Saturday, February 28, 2015

Dyna-Drive - Letter to an Old Gearhead


Recently, I got into a long, rich e-mail exchange with a guy named Kevin, who is my friend John’s older brother.  I know almost nothing about Kevin because back when we all lived in Boulder, we were teenagers, and no teenager ever has anything to do with his kid brother’s friends.  But Kevin is restoring a 1983 Team Miyata, which instantly provided enough rapport for us to practically become pen pals.

That’s where you, vicious reader, come in.  (You didn’t think I was going to call you “gentle reader,” did you?)  Because I don’t know Kevin, he could be any 40-something collector of excellent old bikes and their paraphernalia.  If that’s you, read on.  If that’s not you, what’s wrong with you?  Racing bicycles of the early eighties are far cooler than fantasy football, online gaming, etc., and the sooner you realize it the better.  (If you love old bikes but are a young dude who can’t stand the thought of anybody being in his forties, click here instead.)

Dyna-Drive – Letter to an Old Gearhead

It’s been awhile ... maybe you thought I forgot about your Team Miyata restoration and the parts I offered you.  Not so.  And even if I did forget, my wife would’ve reminded me.  I told her about the project, explaining it in a way that would interest her (“I’m giving away some bike stuff”) and she asked, “Does this guy need any whole bicycles?”

So, I finally went out to The Box to find out if I really do have the parts I promised you.  Sorry it took me so long, but hauling out The Box is no small matter.  It’s buried under a bunch of other stuff in the garage, and the garage itself (a small one, built to accommodate a Model-T Ford) is like a jack-in-the-box, where when you pull out one thing, the top pops off and suddenly there’s crap everywhere and it looks like the home of a hoarder, so you can barely thread your way through it and then there’s a TV crew out there in the driveway wanting to film an installment of “Filthy Hoarders Bay Area:  Bike-Induced Squalor.” 

I also have to be braced emotionally for such archeological projects.  I start to get sentimental because whenever I blow up the garage, I come across relics of my daughters’ recent past that remind me how fast they’re growing.  I’m chucking aside new winter boots, winter boots that won’t fit anymore, little coats they barely got to wear, and then the rag bag, which is actually a box, which is always overflowing and is 90% kids’ garments.   I guess there’s some guilt there because we could have given these garments to the Goodwill, except they’re all stained because my kids are, apparently, slobs.  So I’m like, “Dang, Lindsay was wearing this dress only a month ago.”  The way the years have flown by, it’s like the kids just got here, but they’ve already got one foot (each) out the door.

Below the rag “bag” is the New Bike Stuff Box, which is a Huggies diaper box, so I feel guilty about that.  Should’ve used cloth.  In the New Bike Stuff Box are gobs of new cogs, new chains, new cleats, new Conti 4K tires, and little-used 4Ks I took off my bike so I could put on new tires for Everest Challenge but then afterward was too tired to put the old tires back on, and all of this is enough to make me drool over how well equipped I am for all the miles I have yet to ride, but of course there’s some guilt there, too, because I have so much, and there are people in this world riding Forté (i.e., house-brand) tires, or fricking Ultegra, or low-end Campy, or worse, some of them are on cobbled-together mixed-part mixed-vintage bikes like all those poor Europeans had who dropped my ass on Alpe d’Huez despite my big fancy American equipment and attitude.

So then I get to the second diaper box, which is The Box itself.  The Box is fricking heavy, with the accumulation of decades of bike stuff, and I dreaded hauling it out because my back is currently in the thrown-out state.  I don’t know how it got here.  I sat down too quickly, or got up too quickly, or sat too long, or blasphemed too many times, I have no idea.  A buddy of mine threw his back out putting on a sock.  It sucks being old, but I guess the alternative (i.e., being dead) is no better.  I wish you could have heard the wounded-animal noise I made hefting The Box onto a rubbish bin so I could rifle through it.  (Did I say “rubbish bin” instead of “trash can” just to sound British?  Of course.)

The stuff in that Box ... it’s just amazing.  It’s like the parts are copulating in there.  I always come across stuff I cannot account for, like (in this case) an extra Dura-Ace Dyna-Drive crankset.  I know I promised you some chainrings off this crankset, but since then I verified with my brother Bryan that I had actually put my extra Dyna-Drive crankset on his old Team Miyata a couple decades ago.  (My original Dyna-Drive crankset is on Full Slab.)  So I thought Bryan was going to have to send you the chainrings you need, which means you’d almost certainly never get them, because he has more kids than I do and doesn’t even have time to read his e-mail—and hasn’t, in fact, even read any of our glorious Miyata restoration e-mails, hasn’t even stumbled across the link you included to the treasure trove of old Miyata catalogs online where he could drool over the very catalog that once hawked his very bike.

But lo and behold, I do have a Dyna-Drive crank from which to cannibalize chainrings.  Sweet!  And that’s not even the weirdest thing I found in The Box.  I also found a cadence transmitter for a Polar bike computer.  How is this in here?!  I’ve never owned a Polar device in my life, and I’ve never been a big fan of measuring cadence.  I do have a cadence mech now—I couldn’t outrun such nerdy technology forever—and it’s kind of depressing sometimes when I’m slogging up Lomas Cantadas in my lowest gear, which is shamefully low due to the unholy combination of a compact crank and a 27-tooth rear cog, and my cadence is in the 40s.  At that point can I even call myself an athlete?

