Monday, January 30, 2017

Ode on a Chain Lube

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


I needed a blog topic.  My younger daughter said, “Write a poem about your favorite chain lube.”  My daughter is pretty sophisticated in that she didn’t say “oil.”  So I decided to take her idea and run with it.  If you like poetry, and in particular sonnets, you may not care how quotidian my topic is.  Conversely, even if you don’t care for poetry, you may find useful advice here.  If you hate poetry and bikes, click here.

The Poem

Ode on a Chain Lube

Some guys, they let their bike chain just go dry;
It’s nothing they will ever think about.                                   2
The chain then starts to squeak its plaintive cry;
These guys, like deadbeat husbands, tune it out.

Wet lube will make your chain, when clean, look nice;
Like lingerie you give a trophy wife.                                       6
It shuts things up—short term it will suffice—
But gradually devours your drivetrain’s life.

The trouble is, grit sticks to oily chains.
Imagine eating pie that’s full of sand!                                   10
That’s why wax lube—though certainly a pain—
Is what a high-end bicycle demands.

 Because I’m good to my beloved bike                               
 White Lightning “Clean Ride” lube is what I like.            14

Footnotes & Commentary   

Title:  Ode on

I think “Ode on” sounds much more literary than “Ode to,” as it hearkens back to Keats with his famous “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  In researching this worthy literary source, I stumbled upon a poetic form Keats explored, ekphrasis, which involves a lavish verbal description of something concrete.  Intrigued, I delved further and discovered that the first example of ekphrasis in Keats, his poem “Ode To Psyche,” is based on the below sculpture, titled “Amor y Psyche.”

I find this sculpture alarming.  What the hell is wrong with Amor that, while making out with an attractive woman like Psyche, he is nevertheless completely flaccid?  And why does she tolerate this lack of enthusiasm?  It’s not like this guy is much of a catch to begin with; as the sculptor has plainly shown, Amor isn’t exactly Big Man on Campus.  I found this little research project so distracting, I decided I’d better abandon it, along with Keats, and just get on with my poem.

Line 1:  just go dry

Like Psyche, perhaps?

Line 3:  squeak its plaintive cry

If dry chains didn’t squeak, probably nobody would ever clean or lube them at all.  But they sure do squeak, and certain users of bikes (I cringe at calling them cyclists) actually do learn to ignore it.  I was biking with my older daughter’s high school mountain biking team recently, and one kid’s bone-dry chain was squeaking up a storm.  I seriously considered handling this in the way my teenaged biking buddies and I did back in the day:  by spraying his chain with water.  This actually shuts it up for like 15 or 20 minutes.  Then it squeaks even worse and you have to spray it again; by the end of the ride the chain is orange with rust.  In the event I decided not to do this; instead, I just increased the pace until the guy with the squeaking chain fell off the back and eventually out of earshot.

Line 5:  look nice

I will confess, when you get a chain super clean, and then give it a light coat of oil or some other slippery lube (such as Tri-Flow), it really does look great, catching the light like a precious stone.  (I suppose I should have worked this into the poem, though there’s only so much I can do.) 

Incidentally, speaking (albeit parenthetically) of Tri-Flow, here’s a bit of trivia:  when it first came out, it was called Tri-Flon, in reference to its containing Teflon.  Perhaps they were forced to change the name based on trademark violation, or maybe some big-wig just thought “Tri-Flow” sounded better.

Line 6:  lingerie you give a trophy wife

I’m not trying to be sexist here; just following up on the lame husband theme.  (Having worked at many bike shops, I can say that although most mechanics are male, females are also represented.)  The trophy wife notion is, I feel, a great way to convey the idea of non-sustainability.  Picture the recital of wedding vows of an old, bloated rich guy and his fresh, young, beautiful bride … at the words “as long as you both shall live” can’t you just hear people snickering?

Line 8:  devours

Are you thinking vagina dentata?  Good, good.

Line 9:  grit sticks to oily chains

This inescapable truth is almost universally ignored.  How often do you see a chain like one of these?

That first chain is dry and grit-encrusted from having been lubed wet and then neglected for a long time.  The second one looks to have been oiled more recently—i.e., it’s not been neglected per se—but look how much grit it’s picked up!  Disgusting.

So many people fall prey to the delusion that using a wet lube means they can skip servicing their bikes for 5, 6, 10, or 15 rides.  Yeah, wet lube lasts a long time, but the longer it’s on your chain the more damage it does.  Meanwhile, wet lube doesn’t just stick to your chain; it eventually coats all your cogs too, so stripping your chain isn’t enough.  You need to clean that gritty greasy crap from all your cogs too, and your chainrings.  Nobody has the patience to do this often enough.  And if anybody does, I pity him or her for all the time wasted cleaning off the grit that he or she attracted in the first place by putting oil on that chain.

What’s that?  You’re questioning whether a little grit ever hurt anything?  Stop for a second and think about what sandpaper is:  it’s grit, attached to paper!  Riding with a gritty chain is literally sanding away your drivetrain.  Cogs, chainrings, and chains would probably last longer with no lube at all than with a grit-trapping wet lube.

Line 10:  eating pie that’s full of sand

I’ve actually done this.  When my wife and I were living in San Francisco, pre-kids, we were out for a walk and, on a lark, stopped at a bakery and bought a slice of apple pie to go.  Descending a stone staircase, my wife spread her arms dramatically while announcing, “I need more pie in my life!”  Alas, she lost her grip on the pie, which went flying.  The Styrofoam clamshell busted open on the steps and the pie tumbled out.  I put it back in the clamshell and brought it home.  My wife refused to eat it, but I couldn’t stand to waste that pie.  The crunch of dirt and sand in my teeth was harrowing.  Perhaps this is why I’m so down on grit in my drivetrain.

