Thursday, August 31, 2017

From the Archives - My New College Apartment


Introduction

Well, it’s back-to-school time, and nowhere is that more exciting than in a college town. I rode my bike through the Berkeley campus recently to enjoy the secondhand tension and giddiness of the new kids milling around. In their honor, I’m running this piece from my archives about moving into my new apartment, and getting to know my new roommate, at the dawn of my sophomore year at UC Santa Barbara.

Enjoy please enjoy.

Moving in to my college apartment – September 21, 1989

We’re all moved in here, pretty much. We’ve had a hell of a time trying to get furniture. The manager is always ready to talk our ears off, but never seems to get anything done. We had a big mix-up when T— arrived: seems the manager thought that my brother Geoff was our third person, because he happened to be hanging around when she came by. So when T— showed up, she tried to get rid of him. What a mess. I’m working really hard to believe that the manager isn’t just being racist (i.e. maybe she wouldn’t have rented to T— if she’d known he’s black). Maybe she thinks Geoff was planted as a ruse. I still can’t convince the manager that Geoff doesn’t have a set of house keys.

I got my new roommate at random. I was in the housing office trying to find an apartment for T— and me, and absolutely couldn’t find a place the two of us could afford on our own. Last year we had three guys in a one-bedroom and it didn’t work out so well, though that was mainly because the third guy was a jerk. Still, we wanted a bit more space ... but I finally gave up. Thus the third roommate I now had to produce out of thin air.

I have to admit, it makes me feel like something less than a social success to be in this position. All my friends from last year met their future roommates in the dorms. The dorms were like the perfect dry run. Not having lived in the dorms, I didn’t have this option, and I couldn’t predict if any of my pals would make a good roommate. Besides, if you consider the odds of growing to hate your roommate, it’s best to pick a mere acquaintance; that way you don’t risk ruining a friendship.

And why didn’t I live in the dorms? Too pricey. Even the bottom-of-the-barrel, very cheapest off-campus dorm, called Fontainebleau, cost too much (though I actually came within one signature of committing to it before chickening out). It was $4,500 for nine months and I was afraid to ask my parents for that kind of money.  (Not afraid they’d say no, which is a certainty, but that they’d be disgusted with me for even asking.)

Not that I’m bitter about missing the dorm experience. For $4,500 you live in a closet (albeit a closet with two beds and two desks) and eat recycled food. My freshman friends last year waxed eloquent on this point. The unused French toast from breakfast is repurposed for grilled cheese sandwiches at lunch. Quiche from today’s lunch is tomorrow’s soufflé (which, in dorm kitchen parlance, means any unidentifiable food that is covered with a fresh layer of cheese and re-baked). Most students like dorm food at first, because it’s not the whole wheat, lentils, alfalfa sprouts, and ground turkey they had to eat at home; refined flour and fat at first seem like luxuries. This gets old, so soon the students are merely tolerating their dorm food; then they start complaining; then they subsist on microwave popcorn and Pop-Tarts for the rest of the school year. Me, I gotta have my own kitchen, even if it’s infested with roaches.

My new roommate is really strange. He’s the result of my settling for almost the first guy I could find hanging around the Community Housing Office. It was my third visit there and I was desperate, and grabbed this greasy, puffy, nerdy guy and said, “Dude, you can be my roommate. It’s the Penthouse apartments on Abrego. Come sign the lease.” The guy looked really hesitant, and just stood there humming and hawing and mumbling stupid things like “Um, I don’t really know you,” until I was ready to punch him in the face. Standing nearby watching, looking amused, was this really thin, pale guy with a huge curly sphere of hair ensconcing his head. He was like this giant photo-negative dandelion. He walked up and said, “Hey, I’ll be your roommate.” Now the first guy looked torn, but I wasn’t about to give him a second chance—he was dead to me. The second guy, my new roommate, is named C—. I instantly took a liking to him, and this liking has grown over time.

C— is an art studio major, and he doesn’t own anything. I mean, he literally has no belongings other than a big Glad bag full of his clothes. His wardrobe is about the size of my “unwearable” collection (which I stuffed into a Huggies box that serves as a table for my typewriter). Among his garments there’s not a shred of cotton anywhere. I think he’s trying for the “starving artist” look. I can’t quite place the fabric ... all weird shades, stripes, or plaids, some of them having a weird shiny sheen to them. Maybe they’re the same material as those original Star Trek uniforms. I checked the labels: lots of Rayon and Polyester. Actually, cotton is represented, but only as a part of a complex hybrid involving at least two other fabrics. C—’s attire is sort of like what a real bona-fide grownup would wear if he couldn’t afford new clothes. Wait … could these threads be hand-me-downs from his dad? No, couldn’t be that, because come to think of it, these clothes actually look a fair bit more stylish than what forty-somethings would ever wear. Could it be that C—’s wardrobe is actually cool? Hell, I don’t know. (I mean, how would I know?)

I had to ask C— where he got his weird boots. He said he got them from some old man and before he could wear them he had to pull out these funky inserts that were supposed to fix up the old man’s back. Those boots look like something out of an ancient still life oil painting, maybe of the Georgia O’Keefe vintage. I guess that fits: an art studio major ought to look like he came right out of some weird painting. C— always wears a pair of jeans with paint spattered all over them. He calls them “work pants.” Except that all his pants look like that and I don’t think he ever works. I mean, I guess he works in the sense that painting pictures is work, but it seems like he’s having too much fun to think of it that way. He likes to say, “I’m gonna head over to the studio and put the hammer down.” But he says this in a laughing way that implies “as if.”