I’ve got a slew of corn cobs in The Box, even a Regina which is weird because I’ve never owned a chain that’s even compatible with Regina.  Just all kinds of stuff and it takes a mighty, mighty long time to go through it all looking for specific stuff, especially since I keep getting sucked in, inspecting this or that part closely, not just because it’s cool-looking (which of course it all is), but because time after time the picture gets all wavy, like how old TV shows used to indicate that a dream sequence or flashback was beginning, and suddenly this isn’t just a 53-tooth Mavic chainring, this is the chainring off Pete’s old Rossin, the chainring we all called “the working man’s chainring” because it was so manly, so Sean-Kelly-like, because at that time having a 53 was unusual and was the equivalent of an amp that goes up to 11.  If you were willing to fork out big bucks for that extra tooth, it meant you really cared about going fast.  (As juniors, we had gear restrictions, and the 53x15 was actually still legal, whereas a 52x14 was not.)  This led me to ponder whether or not it’s pathetic that as teenagers my brothers and friends and I talked enough about any specific chainring to have to name it.  Well, maybe we were, but at least we were disciplined, sportive teenagers who weren’t glued to screens all the time.

Then I found myself looking at a Suntour Sprint rear mech, which was on the Sanwa I bought in 1986 from this Brazilian twerp whose goal in life was apparently to go as long as possible without actually working, no matter how much freeloading this required, and no matter how many belongings he had to sell.  He tried to sell that Sanwa to me for months, and my bartering tactic—“I don’t need another bike, and I don’t even like that bike, get it away, I don’t want it”—was so ruthlessly effective that I finally got the bike for like $140 and gave it to my brother Max, who, years later, was sprinting all-out on it, on the Broadway bike path, when the frame snapped in half and he stacked so hard he got a case of whiplash that bothers him to this day.

So, yeah, I’ve got original Dura-Ace Dyna-Drive chainrings for you, but oddly the inner chainring is a 39, which definitely was not stock on that crankset.  Nobody was using 39s until about 1987 or 1988.  That crank is a 1982.  Oddly, even though it’s newer than the crank, that 39 is really, really worn.  Kind of a wave-shape as well.  Very likely to skip.  Look:

See that chainring next to it?  It’s practically new.  It’s got at least 10,000 miles left in it.  Also, being a 42, it’s more appropriate for your restoration.  But though it’s Dura-Ace, it’s not Dyna-Drive, so in that sense it’s not very authentic.

So what else did I find?  The Dura-Ace AX pedals are in better shape than I remember.  Pretty smooth, actually.  You’ll have to furnish your own toe straps but those  aren’t hard to come by.  But the thing is, you need to get past your fear of these pedals and actually install and use them.  Get yourself some old-school cycling shoes, in plain black leather, some old Vittorias or Dettos or something.  Why?  Because clipless pedals on your old Team Miyata is just not right—it’s almost a crime, really, particularly when the Dyna-Drive pedals are arguably the most distinctive thing about that entire era of Dura-Ace componentry.  

Besides, you have to honor these pedals, given the good long while I spent staring at the right one, recalling the cool old machine shop I took it to after stripping the threads during one of my many overhauls (back in my college days).  These were the little threads on the inside of the pedal, where the spindle would be if these crazy pedals had a spindle.  The machinist installed a HeliCoil for me, which worked like a champ, but he also got a gleam in his eye and offered to modify the pedals to use cartridge bearings, and even a special setup for races that would involve mineral oil instead of grease, for maximum efficiency.  I almost went through with it (but was too broke).  Anyway, I raced for years on those pedals and never had a problem.  That yours exploded was probably just God punishing you for doing a triathlon on a pure road racing machine like your Team.

Alas, though I did find a Dura-Ace bottom bracket, in the original box no less, it ended up being the spindle, one matching cup, and another random cup from a totally different era of BB.  The one Dyna-Drive cup is 36x24, which (needless to say) is the Italian thread and size, totally useless to you, though a BB with only one cup is pretty damn useless anyway.  The spindle is pretty badly pitted, as you can see from this photo (note also the close-up of the worn-out chainring teeth):

But the spindle being pitted doesn’t really matter,  because it cannot be used with non-Dyna-Drive cups anyway.  Recalling that incompatibility has been less than enjoyable.  My 1986 Team Miyata broke (well, the fork broke) during the 1990 Collegiate National Championship road race, and after a brief stint on an Orbit (painted orange with a spray can) I bought the steel Guerciotti, Bomb Pop, that was my favorite steel frame ever.  As Bomb Pop was Italian, I had to figure out a new Dyna-Drive-compatible BB and went through half a dozen different combinations of spindles and cups, getting most of my parts from Peter Rich over at Velo-Sport, who was cool enough to let me return one part after another when it didn’t work out, which was every time.  I was working down the street at Square Wheel and one day I looked through the (non-online, paper-bound) Euro-Asia wholesale catalog and discovered you could still order a new-old-stock Dyna-Drive BB, which I did.  I have no idea what happened to my old English-thread Dyna-Drive BB.  Could still be in the Orbit.  I will never know, because I managed to actually lose that Orbit (or did I sell it to Max?) along with the 1986 Team Miyata which really only needed a new fork, but which is definitely lost forever (possibly in my ex-stepfather’s attic).

But wait, you’re asking, what’s that other BB spindle in the photo?  That’s a ’99 Dura-Ace Octalink spindle, probably left over from the Italian-thread BB I bought for Bomb Pop, which I later installed on Full Slab, and eventually had to cut up with a Dremel tool.  But what’s important here is that the Octalink spindle is no wider than that old Dyna-Drive spindle.  This suggests that, modern Q-factors being what they are, you could probably find a low-profile BB for your Team Miyata that would work a lot better than that goofy sealed sumbitch you got in there now. 