Line 11:  though certainly a pain

Where wax lube is concerned,  you either swear by it or swear at it.  Some bike shops charge extra to service a drivetrain that’s been lubed with it.  The problem is, lots of bikers never strip off the old wax.  They just keep adding more, in adherence with the mythology that that’s all you need to do.  It’s not.  That stuff will build up until your derailleur pulleys look like an old bar of soap.  That said, at least wax buildup won’t shorten the life of your drivetrain.

To prevent this buildup, what you need to do is wet a rag with solvent (Coleman fuel is perfect) and drag it over the chain before adding the dry lube.  Periodically you should use a proper chain cleaning tool like this one and strip that chain completely.

The other problem with the wax lube is that you have to let it dry for several hours before riding your bike.  Lots of people aren’t organized enough for this.  Finally, this lube doesn’t last very long.  You have to apply it more often than a wet lube.

The plus side of a wax lube is that it doesn’t attract dirt or grit at all.  Check out this photo:  that’s my chain after a really muddy mountain bike ride.  (I hasten to point out that this was on a hard dirt trail that splashed up plenty of soupy mud but wasn’t that claylike mud that you make ruts in.  That is, I wasn’t causing erosion or otherwise hurting the trail.)  My jersey, shorts, helmet sunglasses, and face were totally mud-spattered, and look how much mud the front derailleur caught.  But look how (relatively) clean the chain is, especially compared to the earlier photos.

The chain is like the cleanest part of the bike!  That’s because as fast as grit is flung up at the chain, the wax flakes off and takes the grit with it.  Your cogs stay cleaner, too.

Not to beat you over the head with my analogy, but keeping your bike tuned up is a lot like being a good spouse.  Think about what you’re doing, stay on top of it, nip problems in the bud … very similar principles.  (Am I saying marriage is a pain?  No; just that it’s a lot of work, but also a pleasure when things run smoothly.)

It is true that a freshly tuned-up bike with a wax-lubed chain isn’t quite as pretty as one with a lightly oiled chain.  The dry wax lube has a dull, filmy look.  But you know what?  Life will go on.  And you won’t get black grease everywhere, like the rookie mark on your leg or chain prints on your car’s upholstery.  And your hands won’t get all black every time you tune up your bike.

Line 12:  high-end bicycle

What?  Only a high-end bicycle demands a dry lube?  Shouldn’t all bicycles get the same treatment?  Ideally, yes, but I don’t kid myself.  My commuter bike—though lubed with the same stuff my best bikes get—is never maintained as scrupulously.  This is okay because a) I don’t put nearly the same mileage on it, and b) the cogs and chain are not only beefier—i.e., more forgiving—but also much, much cheaper to replace.

Line 13:  beloved

Is it normal to love your bike?  I wouldn’t know … having been a biking fanatic for decades I’ve lost touch with what “normal” even means.  But I will say that if you don’t love your bike, that’s completely okay.  I don’t love my commuter bikes, for example.  I think you have to really suffer on your bike before you truly bond with it.  To paraphrase the Coen brothers, “There's a spirit of camaraderie that exists between [you and your racing bike], like you find only in combat maybe, or on a pro ball club in the heat of a pennant drive.”

Line 14:  White Lightning

No, I have not received any payment or free product from the White Lightning people.  (I believe that bloggers are legally required to disclose any such support.)  This is one of my few brand loyalties, and they earned it fair and square.

I hope that somebody comments below to the effect that I’m throwing my money away buying a mainstream wax lube when I could easily coat my chain with cheap paraffin or something.  There was a photo essay of this process in Bicycling magazine decades ago, and not only did it look really difficult (e.g., melting paraffin on a stove), but an irate reader wrote in a month or two later complaining that he’d given it a try and started a kitchen fire!  I will acknowledge that White Lightning isn’t cheap, and must be reapplied fairly often.  That said, it’s waaaay cheaper than chains, cassettes, and chainrings.  Take it from me … a cheap bastard from way back!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Fiction - Game-Changing Dating Website!


What follows is a work of fiction.  That doesn’t, however, make it a short story.  I had a reader complain about a fictional albertnet post that didn’t have the traditional story arc of exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, and resolution.  My defense was that I never said it was a story.  My reader acknowledged the error of her assumption, but I think she was still pretty pissed.  So:  you’ve been warned.


Pitch to Investors – Game-Changing Dating Website

As described in our binding Non-Disclosure Agreement, albertnet productions LLC seeks funding for a new venture, and we are excited to invite you in as an early investor.  The venture is a revolutionary website, Vali.Date, that will finally deliver the full promise of finding love online.  We are confident that when you read this proposal, you will see that Vali.Date is a game-changer.  We are not presenting a specific funding target as that could limit the amount you decide to invest.  We believe the potential of this venture is virtually limitless.

The central shortcoming of existing platforms

Based on our extensive research of existing online dating platforms we have identified the central shortcoming common to all:  there is no way to vet the profile information provided.  This leads to wasted time, disappointment, and an encroaching sense of disillusionment that leads many singles to abandon not only the platform but even their quest for love.

