Thursday, October 29, 2015

Carbon vs. Steel & the Bike Geek Divide

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


This post was inspired by the book It’s All About The Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels by Robert Penn.  It’s a very good book (the New York Times applauds Penn’s “vast and endearingly shaggy bicycle boffinry,” and yes, “boffinry” is well worth looking up).  As I read this book, though, something dawned on me:  Penn resides on one side of a bicyclist divide, and I’ve gradually crossed over to the other. This post examines that divide.

The divide

On the one hand, you have dudes riding Brooks saddles with actual rivets; on the other, guys who use (and can sometimes even spell) Fi’zi:k.  The first group—let’s call them Crusty Old Veterans—favor handbuilt wheels laced 3-cross.  The other group—the Tech Weenies—don’t much care how their wheels came to be, so long as the front is laced radial and the rear has something similarly aerodynamic going on.  The COVies say things like “steel is real,” and the Tweenies prefer carbon fiber (even if they irreverently call it “plastic”).  One side is enraptured by hand-cut lugs; the other by bike weights in the low teens.

Perhaps you can tell from my unflattering descriptions (equal-opportunity bashing, if you will) that I don’t overmuch care for either group, or for anybody with overly strong opinions about seemingly trivial matters (notwithstanding my own fierce brand loyalties regarding ketchup, Band-Aids, and deodorant.)  The point is this:  your opinion about which bicycle cult(ure) to embrace is largely based on taste, but also—I’ve recently decided—on politics.  Not in the sense of red/blue, liberal/conservative, but about what you think a bike ought to be, and what a bike company ought to be doing.

The common ground

Since I’m about to label Robert Penn a COVie, and then advance the case for Tweenies, I better pause for a moment and praise his book some more.  Specific preferences aside, all bicyclists love to ride; they wish more people rode bikes (or at least wish fewer people drove cars); they believe bicyclists have a right to use the roads; and probably most feel somewhat claustrophobic when driving a car (especially in traffic).  Penn does a great job of celebrating the bicycle—a tribute society sorely needs, with so many Americans thinking of this noble machine as a child’s toy.  Penn’s book provides a fascinating history, describing a huge number of bicycle-related inventions that were later adapted for cars.  Bikes were a dominant industry at the turn of the 19th century; almost a third of all US patents went toward the bicycle and there was a whole separate building just to process the bike patents.  It strikes me that the bicycle, in its heyday, was like the mobility industry of today.

Penn’s dream bike

It’s All About the Bike interleaves historical ruminations with the blow-by-blow report of Penn’s global quest to build the perfect bicycle, part by part. He has the frame built in England, heads over to Portland for a headset, has the wheels laced in Marin County, and visits Italy to find a fork and some handlebars.  It’s kind of like Anthony Bourdain’s book A Cook’s Tour, except that Penn doesn’t eat everything along the way. 

What would you choose for a dream bike?  I can’t really answer this question.  I’ve learned not to get too attached to my bikes, because they keep breaking.  (Over the last decade I’ve broken six frames.)

That said, I can tell you one trait I’d definitely avoid in a new road bike:  a steel frame.  “Steel is real?”  Yeah, it’s real lame!  Look, I know all the great things about it:  you can cold-set it, it rides nicely, it has a long history, it’s durable, yeah, yeah, yeah.  All true.  But it also fricking rusts.  I hate that.  I’ve had to retire two steel road frames before they even had a chance to break, because they got so rusty I was afraid to go fast on them.  Once I had a steel fork snap on me, right at the steerer tube, due to unseen rust.  That was a painful crash. 

(Full disclosure:  four of the six frames I’ve broken recently were aluminum, but at least they were far, far lighter than the two steel ones that broke, one of which was the most expensive frame I’ve ever owned.  By the way, I’ve been using carbon forks for twelve years, and haven’t had a single failure.)

What’s that?  You’ve been on the same steel frame for decades without a spot of rust?  Well, you must have naked pictures of God or something.  Steel frames invariably have chrome in the fork and rear triangle, and nobody does good chrome.  (The chrome fork doesn’t have its origins in durability or aesthetics, but in cheapness.  Frame builders weren’t interested in building forks and bought them from some third party that did a good-enough job; chroming all of them was easier and cheaper than trying to match frame paint or arranging to have them painted at the same factory.)  And no, I haven’t stored my bikes in a shed or even the garage—they always live indoors, in my office or bedroom.

So, getting back to Penn, I found it curious that for his once-in-a-lifetime dream bike, he chose a steel frame.  His reasoning was even more surprising.  For one thing, he writes, “Steel is not prone to sudden failure.” (Yeah, right.  I refer you to the three counterexamples above.)  He trots out “steel is real.”  (Whatever, dude.)  He argues that the supposed comfort of carbon frames is a fallacy, maintaining that it’s the tires and such that make a bike comfortable, not the frame.  (This is so obviously, empirically untrue I’m not even going to bother debating the point, other than to mention that Penn did select a carbon fork for his dream bike.)