The thing is, C— could probably afford a lot fancier duds if he wanted to—he might just have to cook once in a while instead of eating out every meal. Okay, I’ll give him a little credit: he went to Lucky’s the other day for a major shopping trip. Here’s what he bought, taken right from the receipt: “deli, chnk tuna, Campl soup, clam chowder, boysen prsvs, clam chowder, ll pnut btr, salami, mayonnaise, whp crm chs, tomato soup, bn/bac soup, mex salsa ml, campl soup, salami, olym rnd tp, kleenex, lettuce, non food, coke clas 6p, dr pepper.” I’m not sure what “olym rnd tp” is … I think it’s bread. And I know what the “non food” is: Velveeta.

The Penthouse Apartments are much nicer than La Loma, where I lived last year. I will confess that La Loma had one advantage, at least on paper: it had a pool. That said, I never so much as dipped a toe in that pool because on my first day I saw the neighbors giving their dog a bath in it. I don’t know why this bothered me so much; I guess I just wondered what else that pool was used for. It’s also the case that I never saw a single tenant swim in it ... what did these people know? My roommates steered clear too, other than one of them throwing up in it one night.

So, the Penthouse Apartments look pretty sharp, with their crisp blue doors against the white exterior walls. La Loma was this uniform ghastly green.  Also, the Penthouse has regular college-aged neighbors, instead of the blue-collar guys from last year, packed like ten to an apartment, who seemed to despise all college kids. Not that everybody here is a UCSB student. It turns out the guys next to us in #23 aren’t really college students per se—they’re all here for the English Extension program. One guy is Swiss, another Japanese, and the third Korean.

The Korean, A—, is really strange. He just cruises right into our apartment like he owns the place, and talks our ears off while picking up and inspecting all our belongings. On the plus side, he’s also very generous, feeding us tasty Korean dishes his mom somehow mails to him. (Freeze-dried, perhaps?) He also offers us free cigarettes, which we decline, and various Kent-branded chotchkies (pens, lighters, keychains) from his dad, who manages the Kent affiliate in Korea. A—’s English is surprisingly good, considering that he’s only been in the U.S. for eleven days. He complains that he doesn’t get along with his roommates very well. Apparently the Japanese guy hardly speaks a word of English, and the Swiss guy only speaks German—that’s all he needs, because he always has at least half a dozen other Swiss guys couch-surfing in the apartment and “borrowing” A—’s stuff.

Whoever it was at the housing office who thought it would be cute to put these guys together sure wasn’t thinking very clearly. As if it weren’t hard enough for a foreigner to adjust to a new country, each of these guys has to cope with three distinct cultures, all squeezed into that tiny space. Shouldn’t these people live with Americans so that they can learn the language the way we speak it? As it is, they’ll all probably reinforce each other’s mistakes. I guess it could be worse: they could be sharing a tiny apartment in La Loma.

Of course, the Penthouse isn’t without its problems. The door jamb is broken so we can’t lock the front door, and the “porch” light outside is full of water. The chandelier/fan unit in the kitchen hung too low, and I would always bump my head on it, so I finally got pissed and took the whole thing apart, and at least half a cup of orange water poured out. Good thing this was before we tried turning it on. After removing the lamp part for head clearance, we were left with these hanging wires, and theorized that when the maintenance guy, Calvin, would try to rewire the light next year he’d have to use trial and error, and could end up knocking out power for all of Isla Vista. So T—, being the electrical engineering major that he is, enclosed a schematic of the wiring before putting the thing back together.

The bathroom is really not this apartment’s best feature. Due to routine flooding I should probably invest in waterproof shoes. Check out the neat pattern on the sink tile. You know what that is? It’s human hair! Left over from last year’s tenants! Preserved, like a fossil, or a scorpion’s skeleton encased in amber! I think it’s actually set in epoxy; I’ve scoured and scoured but I can’t get rid of it. But now that I’m satisfied that this hair wont’ interact with me or any of my toiletries, I kind of like it.  It looks kind of cool! It could actually be decades old!

I’m not so happy about the sink itself. They gave us this little rubber plug that we have to shove in there whenever we run the water, whether we’re filling the sink or not, because otherwise the bathroom fills with this terrible raw sewage smell.

The toilet pretty much works, though it does slobber a little and of course overflows from time to time.  But a real bonus is that the seat isn’t cracked. You literally cannot cut your bottom on it. It is also attached pretty well; it doesn’t slide around like so many cheap apartment toilet seats.

Now, we’re not so lucky with the shower and tub. The lag time on the shower is devastating. You get the water temperature just right, then engage the shower head, and everything’s fine, and then suddenly the water is coming out scalding hot, it’s just blanching your flesh and you grope desperately with the controls to cool the water before all the skin melts off your body. And nothing changes, at least at first, and then suddenly it’s liquid nitrogen spraying on you, and you have to hold still lest you bump into the wall of the shower and have your arm shatter like glass. You go back and forth between boiling and freezing until you’re too scared to continue and just decide your shower is over. Now you find yourself standing in four inches of dirty, sudsy water, which forms grey rings around your ankles. The drain at this point is making sounds like a fat kid choking on a piece of chicken skin, fighting for air.