The sad fact is, no mechanisms currently exist to prevent users from posting misleading content to their profiles.  Here are some examples:
  • Outdated photos that deliberately fail to capture the user’s age-related physical shortcomings;
  • Exaggerated income and wealth data;
  • False claims about level of education;
  • Subjective self-assessments (e.g., “intelligent,” “funny”) that are impossible to substantiate online;
  • Disingenuous claims about what traits the user is looking for in a mate, based on what the user presumes others want to  see (e.g., user claims to want a good guy but is actually looking for a “bad boy”);
  • Various ways in which a user can painstakingly create a great profile without being able to “back it up” in person.
The current generation of singles deserves, and demands, better.  Until now, no dating website has delivered on the full promise of meeting your soulmate online.  Our Vali.Date platform will bridge that gap.

The Vali.Date principle

Our driving principle stems from the impulse to ask, “Says who?”  When you see a restaurant called “Best Happy Family Restaurant,” do you automatically take your family there?  Of course not.  What about the slogan, “You’ve tried the rest—now try the best”?  What assurance do you have that this “best” claim is anything but window dressing?  Such assertions are the commercial equivalent of a guy saying, “Women pay to go out with me.”

The e-commerce industry has made great strides toward solving this “Says who?” problem.  How?  By equipping web storefronts with utilities that capture nonbiased input from third parties—regular consumers like you and me.  This democratizes the process of delivering qualitative product information to consumers.  Such feedback can be the entire raison d’être of a website (e.g., Yelp, Chowhound) or just a valued-added feature (e.g., Amazon).  Why hasn’t this capability been extended to dating services?  Lack of vision—nothing more.

Vali.Date takes the value of consumer-generated feedback to a new level by removing one of its endemic flaws:  cognitive dissonance.  Copious studies have shown that most dissatisfied consumers lack the resolve to demand a refund.  Of course they don’t want to admit this to themselves, so they manage to find satisfaction in the products they buy, and this delusion of satisfaction is then reflected in their reviews.  Thus, consumer ratings tend to be skewed toward the positive—which unfairly benefits product manufacturers at the expense of consumers.

Fortunately, we have discovered that this pitfall does not extend to dating!  Singles do not perceive a “sunk cost” with a date; i.e., there is no product to “return,” per se.  Users of dating websites readily embrace their freedom by making sure that if their first date is ho-hum, that prospective partner will never get a second date.  Since there’s no cognitive dissonance, our third-party feedback is candid, honest, and incredibly powerful as it can save singles the hassle of wasting valuable time on a sub-par relationship candidate.

The Vali.Date user experience

Let us take you on a tour of the Vali.Date experience, starting from your first query straight through to the end zone where you’re finally paired with your true soulmate.

The query

This mate selection query engine provided by Vali.Date is, at first blush, not so different from the existing state of the art.  But there are important differences in play.  First, you can limit your query by average user rating.  We’ll get to the ratings in more detail later, but the point is, you can weed out a lot of the chaff by limiting your ratings to, say, 3 hearts or better—at least when you’re starting out.  (Of course concessions can be made later, as necessary, by tweaking your query.)  Second, you can optionally limit the results to only those profiles that surpass a user-defined threshold of user metrics—that is, profiles with multiple user reviews, user-submitted photos, and so forth.  This will spare you from sifting through unsubstantiated profiles posted by “wallflowers” (i.e., low-engagement users).

The photo

As with existing platforms, you’ll start by viewing the profile photo that was selected and uploaded by the dating candidate.  We make sure it’s a useful photo:  Vali.Date requires a minimum file size of 2 MB; analyzes photo metadata to disqualify non-recent pix; and employs proprietary graphics-analysis algorithms that reject photos on the basis of poor focus, soft-focus, gimmicks (e.g. sepia effect), or too much “noise”—e.g., pets, landscape, or other features intending to distract the viewer from a fair appraisal of the subject. 

But that’s only the beginning.  Vali.Date also enables other platform users to post their own photos, snapped during actual dates with the relationship candidate!  Don’t worry, not just anybody can post a photo; Vali.Date qualifies that the photo is submitted not only by a registered Vali.Date customer, but one who has actually dated the person featured in the profile!  Needless to say, these photos are much more candid and “honest” than the painstakingly “curated” profile photo other platforms are limited to.  Never again will a user meet a candidate in person only to realize that he or she only looks good from certain camera angles, with just the right light.  “Warts and all” means you won’t find yourself on a date with anyone who has a wart (unless, of course, you’re okay with warts).

User ratings

User ratings radically increase the value of the platform and are a core feature of Vali.Date.  Let’s say you’re a heterosexual male user looking for a bright, attractive, gainfully employed, college-educated, tall, thin, blond woman between 18 and 22 years of age who loves dogs (especially King Charles spaniels) and is interested in craft beer, hiking, sailing, and binge-watching “Game of Thrones “ while scarfing Chinese takeout.  You’ve narrowed your filter to capture not only these characteristics, but a minimum 3-heart user review across a minimum of 3 reviews, with at least 3 user-provided photos.  You’re on your way!  Now it’s time to sift through your results.  Fortunately, there are only about 20 of them, instead of 50.  See?  Vali.Date is already saving you time and effort!

You click on the first profile in your Inbox, a young woman named Wanda.  Now is when you start to appreciate the full magnitude of the Vali.Date difference.  Wanda’s profile photo is clear, hi-res, large, and she isn’t half-obscured by her dog.  Then you scan the user-submitted photos and she looks reasonably attractive in all of them.  So far, so good!  Now you browse Wanda’s third-party reviews:

♥♥♥   Pretty good date.
By kewldewd22 on January 13, 2017

Wanda was pretty good.  She looks a lot like her photo and smelled good.  I’m surprised she has a degree in Communications though because she seemed kind of quiet LOL.  We went for Philly Cheesesteaks which was my idea and I think that was kind of cool because Cheesesteaks wasn’t even in her profile.  It was kind of a short date because I had to work later but pretty fun.  I got half her fries.  She kissed me on the cheek at the end.  I might date her again if I have time.