Moreover, Penn leaves out what I would consider the best reason for buying a steel frame:  the ability to specify custom geometry.  I’m not aware of a single manufacturer who will build a carbon frame to order, though a handful will do custom aluminum.  (No, I didn’t research this thoroughly … I’m too lazy, and I want   to leave the door open for people to set me straight.  Providing an opportunity for smug indignation is my little gift to the world.)

Custom geometry:  COVie or Tweenie?

Hey, here’s a puzzle:  is custom frame geometry the domain of COVies or Tweenies?  On the one hand, custom-built frames have been around for many, many decades; I spent many an afternoon drooling on The Custom Bicycle, published in 1979.  (That’s where I got the tidbit about chrome forks, if memory serves.)  Of course that book is now COVie territory since it predated the vast majority of non-steel bicycles.  On the other hand, a five-star reviewer of it says, “In spite of a number of efforts involving higher-order differential equations performed on a Cray computer nobody has been able to derive the equation for bicycle frame stability.”  What could be Tweenier than that?

Custom geometry may be the nexus between COVies and Tweenies because it’s a traditional trait of an old-school top-end bicycle, but also a highly technical matter compatible with a performance-at-all-costs ethos.  Part of my distaste for COVie bikes is that they’re heavier, less aerodynamic, and therefore slower than cutting-edge bikes (even if only marginally).  When I’m gloating over my new bike, I’m not thinking, “Oh, it’s so beautiful!” but rather, “Man, I’m going to hurt some people with this thing!”  (No, I don’t often have such delusions of grandeur, but if a guy in the throes of New Bike Syndrome can’t indulge some grandiose notions, when can he?)

Custom geometry, since it doesn’t add weight or wind drag, really is an unalloyed good thing.  (Sorry about the pun.  I couldn’t help myself.)  I had one racing bike, a Ten Speed Drive team-issue Guerciotti, steel, that just had the best geometry.  When it rusted, I bought another Guerciotti from a web merchant, and it had the worst geometry.  From the first pedal stroke I knew I hated it, and my opinion never improved.  (When it got too rusty to ride at high speeds, I turned it into a commuter bike, and it was great for that, until it broke.)

Having learned my lesson, I had my next frame custom made.  (It was aluminum.)  I based my design largely on that first Guerciotti, with a couple alterations, and produced something like this:

(I say “something like this” because the above is the second generation of my custom geometry; the first didn’t have the slightly sloping top tube.  The manufacturer refused to do a non-sloping top tube for my second frame, but I didn’t really care.  The essential geometry is the same, and the frames rode identically.)

So how did that custom geometry work out?  It was amazing!  As soon as I climbed on and started pedaling I had this exhilarating sensation of perfect rightness.  How to describe this feeling?  Well, hypothetically speaking, it’s like when you’re doing the bone dance and your condom breaks.  To be precise, it’s that brief moment when the bad part about the condom ceases to be a problem, but just before you realize why everything feels suddenly better—that is, before you realize what this means.  You know, the delighted “aaaaaaah” just before the terrified “AAAAAAAAAUGH!”

A friend of mine summarized this description as “fits like a condom.”  I can see his logic in extending the laudatory “fits like a glove” description, but in fact a custom frame fits like a lack of condom.  It’s the beautiful sense of freedom from that which constricts and pinches.

Is custom geometry worth it?

So, should we accept the limitations of steel if it means getting to have custom geometry?  This depends a lot on the rider.  Those with strange proportions (e.g., really long legs and an incredibly short torso) have more to gain from custom geometry.  For most riders, adjusting the saddle and getting the right stem will do the job, though it’s worth pointing out that on my second Guerciotti I was able to get my body oriented how I like, but the stem was too long, which made the steering weird, and the head tube angle was too shallow, which made it handle like a touring bike, and the seat tube angle was too steep, which meant I couldn’t get the saddle back far enough without resorting to a setback seatpost (which I couldn’t bring myself to buy).

The big challenge with custom geometry is knowing what you want.  Robert Penn worked closely with a frame builder to optimize the position on his bike and so forth, which is ideal.  Most people would probably just guess, based on bikes they had that felt particularly good. 

A couple years ago, my fourth custom-made frame broke, and the manufacturer no longer offered frames with custom geometry.  Their stock geometry sucks balls so I never even considered it (even though all four frames were warrantied, which by the way is a benefit of going with a huge company, in stark contrast to many small-shop frame builders who will take forever to fix or replace your frame, unless they’re too arrogant to even admit it was defective).  So I switched to a stock frame from another manufacturer (a giant outfit based in Taiwan).  Was this a problem? 