This bathtub drain seems to have a more or less infinite amount of human hair trapped in it from probably every past student ever to live here. Every morning I go at that drain with the plunger, and the drain vomits up another big clump. See that thing that looks like a rat? It’s just a big clump of hair! I haven’t thrown it out because I’m kind of hoping my roommates will step up and do it, in the spirit of fairness, since I’m the only one who ever plunges. I’ll admit that I’m actually just too scared to throw out the hairball ... I mean, what if I it turned out it was a rat?

But things are coming along. We’ve actually managed to score furniture. None of us owns any furniture at all, and in fact most UCSB students don’t own any furniture, but the landlords play this stupid little game where they pretend the place comes unfurnished. I guess they don’t have enough furniture to go around, so getting anything is like horse trading. Except we have nothing to trade, we just have to beg. Now the apartment is finally equipped: two desks (but no dressers), five chairs (two ripped; all heinous blue-green vinyl), three beds (none of them capable of being stacked as bunk beds, so they take up most of the single bedroom), and yes, the pride and joy of our furniture fleet: a sofa. That was really hard to get ... almost nobody gets a sofa just by asking. But the manager finally took pity on us when she saw T— sprawled out on the coffee table after eating too much. I’ll have to remember that as a tactic for next year!


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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

ECLIPSE 2017, BAYBEE!


Introduction

Oh, shit! I’ve only got an hour and a half to write about the big eclipse! If you missed it yourself, maybe I can help give you a sense of what it was like. And if you saw it in person, clearly you love a solar eclipse and this post is for you, too.

Total solar eclipse of Aug 21, 2017

I witnessed the eclipse from the Bay Area, or to be precise my house at 37.8851 latitude, -122.27531 longitude. (Well, that’s precise enough to give you the idea, without helping you burglarize my house.) Of course I could have found a better locale, but to be honest I put off my eclipse planning until the morning of. Local options, according to a helpful website, included Indian Rock Park, UC Berkeley, Civic Center park, the public library, and the Chabot Space & Science Center. Most of these recommendations centered around who else would be there (e.g., “There are sure to be gaggles of smart Cal students viewing the solar eclipse around campus”). While I can appreciate this—after all, the most fun part for me about touring Amsterdam’s Red Light District wasn’t watching the sad, ragged prostitutes but rather the Oklahoma hayseeds ogling them—astronomy really is more of a solitary activity, don’t you think?

Part of my decision came down to weather, of course. I wasn’t about to drag my family up to the Chabot Space & Science Center if the Berkeley hills were blanketed by fog, so at dawn I did a little recon of the area, by bicycle. (Full disclosure: I’d have ridden up there anyway.) Here’s what I found:


Dang it! I decided to avoid any kind of hassle and just watch from home. My hopes weren’t entirely dashed, though, as the forecast was for the fog to burn off by 10 a.m., with the eclipse starting at 10:15. It was going to be close.

At 10 sharp, with the sky still a uniform grey, I decided to wake up my kids. (Yeah, that kind of teenager, that kind of summer.) I made like this was gonna be epic. My younger daughter grabbed her camera. We headed out back. I’d set a timer to count down until 10:15, without telling my kids the inconvenient truth that they’d probably already missed a lot of it. To be honest, I was a little vague about the details myself. I knew I was supposed to get some kind of special viewing goggles, so that we could see a progressively larger bite being taken out of the sun before things got dark, but I never got around to procuring them. My wife was similarly useless.

Speaking of my wife, I’ll confess I have no idea where she even was for the eclipse. It’s possible she didn’t know what time or even day it was to transpire. She’s not a giant astronomy fan. Back in like ‘97 we were vacationing at Canyonlands National Park and my dad joined us. We went to this very remote place, far away from any lights or people, and my dad set up his telescope. For the next 2 or 3 hours (or so it felt) he gave us an astronomy lesson. I’m not a great lover of this subject myself; the only constellations I can make out are  the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt. My interest waned, at a very young age, after I found out my brother Max had lied to me about the Big Dipper. He said that meteorologists can predict rain based on whether the Dipper is right-side-up or upside-down. This seemed so incredibly useful that I couldn’t take the truth later. Plus, to a simple guy like me, the constellations seem like such bullshit. It takes so much imagination for this or that collection of stars to resemble something, you might as well just make it up from scratch. “There’s the Devil’s Skateboard over there, you see, and if you follow that line of stars up—there, you see that cluster there? That’s Dracula’s Harelip.”

So anyhow, my dad’s lesson was losing me entirely, I was suffering from museum knees, and then my wife heard a noise and turned on a flashlight to make a quick scan around us.  “Thanks a lot,” my dad chided, “you just ruined astronomy.” (The flashlight beam had spoiled our night vision, you see.) I’ll never let my wife live this down. If she ever suffers a setback I say, “Well, you are the woman who ruined astronomy.”

It’s tempting to say our poor eclipse preparations were a result of my intimidation in the face of science types, or my wife’s emotional scars from the Canyonlands episode, but the truth is, we’re just kind of disorganized. This poor parenting is particularly flagrant considering how well my dad had risen to the occasion for my last solar eclipse, which was in February 1979 and which I witnessed from my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. My dad, who was an actual rocket scientist, had equipped my brother Max and me with these cool little flat rectangles of smoked glass. If we stacked the two of them together, we could look right at the eclipse. This might not seem like a big deal in this modern day and age where everybody and her mom gets special eclipse glasses, but in those benighted days nobody had this. We were all just supposed to go outside and prance around and be excited until the darkness came.