♥♥♥♥  very cool chick!
By gnarlyhiker on January 12, 2017

i really had fun with wanda.  we went on three dates, all good.  1st we saw the new star wars movie, as a matinee, and though i liked it, wanda afterward was all ‘that was lame’ and just goes off on it, and she was funny as hell and i'm like ‘this chick is smart, woah!’ second date we go to a bar and man she knows from beer but isnt like a snob about it. third date was amazing, we did this big hike on tam and were looking over the view and the moment is just perfect but then i guess i got this michschevious streak lol and i'm all, ‘wanda, what color is your hair really?’ and she’s like ‘natural blond’ so i'm like ‘what about yoru dark eyebrows’ and she’s all ‘i dye those.’ man shes got balls and i was so impressed i finally kissed her, right there, and we totally made out. awesome. i'd give her five hearts except shes a bit clingy. like just because we made out she can text me like 3 times the next day? yo, desperate much wanda? so i didn’t text her back. still, a cool girl and i’m keeping her as a ‘back pocket’ date if you know what I mean lol

♥♥♥♥  Go Wanda!
By oscarnogrouch on December 15, 2016

Wanda has her own boat! It’s just this little inflatable Aquaglide thing, a bit cheesy, but actually really fun too. I wasn’t used to it and got all sideways and next thing you know we totally capsized her boat!! But we were laughing and laughing, even though we froze our asses off and Wanda lost her sunglasses. She was really cool about her lost shades, I’d have been so pissed. So she is laid back and fun. But I’m back together with my girlfriend now so I guess me and Wanda were not meant to be.  Have fun!

Bitch stood me up!!!
By doglover2012 on September 28, 2016

I waited and waited like a jackass and she never showed.  Guess she got cold feet or a better offer. She gave me a bunch of lame excuses but I’m like: don’t make me laugh.

So, you decide you’re definitely interested in Wanda but you’re still not sure.  You have a few lingering questions … but you’re in luck, because Vali.Date has thought of that!  You go to the Q&A section to see if other users have wondered the same things.

Site User Questions & Answers

You immediately see that three questions have already been answered:

Q.  Anyone met her dog?
A.  Yes, she has an adorable King Charles spaniel named George.  And he’s a good boy!  Very obedient, she is great with him too.
        By gnarlyhiker on November 10, 2016

Q.  By any chance is Wanda a virgin!?
A.  Maybe she was, but not anymore LOL!
       By doglover2012 on September 30, 2016
A.   You can ignore that first answer, that’s the guy who was so mad that I stood him up.  We never even met!  As for my virginity, maybe we can talk about that when you get to know me better! ;-)
       By wandapsyched on September 30, 2016

Q.  Anyone else been stood up by Wanda?  Any idea why?
A.  “Doglover2012” never gave me a chance.  I texted him three times telling him my dog got out, and he’s still young and was lost and I ran all over the neighborhood looking for him.  It was over an hour before I got him back, and by then I was psychically exhausted and so was my dog. I just wanted to stay home and be with him after that, and if this jerk really loved dogs like his profile said, he’d have understood.  I’m relieved, though, seeing what an a**hole he is.  Can you believe he called me a b****?  I feel like I dodged a bullet by standing him up!
       By wandapsyched on September 30, 2016

Note how Vali.Date gives all site users, including the one whose profile is being reviewed, the chance to weigh in.  This enables users to help “control the narrative” and safeguard their personal brand.  The Q&A section also enables users to pose questions to the entire Vali.Date community, which some will feel is “safer” and less presumptive than reaching out to the candidate directly.

Suppose your main question was why Wanda stood that guy up, so now you’re feeling pretty good about her as a prospective mate.  But suppose, too, that in the back of your mind you still have this nagging doubt that somebody out there might be even better, and you haven’t even looked at the other 19 profiles in your Inbox.  You’re kind of eager to move from the online world to the real world, but you’d hate to saddle yourself with a second-best kind of girlfriend.  You’ve been here before—and this is where the clinical, prescribed, scientific basis of the whole online dating scene may beg the question, “What happened to mystery, to random chance, to serendipity?” Well, Vali.Date has thought of that, too!

Customers who dated…

Are you looking for the dating website equivalent of the Hyperspace button in Asteroids?  But one that isn’t actually completely random?  Well check out this feature!

Vali.Date customers won’t be spending 90% of their time browsing prospects … the query and third-party validation tools are so good, our users will be getting lots of dates.  And that gives us terabytes of data to cross-reference, so each profile can now show you other romance candidates based on your candidate’s dating rivals! 

Here’s how that works.  Maybe you were looking for someone who loves dogs, craft brews, sailing, and hiking, and Wanda is all that.  But maybe some other guy found Wanda by looking for someone who loves comedy clubs, jogging, pizza, and origami—and Wanda is all that, too!  And maybe this other guy who found Wanda also found other great women who aren’t much like Wanda but who might appeal to you for the very reason that they’re so different from what you thought you were looking for.  So in a way, with Vali.Date users are getting on optimized version of the perfect date-finder, and also a what-the-hell, caution-to-the-wind counterpoint, for when they’re feeling capricious!

But for this exercise, let’s assume you browse the several “Customers who dated this person also dated…” candidates and they only reinforce for you how special Wanda appears to be.  So you go out with Wanda, and have that great date you’ve been dreaming of.  Shortly after, you’ll get an e-mail:  “Joe Blow, did Wanda meet your expectations?”  You’ll be able to rate and review your date … but you won’t, not right now.  You’re going to hold off, because after all, you don’t want anybody else dating Wanda at this point, do you?

