Thursday, December 31, 2015

Leap Years & Leap Seconds


Tomorrow is the start of a leap year.  What does this mean, besides the obvious bit about there being a February 29?  Why do we observe leap year?  What folk traditions surround this?  What is a bissextile year?  What practical matters does the leap year introduce?  Is “Leap Year” a good movie?  What is a leap second?  I will answer all these questions, and more, in this post.

A helpful mnemonic

You probably already know this by heart, but here’s a handy mnemonic for keeping track of the number of days in each month: 
30 days hath September, April, June, and November.  All the rest have 31, except for February, which usually has 28 but has 29 on leap years, which occur every four years unless the year is divisible by 100 but not by 400, a distinction we make to account for the slight rounding error that occurs by counting each year as 365.25 days when it’s actually 36.24; by skipping leap years on turns of the century that are not divisible by 400, the Gregorian calendar is able to compensate for the 11 minute loss of accuracy each year.
From a completely self-serving standpoint, we could probably dispense with leap years, since the drift in the calendar would take several generations to really foul things up.  But is that really the kind of world we want to leave to our grandchildren’s grandchildren?

Are you looking for an easy way to tell if it’s a leap year?  They tend to coincide with Presidential elections.  But you have to be a bit careful:  even though 2000 was a leap year (being divisible by 400), 2100 won’t be.  If you’re lucky enough to be alive in 2100, you’ll have to keep that in mind.

Folk traditions around leap year

According to Wikipedia, “In Ireland and Britain, it is a tradition that women may propose marriage only in leap years....  Supposedly, a 1288 law by Queen Margaret of Scotland (then age five and living in Norway), required that fines be levied if a marriage proposal was refused by the man; compensation was deemed to be a pair of leather gloves, a single rose, £1 and a kiss.”

There’s just so much to react to here!  First of all, it puts me at ease about the upcoming American Presidential election.  Scotland is in pretty decent shape, as far as I can tell, despite having once been ruled by a five-year-old who wasn’t shy about pushing through sweeping legislation.  So, whoever wins our next election, how badly could he or she really screw things up?

Personally, I’d like to bring back this leap year marriage proposal law.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that men are the only ones allowed to propose marriage in this day and age.  Yes, the prevailing tradition is still for the man to pop the question and present the ring, but he wouldn’t do so without some kind of tacit advance consent, unless he’s a fool.  In other words, the thinking man won’t propose to his sweetheart unless he’s quite sure she’ll say yes.  In this way, the woman is actually holding the cards.  (Of course you could mix & match the pronouns around all you want here.)

The part of that law I like, though, is the compensation the man must provide when turning down a proposal.  To bring back that law would create jobs, or at least create income for a daring woman.  She could find some schmuck who doesn’t seem her type, then do everything in her power to alienate him, and then propose, just so she could collect her gloves, flower, money, and kiss.  Sure, £1 isn’t much money today, but adjusting for the inflation since 1288, it would be a considerable sum.

You may be wondering:  is courtship the aspect of leap year that introduces the term “bissextile”?  Well, I hate to break it to you, but this term isn’t nearly as racy as you’d think.  “Bissextile year” is just another term for leap year.

Is “Leap Year” a good movie?

I’ll be honest with you, I never much cared for doing research, but this blog sometimes demands it.  When that happens, I’ll always prefer a popular video over some thick book.  Thus, I was pleased to see that the third Google hit on “leap year” was a movie by the same name.  Better yet, “Leap Year” stars Amy Adams, whom I enjoyed watching in “Junebug,” “American Hustle,” and “Big Eyes.” 

Alas, my hopes fell when I went to IMDb and saw the Metascore for “Leap Year” ... 33 out of 100, one of the lowest scores I’ve ever seen.  (Consider that “Star Wars:  Episode I – The Phantom Menace” got a 51.)  I scanned the highlights from various critics:  “A by-the-numbers romantic comedy as predictable as it is cloying,” “Virtually every word and plot turn is insincere, manufactured, unfelt and dishonest,” “Mostly awful,” “It’s unclear what Amy Adams did to deserve Leap Year,” “Using Love to Shed Pounds and Boost Confidence in School,” “A retread of just about every rom-com cliché ever turned,” and—wait!  What was that bit about using love to shed pounds?  Oh, an ad crept in there.  Geez.

Looking for any shred of silver lining, I consulted the IMDb Parents Guide:  “No sex scenes. A woman is briefly seen in her underwear.  There is a short fight scene, but it is not very frightening, and could even be considered comical.”  I think when the viewer can’t tell for sure if a movie scene was meant to be funny, that movie is automatically in trouble.

What does leap year mean to me?

At first glance, it would seem that as long as we avoid the movie “Leap Year,” we won’t be materially affected by there being 366 days in 2016.  That said, the following leap year, 2020, is going to cause me some heartbreak.  You see, I have this great wall calendar commemorating the 50th anniversary of my dearly departed favorite restaurant of all time, and though it’s a 2009 calendar, all the days of the week are the same between 2009 and 2015.  Thus, I got to enjoy the use of it all year long (it’s hanging out in the garage).  I was hoping to use it again six years from now, but leap year gets in the way.

How does leap year interfere?  Well, here’s the thing.  Normally, the day of the week on which January 1 falls will change by one day each year.  The year 2013 started on a Tuesday, 2014 started on a Wednesday, 2015 started on a Thursday, 2016 will start on a Friday, etc.  The term “leap year” derives from the fact that a day of the week is “leapt over” during a leap year.  That is, instead of 2017 starting on a Saturday, it will leap over Saturday and start on Sunday (owing to the extra day in February).