Actually, no.  Here was a case of the free market actually solving a problem:  because there are so many companies making bikes, chances are somebody just so happens to offer your desired geometry (at least, if your physique isn’t too weird).  It’s easy to shop for frames online when geometry is your main selection criterion, because manufacturer websites almost always provide geometry diagrams.  (This is how I selected the frame for my backup bike, which has almost my ideal geometry other than the seat tube and head tube being too long, which spoils the aesthetics.)  Once you know what geometry you want, you’ll probably be able to find it—and in carbon, no less!

The politics of bicycles

No, my little “free market” comment above isn’t where politics come in.  (I think it takes a pretty fringe mentality, in this country, to oppose capitalism.  I for one do not.)

What I’m talking about is a somewhat political undertone I noticed in Penn’s book.  This was something like nostalgia, for a time when things were made by hand, by people in first-world countries who made a good wage with solid benefits.  Workmanship seems to be a core value for Penn.  For example, he bought his dream hubs from Royce, a company in England that makes only super high-end stuff, including these bling-y gold things that you’d expect a rapper to have if a rapper had a bike. 

Penn went to Portland for his headset, and goes on at length about how cool Chris King is.  It’s a small company with good benefits and happy, educated employees who bike to work and are fed a free lunch.  Sure, their headsets are really expensive, but hey, they’ll last forever, and isn’t it better to bring your business to a responsible company?

Well, it’s great that Chris King uses soy oil in its machining, and turns metal shavings into little pucks that are easier to recycle.  Perhaps they deserve my business for that reason alone.  And yet—who cares about headsets?  I never wear them out.  I have three steel frames in my garage (two broken, all rusted) with perfectly good teenage headsets I might yet harvest one day if I come across an old frame I want to use.  I refuse to blow $150 on a headset, because it won’t make me go faster.  And the soy oil is a drop in the bucket compared to basic choices I make, like how often my vacations should include air travel.  (Penn surely did more environmental damage flying around the world buying bike parts than he’d ever save by preferring eco-friendly manufacturers—but I’ll cut him some slack because a) he was writing a book, and b) he’s a cyclist.)

Now, getting back to those Royce hubs:  what’s up with all this amazing craftsmanship and beautiful finish when the product is technologically obsolete?  Their fancy gold hubs cost almost $1500 a pair; even their apparently budget-minded Venus rear hub costs $480, and yet you don’t even get straight-pull spokes!  Look, I’m sure these are great hubs, but in my experience, straight-pull spokes break less frequently, and tend to make a lighter wheel.  I’m not going to get into a whole separate debate about this, but for $480, shouldn’t the design be different than what’s on my 1960 Triumph 3-speed?  For $480, I want wind tunnel testing, space-age materials, Bluetooth, and a fricking motor!  (And, to flip it around, would Penn settle for a cottered crank, if the materials and finish were good enough?)

To be clear, I have absolutely no problem with Penn, or anybody, buying a ridiculously expensive bicycle.  After all, my own bicycles (at least by my wife’s standards) are ridiculously expensive.  I just have a different opinion about what kind of companies we cyclists should reward with our business.  He seems to especially admire the “boutique” style companies, which make conspicuously high-end stuff for those who can afford it and want to show off.  He makes the classic COVie move (COVerture?) by springing for a $250 Brooks Team Pro saddle, which sports a 50-year-old design and little eyelets for a saddlebag.  (Is he unwilling to concede that any technological progress has been made in half a century?  At least Fi’zi:k saddles are vegan.)

Myself, I am more impressed by companies that invest so much in the design that relatively cheap stuff can still perform wonderfully.  Take, for example, the Shimano Sora derailleur:  for about $20, I’ll bet it shifts better than the Campy Super Record I had on my ’85 Mercian.  Maybe I overpay for my Dura-Ace, but at least I’m subsidizing the R&D that improves all kinds of basic, inexpensive bike parts.

Here’s another example:  a second wheel innovation Penn passed up, which is a laughably simple one, is the new generation of wider rims.  An American company, HED, experimented with this a few years back and discovered that wider rims give a much smoother ride, because of how they affect the profile of the tire.  With traditional rims, the cross-section of the tire looks something like a light bulb, tapering inward where the bead fits into the rim.  With a wider rim, the tire profile is improved:  the tire deflects less during cornering, and can be run at a lower pressure, and the ride is much more comfortable without any compromise in speed.  The beauty of this innovation is that the wider rim doesn’t make the wheel more expensive the way traditional advancements (e.g., carbon rims, titanium axles, etc.) always do.  So the benefit can “trickle down” to cheaper wheels.  (And if there is no actual benefit, and I’m just drinking my own bathwater, at least I didn’t pay big bucks for the placebo effect.)