Unless, of course, you get a chance to peek at the other 19 candidates in your Inbox and decide to purse one (or more?) of them instead.  In that case, you can cut Wanda loose, with a great review so there are no hard feelings.  Whatever you choose to do, you’re well on your way, all thanks to Vali.Date!

Call to action

As you can see, Vali.Date picks up where other dating websites leave off, addressing crucial gaps in the existing technology.  While our specific monetization scheme has yet to be worked out—whether it’s advertising, premium paid memberships, or a combination of the two—the growth in subscribership is expected to be dizzying.  Our pace of growth, in fact, may be limited only by our ability to scale the infrastructure.  Please contact us right away to obtain a copy of our working business plan.  Then we can meet and discuss funding of this exciting and promising venture, which is poised to revolutionize the way people fall in love.


A note to my readers

Remember, that was fiction—a satirical look at matchmaking in the digital age.  I hope it’s obvious I wouldn’t actually support such a website.  I also want to say that if it turns out a site like Vali.Date actually already exists, please don’t think I plagiarized the idea.  Chalk it up to insufficient cynicism on my part.

The fact is, I’m completely out of touch with the modern dating scene.  I haven’t been on a first date since spring of 1992 (my first date with my wife), and I have never visited a dating website or used a dating app.  My entire picture of this modern Internet dating world comes from a) Aziz Ansari’s excellent book Modern Romance, and b) the charming Polish movie Planeta Singli, which I saw on an airplane.  If I’m way off base with my social commentary, well—blame my sources!

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

From the Archives - Holiday Newsletter About HEAD LICE! GROSS!


I have a tradition of mailing out a highly unconventional holiday newsletter.  The original setup was to figure out the most humiliating thing I’d done all year and describe it in excruciating detail.  Some years I satirized the newsletter form itself, by making myself or my family out to be egomaniacal, or claiming to be really disappointed in my kids.  After the family editorial panel (i.e., my wife) censored a couple of editions (such as this one), I toned things down a bit.

Here’s the edition from 2011, which I didn’t originally post to this blog for fear of embarrassing my family.  However, I have decided to post it now, and you are free to read it if you’ll promise me one thing:  whether or not you get to the end, please scroll down and read the epilogue, added today.  (Obviously I have no way to hold you to this promise.  You’re on the honor system.)

From the Archives – December 2011 Holiday Newsletter

Season’s Greetings!

I’ve been doing these newsletters for awhile now and I know the drill:  a quick recap of the year, some tidbits about how the kids are progressing, perhaps a wistful observation about the treadmill of time, etc.  But this year I’m struggling, as I’ve become fixated on a specific topic and cannot focus on anything else.  So I better just get that topic out of the way to free up my brain for the more standard tidings.

The topic is head lice.  I’m quite certain that for the rest of my life, whenever I look back at 2011 I’ll think, “Oh, yeah, the year we all got infested.”  Oh, go ahead and snicker.  I always used to, when I’d hear about some kid failing his lice spot-check at school.  Actually, I’d snicker but also wince, acknowledging (but not really believing) that my kid could be next.  Why do we snicker?  Probably out of contempt.  Everybody knows that having lice means you’re filthy.  Not just filthy, but a filthy outsider.  Who can consider the word “lice” without immediately thinking of all those immigrants being quarantined at Staten Island after failing their lice checks?  (As it turns out, it’s an unfair stereotype.  Lice actually prefer a nice clean scalp to a dirty, oily one.  I  know, I know:  sounds exactly like what a louse-infested troll would say.)

Fortunately, my kids didn’t fail a spot-check at school.  Erin discovered the lice herself.  Of course that doesn’t make the infestation any less disgusting, but at least we were spared some disgrace.  (When your scalp is teeming with parasites you get pretty good at looking at the bright side.)  I don’t know how Erin happened to spot the lice, though once she pointed them out I couldn’t not see them.  The eggs had amassed into something like a cobweb woven into our child’s scalp.  Erin extracted a full-grown louse, teasing it with a toothpick until its bloodlust led it to climb on, perhaps en route to Erin’s own locks.  She flung the louse into the sink and the little bastard was so engorged with our daughter’s blood that it exploded on impact, the blood gradually oozing toward the drain, like a Sam Peckinpah vignette in miniature.

I rapidly began a cycle of grief, skipping right past denial (I mean, how could I deny this?) and going directly to anger.  I vowed to exterminate these lice with extreme prejudice.  I told Erin, “If the lice bring knives, we’re bringing guns.  If they bring guns, we’re bringing napalm.  It is on.”  Actually I probably said something less macho.  Likely I was silent for a spell as the heebie-jeebies hit me full on.  Once you’ve seen lice in the hair of your beloved offspring—the same offspring you snuggle with on a regular basis—you cannot help but feel the awful tickly sensation of hundreds of lice in your own hair.  You begin scratching your head like a maniac.  Your body goes through series of shudders from the head down.

I was serious about the no-holds-barred warfare, though.  The trouble is, a parent can’t just decide things unilaterally.  I had to convince Erin to bring out the big guns, which was challenging because she won’t even take Advil for a headache.  We discussed the matter at length and researched all manner of home remedies and commercial anti-lice products.  Finally it came down to a binary choice:  either we use RID, an expensive but market-leading anti-lice shampoo, or nothing.