And that’s what my less fortunate classmates were doing (the whole elementary school was let outside for this, and it was a brilliant sunny day) when they spied Max and me taking in the action and uttering spontaneous wow-cool noises. They crowded around and begged us to let them have a turn with our little glass pieces. This was unprecedented. I mean, sure, kids gathered around us on the playground all the time, but only to shout insults, pummel us, witness us being pummeled, and so on. They never gave us anything approaching friendly interest.

(You might think I’m exaggerating. I encountered a Bay Area native recently who has always thought of Boulder as a dreamy, hippie, flowery place where everybody is sweet and good and nice. I assure you that Boulder in the ‘70s was nothing of the kind. Schoolyard bullying was entirely tolerated and the place was full of vicious little bastards. Believe me.)

So this benign attention from my classmates was novel. Kids were actually saying “please” to me. And so, after I’d had my fill of the spectacle of the sun looking a bit like a progressively less full moon, I relented and allowed my friends a try. “Now here’s the thing,” I cautioned, “you can’t put one lens over each eye. You have to stack the little glass lenses together and look through the pair with just one eye.” (Actually, however I put it was surely less articulate than that.) I went on, “If you look through just one of them, you’ll be blinded!” My dad had driven this message home to Max and me, and we weren’t even tempted to push our luck. But my friends ignored this warning completely and put one lens over each eye.

“Man alive, that’s AMAZING!” they cried. Now they were set upon by the other kids, and of course my friends (all two of them) let their friends have a try, and they let their friends, or at least the more popular kids they wanted to curry favor with, and pretty soon half the school was getting a turn. I kind of wanted my lenses back, but the more pressing matter was that every single kid was doing it wrong, holding one lens up to each eye, so I knew the whole lot of them were going to go blind and it was all my fault. I could have yelled, “Stop it, you fools, you’ll go blind!” but I was just too shy.

Finally, some even quieter kid (who had probably been waiting in vain for a turn) said, “Isn’t everybody going to go blind?” I shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess.” This kid went running off to get the Principal, who came running out, horrified, and confiscated Max’s and my lenses. He eventually gave them back but on the condition that we only blind ourselves with them since we had our parents’ permission to do so. Ah, those were the days.

But Max and I only got the basic eclipse gear… for my brothers, Dad did something even cooler. He built this thingy that would attach to the non-eyepiece end of a telescope to turn it into a projector. Little wooden rods a few feet long attached to a white disk onto which an image of the eclipse would be projected. I don’t suppose this is actually a miracle of engineering, as I’ve just looked online and found similar (though frankly less elegant) versions depicted. But back then, nobody ever took initiative like this. Boulder dads were smart, I guess, but in my experience they were either absentminded professor types always puttering in the lab, or granola-loving hikers wandering around on trails, or the generic grunting type of dad who seemed to always be watching the Bronco or Buffs game. These men didn’t send their kids to school with a precious telescope, tripod, and handmade thingy to worry about breaking.

And so my older brothers, Geoff and Bryan, were even bigger heroes than Max and I were. The whole fricking junior high crowded around them as they assembled the amazing eclipse-viewing apparatus, and everybody oohed and aahed at the sight of that bitten-into sun. In fact, one teacher was overheard telling her colleague, “I heard Dr. Albert is an honest-to-god rocket scientist, plus he’s tall and has broad shoulders. I would sleep with him in a heartbeat.” I might be exaggerating a bit here, because a) I wasn’t actually there, this being at my brothers’ school, and b) I totally made that up. But it could have happened.

The newspaper showed up, and my brothers with their telescope apparatus made the front page—big photo, story, the whole bit!  The reporter spelled both their names wrong … I mean, he wasn’t even close. It was like “Brien and Gorrlfley,” almost like he deliberately got them wrong out of spite, or so it seemed to me back then.

Getting back to 2017, and this recent eclipse: when my timer chimed, indicating the official start of the totality, I yelled, “Kids, it has begun!” I tried to get them to prance around joyfully but they seemed a bit disappointed in the reality of the spectacle. At this point, special eclipse goggles would have been useless. What would we have even looked at? From across the fence I heard my neighbor yell, “Where’s the sun?”

Now, don’t think I didn’t bring any gear to the event. I did have my camera and made a movie. Look, here it is!


My favorite part of the eclipse was when my neighbor called out over the fence, “Dana, I’m so glad to have shared this profound experience with you.”

But the eclipse wasn’t over yet! I ran inside and called my brother Bryan. He was witnessing amazing things even as we spoke, having taken his lucky family on a long road trip to Culver, Oregon, near Bend (i.e., in the middle of nowhere). I tried to find Culver on Google Maps. “It’s near this hippie commune called Madras,” Bryan explained unhelpfully. Here’s the map.


Bryan was so excited. “Dude, did you see the Bailey’s Beads?” he asked. “Did you see the Diamond Ring?” I’d never heard of either of these phenomena in my life, but I confidently answered, “We did not.” He hadn’t either, somehow, despite everything else being perfect.

“It wasn’t pitch dark,” he said breathlessly, “but we could feel it getting colder. The streetlights came on. We could see planets, but not stars. We were supposed to see these snake-y shadow things, like snakes slithering over the ground. Maybe the hippies up in Madras could see those. It was so, so unbelievably cool. The shadow moves at 4,000 mph across the ground. We could see this mountain range in the distance that wasn’t dark yet.”