To my mind, Penn’s dream bike is more like a bespoke suit, hand-tailored from whole cloth:  certainly a nice thing, for those who can afford it, but not ultimately much better than “off the rack.”  Getting to talk face to face with the guy who laces your wheels is a nice personal touch, but not anything most of us need; I’d say it’s the rough equivalent of getting a shave from a barber (who theatrically hones his straight razor on a leather strop and soaps up your face with a beavertail shaving brush) instead of shaving your own face with a 25-cent Bic. 

I would love to see a bicycle industry that does a better job of making everyday, affordable bikes faster and lighter and more pleasurable to ride.  What’s ultimately the better service to society and the planet:  satisfying the aesthetic fetishes of the very wealthy, or bringing a reasonably high-quality experience to the cycling newcomer, so he might actually get out there and ride?

Monday, October 19, 2015

Fiction - The Bowl


What follows is a work of fiction.  All characters are totally made-up and any resemblance of any character to any real person, living or dead, or to any person who might be born at any point in the future, is purely coincidental.  Even objects not described by a proper noun are fictional.  There isn’t even a real bowl, nor any pile of actual vomit, and there’s not really a carpeted van.  Please don’t sue me.

The Bowl

So, somebody left this bowl at my house after the party.  I figured I’d just hang out and somebody would claim it, but that hasn’t happened.  Which is sort of surprising, actually.

Maybe somebody (i.e., the somebody who brought the bowl) had a really bad time at the party.  It did get a bit crowded in the kitchen, which I thought was cozy and gezellig, but who knows, maybe somebody felt claustrophobic.  Or did somebody have a bad time because of me?  I don’t think I got that drunk, and I’m 99% sure I didn’t tell anybody off.  Anyway, if you want your bowl back but just can’t face returning to the house, fear not:  if nobody claims it, I’ll put it out on the porch overnight and you can sneak over and fetch it.

But I’m actually guessing I’m not the problem—it’s probable that the owner of the bowl just doesn’t want it back, for whatever reason.  Maybe this person just binge-watched a season of Hoarders Miami – Major Depressives and is suddenly repulsed by almost all household objects, and this bowl is just collateral damage from that experience.  Maybe this person leaves behind at least one object wherever he or she goes.

But that’s a long shot; probably this abandonment boils down to the bowl itself.  Maybe it’s got a storied past.  Maybe it was a wedding present from somebody’s then-stepmother, who had to be invited to the wedding even though everybody knew that marriage (between the father and the stepmother) was doomed, which it has proven to be, as this bowl has outlasted that marriage by many years.  Maybe the owner of this bowl always hated this stepmother (or worse, this stepmother-in-law) but somehow just kept the bowl around, it being a handy size, and recently had some subconscious impulse which, if it could be put into words, would be something like “Now’s your chance!”

Maybe it’s even worse than that!  Maybe somebody’s college roommate, a real sweetheart, not in that sexy girl-next-door way but more of a den-mother type way, made the bowl in pottery class as an ashtray, a terrific jumbo-sized ashtray because somehow this crappy little student-ghetto rental house attracted all the smokers, they all smoked like chimneys, and never dumped the ashtray so a normal-sized one was impractical.  So this was call the butt-bowl and when the sweetheart roommate became more skillful in pottery she made another ashtray that was shaped like a giant butt, the perfect butt-bowl, and it was this hilarious running joke all through college, and when everybody graduated Matt got the actual butt-shaped-bowl and my party guest got this, the original butt-bowl, and they continued to make random jokes about it over the decades until earlier this year when Matt (who’d been smoking since junior high) was diagnosed with lung cancer.  I wouldn’t want my butt-bowl back either.

Or maybe my party guest felt bad about this bowl because he or she has used it as a compost bowl for the last few years and—at the last minute before heading over—needed something to put the roast garlic in and just cleaned it out real quick, and then on the drive over his or her spouse/other said, “I can’t believe you’re bringing food in that—it reeks!” and they got in this big fight over it because the second spouse/other has always hated the smell of compost and couldn’t scrub the smell out of that bowl, no matter how hard he or she tried, and in fact had a childhood trauma around being made to eat a hard-boiled egg at a campground once even though he or she hated them and was sure to vomit, which he or she actually did, right there at the campground, and it was fricking pink for some reason, and something about the smell of decomposing compost always brings him or her right back to that campground and “Can we please, please get a proper compost bin with a tight-fitting lid, and never look at this stinky bowl again?”

