to keep this index current.  If you think I’ve mis-categorized or forgotten anything, e-mail me and let me know … after all, I’m all too human, and putting together this index was more work than I’d expected.  Also, the title of this post is a bit of a misnomer as it will often be incomplete.  It’s hard to keep up!

In closing , I shall quote my favorite Thai waiter:  “Enjoy please enjoy.”

The original albertnet Fifth Anniversary post

Well, a milestone came and went recently that I forgot to notice:  the fifth anniversary of albertnet!  I probably should have celebrated by putting up crepe paper and balloons and giving my readers free food, or at least a big discount.  But this is only a blog and it’s free, so (as I often tell my kids) you’ll get nothing, and like it.

Okay, fine, here are some balloons:


It did occur to me that I could use this occasion to finally undertake a project I’ve long considered worthwhile:  creating an index of albertnet posts.  Read on for a discussion of site navigation, categorization schemes, pageview rankings, and of course for the index itself.  (If you’re not interested in the asides and just want to see the index, scroll down until you see “The categories” in a big bold font, and go from there.)

Site navigation

In Google’s perfect world, everybody would have a personal Blogger page and would go to his or her Reading List (aka “dashboard”) regularly to keep up on all the blogs that he or she is following.  That way,  you’d never miss a post.  But I don’t think very many people ever do this.  (I myself seldom do, because it’s too depressing:  of the six blogs I follow, five have ground to a halt so it’s like looking at the obituaries of these blogs.)

You can always go to the albertnet home page, but of course most of my posts (~98%) are obscured by a tidy little file tree structure that you can’t be bothered with.  How can I expect people to browse this blog when there’s lower lying fruit, like channel surfing, all around us? 

One hypothetically useful navigational tool is the support of tags, aka labels, on each post.  What?  You’ve never seen these?  They’re at the bottom of each post, along with the handy “Reaction” check-boxes that you also never noticed:


All you have to do is click on one of the labels, and Blogger will automatically search for other albertnet posts on that topic.  The only problem is, it doesn’t give you a list of posts.  It just barfs the posts themselves up on the screen, one after another, with the newest post at the top.  This isn’t nearly as useful as a Google-style search results screen would be.  (It’s kind of amazing Google hasn’t imposed its search-result uniformity on its Blogger sites.)  Also, the results list only shows a few posts; to see the rest, you have to go all the way to the end and click “Older Posts.”  A piece of advice:  don’t waste your time with these labels. 

But guess what?  There’s also a little search bar at the top of the albertnet screen where you can type anything you want, and Blogger will search on that keyword within albertnet.  It’s just above the masthead, to the left:


The only problem is, this doesn’t work very well either.  You still don’t get a nice list of posts that you could choose from as from a menu.  It’s more like a prix-fixe meal:  one post spooling after another, as before.  It’s basically useless.

So how does anybody find anything on my blog?  Well, usually they don’t.  Sometimes somebody Googles “albertnet” plus something else; for example, I see a recent search on “albertnet race rwport.”  [Sic.]  But I think mostly I have first-time readers stumbling on my blog with random Google searches. 

(Or maybe not so random.  I see, for this past week, the following thematically linked searches that had lead to albertnet pageviews:
  • how long after vasectomy can I m…
  • jerking off after vasectomy
  • requirements for vasectomy in calif…
  • scrotum sagging after vasectomy
In fact, albertnet carries the honor of being the first search result when you Google “california vasectomy law.”)

So, my big celebration of five years of albertnet is to give you loyal albertnet readers a way to easily find past posts.  But first I had to figure out how to categorize them—no easy feat given the almost random nature of my blog topics.

Categorization

The easiest category to come up with was the most popular, based on pageviews.  Of course I have to take the pageview count with a grain of salt; probably a lot of pageviews are fraudsters poking around the Internet for whatever vulnerability they can find.  There’s also no way to know whether somebody reads a post once he’s gotten to it.  But I do believe that the posts with the most pageviews are the ones readers share with others.  (I can see a post “tip” from time to time.)  So I’ll include a list of the top ten posts as of today.

Note that if you’re supposing these ten top posts are the only ones you should check out, you should think again.  First of all, this list is biased in favor of older posts, since the longer a post has been out there, the more pageviews it will scoop up.  Also, this list is based on March, 2014; if you’re reading this long after that, this top-ten list is outdated (though I’ll be adding posts to the main index going forward).  Meanwhile, these ten top posts combined comprise less than 20% of total pageviews, so they’re not exactly runaway favorites.  In case you’re curious, here’s the breakdown as of March 8, 2014 (when I originally created this index):


[UPDATE: Here’s the index as of June 30, 2018:]



(Should I take a hint from my pageviews and try to tailor my posts to my perceived audience, to increase the popularity of my blog?  No.  First of all, I refuse to cater to the whims of an unknown and possibly hypothetical audience.  Plus, there’s no single category into which the top ten posts currently fall.  Finally, I’ve decided it’s impossible to predict what people will like no matter what metrics are used.)

Some posts simply defy categorization, like The Lotion SniperMud Bath, and Bride Of “Pink Floyd The Wall.” Watch this space, because I’m planning to add a “Bits and Bobs” section to catch these oddball posts.

Many posts fit within more than one category.  Some topics, like cycling, are too general to comprise a single category.  But I’ve managed to cobble together categories that I think will be useful and representative.

Index current as of September 30, 2019