I asked about this thing only lasting for two minutes. That really didn’t match my memory of it. “No, it’s the total darkness that lasts for two minutes [you fricking moron],” he said. “The bite being gradually taken out of the sun takes like” (what did he say, an hour? two hours?). “I’m still watching the sun come back out from behind it, even as we speak [you ignorant fool]!”

I asked if he had protective goggles. “Yeah, stupid protective goggles!” he said. “They’re so lame, they’ve got these warnings all over them, across every printable surface, warning how dangerous this endeavor is, saying it every way they can think of, saying ‘Do not look for more than 3 minutes.’ Why not? I’m gonna look for an hour and then write them a letter!”

Here are a few of my nieces rocking their über-cool eclipse goggles:


I bemoaned my lost opportunity to travel to a good eclipse-viewing spot where I could inculcate in my offspring the majesty of the celestial heavens. “Well, there are lots of lunar eclipses you could watch with them,” Bryan offered. I made the mistake of admitting that I’m not real clear on what a lunar eclipse even is. He started to explain it, and I felt like a kid again. A stupid kid.

“You see, the Earth rotates around the sun on one plane. The moon rotates around the earth in a slightly different plane. When these line up you get an eclipse. So there’s the shadow of the moon that’s smaller than the earth, so it crosses over the humina humina humina and then there’s this arctangent and blah blah blah penumbra, and then over here you’ve got your lunar orbital plane 5.1 degrees from the ecliptic, and then [unintelligible], and you are getting very sleepy, keep your eyes on the swinging watch, you are going down, down, down….”

Suddenly my neck jerked. “Hello, hello, hello?” Bryan was asking. “Sorry, I was talking to Mute,” I said sheepishly. “So … tell me about your road trip. Tell me about the venue. [Tell me something I can grasp.]”

“Dude, so, you need to get signed up on Twitter, because NASA has some really cool stuff. I’ve seen countless lunar eclipses because I’ve been on guard for them,” Bryan said, apparently in earnest. So if there’s anything I’ve learned from this eclipse, it’s that there are even nerdier people in this world than I.

“[Enough with the lunar eclipse!] So tell me about your road trip,” I persisted. “Tell me about Culver.”

“Oh yeah! So we got here at like 3 a.m. No problem parking. Biggest issue is that the town didn’t really prep for the eclipse crowd. Fortunately there are 3 San-O-lets left over from the crawdad festival (kinda bummed I missed that), but they were totally overflowing, each with this mountain of crap almost up to the hole, and no toilet paper of course. That was pretty gross. On the plus side, the mayor came through with all these pans of cornbread, also left over from the crawdad festival, which she was trying to get people to take. We ended up accepting a 20x30-inch pan of cornbread which we ate with chili. It wasn’t bad. Apparently here in Oregon they believe that incarcerated people should work, so the cornbread was baked by prisoners.”

 “So you found all these files baked into it?” I asked. He replied, “Yeah, and wads of spit too. But good.”

That’s almost my entire story of the big eclipse. But then there was this sad epilogue yesterday evening. My older daughter was sitting at the computer looking really glum. My wife was concerned and trying to draw her out, to figure out the problem. College prep worries? A falling out with a friend? My wife was getting nowhere.

Finally I said, half-jokingly, “Is it the eclipse?” My daughter almost smiled. “It is, actually,” she said. She was touring the Internet reading about the eclipse and came across Randall Munroe’s xkcd cartoon about it. If you hover your mouse over the cartoon you get an extra caption: “It was—without exaggeration—the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.” Munroe is to my daughter what Justin Bieber is to most teenage girls, so this was a profound statement. It was dawning on my daughter just how much she’d missed out on by having a deadbeat, incurious, non-science-obsessed dad.

I had to make it up to her. So we looked up the next big eclipse, which hits Texas in 2024. We studied the eclipse path online. It goes right through Austin, a city I’ve always wanted to visit. “Look,” I told her, “your Uncle Peter raced on the national team with Lance Armstrong. Surely Lance will remember him. Lance has a place in Austin. A big ol’ ranch, I’ll bet. I’ll send a few e-mails, call in some favors, and get us invited.  I’m getting such an early start … surely this can be arranged. So. Count on it. You, me, Lance … ECLIPSE 2024, BAYBEE!”

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What’s in a [Domain] Name?


Introduction

A workplace mentor advised me to develop my “personal brand.” There is a part of me that instinctively recoils at this phrase, and yet it’s foolish to pretend it doesn’t apply. We tend to make an overall impression on people, and they attach this to our identities, whether we like it or not.

If a person is also a blogger, does this branding thing extend to his blog? Yes and no. I think too much is made of automatic associations with made-up words like “Acura” and “Xfinity.” (It’s not like IBM gave a ton of thought to their name, and yet nobody would doubt the power of that brand.) But a blog, above all else, needs to have a memorable name—and mine, I have long feared, does not. I’ve now fixed that, as I’ll explain here. Just for fun, I’ve done so with a poem, replete with footnotes and commentary.

(If you want to skip the background and go straight to a list of new domain names that will take you to this blog, hit Ctrl-F and search this page for “The full list.”)

The Poem

What’s in a [Domain] Name?