In the event, Erin deftly slipped between the horns of the dilemma by buying RID but not using it.  Her rationale, based on the fine print she read on the box, was that some strains of lice are impervious to RID, and she didn’t want to risk irritating our kids’ scalps if the shampoo wasn’t even a sure thing.  I hit upon a strategy of trying it out on myself to see if it’s hard on the scalp, but then I read the even finer print and discovered that you shouldn’t use it if you’re allergic to ragweed, which I just so happen to be.  Erin did use the chintzy plastic lice comb that it came with, so at least we couldn’t return the RID.

Lice infestation is hard on a marriage.  It ended up falling to Erin to comb out the kids’ hair looking for nits (eggs or leftover egg casings), nymphs (immature lice—isn’t this disgusting?), and adult lice.  She decided she had to be the one to do it because I was obviously useless at it, being unable to find anything on her head.  Since I’m normally pretty good at detail work, she took my incompetence to be a sign of not trying, and, by extension, of not caring.  Of course, she couldn’t find anything on my head either, but she figured that was because I have too little hair left for a louse to bother with.

Since she couldn’t do her own lice check, Erin found a head lice spa to go to.  It took me by surprise that such a business could exist, but of course I should have known.  Off Erin went to this insanely expensive place where they gave her green tea, played New Age music, said soothing things, and petted her head a lot.  They offer no guarantee of any kind that their techniques are effective.  (If this had been a business catering to guys it’d be like smogging your car, where there’s a money-back guarantee.)  About the only good thing I can say about the spa is that the lousseuse told Erin, “You owe your husband an apology.  I can’t find anything either.”  She finally ended up finding one little speck that could have been a nit.  Of course, it could have been a fleck of sawdust, the broken-off tip of an eyelash, or something the lousseuse herself planted there.  She sent Erin home with a gorgeous stainless steel designer lice comb.

Thus began a nightly ritual of Erin getting the kids’ hair wet and running the lice comb through their scalps, squinting at the varicolored specks that would be dislodged, and cursing the whole affair.   I cannot fathom how the term “nitpicking” came to mean “showing too much concern with insignificant details” because ridding our scalps of nits now seemed all-important. We took other measures too.  For example, I put Lindsay’s teddy bear, in a gallon-size Ziploc, in the freezer overnight.  Whether due to the cold or because I forgot to leave an air hole, when I retrieved the bear in the morning it was dead.  Please don’t tell Lindsay.  I also froze my helmet pads, and we did outrageous, climate-changing amounts of laundry.  Erin even decided, in a particularly frantic moment, to give Alexa a short haircut.  Alexa was fairly stoic about this, but poor Lindsay was heartbroken about the loss of her heroic big sister’s glorious long locks.  (I felt sheepish witnessing this show of sympathy.  When I was a kid, I always took great pleasure in my brothers’ misfortunes.)

Perhaps our most disturbing treatment was slathering our heads in über-expensive lotion and then wrapping them in plastic shower caps, which we’d seal up tight like gaskets, before bed.  All night, every time your head would move, there’d be this crackling, ripping sound like a martial arts guy makes.  The idea is to suffocate the adult lice, terrify the nymphs, and poach the eggs.  Or something like that; I was never that clear on what louse phase this treatment targeted.  All I know is that you have to destroy the lice in all their life stages or the cycle will never end.

If you ever find yourself with a family-wide lice infestation, don’t expect any sympathy from friends ... mine just seemed completely grossed out.  A colleague instant-messaged me one morning and said, “How’s the treatment going?”  I wrote back, “Lousy.”  I thought I’d at least get an LOL out of that, but nothing.  No sense of humor on this sordid topic.

We’d discovered the lice in February, and over the next four months we went through everything from despondent denial (“The lice must be gone by now”), to paralysis (“I know the kids have lice but I’m too tired to deal with it”), to fear (“Could this lotion be hard on the kids’ skin?”), to fury (see above), and then to resignation:  “We won’t be rid of the lice until summer because everybody at the school must have it.”

So what finally worked?  Well, I’d like to edify you with the inspiring tale of how we finally won the War On Lice, but the fact is, we never did prevail.  In the end, the lice just left us.  It was like we suddenly weren’t good enough for them anymore.  Of course we were relieved, but I had to work through some abandonment issues.  Plus, we still can’t believe they’re really gone:  every itch becomes a tickle that spawns paranoia, and just last night Erin was combing Lindsay’s hair after a bath and suddenly said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.  That better not be lice.”

Well, I see I’m out of room.  I had meant to write more, and on some cheerier topics, but that’s how it goes.  All of us Alberts wish you a wonderful, parasite-free holiday!


Well, the lice did come back—in full force.  In despair, we hired a lice removal specialist who made house calls.  If you think this sounds expensive, you’re exactly right.  But we (i.e., Erin) just didn’t have the energy to do the combing anymore, and were sick of failing at it.  Well, the expert went at somebody’s head for about five minutes and announced, “There’s no lice here.”  Erin, disbelieving, located some lice on the head in question and pointed it out.  “That’s not lice, that’s dandruff,” the expert said.  She brought out some samples of actual lice, in little Ziploc bags, and showed us.  Sure enough, Erin hadn’t been seeing anything like that on anyone’s head.  Thus was solved the mystery of how we were never able to get rid of the lice—they simply never existed (other than the single blood-gorged louse we’d found early on).

So did I mention this in the next year’s holiday newsletter, or mail around an addendum?  Nope.  I guess all our friends and family believe, to this day, that we’re a bunch of filthy outsiders spreading this hideous plague across our community.  Oh well.

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Saturday, January 7, 2017

Voices In My Head


Is it okay to write a review of a review?  Well, with blogs anything is possible!  Besides, by “review” I mean the type like The New Yorker does, which isn’t fundamentally concerned with deciding whether or not a book is any good, but simply uses it as a jumping-off point for an examination of its topic.