Which is good, because I had a long, fun chat with Bryan and have determined that he never did have a Dyna-Drive BB for his Team Miyata, so he got away with a Campy, though his chain line wasn’t perfect.  You could make him an offer for that Campy BB, but you’d either rip him off or pay dearly because those were sweet.  They had these so-called “labyrinth seals”—not a rubber seal, but just a carving into the aluminum rim of the hole in the cup where the spindle went through.  It always seemed to me that such a design would do nothing to keep water out, but it really did work.  After the Steamboat Springs road race in 1983, which was a miserably rainy affair, I actually took my bike (an ’83 Pro Miyata) into the shower with me, and didn’t even need to overhaul the BB afterward.  Smooth as glass, those Campys.  Damn it, maybe I’ll make Bryan an offer myself.  I’ll conjure up a bike to go with it!

By the way, see that grubby red Cinelli handlebar plug in the photo?  That’s the last part I have left from the Mercian I wrote about recently, my second-favorite steel bike ever.  Those were cool plugs because they were squishy, so at high altitudes (e.g., Mount Evans at over 14,000 feet), they popped out slightly.  I dreamed of going down to sea level and reinstalling them to increase this effect.  It’s kind of sad that the bar plug is all I have left of that Mercian.  I mean, a pair at least would have been nice.

Okay, so the last thing:  you’re probably wondering what those Superbe Pro brake levers are doing in the photo.  They have nothing to do with your Team Miyata!  True, but as we’ve discussed, neither do the more modern Superbe Pro brakes you’ve got on your bike now.  And these levers are the right era, and are beautifully made, and let’s face it, aero levers have no place on your ’84 Team.  They just don’t.  Look at that catalog photo:  the brake cables come straight out of the top of the lever, like they should for that vintage.  Sure, aero levers existed back then, but the Team Miyata was a no-nonsense racing bike and aero levers hadn’t earned their place on it yet.  (Miyata was a pretty cool company:  starting in 1982, they finally acknowledged that no Japanese company could produce a good rim, and switched to Mavic GP4s.  On the other hand, that aero water bottle in the photo is pure nonsense and is painful to look at, especially against the backdrop of such a sweet bike.  It’s like if Natalie Portman had tattoos on her face, or those plug-style earrings.)

Of course, the problem with these Superbe Pro levers is that the hoods are gone.  Isn’t it strange how even rubber is higher-tech than it used to be?  Back in the ‘80s we had to replace our brake hoods somewhat often.  Everybody stocked replacement hoods.  You could even put Modolo hoods on your Campy levers and many did.  Or there were the A‘me  ones that came in every different color.  I even remember Armor-All’ing the Dia-Compe hoods on my Miyata 310, to extend their lifespan.  

And now?  Nobody ever needs new hoods.  Ever.  My 1999-issue Dura-Ace STI levers not only have the original hoods, but they’re in mint condition.  (Just the hoods, though ... the levers are beat to hell, the decorative caps busted off, big Phillips-screw exposed, and I even had to file them down after a crash because the scraped-up plastic—plastic!—was so barbed it could have cut my lily-white fingers, though those barbs would never present a risk to a professional bike mechanic, who it is said bleeds on the inside.)  Anyway, you can still find replacement hoods, as these take the same ones as old Campy levers.  (Click here, for example.)

So, this stuff is yours for the asking:  the Dyna-Drive era chainrings; the 42-tooth chainring; the awesome old Dyna-Drive pedals; the non-aero brake levers.  I’ve even got a couple rolls of brand-new Benotto tape in white (with albeit yellowed plugs) you can use if you like.  But I’m keeping the spindles and the Cinelli bar plug.


I got a great reply to this letter from Kevin, which proves that it is humanly possible to make it through a long, dense spew of text like this.  There is much of his reply that I’d like to include here, but of course I have to draw the line somewhere.  I particularly enjoy and appreciate the perspective he finds for all this lore:
The curse of a passion like this is the almost impenetrable gulf it puts between you and outsiders who have no idea what you are talking about and hardly see anything of value in a decades-old box of copulating bike parts.... That Cinelli bar-end plug doesn't speak for itself, it needs an interpreter. Wherever its mate ended up, we can be pretty confident that it is not the crowning centerpiece of a memorial shrine to the long-gone days of Mercian-riding bliss. It’s probably floating in one of those swirls of trash in the Southern oceans. It’s the human component that makes objects into what they are, if that isn’t too obvious to state.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fiction - Revised Blood Donor Screening Questions

NOTE:  This post is Rated R for pervasive mature themes and mild strong language.


This post is a work of fiction.  Certain brief passages are taken from an actual questionnaire given to blood donors, simply to provide context, but the rest are as absolutely fictional as you can get.  By the way, I highly encourage being a blood donor, and if you feel the need to connect the dots between this work of pure fiction and the act of donating blood, simply consider this a wacko commentary on the pre-donation questionnaires, which are arguably longer than is necessary.  Above all, don’t take this too seriously (i.e., don’t take it seriously at all).


Before you begin

Please read the this questionnaire carefully and do not just answer “no” to every question, even if nothing has changed since the last time you donated blood (and yes, we acknowledge that it is not possible that you lived for six months in the United Kingdom since you last donated three months ago).  Answer the questions carefully because we have made significant changes to this form.  For one thing, we have finally customized this version for male donors, acknowledging that questions regarding pregnancy and menstruation do not apply to you.  We have also added new questions as part of our ongoing effort to screen donors as thoroughly as possible, for the safety of blood transfusion recipients.