I’ve done this almost eight and one half years—
This blog, that is, this thing called albertnet.                               2
Four hundred posts, on food and bikes and gears…
And yet I’m neither rich nor famous yet.
I’ve wondered if the problem is its name.
A brand is crucial, from the start I knew.                                     6
But all the best domain names had been claimed,
So “albertnet-dot-U-S” had to do.
The problem is, this name rolls off the tongue—
But backwards, down your throat so it gets lost,                      10
Caught up with sundry nonsense words among
Old slogans, songs, and other mental dross.
So even if you find you like my stuff,
You have to find, and find again, my site.                                 14
While “albertnet” itself is bad enough,
That “dot-U-S” is true mnemonic blight.
     So now I have, despite a bit of pain,
     Become the master of my own domain.                                18

Footnotes & Commentary

Title – what’s in a name

I hope it’s not necessary to point out that this is from Juliet’s soliloquy in Romeo and Juliet. The full couplet from the Capulet (sorry, couldn’t resist) is, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” And so this blog would, were it not albertnet called, retain that [attempt at] [near] perfection which it owes without that title.

Line 1: almost

I say “almost,” but in fact as I type this my blog is exactly 8½ years old. But I started this post days ago, so by now, as you read it, it’s certainly more than 8½ years old, possibly (ideally) decades old. I’m thinking now of Paul Simon’s lines, “I was 21 years when I wrote this song/ I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long.” But I digress.

Line 2: this thing

The phrase “this thing” is of course an allusion to the song “Radar Love.” Remember that? “We’ve got a thing, that’s called radar love.”

But “thing” here also makes a point: albertnet isn’t actually a blog. “Blog” is short for “web log” and consists, according to Wikipedia, “of discrete, often informal diary-style text entries (‘posts’).” I have no interest in keeping a public log of my life. Such a thing seems gratuitously, indulgently self-absorbed. And obviously I err on the side of formality with these fully-formed, heavily edited essays. So albertnet is more of a … thing. A thing that’s called reader love. (God, that’s just terrible. And it’s not even true: no offense, but I don’t love you, not most of you anyway, whoever you are. I love writing. Your attention, if any, is just collateral damage.)

Line 3: four hundred posts

In fact, this is my 409th post. Yes, I cut a corner there by rounding down in order to preserve the meter of my poem. So sue me.

By the way, if you do the math, you’ll see that with 409 posts across 8½ years I’ve averaged 4.009 posts per month, thus succeeding (though barely) at my main goal for this blog.

Line 3: food and bikes and gears

The popularity of men’s magazines like Gear and Stuff, along with the hundreds of similar magazines with less blatant titles, is clearly related to humankind’s love of physical objects that can be coveted, researched, shopped for, purchased, and enjoyed (and ultimately discarded, which reboots the whole process). I’ve often thought that I could attract more readers if I blogged more about gear. But screw that, I’d rather blog about gears, with an “s”—that is, arcane things like bike gearing. Why blog about something boring like a teakettle when you can lead the reader into the heart of darkness that is the intersection of gearing and ego?

Line 4: neither rich nor famous

This isn’t completely true. In reality I’m pretty flush, at least compared to your average journalist. Never mind that roughly $0.00 of my wealth comes from this blog. And though I’m not famous, albertnet does get lots of pageviews, especially from Russia and the Ukraine.

Line 5: its name

The friend who inspired me to start a blog had his own, called travelgadgets.com or some such thing. At least my blog’s name didn’t have to convey what the blog was about. I never intended to write on any particular topic and I never have. Further simplifying my task, I knew any name involving “Dana” was out, thanks to the good folks over at Dana Incorporated.


Line 7: best domain names

You know, the really catchy domain names like yahoo.com, google.com, newyorker.com … they’d all been snapped up.

Line 8: dot-U.S.

I actually can’t remember now whether albertnet.com, albertnet.org, etc. had been claimed when I named my blog. Presumably I’d have opted for .com or .net but I may have decided that would be redundant based on the “-net” in albertnet which, to old school nerds, indicates network. I just asked my teenager what “dot-net” means to her and she said “Absolutely nothing.” She can’t recall ever seeing a URL ending in .net. So, yeah, I probably overthought that.

Looking back, I do remember thinking .us was cool because it was shorter. I used to care about that stuff because people used to type instead of just tapping links.

Line 12: songs

I wonder how much more stuff we could remember if we hadn’t filled up our read-only memory with rock music lyrics. Why do I still have most of “Mr. Roboto” still memorized? I never even liked that song!

Line 14: find and find again

You might think I flatter myself by supposing anybody would stumble across an albertnet post and then try to find my blog again later. You’d be wrong on two counts. First, I don’t actually believe this happens. Second, I have evidence that it does, at least from time to time. Looking through the pageview log, I can see what phrases people googled that led them (back) to my blog. This can be very amusing.

My all-time favorite such search phrase is “sunburned toad peeking out of the snow.” Whoever googled that was clearly remembering one of the more graphic images from my vasectomy post. His logic in searching on the very most specific phrase possible is impeccable, but he could have just as easily googled “california vasectomy law,” which for many years featured my post as its first search result.