I recently came across a New Yorker review of a cool-sounding book called The Voices Within.  The review, and the book, and the prospect of doing my own firsthand research on the book’s topic, have all given me food for thought.  If you’re mentally hungry, and particularly if you tend to talk to yourself, well—read on!

The Voices Within

The book, by a British psych professor named Charles Fernyhough, concerns people who talk to themselves, whether it’s just a reminder here and there or long rambling internal dialogues.  Whether or not they say things out loud, they have thoughts of a distinctly verbal nature.  Fernyhough talks to himself, and, while riding the subway once, “laughed out loud at a funny sentence that was playing in his mind.” 

What’s kind of unusual about the review is that its author, Jerome Groopman, isn’t really a book reviewer at all, but a doctor and a professor of medicine.  Is he qualified to review this book?  Sure!  Not only is he really smart, but he talks to himself, too!

As you might imagine, it’s not easy to study this stuff scientifically.  One method is called the “beeper protocol.”  The subject wears a beeper that sounds at random.  Whenever it does, the subject writes down what he or she was thinking about at that moment, and then the researcher analyzes these notes and the subject’s “inner speech.”  Another study methodology is to do an fMRI brain scan while the subject has a conversation in his or her head.

As Groopman points out, these methodologies are problematic.  For one thing, “being prompted to enter into an inner dialogue in an fMRI machine is not the same as spontaneously debating with oneself at the kitchen table.”  For another, “given that the subjects in the beeper protocol could express their experience only in words, it’s not surprising that many of them ascribed a linguistic quality to their thinking.”

Groopman goes on to explain how the book also goes into voices people hear that seem to originate from somebody or something other than the subject’s own mind.  Many of these seemingly discrete third party voices are recounted in the Bible; there’s testimony from Joan of Arc; there’s the case of an ancient mystic who reported that Christ spoke to her directly; and Fernyhough cites the authors of The Odyssey and The Illiad who said that a powerful Muse all but dictated their works to them.

A couple of more modern case studies are also explored, including that of the poet Robert Lowell, who suffered from auditory hallucinations that he says helped him with his writing.  I was surprised that Groopman didn’t mention Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous epic poem “Kubla Khan,” all the words of which, he says, flooded into his mind when he awoke from an opium-enhanced dream, so that he wasn’t so much composing his poem as transcribing it.

(By the way:  what kind of a name is “Fernyhough,” anyway?  Was somebody trying to rhyme with “anyhoo?”)

Groopman didn’t present what I think is an obvious criticism:  these biblical stories and case histories are just anecdotal evidence with no basis in science.  (Maybe he was just being nice.)  But whether or not the book is great, I was intrigued by the beeper protocol, and decided to become a test subject myself, to answer this question:  when we talk to ourselves, what is really happening?  Are the words the most substantial part of the thought, or are they more like guideposts?

My modified beeper protocol

I wouldn’t know where or how to buy a beeper in this day and age.  And even if I had one, how would I make it go off randomly?  I considered building something atop the Arduino that I got for Christmas, but that seemed like a lot of hassle, and besides, true randomness is very difficult to achieve, particularly for A.I. machines.

What I decided to do is to jot down my inner dialogue every time my phone or PC beeped or blipped at me.  This is generally a result of spam being received, which is a fairly random occurrence.  I knew going in that my beeper protocol would result in lots of data because, for whatever reason, my brain undergoes these inner dialogues a lot of the time.  Sometimes it feels like a curse.  Fernyhough should totally sign me on for his studies.  I hope he pays well.

My test results

I conducted my test over about a five-minute period the other morning, during a brief break from my workday.  I originally intended to do more, but realized this single session was enough.

I’ll start by saying that, on top of whatever internal voice I may be hearing, I’m frequently subject to random rap lyrics busting out on the scene (i.e., in my brain).  Sometimes they bust all the way out of my mouth, which isn’t really involuntary because I do like to startle my kids.  All will be quiet in the office, both kids staring intently at their laptop screens, and I’ll suddenly yell something like, “Pistol-packin’ motherfrocking bouncer six-two!” or “YES—the rhythm, the rebel/ Without a pause, I’m lowerin’ my level!”  (One day, when I live at the old folks’ home, I can really shake things up.)

But beyond those strange verbal eruptions, my internal dialogue is mostly silent; I don’t say much out loud.  But inwardly, my brain is a pretty noisy place.  Here’s what I jotted down from my session:

“Oh, hey, you should look for that car key.”
“Bet you anything it’s up behind the speaker.”
“Probably with my key.”
“If you do find it there, will you come clean about hiding it?”
“That’s a whole can of worms.”
“It’d be honest.”
“Yeah but I’d look like a jackass.”
 “Raise the heat level, break out your coal shovel, pump the temp, I’m sweatin’ like a devil.”
“Yup, here it is, right where you put it, dumbass.”
 “The humanity!”
“She’s leaving soon—maybe just hang her keys from the wall tree?”
“She probably won’t even remember they were lost.”
“But is that honest?  Are you selling out your soul to save a little face?”
“No punk, no chump, no fool, no toy/ Try to get ill and I’ll serve you, boy!”

Now, if I just turned this transcript over to Fernyhough, he’d probably have little idea what most of it means.  What would he try do discern, if anything, from it?  Would he throw it out, note its existence and move on, or solicit background info?  Well, being both the subject and the conductor of the test, I’m in a great position to gloss it all out.  Will readers get “gloss it all out”?  As in, glossary?  Man, even my dentist hates when I floss.  (Sorry, that was some late-breaking internal dialogue that I decided to transcribe here, even though I’m not officially doing the beeper protocol at the moment.)