If it weren’t for leap year, we could reuse our wall calendars every seven years, meaning I could re-hang my La Fiesta calendar in 2022.  Leap years make it more complicated.  Because 2012 was a leap year, and skipped over a weekday, I got to use my 2009 calendar again this year (2015 instead of 2016)—so I saved a year.  Does that mean I’ll get to use it again in another six years?  Well, 2016 being a leap year will speed things along, like 2012 did.  But 2020 is also a leap year, so 2021 will leap over Thursday and land on Friday.  That means I won’t get to use this calendar again until 2026!

Not only will this require me to be more organized, but for a whole decade I’ll have to keep that calendar from being “disappeared” by my wife.  This will be a bit like secreting a war refugee in my attic, because my wife is the polar opposite of a hoarder.  For example, if my younger daughter stops playing with a stuffed animal or toy for any period of time, it goes to this purgatory area in the closet for a few weeks before being given to the Goodwill.  Whenever I’m at home I have to be careful to keep moving, lest my wife drag me out to the curb with the garbage and recycling.

What is a leap second?

My family, I’m proud to say, is a bunch of nerds.  Tonight, for example, my brother Bryan will entertain guests at a New Year’s gathering by giving a short lecture, including a demo, on the slide rule.  Similarly, on Christmas Eve, my wife gathered the kids and me in the living room to hear her read aloud from a speech titled “Pericles, in a Deathless Funeral Oration, Sums Up the Glory That Was Athens,” written in 430 B.C.  (I found the speech enjoyable, even the part where my kids burst out laughing because I was snoring.  Later in the speech I got confused about whether I’d heard the word “turban” or “turbine,” and apparently I talked in my sleep because this got another big laugh.  Neither word actually appears in the speech; I’d dreamt it.)

Furthering my family’s nerd cred is the exchange of e-mails we’ve had about leap years. I sent out the handy mnemonic that started this blog post, and my older daughter offhandedly asked, in reference to the rounding error that makes leap year necessary, “Yikes... couldn’t they just fix the rounding error in the first place?”  This question may have been rhetorical, but my dad provided a very thorough answer, explaining that it isn’t exactly right to say we make a rounding error by calling a year 365.25 days when it’s actually 365.24.  The truth is more complicated than that:  
“The mnemonic has 97 leap days per 400 years, so instead of a simple 365.25 days per year (which it would be if there were 100 every 400) the current calendar gives 365 97/400 or 365.2425.  The actual number of days per one year, from measurements, is a bit different, and wanders a little from year to year, unpredictably [due to tides slowing down the earth’s rotation, and the cycle of water freezing and thawing, which brings about changes related to conservation of angular momentum].  So to keep our civil clocks in match with the much more regular rhythm of the standard atomic clocks, ‘they’ add a leap second sometimes.  This has been necessary 26 times since 1972, the most recent being at time 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 60 seconds on June 30 of this year.  That minute had 61 seconds!”

My niece chimed in, recalling how excited her dad (i.e., my brother Bryan), had gotten about the last leap second.  She asked the other e-mail recipients, “I’m curious, ‘mathletes,’ how you’d calculate when to add the next leap second.”  This, too, elicited a very detailed and math-infused answer from her grandpa, which began, “Interestingly, it is not just a question of math, but one of exacting observational astronomy.  Oh, there is some math involved, but it is quite straightforward.  And there is a decision to make:  what is a ‘socially acceptable’ time to insert (or delete?) the second.  Midnight on June 30 is the very middle of the calendar year, a seemingly reasonable time to adjust the clocks.”

The explanation went on from here and involved meridian transit telescopes, measurements taken at a very  specific time of day, the effect of the Earth’s rotational precession (i.e., of the fact that it wobbles) on when equinoxes occur, and a bunch of other stuff I don’t really understand.  I wasn’t about to tackle the math involved, but was intrigued by the “socially acceptable” aspect of the leap second, and the friction that inevitably results when scientists present their findings to those who turn them into public policy.

Reading up on the leap second on Wikipedia, I discovered (not surprisingly) that politics does influence the leap second’s implementation (more on that in a minute).  I also discovered some other interesting tidbits, such as this:  “Muslim scholars, including al-Biruni in 1000, subdivided the mean solar day into 24 equinoctial hours, each of which was subdivided sexagesimally, that is into the units of minute, second, third, fourth and fifth, creating the modern second as 1⁄60 of 1⁄60 of 1⁄24 = 1⁄86400 of the mean solar day in the process.”  

I’m guessing that if Donald Trump were to become President, some cabinet member who happened to read up on leap seconds could approach him with the fact that it was Muslim scholars who defined the method by which we subdivide our days, and drop the name “al-Biruni” a bunch of times, and Trump would immediately want to take the USA off of the 24-hour, 60-minute, 60-second standard.  (Never mind that the sexagesimal system originated with the Sumerians and Babylonians.) 

Why would anybody want to open this can of worms?  Well, if we were to adopt a decimal basis for measuring time (as feasible an alternative to the current scheme as any, and probably easy to sell to The Donald), this might be a nifty back-door into finally getting the US into the metric system, albeit a modified version that uses base-10 for everything, including time.

I was also interested to read, on the Wikipedia leap second page, about problems that the leap second has caused with computer systems, due to its six-month notification not being enough time for developers to prepare:  “A number of organizations reported problems caused by flawed software following the June 30, 2012 leap second....  Despite the publicity given to the 2015 leap second, Internet network failures occurred due to the vulnerability of at least one class of router.  Also, interruptions of around 40 minutes duration occurred with Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Netflix, Amazon, and Apple’s music streaming series Beats 1.” 