Perhaps you yourself have stumbled upon my blog and, though you might want to find it again, can’t be bothered to memorize my name (i.e., you can’t just google “dana albert blog”). Fair enough. Here’s a list of search phrases that, if you google them, will feature one of my posts within the first page of search results:
  • lance eminem (1st result listed)
  • inner tubes fascinating (also 1st)
  • sunburned toad vasectomy (1st)
  • vasectomy jackstones (1st)
  • vasectomy “god gave me grace” (1st)
  • how to write a sonnet kinkade (1st)
  • highbrow vs. lowbrow museum avatar (1st)
  • glutted by campaign signs (1st)
  • “campaign signs” metallica (1st)
  • tire chains seething (1st result is my East Bay Times story; my blog post is 5th)
  • vasectomy 25-cent bic (2nd result listed)
  • world record berkeley cycling (2nd)
  • corn cob sonnet (2nd)
  • corn cob pie plate bike (2nd)
  • missy giove acne (3rd)
  • highbrow vs. lowbrow museum (3rd)
  • how to write a sonnet right wrong (3rd)
  • dvorak hemorrhaging efficiency (3rd)
  • cowboy sam review (4th)
  • corn cob bike bling (4th)
  • simplex retrofriction (5th)
  • corn cob bicycle (5th)
  • cowboy sam (5th)
  • inner tubes roulette (5th)
  • everest challenge cycling gluttony (5th)
  • cycling shoes cat butt (6th)
  • velominati BS (6th)
  • simplex shifters (7th)
  • how to write a sonnet (7th)
  • vasectomy mojo (10th)
Any of those searches will get you back to my blog, whether or not they take you to the post you’re looking for and/or the latest stuff. From my home page you can search the blog by keyword, or choose from the pull-down lists of labels I’ve applied to posts:


(There are a lot more labels than shown above. The complete list of labels is alphabetized but you see the ones above due to the quotation marks.)

Line 15: “albertnet” itself

Actually, there’s a benefit that I hadn’t predicted with the made-up word “albertnet”: it makes a really effective search term if you’re looking for a specific albertnet post. If you ever want to see what I’ve had to say about [TOPIC X], you can Google “albertnet [TOPIC X]” and the first search hit is bound to be a link to my post on [TOPIX X]. (No, I haven’t blogged about an actual topic called “[TOPIC X].” You’re meant to substitute an actual topic. For example, if you want to see my blog post about giraffes, Google “albertnet giraffes.”)

This works for photos, too. If you want to see my photos of Death Valley, for example, Google “albertnet death valley” and click on the first search result, or click the “image search” link.

Line 16: dot-U-S … mnemonic blight

That isn’t an exaggeration. Even family members who remember the “albertnet” part have gotten hung up on the dot-U-S bit. I guess it’s just not intuitively obvious to your average joe that .us is a legit domain extension. So they’ll try albertnet.com and it won’t work, and then they’re like, “Oh, dot-U-S, I see. Wow, that is so weird!

But don’t worry, I’ve fixed this, and I’m about to tell you how.

Line 17: bit of pain

My fix has been years in the making, and involved a task I’ve long dreaded and procrastinated over, though in the end it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.

Line 18: master of my own domain

This would be a rather grandiose claim to make were it not completely true. To be precise, I’m now the webmaster of my domain, danaalbert. For many years somebody else owned it, but never actually pointed it at anything (see “bit of pain” above). And then he or she either decided to relinquish it or forgot to pay his or her registrar bill, because danaalbert became available and—having kept an eye on its status this whole time—I snapped it up. I also grabbed some other extensions for albertnet. After sitting on them for a couple years, I was nudged into action by the sudden availability of a new top-level domain, .blog, and after snapping up albertnet.blog I finally got down to business and put all my domains into use. So, effective immediately, you can now get to my blog through any of a number of intuitive URLs, given below.

The full list

All of the following domains now redirect automatically to www.albertnet.us (i.e., this blog):
Those will work with our without www and/or http:// at the beginning. And, of course, they will work from any computer, smartphone, or tablet on the Internet (barring firewall or WiFi network restrictions, of course).

Frequently asked questions 
  • Q. Right off the bat, I’m wondering if these questions are actually “frequently asked,” since you seem to have fielded them before even posting this…. 
    • A. Aha, you caught me! You’re right, in fact these questions have never been asked by anybody but me. (Now, not to burst your bubble or anything, but this fake question thing is standard operating procedure for advice columnists.)
  • Q. Can anybody else in the entire world use the danaalbert or albertnet domains for their own purposes? 
    • A. Nope, not unless they settle for a really lame top-level domain (e.g., danaalbert.xyz, albertnet.biz).
  • Q. You mean to tell me that not even The Donald could use these domains? 
    • A. Nope. He could hire a company to try to convince me to part with them, but he’d have to pay a pretty penny.
  • Q. Wait a second. There is an actual rock star named Dana Albert. Do you mean to tell me even he doesn’t get to use danaalbert.com, .net, .us, or .org? 
    • A. Yep, believe it!
  • Q. Will www.albertnet.us still work? 
    • A. You betcha!
  • Q. Will http://albertnet.us work (i.e., without the www part)? 
    • A. Nope, never did. Not sure why.
  • Q. Will, say, http://albertnet.blog work? 
    • A. Yep, like I said, all these new ones will work with our without the http:// and/or www.
  • Q. Will these all work until the end of time? 
    • A. Yes, so long as I remember to pay my bill with the registrar.
  • Q. Will you ever retire the albertnet domain in favor of danaalbert? 
    • A. No, based on the usefulness of albertnet as a search term (as described above), and because it’s possible some readers have bookmarked my original blog address, I’ll leave well enough alone.
  • Q. Does danaalbert.com work as this kind of search term? 
    • A. Not as well, though it does work somewhat. Your mileage may vary, so stick with albertnet as your search term—it’s easier to type anyway.
  • Q. Is there anything the albertnet search term won’t produce an essay about? Like, could I google “albertnet lotion sniper” and there would actually be a post about lotion snipers? 
    • A. Well, there are still some topics I haven’t yet blogged about (though “lotion snipers” isn’t one of them). If you should come up empty, just e-mail me and maybe I’ll do that topic next!
  • Q. I appreciate your effort here, but it still seems as though I couldn’t possibly remember any of these domains. Is there any other way for me to find your blog if I’ve forgotten its name? 
    • A. If you remember my name, you can Google “dana albert blog” and the first search result will be my blog. Otherwise, refer to the list above of easy search strings (e.g., “cowboy sam”) that will take you directly to my blog.
  • Q. It seems almost unbelievable that of all the Dana Alberts in the world, you’re the only one who managed to snap up all these groovy domains for himself. Do you have naked pictures of God or something? 
  • Q. I heard a rumor that you’re going to revamp the Complete albertnet Index. Is that true? 
    • A. Well, recently I updated it after falling years behind. I’m also going to reorder the posts so that the newest ones are at the top. When I get some time I plan to improve the list of category names so that they’re each hyperlinked to the section headings. Keep an eye on the albertnet index post for details! 
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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Strong Placebos