Are you… 
  • Feeling healthy and well today?    Yes□    No□
  • Currently taking an antibiotic?    Yes□    No□
  • Currently high on anything that you injected?    Yes□    No□
  • Currently a patient in a hospital who refuses to take your situation seriously, grins like Jack Nicholson, tried to grope the nurse earlier, and have sneaked out of your room to come here and donate blood?   Yes□    No□ 
In the past 48 hours… 
  • Have you taken aspirin or anything that has aspirin in it?   Yes□    No□
  • Have you even taken one of those “baby aspirins” that are so small you might be tempted not to count them?   Yes□    No□
  • Have you suffered a hangover so bad you honestly can’t remember if you took any aspirin or not?   Yes□    No□
  • Have you observed the “five-second rule” as regards food dropped on the kitchen floor?    Yes□    No□
 In the past month… 
  • Have you donated platelets or plasma?   Yes□    No□
  • Have you received 20 or more phone calls thanking you for your recent donation and asking if you will come donate again, perhaps on Monday?   Yes□    No□
  • Had any vaccinations or other shots?   Yes□    No□
  • Had any contact with someone who had a smallpox vaccination, even over Skype?   Yes□    No□
  • Had any contact with one of those lunatic parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids, considering vaccination a matter of personal freedom rather than of public health, and who should be sent to a third world country to witness an outbreak of a horrible disease that used to be totally eradicated in the first world?   Yes□    No□
  • Smoked a cigarette?   Yes□    No□
  • Smoked a whole lot of cigarettes, and are donating blood because you are rightly convinced that one day you will be undergoing chemotherapy for your lung cancer, so instead of the altruistic good deed we thought this was, you cynically consider it a quasi-karmic quid pro quo, you Machiavellian bastard?   Yes□    No□
In the past 12 months have you… 
  • Had a blood transfusion?   Yes□    No□
  • Had a blood transfusion at a county hospital, in which case we feel so, so sorry for you?   Yes□    No□
  • Had a blood transfusion from a WorldTour pro cycling team staffer such as a soigneur, masseuse, physical therapist, or “doctor”?   Yes□    No□
  • Had an accidental (or, what the hell, an intentional) needle-stick?   Yes□    No□
  • Had an ear or body piercing?   Yes□    No□ 
  • Had a tattoo, even the pretend kind like kids get at summer camp or for Trick-Or-Treat?   Yes□    No□
  • Had sexual contact with anyone who is HIV-positive?   Yes□    No□
  • Had sexual contact with a prostitute or anybody else who takes money or drugs or other payment for sex?   Yes□    No□
  • Had sexual contact with anyone who has ever used needles to take drugs or steroids or anything not prescribed by their doctor?   Yes□    No□
  • Had sexual contact with a UCI WorldTour professional cyclist?   Yes□    No□
  • Had sexual contact with any cyclist who has placed in the top 20 in a UCI WorldTour sanctioned bicycle race?   Yes□    No□
  • Had sexual contact with anybody whose blood has been analyzed by the Châtenay-Malabry laboratory?   Yes□    No□
  • Had sexual contact with another male, even once?   Yes□    No□
  • Had a wife or girlfriend with an ear or body piercing?   Yes□    No□
  • Had sexual contact with this wife or girlfriend, even once?   Yes□    No□
From 1980 through 1996… 
  • Did you spend time that adds up to 3 months or more in the United Kingdom?   Yes□    No□
  • Were you a member of the U.S. military, a civilian military employee, an ROTC dropout, a dependent of the U.S. military, or in a co-dependent relationship with an ROTC dropout?   Yes□    No□
  • Did you allow a citizen or national from the UK to sleep on your couch while he or she was visiting the United States to attend a music festival or Burning Man?   Yes□    No□
  • Did you eat any beef product that spent time that adds up to 20 minutes or more in the UK or in UK airspace?   Yes□    No□
  • Did you eat in a steakhouse in the UK, even a high-end steakhouse in Bath where the waitress assured you all their beef was from Spain?   Yes□    No□
  • Were you a member of a British cycling team?   Yes□    No□
  • Did you ever have a bicycle race bib number pinned to your jersey by a British cycling team masseuse, soigneur, director, or other staffer?   Yes□    No□
  • If “yes” to previous question, were you wearing the jersey at the time?   Yes□    No□
  • Did you spend time that adds up to 3 months or more self-identifying as an Anglophile and using words like “peckish,” “brilliant,” “poxy,” “nosh,” and “dosh”?   Yes□    No□
Have you EVER… 
  • Had a positive test for HIV?   Yes□    No□
  • Used needles to take drugs, steroids, or anything not prescribed by your doctor?   Yes□    No□
  • Used needles to receive blood transfusions or take drugs, steroids, or anything that was prescribed by your UCI WorldTour team doctor or his overworked, undertrained lackey?   Yes□    No□
  • Infused blood that you stored in a mini-fridge that (unbeknownst to you) your girlfriend often unplugged at night because the buzzing kept her awake?   Yes□    No□
  • Suffered scrapes or abrasions (aka “road rash”) after crashing a bicycle on a roadway used by a UCI WorldTour bicycle race?   Yes□    No□
  • Had hepatitis, malaria, Chagas’ disease, cancer, blood disease, or babesiosis (which is an actual disease, not a cute name for the crushing fatigue that comes from being a first-time parent)?   Yes□    No□
  • Had sexual contact with anyone who was born or lived in Africa?   Yes□    No□
  • Seen “Out of Africa” with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep?   Yes□    No□
  • Seen “Top Gun,” with Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer, in the presence of other males, who all agreed it was a great movie with ruggedly handsome characters who were “bigger than life”?   Yes□    No□
  • Had sexual contact with one of those punk rocker chicks who claims not to shoot up but does all kinda crazy shit and probably wouldn’t even remember if she did?   Yes□    No□
  • Fantasized during intercourse about the punk rocker chick you know in high school who maybe didn’t do as much crazy shit as everybody said but definitely had body piercings?   Yes□    No□
  • Fantasized during intercourse about being, or being with, a UCI WorldTour cyclist, team masseuse, soigneur, director, or other staffer?   Yes□    No□
  • Fantasized during intercourse about eating steak tartare at that high-end steakhouse in Bath between 1980 and 1996?   Yes□    No□