That list reads like a “who’s who” of needless time-wasting Internet social media and passive entertainment platforms, doesn’t it?  I think that instead of abolishing the leap second, or getting developers to step up their game in preparing, we should create a national holiday around the post-leap-second outage, where for forty minutes after each leap second, people engage in offline, timeless activities like face-to-face socializing, reading books, and maybe venturing outdoors.  (Presumably this interruption will begin at 23:59:60 UTC, which would be 15:59:60 Pacific, a perfect time for a stroll.)

I was similarly intrigued to learn that Google, never one to be pushed around by governing bodies or consortiums like the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, has their own scheme for handling the leap second:  “Instead of inserting a leap second at the end of the day, Google servers implement a leap smear, extending seconds slightly over a time window prior to the leap second.”  I’m not sure exactly what to make of this workaround, other than to note that “leap smear” would be a good name for a rock band.

And on that note, I wish you a happy, healthy, and rockin’ 2016!
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Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Cure for Holiday Consumerist Bloat


Do you ever feel glutted around The Holidays?   Not just by food, but by stuff?  I always do, whether I receive many gifts or not.  The sheer spectacle of all that commerce gets to me, and I know I’m part of the problem.  I try not to spoil my kids … I really do.  So does my wife.  And yet somehow, every year, the consumer habit runs away with us and we overdo it.

This year, I enjoyed a strong sense of catharsis, which came from a rather surprising source.  What was this source?  Here’s a hint.

The reluctant consumer

I hate Christmas shopping mainly because I hate shopping.  I guess it’s how I was raised.  My brothers and I never knew the value of the dollar—in the sense that we greatly overvalued it.  You know that famous L’Oréal slogan, “Because I’m Worth It”?  It would be a slight exaggeration to say my family’s version was “Because I’m Not Worth It.”  Our version (had it been verbalized) was more like “Because It’s Not Worth It.”  The “It’s” in this context meant “whatever you were considering buying.”  Nothing, it seemed, was worth its price. 

Buying gifts is, to me, the worst form of shopping because chances are you’re going to guess wrong and buy somebody something he doesn’t even want.  When I open a gift, I’m practically wincing because I can’t stand such misfires. As a kid I once bought my dad a mirror for his bike.  He tried to seem pleased with it but clearly wasn’t.  A few years later, when I was a racer, a guy on my team got a sheepskin saddle cover from his grandma, and would have to remember to put it on his bike whenever she came to visit.  And then there’s the colleague who shows up at work with his new canary yellow fleece vest, which he wears exactly one time (as a gesture toward his wife), before it disappears forever.  The whole process is so inefficient.

But that’s not even the worst part.  I can totally handle buying birthday presents for people, because then I have time to think.  In the weeks before Christmas, especially with the economy back on track, everybody is out there shopping together, clogging up the system.  My wife and I got stuck in a mall in Fremont this year (long, boring story) and when—due to gradual suffocation amidst the rest of the human cattle—we decided to bail, we were horrified to realize we couldn’t find the exit.  Honestly, I’ve had a better time getting a cavity filled.  (And don’t even get me started on the holiday-themed music.)

The next day I headed out to a local mall for stocking stuffers.  I pulled in to the parking lot and it was pure gridlock in there.  Nobody could even move, and they were just sitting in their cars, waiting for somebody to leave—but the way the cars were lined up, it seemed you could be waiting hours.  I drove out of there, parked a few blocks away, and walked.  After I got home, realized I’d been overcharged almost $20, and started to drive back.  The street traffic was completely jammed and I realized I was too angry to drive.  I drove home, got my bike, and rode there instead.  Even though the rain was coming down in sheets, I was much less miserable.

What about e-commerce?  Yeah, I did a lot of that, too.  I used to hoard boxes all year so I’d have them to wrap gifts in at Christmas time.  Now, I get so much crap mail-order, my tiny garage is overflowing with cardboard.  I feel like a cog in this runaway retail machine, or like human grist for the retail mill.  Disgusting.

A few non-solutions

Would it help if I paused for a moment and reflected on what Christmas is really all about?  No, because when I look around me, I don’t see a lot of people praying and going to mass—I see a lot of people shopping.  Practically speaking, giving and getting is what Christmas is about.  This is mainly true in the modern era, but don’t forget about the Magi who gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  As a present, gold is alive and well (in its modern configuration, the gift card), but you have to wonder how well the second two gifts were received.  (This was before gift receipts, after all.)

On a bike ride this morning I passed a church with one of those little marquees, which read, “THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE AREN’T THINGS.”  As platitudes go, this falls a bit flat.  (I don’t like it as much as “He who dies with the most toys STILL DIES.”)  And though the sentiment is probably true, it’s not really that useful.  Am I supposed to tell my kids, “Instead of exchanging gifts this year, we’re all just going to hug a bit more”?  Yeah, right.  Should I tell them their Christmas wish lists have to include at least three items that aren’t physical objects?  (They’d dodge by asking for “shopping spree” or “trip to Hawaii.”)

Life experiences are a nice counterbalance to egregious buying.  What about a lovely, sunny day, or a beautiful sunset?  I enjoyed both on Christmas day, when I went for a long, slow ride in the Berkeley hills.  Check it out:

But those still l didn’t reverse the self-disgust I felt after all that commerce.  After all, between the shopping trips, the trip to Office Depot to buy more packing tape, the parking lot incident, all the time I spent wrapping gifts, and two afternoons of braving the long line at the post office, I figure I missed out on at least three or four rides, and as many sunsets.  This one ride wasn’t a Christmas gift so much as the end of my precious time being stolen.