Analysis of transcript

Wow, there’s so much to work with here, I don’t know where to start.  One thing that jumps out is that talking to oneself is not just a verbal thing:  we cannot ignore the massive efficiency the brain gets from being pre-populated with loads of context.  Background information—which isn’t “spoken” but infuses the mental environment—makes this internal dialogue quite potent.  The mental process of presenting private thoughts in words is a bit like running macros, with short phrases invoking big, complicated ideas. 

This observation suggests a fundamental dichotomy between, on the one hand, a truly internal dialogue, and on the other hand, any words that seem to come from an outside source, such as God talking to you, or the Muse, or the kind of voices that some schizophrenics hear.  Given the memory-rich backdrop of internal dialogues, lumping them in with any other kind of mental “hearing” would be a mistake.

Here’s the background information from my beeper protocol dialogue.  When I (seemed to) hear “that car key,” there was no question what key was being mentioned:  my wife’s key to our Volvo.  This  key had gone missing and I’d been the last to use it, after driving the family home from a party.  The next phrase I “heard,” which was “behind the speaker,” referred to the stereo speaker behind which I always hide my car key, but where I should never hide my wife’s car key. 

For me there wasn’t any mystery as to why this hiding place exists, because the two parts of my brain that were “talking” both knew the full story:  our car has this cool feature where the car keys are uniquely coded, so when I remotely unlock the car with my key, the driver’s seat automatically adjusts itself to where I last had it, along with the side mirrors.  I love this feature, but it only works if my wife doesn’t use my key.  And she always wants to use my key, because she can never find hers.  Why not?  Because she doesn’t hang it from the little hook on the wall tree like I’m always suggesting.  She chucks her key in one of the seemingly hundreds of secret pockets on this or that purse, and is too impatient to hunt for it later.  For years, she would always just grab my key off the little hook, and then afterward would squirrel that away somewhere, so that we were both stuck using the stupid non-coded valet key until we got around to digging through her purse.

So, to preserve that delicious experience of having the seat and mirrors auto-adjust to me, I took to hiding my key.  This has worked out pretty well for years.  The only problem is, my habit of hiding my key has gotten so ingrained, I’ll occasionally forget that I used my wife’s key (which happens when we switch drivers on a road trip or whatever), and then I put her key in my secret hiding place.  This is of course even worse than what my wife does, because at least when she squirrels away her key it’s possible to find it.  There is no way she’d find her key when I hide it (unless she reads this blog).

So when, inside my brain, I heard “It’s probably up behind the speaker” and “Probably with my key,” those weren’t just words.  They packed a punch!  They said, implicitly, “J’accuse!”  That is, though they’re simple words they ride a big wave of nonverbal embarrassment.  And they come with the mental equivalent of a file attachment, which is the image of the hiding place, with two car keys lurking there.  So the effect of this interior dialogue is far more powerful than just “hearing” the words spoken.  It sets up a full-on internal debate between my competing desires to save face (“I’d look like a jackass”) and being an honest spouse (“Are you selling out your soul?”).  The verbal nature of this debate probably plumbs the issue more effectively than the “unspoken” thoughts like you might have in a dream, or the image of the hiding place by itself.

(In case you’re confused about “pump the temp” and “try to get ill,” that’s a third voice in my head, belonging to the rapper Ice-T.  Those words, of course, serve no clear purpose.  They’re just there, pretty much all the time, like verbal garnish.)

Who cares?

Okay, so some people, including me, talk to themselves.  Big whoop, right?  Well, I had a strange realization about all this when I was reading Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, and he described the torturous bout of self-doubt he’d had after texting this girl—a romantic prospect—for the first time: 
      I’m so stupid!  I should have typed “Hey” with two y’s, not just one!  I asked too many questions. What the fuck was I thinking?  Oh, there I go with another question.  Aziz, WHAT’S UP WITH YOU AND THE QUESTIONS?
My realization was this:  our current crop of teenagers famously avoids talking on the phone, and conducts a huge amount of their conversation virtually, via texting, WhatsApp, etc.  These are very informal bites of text, limited by their length, the difficulty in typing them quickly, and the ultra-casual nature of the medium.  And not only have these texts replaced conversation, but letter-writing and epistolary e-mails as well.  Meanwhile, the online world is encroaching on the real one such that two people sitting together are all too often peering into their phones instead of actually talking—you even see people doing this while on a date.  It could be that the best days of deep human-to-human dialogues are behind us—which means these self-to-self dialogues inside our heads may now be the best ones we’re having!  A remake of My Dinner With Andre might just be called Andre’s Dinner!

Is this a good thing?  Probably not.  After all, a fundamental goal of Buddhist meditation is to quiet down the constant chatter of thoughts in your head so that you can achieve mental calm and inner peace.  Should those of us who talk to ourselves try to stop?

I don’t have an answer there, but I have three responses.  First, those who attempt to meditate are not always, if ever, able to completely eliminate the intrusive thoughts anyway; it’s the effort and the discipline, not just succeeding, that’s the point. 

Second, there’s a time and a place for meditation; if we were to always live right in the moment, such that we were always seeing the world as it really is in front of us, we might be very peaceful but not properly productive.  Executive function consists, after all, of keeping in mind the things that aren’t right in front of us but need to be dealt with anyway (which could be as simple as picking up bread or milk on the way home).  That inner voice is a bit like a personal assistant.

Third, I very much doubt it would be possible for any of us to stop talking to ourselves anyway, even if we tried.  That’s just my gut feeling, though; I shall have to talk this over with … myself.

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