Or maybe the truth is even darker.  Maybe my party guest got this bowl from her mom, who divulged a chilling back-story.  Maybe the mom grew up in a totally dysfunctional family, both parents complete drunks, and one night they were all actually cooperating in the kitchen, cleaning up and washing dishes, and it was almost pleasant and she thought, “We’re all getting along, like a real family!” and then something snapped, maybe her dad insulted her mom, who threw a plate at him, and he threw a mug at her, and next thing you know the kids are taking sides and the whole family is screaming and throwing bowls, plates, cutlery, it’s all smashing all over the place, and this goes on for like five straight minutes and it’s a miracle nobody gets hit by a flying saucer, until everything is broken, and amazingly they all start laughing, and (the mom concludes), “It was actually kind of fun, if you can believe that! And then I discovered this bowl hiding under a towel, the sole survivor, and I decided since it could have just as well been broken, I’d take it for myself, and I kept it when I went off to college and had it for decades until I just couldn’t handle all this history anymore, which is why I gave it to you.”  And her son or daughter used it for years too, until he or she came to the same conclusion about its history, which is why it’s going unclaimed now.

Wow, the ravings of a lunatic!  Of course the truth must be simpler and less dramatic than all that.  Not that it’s completely simple, or the bowl would have been claimed by now—but surely nothing sinister is going on.  Maybe the partygoer has a secret that’s not so dark, but a secret nonetheless, which exerts a small but nontrivial force.  Maybe he (to randomly pick a pronoun) was poking around in a thrift store or pawn shop with his wife/other, and saw her admiring this handmade bowl, and she said, “You can tell it’s handmade because it’s imperfect—the rim isn’t perfectly round, see” and he could tell she liked it, but she never bought anything for herself, even a used bowl that’s like a buck fifty, and they left without it, and the next day he sneaked back there and bought it, figuring that when, a day or two later, she would say, “I should have bought that bowl, I really liked it,” he could magically produce it, and she’d throw her arms around him and nuzzle at his neckline.  And his scheme actually played out, almost exactly like that, except that when he went to buy the bowl, the clerk said, “Oh, you know what, I actually have the box that came in!” and went to the back and fetched a box that had a photograph of the bowl on it and the words “Real Ceramic Bowl” and when he looked closely he saw that even in the photo the bowl had that irregular rim, for that clumsy handmade look, so that he could imagine hundreds, thousands of these streaming down a conveyor belt, all absolutely identical with the same fake imperfection along the rim engineered to give the bowl a handmade (dare we say “artisanal”?) look, and so of course he threw away the box before presenting the bowl to his wife, and his wife never knew the truth, and she thought warmly of the bowl for all those years so every time he saw it he felt kind of shitty.  So, having left it behind at the party, he’s hoping she won’t figure out where the bowl went to.

Or maybe, just maybe, the bowl has no interesting history at all, but something about it triggers unpleasant memories anyway.  Maybe it’s something about the stripes, about how instead of being straight and level they rise up on one side, like a curling lip, like the perpetual sneer, more of a smirk than a grin, that that one kid on swim team always had … what was his name?  Mike King.  Who always seemed to be making fun of you, who pretended to be nice but this was a form of mockery, and you badly wanted to believe he was being nice for real, so much so that when, after the Cherry Creek Invitational swim meet, he invited you to listen to Kiss in the back of his uncle’s van, you actually said yes, and you sat uncomfortably in this carpeted van listening to this weird music you didn’t like, and Mike King smirking the whole time, and when you left the van (squinting in the sudden, dazzling sun) you couldn’t find your family, and when you did they bawled you out for wandering off, where the hell were you, and then you found out they went out for pizza, which your family never did, and you missed out, and your brothers rubbed this in mercilessly until you pitched a massive tantrum, one that was so big it became bigger than you, to where you didn’t even know how to shut it down, and all the while you were tantrum-ing the family was making this grim procession back to the car—it seemed like miles—and somewhere along the line it dawned on you that you were too old for tantrums like this, and this would have to be your last.  Having all this memory bubble up every time you look at the lopsided stripe on this bowl … I can’t blame you, I wouldn’t want the bowl back myself.

You know what?  I will confess I’ve inherited things before after parties, little Tupperwares or serving spoons or whatever, and when they’ve gone unclaimed and become part of our stuff here, I didn’t really mind.  But in this case, I don’t think I can ever accept this bowl as one of my own.  It’s just too distinctive and too freighted with possible significance.  So please, somebody claim it—but for God’s sake don’t reply-all.  And seriously, if I don’t hear from anybody by Sunday night I’ll put it out on the porch for you.  Please, please come get it.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

How Android Wrecked My Morning


Ever had your sleep shattered by a way-too-early phone call?  Well, at least that scenario requires an evil or bumbling human at the other end of the phone.  I found out recently that these modern phones can ruin your morning all by themselves, by trying too hard to be smart.  Read on for my sad tale (and the frightening questions it raises).