The catharsis

My catharsis came in the form of some Me Time, which I spend building a Me Thing:  specifically, a replacement for my dearly departed commuter bike, Full Slab.  Its frame broke last summer after five years of loyal service (and a few years as my road bike before that).  For the last five months I’ve been commuting on the Arseless, which is very cool old English 3-speed which I do love, but which I hate to ride:  not because I’m keeping it nice or something, but because it rides like crap.  It’s heavy, the bearings are pretty much shot, and it routinely slips out of second gear (not for lack of adjustment but because an internal part has rounded-off bits that are supposed to be sharp).  On top of that, the fenders rattle so loudly I can’t hear myself think.  Could I try to fix these things?  Yeah, but painful experience tells me that when a bike is fifty years old and has never been properly maintained, it’s best not to go anywhere near it with a wrench.

Why not just buy myself a nice commuting bike for Christmas?  In general I consider that a fine idea, and something I’d recommend to anybody with an income.  A good bicycle is about as virtuous a purchase as I can think of.  But as a really bike-y person with a bicycle shop background, I’m way beyond traditional retail.  Buying something stock would be polluting my pure bike experience by blending it with that same consumerist spirit I’ve been deriding throughout this essay.

You see, part of what kills me about being stuck in traffic, or in a parking lot, or at the mall, is the anonymity of the experience:  the sense of being swept up in some mob, immersed in a mindless group activity.  Within that shopping mall is a finite variety of things to buy, with a seemingly infinite number of people buying them, and each item carefully calibrated to appeal to the highest number of consumers.  (The king of that effort must be Apple, who sold 75.5 million iPhone 6 units in one quarter.)  I’m a bit disturbed by the fact that many people actually care what the most popular gifts are, and will purposefully seek them out.  American consumers start to seem so much alike, I start to forget which one of us I am.

So for me, to imagine buying a new bike at the Christmas sale is to imagine hundreds and hundreds of these bikes being churned out on an assembly line.  This train of thought brings me to “Pink Floyd The Wall” and those school kids going down the conveyor belt to the meat grinder.  I don’t want something marketed to the buying public; what I want is a bike that is not only fast and light and cheap, but unusual and cool.

Think of the new car Max gets in Mad Max.  Remember the scene in which his cop buddies are unveiling the car to him, singing its praises, to lure him back to the force?
      “You can shut the gate on this one.”  “It's the duck's guts.”  “Yeah, she's the last of the V8s.”  “Sucks nitro.”  “Phase 4 heads.”  “Twin overhead cam.”  “Tell him about the blower.  The blower, man!”  “She's meanness put to music and the bitch is born to run!”
      “How the hell did you get all this together?”
      “It just happened, Max, you know?  A piece from here and a piece from there.”
      “So easy?”
Except it’s not easy, not with my bike at least.  I procured the frame months ago (online, Chinese, about $120 which—given the biking circles I run in—is practically nothing).  The problem was, this frame wasn’t compatible with most of the components from Full Slab, so instead of a bike I had a Project.  And I just didn’t have the time or energy to fight with the thing.  Months ago, I got as far as sanding off the thick powder coat paint that, due to a programming error, some robot neglected to mask during the frame’s construction:

Finally, this week, with some time off from my job, I managed to log some serious hours out in the garage, figuring out what old parts to use (“a piece from here and a piece from there”), fighting with the wacky French steerer tube springy thingy, looking for half an hour for a cable housing ferrule I dropped on the floor (costs maybe 25 cents, but of course the bike shop’s closed for the holiday), and basically making glacial progress—until, amazingly, the whole menagerie of donor organs suddenly turned into a real bicycle, with a smooth clean look that largely belies its Frankenbike heritage:

It’s kind of the bicycle equivalent of decorator crab:  you just use what’s available, and in the process achieve total uniqueness.  The fork on this bike is from a friend who traded it for a lunch—he refused to take money for it because it flexed like crazy and gave him the willies.  (It was on my rain bike for a while before something better came along).  The bars and stem came with my older daughter’s mountain bike (it was the spare set I got when I bought the bike used from a friend).  The crankset and bottom bracket are hand-me-downs from my backup road bike (which got an upgrade due to compatibility issues with my current race frame).  The seat post is from an old (dearly departed) Orbea.  The saddle is one that I got ages ago from a friend to put on my younger daughter’s mountain bike; I reclaimed the saddle before passing the bike along to my niece.  The rear derailleur—freakin’ Dura-Ace, baby!—is from like six road bikes ago.  The brakes are from my older daughter’s new road bike (off-brand Tektro, which work fine but which on principle I had to replace right off the bat).  The shifters, bottle cage, and freewheel seem to have been spontaneously generated by The Box.  (“I can't remember where I got 'em, but I got 'em, know what I mean?”)

There’s a long tradition of recycling your old junk to make a cool, weird, serviceable bike out of it.  I believe this is the basis for the fixie culture that has become so popular.  That’s part of the joy of bikes:  they’re easy to work on (compared to a car, anyway) so almost anybody can cobble something together.  On his latest album, Eminem raps about doing this as a kid:  “I bike ride through the neighborhood of my apartment complex on a ten speed which I've acquired parts that I find in the garbage, a frame, then put tires on it.”

Of course it was only a matter of time before the bike industry rose up to capitalize on the fixie thing, offering brand new stock fixies (like these or these) which—don’t get me wrong—have a right to exist, but don’t satisfy my yearning for a bike that’s cool, weird, and cheap—like the one I just built. 

Yeah, my bike has got gears.  I’m not into fixies, because I like cogs and shifters and derailleurs, and I like being able to go up hills, and I like the basic process of shifting.  A single-speed drivetrain would give me about as much enjoyment as my car’s automatic transmission—that is, no enjoyment at all.