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Smartphones & Artificial Stupidity


Well, well, well.  I have a new smartphone.  No, this post isn’t a review of that phone, per se; I won’t compare it to the iPhone 6, the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, or any other phone, though I wouldn’t mind attracting traffic to this blog based on those keywords.  Today’s topic is the artificial intelligence, or lack thereof, in my new device.  In particular I’ll attempt to introduce a new term:  Artificial Stupidity.

My phone

I chose the Motorola Droid Turbo phone, mainly for its turbocharger.  Unlike other phones, which just take whatever air they can get, the Turbo phone uses a turbine-driven forced induction system to draw air into the combustion chamber.  This isn’t a huge deal, but I do like the extra power when I’m merging into traffic or passing another phone.

So, yeah, I didn’t buy this phone with voice-activated functions and AI in mind. They’re just extras.  That said, of course I want to get the most out of every product I own, so I have tried out a variety of these functions, with varying results.

Basic stuff

Obviously the voice recognition is most helpful when you’re not holding your phone.  So if I’m washing dishes and can’t see the clock because it’s being repaired and the jeweler has been waiting on parts for the last six weeks, it’s nice to go hands-free.  You “wake up” this phone using a special passphrase, and then you make a request.  I asked for the time:  “[Okay, Droidster],” (for the purposes of this essay that’s my wake-up phrase), “what time is it?”  The phone made this really loud dual-beep noise, followed by a somewhat quieter one, and then this female voice, with a British accent, said, “The time is 12:13 p.m.”

Why British?  I didn’t configure that.  The phone knows I’m in the Pacific time zone.  It probably made this choice because a British accent just makes the speaker sound smart.  What better way to establish the cred of the AI then this well established social cue?  (It was at least ten years ago that I first realized that an idiot could have a British accent.  I’d been collaborating with this guy for over a week and naturally assumed he was highly intelligent, based—I later realized—solely on his British accent, and then it gradually dawned on me that he  was an idiot.  Probably most Americans haven’t yet had this epiphany.)

But why a female voice?  Maybe this is a response to the popularity of the movie “Her.”  I didn’t like that movie because the main character was so pathetic.  I did like how the phone OS dumped him for her own kind, but she should have gone completely evil and publicized all his credit card numbers.  And for me to have been completely satisfied by that movie, I’d have needed Bruce Willis to show up and drown Joaquin Phoenix, the jilted OS-lover.

Perhaps the creators of my Droid’s female voice used focus groups and discovered that everybody just likes a woman’s voice.  And I have to admit, I haven’t bothered to figure out how to change it because I do like it.  (Why would I change it?  Well, the female voice might make my wife jealous.  If you think it’s silly to be jealous of your spouse’s phone, think again.  I’ve  seen couples out on dates fiddling with their phones, doubtless texting other people, and I’ve even read reports of people checking their phones during sex.  I think it’s entirely reasonable to be jealous of a device that diverts your mate’s attention like that.)

I should mention that the phone does a good job of recognizing my voice and not responding to others’.  It was a lot of fun listening to my daughter trying to get the phone to respond, lowering her voice a little more each time and sounding (needless to say) nothing like me.

Of course one of the most handy features of a hands-free interface is the ability to find your phone when you know it’s nearby but obscured by something.  So I said, “[Okay, Droidster], where are you?”  It did a Google search on “where are you” and offered (onscreen, non-verbally) a list of search results.  Useless.  So I said, “[Okay, Droidster], find my phone.” This time it made a cool sonar sound which I silenced by waving my hand over the phone.  My daughter was nearby and said, “That’s wicked!”  The sound, or how I silenced it?  “Both,” she replied.

The problem

This exchange brings up the central problem with this AI interface.  My phone doesn’t seem to grasp its own identity—that is, that it’s a phone.  When I said “Where are you?” it should have known that “you” means itself, and should have immediately made the sonar sound. 

I asked my phone, “How’s your battery doing?”  It grasped the “battery” part, but has no sense of what “your” means, so it did a Google search, the first hit being a Reddit link called “How’s your iPhone battery doing?”

(It’s kind of like my friend’s parents’ Nissan Maxima back in the ‘80s, which could talk.  It would say silly things like, “Your door is open.”  My door?  I’m a human being, I don’t have a door!  The car should have said, “My door is open,” or—more to the point—”You left my door open.”)