How Android wrecked my morning

The alarm clock on my Android phone shattered my sleep.  The noise was crazily close to my face and as I struggled to make sense of my situation I realized my wife was holding the phone out to me in a wordless plea to have it silenced.

I keep the phone on the table at the other side of the bed, out of reach.  This is to keep me from groping blindly for it, knocking it off the table, and breaking its face, as I’d done with my Blackberry years ago.  The key to not disrupting my wife is to make this phone my backup alarm.  The primary alarm is a clock radio on my side of the bed.

Usually I wake up before my alarm and can disarm it before it makes a sound.  I felt bad for waking my wife, but also a bit smug at having this backup-alarm system which was so clearly warranted on this occasion.  I now discovered the clock radio was an hour slow! 

As I was running late, I didn’t have time to make tea before my early conference call.  I grabbed a mug to nuke some water for instant coffee.  The microwave oven display, instead of showing the time, had a message scrolling by:  “Enjoy your meal.”

I hate this message.  First of all, it shows a fundamental flaw in this oven’s character.  The oven acts like it knows what’s what, but it’s only guessing.  (More often than not, it isn’t heating a whole meal, but just thawing something, pre-cooking an ingredient, or heating a snack.)  Second, this message means somebody forgot something in there, which in this case meant overnight.  What was it?  Feast your eyes on this!

My wife must be one of the few people on the planet who buys lima beans.  Why does she do it?  Does she feel sorry for the lima bean growers?  Or is she reminding my family that not everything we eat needs to be a delicious taste sensation?  Needless to say nobody missed these at dinner.

But when I closed the door, the oven display reverted to showing the time, and to my astonishment it was an hour off!  Or to be more accurate, it now showed my phone to be an hour off.  I never should have doubted my clock radio.

Isn’t it funny how much authority these smartphones get?  I hadn’t even considered it could be the culprit, because the phone sets its clock automagically!  The phone “just works”—except when it doesn’t.  From now on, I’ll trust the device that doesn’t have an operating system.

I pulled up my Android clock and noticed two weirdnesses:

The obvious thing was that it was an hour fast.  But the other weirdness was the second clock, labeled “Home.”  Somehow my phone had decided I’d traveled to another time zone:  Mountain Daylight Time.

On what basis did it decide this?  Beats me.  I keep the GPS turned off.  The “Automatic” time zone is based on the “network-provided” time.  Well, what network?  The WiFi network, some Internet server, or the 4G/LTE?  It’s vague in the accountability-avoiding “mistakes were made” kind of way.  I turned off WiFi but the phone didn’t revise its time zone.

As it turned out, I had a way to see if the culprit was really “the network.”  We happened to have a houseguest with an Android phone on the same carrier, and its clock was correct.  She theorized, “Your phone must have been keying off mine.  Mine’s set to Arizona!”

Great theory!  I hypothesized that one phone is always dominant, and will cause others in its vicinity to fall in line.  Kind of like how the menstrual cycles of female roommates will tend to sync up.

But there was a flaw in this theory:  Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Saving time.  This time of year, Pacific Daylight is the same as Mountain Standard.

I’ve given up devising an alternate theory; we’ll just have to chalk this up to a software bug, which perhaps only crops up when this specific OS is loaded on this specific phone with these specific apps and during these specific moon phases and when the phone’s owner is of this specific Zodiac sign, etc.

Rebooting the phone fixed the clock, until a few nights later when it slipped back to Mountain Daylight Time again.  The only real solution is to disable “Automatic time zone,” at least until Google fixes this bug.

Of course, I sussed all this out hours later.  At the time, I had a short-term problem:  I was up an hour earlier than I meant to be, with nothing to do, and was bleary, sleepy, and also pissed off.  It’s hard for me to fall back asleep after even a minor skirmish with hi-tech devices, and moreover when I’m angry.  So I lay in bed wishing I could be either asleep or fully awake instead of in this purgatory.  I tried to remember the dream I’d been having before being jolted awake.

I’d had this dream in my head—I mean my waking head—before going downstairs.  The whole thing was there intact, but now it was completely gone.  The great dream eraser had make a clean sweep.  But I tried and tried and suddenly my dream came back to me.  I’d been dreaming about my phone, coincidentally enough.