Check out the finishing touch:  a head badge a friend made me like ten years ago, when my kids still looked like this.  I’ve been storing this badge all this time, just waiting for a worthy bike to put it on.

To sum up, this bike is what’s given me great relief and satisfaction after the predictable, perennial, and bankable excess of The Holidays.  All that quality time in the garage, messing about with tools, solving little problems, sighing with pleasure when stumbling on cool stuff that had lain dormant in The Box for like two decades, and ending up with the flyest, dopest commuter I’ve ever had … it all gives me such a gratifying feeling of redemption.  Despite having added to my possessions, I feel I’ve thrown off the shameful mantle of passive consumer and—in this instance, anyway—become more of a designer or creator.  Ah, the goodness of bikes!
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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Beck’sting: Frexting for Men?

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


Dang it!  Tonight is the only night I have free to write, but half my research cannot be done.  There’s something wrong with the Google.  I think their server is down.  So I’ll have to go mainly from memory when I talk about Beck’sting.

What?  You haven’t heard of Beck’sting?  Well, I’m a little hazy on its origin, but have tons of first-hand knowledge myself.  That’s right … I’ve been Beck’sting for years and didn’t even know it was a thing.

What is Beck’sting?

Beck’sting is an empowering way for men to allow their appreciation of fine beer to manifest in a way that will never come back to haunt you.  When you Beck’st a friend, his response is always positive and always confidence-boosting.  It presents you with a really non-dangerous platform to intercept or allocate affirmation and the visual essence of thirst-quenching, pure drinking satisfaction.

Okay, I cheated a little bit there.  I was trying to be expansive and touchy-feely so I could capture some of the excitement and zeitgeist-y-ness of a bunch of articles I read online about frexting.  But unlike girls sending sexy pictures of themselves to their girlfriends, Beck’sting just isn’t all that titillating, probably because it’s a guy thing.  So I borrowed some verbiage.  (You didn’t think “intercept or allocate affirmation” was mine, did you?) 

Beck’s is not one of my favorite beers, and thus not the subject of many of my Beck’sts; fortunately for me, the term applies generically to texting photos of any beer.  I’m hazy on the origin of this term, but one theory holds that Beck’s, the American beer that used to be German, “anonymously” coined the term as an Internet “guerilla marketing” thing.  The more common explanation is that the obvious term, “brexting” (brew + texting) was already taken (it means breast feeding + texting.)

By the way, when I first came across the word “frexting” I had no idea what it meant, and automatically thought to ask my teenage daughter, who is like a walking encyclopedia.  But as the question left my lips I realized with horror what it might mean, and hoped to God she’d never heard of it.  She hadn’t, so I immediately engaged her in a conversation about bird species or science or something so she’d be unable to commit the word to memory to look up later.  (I’m sure I failed but I’m not about to bring this up with her again to find out.)

My first Beck’st

Looking at photo metadata, I can say my first known Beck’st was all the way back in 2010 .  (It’s not like I’ve carefully filed these over the years, as I didn’t expect Beck’sting to become a worldwide phenomenon.)  One caveat:  I seldom text and actually sent the photo via e-mail, but with smartphones the difference between texting and e-mailing is largely semantic. Here’s that (possible) first Beck’st:

I sent it to my friend “Chuck” (I’m using a code name here because I don’t know how public he might want to be about his Beck’sting).  I hoped that he would appreciate my Beck’st’s artistic merit and construe it for what it is:  a fun and empowering way for men to strengthen their bonds while conveying the exciting idea that those who appreciate quality enjoy it responsibly.

I was of course taking a risk.  Frexting, I’ve read, is always consensual and girlfriends “care too much to ignore each other’s hot bods” and “will respond all, ‘GIRL, YOU ARE ::fire emojis::!’”  On the other hand, the frexting literature warns against traditional sexting because of the “critical male gaze” and the danger that “a boyfriend you send it to will do something vindictive with it later.”

How much damage could you do with a Beck’st?  I didn’t want to find out the hard way, but fortunately Chuck was very affirming.  When he wrote back, “Mmmmmmmmm,” I felt that the exchange had brought us closer together.  And not long after, he Beck’sted me back!

A word on –exting and the sexes

Is it really fair to say that only men Beck’st?  Well, I don’t really know because I haven’t known that many women.  But I think it’s fair to say that a woman is less likely to chug down some glorious IPA, pause for a pregnant moment (maybe with a subtle gesture that says “wait for it!”) and then belch, deep and loud and proud, and announce, “Wow, that felt great!”  I think women are less flamboyant about their enjoyment of beer, and thus less likely to Beck’st.

Meanwhile, nobody needs to bother making the case that frexting is a women-only thing.  Some websites—and it’s always women’s sites that have stories about frexting, and they all quote one another like they’re wound up in some tight journalistic braid—suggest that the reason men don’t frext is that they’re homophobic.  But these same sites are adamant that frexting isn’t sexual.  So if it’s not sexual, why are non-frexting men (i.e., men) homophobic?

There’s actually a very simple reason men don’t frext:  we just aren’t interested in our own looks or our friends’ looks. In fact, we’re not interested in any man’s looks.  Case in point:  my wife doesn’t like Daniel Craig as James Bond because, she complains, he’s not attractive enough.  Do I care?  Hell no.  He’s a great Bond because he’s a badass.  I don’t care what he looks like as long as he beats somebody down in a stairwell and drives an Aston Martin DBS really fast.