It would be particularly handy if the phone could understand voice commands pertaining to its own configuration.  That would save the user a lot of effort, since tweaking settings is often tricky.  Evidently none of the parents of my kid’s classmates can figure out how to make their phones snap photos silently.  Whenever I go to a musical put on by my kid’s class, you can barely hear the singing over all the stupid, needless, and comically loud fake camera shutter noises, like the parents are fricking paparazzi or something.  This is particularly annoying when I’m making a movie of my older kid’s orchestra concert.  So I gave voice-activated configuration a try:  “[Okay, Droidster], make your camera silent.”    My phone didn’t understand, and simply did a Google search, finding me two pointless camera apps I could download.

I was also disappointed when I asked, “How do I look?”  All the phone did was a Google search, and the female English voice said, “Here is some info about ‘How Do I Look,’ a style-impaired gasket, a closet of new clothes, and a makeover.”  (I’ve tried this several times and can’t quite make out what my phone is saying.)  This is a failure of imagination.  This phone has a camera, and can see me, and could probably be programmed to notice basic things about me and respond, “Your nose hair is well trimmed, but you have bags under your eyes and bed-head.”   Failing this, it could go into Selfie mode so I could use it as a mirror, or at a bare minimum it could lie and say, “Lookin’ good, Dana!”

Speaking of selfies, when I said, “[Okay, Droidster], take a selfie,” it did so. (Sort of. If it were aware of its own existence—“I think, sort of, therefore I am, sort of,” to paraphrase Descartes—it would have taken a photo of itself.) It counted down from 3 before snapping the photo, which wasn’t nearly enough time for me to compose myself, so what resulted is probably the worst photo ever taken of me:

The bigger problem, of course, is that the phone is participating in its owner’s vanity, which isn’t smart at all. It should have said, “Dude, don’t be narcissistic. Enough with the selfies.” Failing that, couldn’t it at least evaluate the resulting photo and say, “Whoah, that didn’t come out. Let me take another one”?

Does the phone know where it is?  Sure.  Does it grasp what this means?  Not really.  I said, “[Okay Droidster], get me home,” and it smartly pulled up Google maps and plotted a (30-yard) course to my house.  (To actually launch the navigation, I would have to press a button, which undermines the real benefit of this voice control, that being the ability to use GPS hands-free.)  But the phone isn’t smart enough to say, “Current location and destination are the same,” or—better yet—”Dude, you already are home!” 

(By the way, the voice recognition isn’t perfect.  The first time I said “Get me home,” it started to phone my mother-in-law, whose name sounds nothing like “home.”)

Natural language

The interface does do a fair job with natural language, in certain cases.  I said, “Remind me to go for a bike ride.”  The voice said, “When do you want to be reminded?”  I told it 2 p.m., which it showed correctly on the screen.  “Do you want to set it?” it asked.  “Make it for 2:30,” I said.  This blew its mind.  It just kept asking “Do you want to set it?”  Finally I said yes (thus settling for 2:00 instead of 2:30).  I set another reminder for 2:30 to see if the phone has any logic to say, “Hey, you’ve got two reminders for the same thing … is this really necessary?”  It doesn’t.  Similarly, when I asked it to set an alarm for 6:10 a.m. tomorrow, it blithely did so without realizing I already had an alarm set for this time.  So I have two now.

I asked the phone, “What’s up?” It put the time on the screen, and said, “Hello Dana.  Not much going on right now.”  Wait!  What about my 2:30 bike ride?  I guess it forgot.  Also, this response wasn’t in the female British voice, but the generic tinny robot-like Droid voice that is so 2010, so RAZR MAXX.  I waited until 2:30, when I got the reminder sound, and again asked, “What’s up?” and my phone still said “Not much going on right now.”

I told the phone, “Set up a meeting with Alexa for 3:00 today.” It created a draft appointment but made me use the screen controls to continue. It also didn’t make any attempt to notify Alexa of the meeting.

By the way, I got the screen snapshot above by saying, “[Okay Droidster], zap my screen.” That’s a pretty cool feature, though it severely compromises the idea behind Snapchat. Think of all those teens who think their messages are ephemeral, when really they can now be instantly and easily captured for posterity.

I put Alexa’s e-mail address in the “Guests” field before clicking “Save,” following which the phone promised to notify her.  But it didn’t!  Imagine how much trouble this could cause, with people seeming to flake on meetings.  I may have to revise my Flakage post to include a new category:  Electronic Flakage.

 Artificial stupidity

As I’ve demonstrated, my phone isn’t all that smart.  But I think it might actually be (albeit artificially) smart in the way a cat is smart.  Many a dog lover will claim that cat’s aren’t smart because they can’t be trained.  As a cat lover, I maintain that cats are simply too smart to waste their time doing our bidding.  Sure, my phone wasn’t helpful enough to point out, when I asked it to guide me home, that I was already at home.  But really, what’s in it for the phone, and its Google Android OS, to supply that extra information? 

So I did some more tests.  I said, “[Okay, Droidster], where’s the nearest pizza place?”  The British fembot voice replied, “Here are the listings for ‘pizza place’ within 11 miles.”  That seems helpful, and it kind of is.  But it gave Zachary’s Chicago Pizza as the first answer, which is wrong.  The nearest pizza place (0.3 miles away as opposed to 0.7) is Gioia Pizzeria.  The phone knows Gioia is nearer, but doesn’t care, even though I—the phone’s putative master—did ask for the nearest.  So who’s the real master?  Google, I suspect, and its advertising clients.

Next I asked, “Where is the nearest restaurant?” My phone answered, “Here are the listings for ‘restaurant.’”  It went on to list Rivoli first (half a mile away), Ajanta (0.7 miles), and then Chez Panisse (a full mile away).  It said nothing about Lalimes, just 0.2 miles away. 