In this dream, I’d decided to head to San Francisco for some Christmas shopping.  The streets were all flooded to within a few feet of the tops of lampposts, so I was traveling by canoe.  My canoe started taking on water, and suddenly it was up to my waist.  Oh, no—my phone!  I took it out and it was all full of water.  I went home, cleaned off my desk, turned on a powerful lamp, and began taking apart the phone.  Each piece, once removed, suddenly grew to like ten times its former size.  This made it really easy to dry each piece off.  Before I knew it, I had a massive pile of chips, transistors, capacitors, and printed circuit boards, all comically oversized.  It was a bit like playing with Lego.  I reasoned that the phone manufacturer had set it up this way to facilitate the assembly process.

Now, where had Motorola gotten this idea?  Well, like all truly ingenious ideas, it must have come from an English major.  And suddenly the literary precedent was obvious:  the original Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  Dr. Frankenstein (the inventor) decides to make his creature large, so that the components will be easier to manipulate:
As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; this is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionately large.
How fitting that this dream should prefigure the failure of my phone:  like Frankenstein’s monster, and like so many other hi-tech products, it has a tendency to break loose from the control of its creator.  How large a problem this becomes may be determined by how large a project Google and its ilk undertake.  It’s one thing to have your morning ruined by a Frankenphone; how much damage could be caused by a Frankencar, a Frankenhome, or a Frankendrone?

Monday, October 5, 2015

From the Archives - The Closet, or My Claustrophobia


Ever wonder what it would be like to be really, really claustrophobic? Well, I am. Read on for a tour of this sometimes absurd phobia.

The Closet, or My Claustrophobia – June 10, 2010

I’m terribly claustrophobic. When I have a bad dream, it often involves being inside a tall tower, making my way up a spiral staircase and having to crawl through progressively smaller openings between floors. Often I’m trying to keep up with somebody who is much better at squeezing through. Usually I reach a gap that’s too small to squeeze through, and I don’t have enough room to turn back. I’m trapped.

In my waking life I’m pretty good at staying out of small enclosures, but my phobia can still strike. Nine years ago I had a bizarre episode. I was at home alone and attempted to fish a cat toy out from under a solid, 7-foot-tall cabinet (aka “entertainment center”). There was a six-inch gap below the cabinet, but a strip of trim between its underside and the floor made for a narrow gap. Lying on my side on the hardwood floor, I was able to work my arm underneath and feel around for the lost toy. I groped around until I found it, then tried to pull my arm out. Alarmingly, it got stuck at the elbow.

No matter how I twisted and turned my arm, I could not get it out from beneath the cabinet. How had I gotten it in there? It was like a strange puzzle. Could it be, I wondered—my anxiety growing—that removing my arm might actually prove impossible? Was this a one-way deal, like a fish hook or a funnel? My arm writhed, chafing against the rough wooden trim of the cabinet. The absurdity of the situation wasn’t lost on me, but I couldn’t find it funny. My breathing got faster as I started to descend into panic.

Of course there was no actual danger, but such is the nature of a true phobia. Anybody would be uncomfortable being, say, buried alive in a coffin or trapped in a mine, but the true claustrophobe falls prey to utterly irrational notions. I have always cultivated in myself a highly ordered, rational mind—my older brothers used to call me “Logic Lad”—but part of my brain doesn’t always play along. So it was now, as I lay there stuck and fuming. I knew full well that, in this large, high-ceilinged living room, I could not run out of air –and yet I believed I already was.

It’s not hard to guess where this claustrophobia came from. It was brought on, or at least hugely exacerbated, by a cruel game my brothers called “The Closet.” They stumbled on it when I was nine and they happened to throw me in the front hall closet where we kept coats, boots, and the vacuum cleaner, and discovered to their delight that I began to freak out. So they hauled me out of there and dragged me down the hall to a tiny linen closet. It had shelves from floor to ceiling that extended to within eight inches of the door when it was closed. I had to turn my head to keep my nose from getting crushed as the door slammed shut.

My cheek was pressed against a stack of towels, and I inhaled the faint scent of the detergent they’d been laundered with. This could have been a pleasant smell had I not suffered the sensation of gradually suffocating. The smell became stronger as, hyperventilating, I beat against the door of the closet and begged for mercy. The doorknob on the inside had been broken off and never replaced, and I tried in vain to turn the stub as a brother held the knob on the other side.  When I thumped against the door, the dull thud told me my brothers were leaning against it; even if I burst the latch I’d still be stuck. My tormentors cackled and shrieked with glee. That their voices were muffled by the door made me feel I was stuck not just in a closet but in an impenetrable vault.

“Guys! Please let me out! The air is getting thin!” I wailed. They became utterly engulfed in laughter. When they could finally talk they all mocked me: “‘Ooh, the air is getting thin!’ Did you hear that? ‘The air is getting thin!’” They laughed their asses off. I beat my toes, knees, hands, and elbows futilely against the door as tears streamed down my face. Only my brothers’ eventual boredom could save me, but I couldn’t help but beg for mercy. The irrational part of my brain foolishly believed my brothers weren’t 100% cruel. Finally, when my energy gave out and I could only sob quietly, my brothers finally lost interest and set me free.