I’m not judging either sex; I’m just acknowledging what I think is a basic truth about humans:  the females got the looks.  It’s pretty common, throughout the animal kingdom, for one sex to be more flamboyantly good-looking than the other.  Consider the peacock:

You ever see a female peacock fan out her dirt-colored feathers?  Of course not.  I mean, why would she?  Same with men.  Why primp and preen?  We have nothing to work with! We’re not the fair sex!  We’re just crudely made lumps who grunt and scratch a lot, and I for one am glad I don’t have to try to be attracted to us.

And you can call me sexist, but I’m just going to say it:  it’s totally fine, and normal, for a woman to be vain, but vanity in a male I find deeply distasteful.  When I watch my wife (and lately—gasp—my teenage daughter) carefully applying makeup in front of the mirror, I’m as fine with it as when I watch my cat washing herself.  But a guy fussing in front of the mirror is as bizarre and wrong to me as if I saw a dog washing himself.  I spend as little time in front of the mirror as possible, because I’ve been looking at this same face for 46 years and I’m tired of it.  So I use the mirror only for shaving and occasionally making a bare-bones, half-assed effort to style what’s left of my hair.  So why should I expect a friend of mine to want to see a photo of this mug?  (And don’t even get me started on  my stick-thin body.  I’m fine with it, and it does a decent job for me on the bike, but nobody needs to look at it.)

Women might frext to get a friend’s honest opinion about this or that cute or sexy outfit, but in my experience, guys are pretty blasé about what they wear.  And if they see a friend getting too caught up in matters of fashion they’ll probably hassle him, as well they should.  Here’s an example.  In the mid-‘80s, when the original Oakley Factory Pilot sunglasses came out, I thought they were a bit much.

The Oakley Blades weren’t quite as gaudy, but they were also a lot of money, and I made the mistake of asking Chuck, “What do you think of the Oakley Blades?”  He parroted this back to me endlessly, all summer, openly mocking my self-consciousness.  Thirty years later I still remember all his flak, and even though he was right to mock me, it’s really reassuring when I send him a Beck’st and he texts back affirming my choice of beer, or when out of the blue he suddenly Beck’sts me, “just because.”

Okay, I was bullshitting you about the “reassuring” and “affirming” bit, just now and throughout this essay.  I just can’t resist trying to adopt (well, mock) that of-the-moment, “this is how we live” tenor of the women’s magazines as they go on and on about female-empowerment-thru-lingerie-selfies.  But Beck’sting is not about us men—it’s just about beer.  Being a guy, I can pee standing up, I make more money for the same work, and I get to wear comfortable shoes without anybody calling them “sensible” … I don’t need empowerment.  And this toxic “male gaze” the frexters keep talking about?  It’s not pointed at me!  One journo-frext-alist writes, “[The frexter] counters the male gaze by saying ‘I THINK I LOOK GOOD, AND I DON’T GIVE A SHIT IF YOU THINK I’M A NARCISSIST.’”

I don’t think the male gaze itself ever accuses women of narcissism.  In fact, the male gaze doesn’t accuse anybody of anything.  That’s like saying the male’s taste buds accuse a sandwich of not being tasty enough, or of being narcissistic. And how can we find these frexts narcissistic when they’re not even sent to us?

As for narcissism, I think men and women alike should avoid it like the plague.  Vanity is the fear that you don’t look good enough, so there’s at least humility in it.  Narcissism is self-delusion.  Nobody is that hot, except Narcissus, and look what happened to him.  (If you’re rusty on your Greek mythology, this is the guy who saw his own reflection in a pool and fell in love with himself, forgot to eat, and starved to death.)

Speaking of food, here are some pasta-themed Beck’sts:

The point of the first photo was for scale, to show Chuck the width of my hand-cut pappardelle.  The second one was Chuck stoking my envy:  that’s Café Gondolier pasta (which I don’t get any more since I moved away from Boulder), paired with a Dogfish Head 90-Minute IPA, one of my absolute favorite beers, which I almost can’t bear to shell out for—it’s like $12 for a 4-pack.  Chuck knows I’m cheap.

Why Beck’st at all?

Okay, so if Beck’sting isn’t self-affirming or empowering, and doesn’t bring friends closer together, why do it?

Whoa, hold on there.  I never said you should!  You must be confusing this essay with articles like “8 Reasons Why Frexting Is the Thing You and Your Friends Should Already Be Doing.”  I don’t believe that just because a trend has been identified and labeled, it should pushed on people.  Of course, some people don’t need to be pushed, because they live in fear of missing out on what everybody else is doing.  Consider the journalist who wrote, “Not having sent a frext myself, I decided it was time to see what all the buzz was about. Of all my female friends, I decided my friend Amelia would be the ideal choice.”  (How is this “automatically consensual”?  How does she know Amelia won’t be totally weirded out?  Whether she realizes it or not, this journalist is adopting the Senator Packwood ethos of “How can you know until you try?”)

That said, I do find Beck’sting fun, for a variety of reasons.  First, there’s the sheer artistry involved.  A glass of beer can look really good, based on the composition of the photo and/or the backdrop.  Check these out:

(Regarding that last photo:  no, of course I don’t smoke, and I’m not looking to learn how to roll my own cigarettes.  But I do love the original artwork on that jar of loose tobacco.  And that golden Belgian ale was as tasty as it looks.)

It’s also pretty cool, I’ll admit, how smartphones can shrink the space between us all.  When your friends are far away, it’s nice to realize they’re not completely gone.  Think of the Tom Waits song “Shoreleave,” where the Navy guy over in Hong Kong writes, in a letter home, “And I wondered how the same moon outside over this Chinatown fair could look down on Illinois and find you there.”  This same world-shrinking simultaneity sometimes involves beer, as when I Beck’sted Chuck from a little coffee shop where I was getting some writing done.