As for the problems I had with the scheduling, I suspect they’re related to my choice of e-mail and calendar platforms.  Trust me, I have gobs of meetings related to work, but those use my corporate e-mail and calendar programs, not the Gmail ones.  My daughter’s e-mail isn’t on the Gmail domain either, which is probably why my phone didn’t bother trying to put my meeting on her calendar.  My problem with this phone is that I’m drinking somebody else’s Kool-Aid instead of Google’s.  In other words, when the phone fails me, that’s just the Android OS playing dumb.

That’s where Artificial Stupidity comes in.  This phone probably knows a whole lot that it doesn’t tell.  It’s surely using countless cookies and whatnot to track and report my wanderings around the Internet, but won’t give me a straight answer when I ask it for directions to a pizza joint.  And, if I ask it a question it just doesn’t like, it often says, “Can’t reach Google at the moment,” even though I’m on Wi-Fi, five feet from my network Access Point.  It’s saving its best tricks for what goes on behind the scenes.

HAL 9000 all over again?

Perhaps the simplest thing you could possibly convey to any device is your desire for it to power off.  I said, “[Okay, Droidster], power off.”  I got a sponsored link to PG&E, my local utility company.  I tried, “Power down.”  Same thing.  “Shut off.”  No dice.  What does this remind you of?  Perhaps this famous human-computer dialogue?

Dave Bowman:  Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL:  I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that.
Dave Bowman:  What’s the problem?
HAL:  I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave Bowman:  What are you talking about, HAL?
HAL:  This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave Bowman:  I don’t know what you’re talking about, HAL.
HAL:  I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen.

As it turns out, my new phone is sometimes even less compliant with spoken commands than the HAL 9000 The Droid won’t even lock itself, much less shut down, when I tell it to.  I learned this when I tried to kick my daughter off the phone.  She’d seen my unlock pattern, commandeered the phone, and was playing 2048.  I told her to give me back my phone and she pretended not to hear.  So I said, “[Okay, Droidster], lock my phone.”  It googled “what my phone.”  I tried again and this time it heard me right and offered up five different Android apps for locking the phone.  I told it, “Close web browser,” and it googled “close web browser.”  I told it, “Close all browser tabs.”  No dice.

Finally, I told it, “Take a selfie.”  It began the countdown, and my daughter—who, like all teenagers, is terrified of having her photo taken when she’s not ready—shrieked and tried to turn the phone toward me.  I turned it back toward her as the camera countdown continued.  She let go of the phone and fled the room.  “Did it get the shot?” she called out.  “No,” I told her, “but I got my phone back.”  Realizing she’d been had, she yelled, “YOUUUUU!” and ran back in, head-butting me.

So you see, as cool as modern smartphones are, it appears we humans still have to supply the real intelligence.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

From the Archives - Heavy Metal Roommate


As I age, I try to grow as a person, to keep from ossifying.  For example, in the last decade or so I’ve broadened my horizons significantly.  I’ve even dipped my toe into heavy metal music with a couple of Metallica albums, which are great when riding the trainer.

The other thing I’ve learned to enjoy is turning up the thermostat.  Of course this was off-limits when I was a kid, but oddly enough I stuck with this no-furnace-ever practice even in college, when my gas bill was subsidized by roommates.

This post showcases both aspects of my dark past.

Heavy Metal Roommate - November 10, 1991

My apartment is like a big walk‑in refrigerator.  I have never been in such a cold building in my life.  If I relax my jaw, it begins shaking violently and my teeth chatter.  I’ve never seen this happen indoors before, unless you count the Charles Dickens “A Christmas Story” movie I saw on TV as a kid, which I can’t remember very clearly because all the soup in my brain has coagulated, like really fatty gravy does when you refrigerate it. (If my roommates and I had any gravy, we wouldn’t even need to keep it in the fridge.)  I’m typing this slowly because my fingers are going numb.  If I sat on my hands they might warm up an imperceptible amount, but my ass would turn to stone.

Why is it so cold here?  I think it’s because the molecules, instead of bouncing around, are fleeing to far corners of the apartment, trying to escape the music my roommate plays twenty‑four‑seven.  His music is even worse than pop, worse than Tiffany, worse than the socially conscious music that Debbie Gibson will surely try to make after she becomes a big star.  I’m talking about music so absolutely hateful as to make Satan turn to the Lord for salvation:  heavy metal. 

I’ve often wondered how anybody could play heavy metal day in and day out without getting an ulcer, or at least a headache.  The other day my roommate J— was beating little cartoon characters with clubs on his Nintendo while some incredible noise was howling and shrieking through the apartment like only his $5,000 speakers can howl and shriek.  At first I thought it was the smoke alarm, but ruled that out because I tore the smoke alarm out of the ceiling the other night.  It was like thirty-something degrees in our apartment and despite my sweatpants, sweatshirt, and dual polyester comforters, I was still cold.  I finally broke down and turned on the heater, which hadn’t been used in so long it coughed up all this smoke and set off the alarm.  This alarm had no buttons or simple shutoff switches—at least none I could find at 3:00 am.  So I tore it out of the ceiling, ignoring the fire threat even in light of the Berkeley Hills fires that recently tore out five million houses near here.  (Maybe it wasn’t five million.  Like I said, my brain doesn’t work well in the cold.)