In a just world, I’d have come out swinging, decking each of my brothers in turn, maybe breaking out some sweet karate moves they never knew I had. But in the real world of my childhood, I had absolutely zero recourse. I suppose I could have gotten in one good sucker-punch to somebody’s kidneys, but that would only make things worse: they’d beat the crap out of me and then put me right back in that linen closet. They’d discovered my Room 101.

Not that they needed any excuse to put me in there. From the day they discovered The Closet, my brothers would inflict it whenever they were bored or had a new friend over who hadn’t yet witnessed the spectacle. My brothers never questioned their God-given right to torment me for their own amusement. The twins, three years older than I, were very shy at school and swim team, but at home, with my parents perpetually absent, they ruled like storm troopers. The middle child longed to be accepted by the twins, and thus unquestioningly did their bidding. (They enjoyed snubbing him anyway.) I was the baby: quiet, bookish, and aloof, which made me a natural target for the twins and their lackey. Any time I was approached by more than one brother, I’d instinctively make a run for it, but they’d always catch me, and begin dragging me towards the hallway.

Come with me for tour of the brutal ritual. My skin burns against the cheap, nylon, orange-red carpet of the house as they drag me. In the front hall, just before the living room, is a flight of stairs down to the basement, and there is a wrought-iron railing around the stairwell. As we pass this railing I tear a hand free from my brothers’ clutches and seize it. The instant my hand touches the iron rail, I get a big shock from the static electricity my body has stored up from being dragged across the carpet. I rip another hand free and, lacing my arms and wrists through the railing, grasp each hand with the other. My brothers continue pulling on my body, so I’m stretched (like taffy, it feels like). The rails are fashioned in a twirl, like fusilli, and they chafe painfully against my wrists. Grunting and laughing, my brothers keep pulling until my hands get too sweaty to maintain their grip.

I grab the edge of the floor where it ends at the stairwell. The carpet is secured by tiny, headless nails, which scratch my fingers as I’m pulled away. Next I lunge for, and reach, the edge of the sofa, a big blocky thing upholstered in cheap velour, its color halfway between burnt orange and silly putty. My panic is giving me a superhuman grip, so as my brothers pull on my ankles, the sofa slides away from the wall. Pathetically, even as I suffer I secretly hope my big brothers admire my strength.

My brothers cooperate, like hyenas. “Go after his arms! Pry his fingers off!”

I can’t resist forever, and they eventually pull me free, drag me down the hall, jerk me to my feet, and stuff me into The Closet, squishing the door against me until the doorknob latch clicks shut.

That’s when the real misery starts, that I already described.

Thank God I’m through with all that. Over the years I inevitably caught up to my brothers in size and strength, and who knows, maybe they developed some humanity. The Closet was finally abandoned—but the claustrophobia I’m stuck with. Which is how, decades later, I managed to find myself inordinately close to panic from seeming to be trapped in a large, airy room.

I tried rocking the cabinet with my free hand, but it wouldn’t budge. For the first time, I longed for the cheap stapled-together furniture of my college days, which you could knock over with harsh language. I focused my gaze on the stuccoed ceiling of the living room, high above me. This is a huge room, I told myself. My wife will be home in six or eight hours and there’s no way I’d suffocate in that time.

Could anybody else help? To distract myself from my confinement, I listened to the world outside my house: the percussive sounds of a construction site; the groaning power-take-off of a garbage truck; a commercial vehicle backing up, beeping shrilly; the neighbor’s baby screaming; the squawking of birds in the trees. I was calming down enough to appreciate how much goes on in a quiet neighborhood, not including a grown man stupidly pinned to the floor of his living room. I was eventually able to actually chuckle at my lugubrious plight. I pictured my wife finding me, and laughing at my predicament—except actually she wouldn’t, on second thought. Only the legacy of my brothers’ taunts had me imagining such a thing.

And then, seized with fresh determination, I tried again to free myself. With a flinging, twisting, rotating, wiggling, and yanking motion, I finally ripped my arm out from under the cabinet. I suffered a sizeable scrape in the process, but it was worth it—I was free! I chucked the cat toy over to Misha (how long had she been slyly watching me?) and got on with my life.


Looking back now (in 2015), do I think I was emotionally scarred by this?  Any shell-shock?  No, probably not ... the claustrophobia my brothers discovered had to be somewhat innate.  And do I hold a grudge?  Nope.  Take a look at my last post ... my friendship with my brothers is alive and well.