Moments after I sent this, Chuck Beck’sted back with the following photo and the message, “Dude, we’re drinking together!”

Beer can fuel nostalgia, too.  There’s a seasonal Boulder beer called Upslope that’s only available for about a month a year.  Chuck socked away a six-pack of it four months in advance of an epic mountain ride we did last year, so we could enjoy it after the ride.  His will power flagged during those months and we only got to share three of them, but that’s probably for the best.  (I meant that bit about how those who appreciate quality enjoy it responsibly.)  Eight months later he sent me the following Beck’st with the comment, “Remember this stuff?  Good freeking times!”

And then there’s the very practical matter of how to remember that great beer your pal recommended to you.  Lost in the aisles of BoozeMo, you can just pull out your phone.  Here are a few beers that Chuck either turned me on to, or that I’m still intending to try:

And here’s a seasonal ale I Beck’sted Chuck about a couple years ago.  It’s back in the stores now (though with a less groovy label; that barn owl drawing, according to a friend of mine in Bend, was modeled on a real owl that hung out around downtown Bend like a community mascot).  I think I’ll have to pick up a sixer of Jubelale and send Chuck a reminder Beck’st!

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Sunday, December 6, 2015

From the Archives - The Great TA Smackdown


When somebody disses me, I usually retaliate. I’m not talking about revenge, which attempts to fix one wrong with another, but about pursuing justice in a responsible, productive fashion. I had a highly satisfactory come-to-Jesus with a dickwad grad student Teaching Assistant back in ‘92. Back then, we didn’t have surveillance cameras everywhere, or bystanders with smartphones capturing video of every single human activity, so there’s no footage of the heated meeting this TA and I had in his office—which is a shame. This guy was totally outgunned. It was like he brought a toothpick to a knife fight, and I had a chainsaw. What I mean is, I came prepared.

The gist of my grievance was that I’d put extra work into my paper, which he quite literally ignored. See, in addition to analyzing Ernest Hemingway’s literary technique of “omission,” I wrote a short story of my own showcasing the technique. The TA couldn’t be bothered to read the story, and even though the analytical part of my paper stood on its own (focusing on Hemingway’s work, not on my story), the TA seemed to want to punish me for my originality by judging my paper very harshly. (You can read the story itself here, along with a brief explanation of the “omission” literary technique.)

So, how did I prepare for this confrontation? I imagined what I would write to this arrogant bastard if I were denied the chance to meet with him. This worked out very well; knowing he’d never see this written testimony meant I could blow off a little steam in the process. By the time I finished writing out my talking points, I’d dealt so harshly with this guy I almost felt sorry for him. I knew, going in to the meeting, that he’d be caught completely off guard, being a lazy and hapless little douchebag with an oddly underdeveloped intellect, and I wasn’t wrong. Boy I wish you could have seen me walk him through his sad menagerie of lameness. Perhaps reading this essay will help you imagine the stricken look on his face. (No, I didn’t terrorize him or anything ... I was just very, very firm. Perhaps I cut a more menacing figure than I would today; after all, I was a young college kid, full of the bluster and bravado of that species, and my pugnacious attitude hadn’t yet been sanded smooth by experience, perspective, and a fully formed prefrontal cortex.)

(Note: this wasn’t actually a TA per se, but a reader. The difference is that a reader only grades papers and isn’t burdened with providing any instruction sessions.)

March 31, 1992: To the TA who gave me a B-minus

In analyzing your text, which might as well be called “Notes to a lowly undergraduate on his paper,” I will spoon‑feed you in the typical college “thesis statement” style you evidently prefer. My thesis is: YOU SUCK. I will support this assertion by citing directly from your text.

You start by saying, “I appreciate weariness at having to write another critical paper . . .” (p. 1). This statement demonstrates that you have only skimmed over my paper. A closer reader would have noticed that I’d written, “I’m as weary of writing standard papers as I expect you are of reading them” (analysis, p. 9). I was trying to spare us both, and your statement of appreciation is obviously disingenuous.

The second part of your first sentence reads, “you should have consulted with a reader before deviating so far from that standard” (p. 1). The automatic question is, “What standard?” There is no antecedent to your use of “that.” Is there some standard you assume we are both operating from? In an attempt to discern what “standard” you are requiring of me, I have reread the three-page description of the assignment from the professor, and refer you to the following “Subject Matter Requirements and Suggestions”:
  • “You may write on a topic you invent” (handout, p. 1). This is exactly what I did.
  • “Your paper must have a thesis” (handout, p. 2). Mine does. I stated it on the first page of the analysis, and developed it in the first paragraph. You should have been able to find it because I preceded it immediately with, “despite my [two-part illustrative and analytical] approach, this paper has a thesis:” (note that my thesis statement directly followed the colon). I certainly didn’t deviate from this standard.
  • “Originality of thought is crucial to genuine learning” (handout, p. 2). Careful examination of my text (which, incidentally, includes actually reading it) will show that I embraced this requirement by writing a two‑part paper in order to offer true originality while also satisfying the other requirements.
Let us assume that these requirements and suggestions do not allow a two‑part paper: even in the second part of my paper alone, I did, in fact, “analyze the function of a particular stylistic device” (handout, p. 3) in complete adherence to the “Suggested Paper Topics.” That you feel I was “deviating so far from that standard” demonstrates your lack of understanding of even the second half of my project. In other words: YOU SUCK.