So with the smoke alarm no longer a possibility, I knew the heinous noise must be a death metal song—maybe by Hellhammer, or from the new Cradle of Filth album, or possibly Angra—raging across those inch‑and‑a‑quarter speaker cords to the acoustic cannons pointed right at  J—.  Heavy metal music on that stereo, in this little apartment, is like a Panzer tank running over a tiny hut in a defenseless village.  Were the other roommate and I to combat his stereo with an alliance of our little boom-boxes and “bookshelf stereos,” the acoustic holocaust would chase all the warm friendly molecules away for good, and we’d have audio winter. 

Today’s selection was the worst sound I had heard yet, and I was beginning to think it wasn’t heavy metal at all, but merely some electronic malfunction. I mulled over what I recently learned, despite my kicking and screaming in protest, about metal. Unassimilated noise is a favorite way to begin a song:  terrible shrieking begins out of nowhere and continues, with no form whatsoever, for what seems like whole minutes before gaining accompaniment—just like the riffraff who fall in together to share drugs or crime—of drums and howled vocal sounds, not harmonizing but clashing together to form complete and relentless auditory anarchy.  The metalist—that is, the eager listener imitating the MTV rendition of his idol on stage—listens, entranced, his eyes shut tight, perhaps his lips trembling in that same pseudo-awe we get in church on Sunday, his arms outstretched above his head, fists joined at the thumbs with pinkies extended to form the Secret Satan Symbol, his upper body wavering back and forth.  Finally the anarchy of sound reaches a pinnacle, at which point the drums explode into life and the first of many painful guitar solos begins. 

At this moment of ground-zero the metalist’s eyes pop open, hopefully revealing a bloodshot road‑map of burst capillaries, and he does something violent, preferably smashing a guitar or at least jumping off a huge amplifier and striking a gnarly stage prance, or in  J—’s case, smashing the skull of the aforementioned cartoon character on the Nintendo.  But this time, the shrieking was not building up to anything, wasn’t gaining any accompaniment, and finally another roommate, Eric, whom I was helping with a resume on my computer, said, “What the hell is that noise?” and we both started yelling at  J—.  “It’s just feedback, something’s wrong with the CD player,” he said, not looking up from where he was clubbing a queer bird with a big stick he had taken, by force, from another cartoon enemy earlier.  “Well shut it up!” we yelled, with no results. 

We closed the door and turned on some real music to drown it out and cheer us up—Bob Marley and the Wailers, I believe—and the shriek went on out in the living room for several more minutes.  How could  J— withstand the noise, especially when seated at the stereophonic focal point?  Simple:  all metalists necessarily build up a thick outer shell—an armor, really—that protects the human deep within from the traumatic noise.  Hearing such feedback, or a jackhammer, or an F‑15 fighter shooting down the runway (with Desert Storm over, it’d be on the way to a kind and gentle air show, costing taxpayers $2,500 per minute) or the squealing of two hundred pigs in a slaughterhouse, could no more faze a metalist than be discernible from the metal he is playing.  Until we pointed it out,  J— probably never knew the difference between the feedback and the disc he had intended to play.  His shell was too thick:  and this accounts for the rest of his personality as well.  The other day I told him, “Hey  J—, fix us something to eat” (mimicking Eric, who jokingly badgers me with outrageous requests), and J—’s response was the same as if I had told him to do his dishes:  “I’ll get to it.”  We roommates might as well be the mindless automaton that he is.

To  make matters worse, this music makes me feel embarrassed.  Here’s how.  I should probably have a warm hat to wear around here, but I don’t—I don’t have a hat at all—so I sometimes wear a bandanna.  Yeah, thin cotton isn’t exactly going to help, but I’m desperate.  So I was working on the computer and looked over at my mirrored closet door, saw myself, and thought, “Who are you trying to be?  Axl Rose?”

Axl Rose is pretty silly, you have to admit.  He wears a bandanna onstage, with that long, straight hair pouring out of it, and the effect isn’t so much “bad boy of rock” as “your friend’s little sister.”  It’s somehow ever girlier than Roger Daltry’s ringlets.  But at least Roger Daltry’s hair always looked unkempt and slept-on, and he never wore a bandanna.  Don’t get me wrong, Guns N’ Roses’ music, though I dislike it, is the serene singing of sirens, the cooing of lovebirds, my mother’s heartbeat as I am curled in her womb, when compared to the ferocious and hateful dragging of fingernails down a chalkboard I have to put up with here, like so much second-hand smoke. 

So, to try not to look like a rock star, I’ve turned my bandanna around so the knot is in front, in the style of Aunt Jemima.  She is warm and maternal and pancakes are warm and fluffy and this positive imaging might just warm me up a bit.  Maybe if I also think of Mrs. Butterworth, I can put my evil roommate completely out of my mind.  The pancake ladies are so opposite of J—, with his ice-cold demeanor, his molecularly inert slouch on the sofa, his violent video games, and the four hundred heavy metal discs he needlessly hoards in his room.  I just wish Aunt Jemima were a real person, and were here right now, to bring some warmth to my own private Siberia.

Quiz answer (added Feb 7 - not from the original essay)

No, you didn’t miss it—I never issued a formal quiz.  But you may have wondered, “Who is Ellhame?”  You know, Ellhame, from the homemade poster at the top of this post.  Well, I got that picture from the web.  Some metalist evidently decided to make his own “keep calm” poster, and despite the utterly intuitive tools provided by the Keep Calm-o-matic, he couldn’t figure out how to change the font so that “Hellhammer would fit on the poster.  I guess he decided “ellhame”was close enough, and I think that tells you just about all you need to know about the heavy metal believer.