Next, you state, “Unfortunately, as we each have over 60 papers to read in a very short time, I was unable to read your story, so I must restrict my evaluation to your analysis of Hemingway” (p. 1). The ineffectiveness of this statement is remarkable. Consider: an undergraduate, busy with a college workload of his own, has committed far more time than required in order to make a more powerful paper, but his extra effort is completely ignored—and yet he is invited to feel sympathy for the one who has blown him off. The implicit suggestion here is that your time is worth more than mine. You are contemptuously implying here that I’m just a bored schmuck with too much time on his hands. This ties in neatly with my thesis: YOU SUCK.

In the next paragraph, you acknowledge that my examples are “representative” but conclude, “the analysis seems superficial” (p. 1). Look, it’s either superficial or it’s not—there’s no “seems.” Moreover, it’s actually your skimming of my analysis that’s superficial. You offer three “probing questions” which, you suggest, I should have addressed in my essay. Number one: “What is the point of forcing the reader into this sort of relationship with the omitted language?” (p. 1). I refer you to my opening paragraph: “Omission helps to develop characters realistically, to avoid sentimentality, and to draw the reader into the story” (analysis, p. 9). Had I not developed this assertion, you could have attacked me for that; instead, you wrongly state that I didn’t even ask the question.

The next “probing question” that you suggest I should have asked is, “Why does Hemingway omit certain kinds of information and not others?” (p. 1). I refer you again to the actual text of my analysis: “While commonly leaving out certain details, Hemingway’s technique of omission also requires adding certain other details to alert the reader that the character is evading his emotions” (analysis, p. 11). The examples I cite in explaining this earned two comments of “good” from you, written in the margin of my paper. How could you have appreciated my response to this “probing question” without noticing that I had addressed the question to begin with? Did you forget what you had read? Maybe under a little grad-student stress? Awwww.

The final “probing question” you claim I failed to ask is, “What are the limitations of omission?” (p. 1). Once again (and I am becoming annoyed at having to do this), I refer you to my text: “The reader can sense Jake’s feelings only because Hemingway has so thoroughly developed Jake as a character. One must consider the extent to which omission [in a short story] would need to be employed differently than in a novel . . . [given] the short story genre’s more limited development of its characters” (analysis, pp. 12‑13). Does this not address the question? Sure, maybe I could have gone on at greater length about this, but can you really claim I never even considered the question? Clearly, your assertion that I did not “ask more probing questions” is shortsighted; rather, you needed to probe my paper more deeply. Or, to put it more succinctly: YOU SUCK.

If you pause to think (just try it, for once!) you may realize that for any student to coincidentally pose, and address, the very “probing questions” you accuse him of failing to think of is a highly unlikely scenario. Could it be that you actually formulated these probing questions based on ideas you got from my paper itself? Might you actually be confusing your own intellectual output for mine? If you like my ideas enough to subconsciously attribute them to yourself, couldn’t you at least give me a better grade than a B-minus?

Amazingly, the final paragraph of your feedback is even worse than the first two. You state, “In short, your analysis, as it stands, could be condensed into a few paragraphs” (p. 1). I have tabulated the paragraphs of my analysis for you:

Introduction/thesis statement                             1 paragraph
Explanation of 2-fold project                             1 paragraph
Definition of “omission”                                    1 paragraph
Example from first Hemingway text                 1 paragraph
Examination of 1st “probing question”             3 paragraphs
Examination of 2nd “probing question”           1 paragraph
Examination of 3rd “probing question”            2 paragraphs
Example from second Hemingway text            1 paragraph
Evaluation of first half of paper                       1 paragraph
TOTAL                                                             12 paragraphs

Assuming that the two paragraphs devoted to tying the analysis into my story are totally worthless—a false assumption designed to cater to your laziness—we are still left with ten paragraphs. Both the Oxford and Webster’s dictionaries I have consulted define “few” as “not many but more than one.” Given your obvious impatience with quantities of written text, I’m sure you’ll agree that ten paragraphs qualifies as “many.”

Is it possible you’re accusing me of padding my paragraphs with useless text, such that most of my sentences could be removed without losing anything? That would be an absurd accusation indeed, considering that I bothered to write eight extra pages (i.e., the short story) in addition to the standard essay. Those who pad their paragraphs to meet the minimum page requirement don’t then blow past that minimum by eight pages. Moreover, my top ranking in the English major attests to the quality control—ergo, the concision—of my writing.

Your penultimate sentence reads, “From there you could have a started a truly interesting paper” (p. 1). The extraneous “a” in your sentence is not surprising, given your lack of scholastic precision. What is surprising is your brazen suggestion that I have not written an interesting paper. In light of the incredibly poor job you’ve done in evaluating my paper, your snobbery demonstrates my thesis beyond a shadow of a doubt: YOU SUCK.

One more thing. It wouldn’t be right to put forth a thesis of “YOU SUCK” without mounting a rude ad hominem attack. This comes very easily to me in your case; I can simply quote from my lecture notes of March 30:
Let’s have a look at R——, the TA who has incurred my wrath. Sitting up front, he wears a prim cotton pant-and-blouse getup, all black and without a trace of color save the chance lint that, even now, he brushes off vigorously. His hair has all the perfect arrangement of the molded plastic hairdo of Malibu Ken—but R——’s is real hair, artistically blown-dry and spiked, so it looks somewhat like a pruned hedge. His face and forehead are scrubbed shiny, so that he looks a bit like a doll. In short, his appearance suggests the obsessed grooming regimen of a true narcissist.
If you were to point out that an ad hominem attack shouldn’t be delivered in the third person, you’d actually be making sense, perhaps for the first time ever. This brings me to the last sentence of your critique: “Please consult me before your next paper” (p. 1). Acknowledging the limitations of the essay form, I will save my most vicious foul‑mouthed insults, along with a brutal, bare-knuckled beat-down, for your office hours tomorrow.

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