Introduction

Where placebos are concerned, I’m something of a believer. In this post I examine the placebo effect itself; non-deceptive (aka “open label”) placebos; non-ingested placebos; machine-oriented placebos; nocebos; and what I’ll call the “hypothetical reverse-placebo” effect.


What I believe about placebos

I believe that a placebo—that is, a non-drug substance like a sugar pill being used in place of real medicine—can sometimes work if the person taking it has any faith whatsoever that it will. When I say “sometimes” I don’t mean “it’ll work some of the time,” but rather that certain maladies, or at least the perception of them, can be treated with hope alone (in the guise of medicine). There is evidence that this is the case, and I’ll get to that. But first, I have a few examples of my firsthand empirical success with placebos.

The first is Airborne, the so-called immune system supplement. I would never have tried this product on my own. My wife bought it once, and I humphed and hawed and studied the packaging with extreme skepticism. Well, it has Echinacea, I reasoned, which pregnant women aren’t supposed to take, and use of Echinacea for immune system support has at least some research behind it, such as this.  On that basis I tried out the Airborne, and found it fizzy and kind of yummy, and insofar as I didn’t get sick afterward, I decided maybe its benefit is real.

On that basis, my “evidence” wasn’t much better than that joke about the guy on the bus holding an imaginary box, from which he pinches an imaginary powder that he then flings around in the air, and then a fellow passenger says, “What are you doing?” and he says, “It’s to keep away lions!” To which the fellow passenger says, “There are no lions on this bus!” and the guy says, “See? It’s working!”

But there’s possibly more to this Airborne thing. Often I think I’m getting sick, and I figure it couldn’t hurt to take some Airborne. And on several occasions when I was sure I was getting sick, I took it and then rallied. But couldn’t I have been wrong about starting to get sick in the first place? Yeah, sure. But it’s such a relief to keep a virus at bay, I’m willing to ingest a fizzy drink that purports to help, just in case it somehow does. Meanwhile, I’ve sometimes had a virus last for days and days when I didn’t take Airborne, and other times my cold seemed to go away faster after I took it. I haven’t kept great notes or anything—this is all anecdotal—and yet I feel there’s a correlation, or at least there could be.

Sure, Airborne has a silly story (“Invented by a teacher!” as if teachers knew anything about pharmacology) and sure, the Airborne company was sued for false advertising … I don’t really care. If they called themselves medicine they’d be hucksters, but what they’re really purveying is hope.

(Does the house-brand of Airborne work? Too early to tell … my wife bought some recently and I’ve just getting into my one-subject clinical trials. In general I trust generic drugs so I’m optimistic. And really, if you have optimism about a placebo, what more do you need?)

Moving along, I have good results with the Camelbak Elixir tablets.  This product claims to be an electrolyte source, which automatically aroused my suspicion when I first heard of it. Energy drinks claim to be a source of electrolytes, but generally have only a tiny amount of sodium and even less potassium. A gallon of Gatorade has only 6% of your daily requirement of potassium. (You can get that much potassium from four ounces of orange juice.) The other common electrolytes—magnesium, chloride, calcium, phosphate, and bicarbonate—aren’t even listed on the label.

All that being said, a pal recommended the Camelbak tablets for recovery after bike rides, and I was just desperate enough to try them.  Desperate?  Yep.  I have this problem of totally sucking on the second day when I ride two days in a row. It’s particularly bad on the second stage of the Everest Challenge bike race—to the point that on one occasion I actually got dizzy and thought I made have to abandon. So finally, the last time I did this race, I gave the Camelbak tablets a try, and—Eureka!—finally had a good second stage.

You might be wondering how I could believe in this product, given what I said about its mere trace amount of electrolytes. In fact, the Camelbak Elixir has just 2.3% of the US recommended daily allowance for potassium and 3% for magnesium.  That said, it does have some manganese, which could be useful. Wikipedia says, “Manganese is an important element for human health, essential for development, metabolism, and the antioxidant system.” But I learned that after the fact. My belief in the product comes simply from its having seemed to work.  (Full disclosure—Camelbak used to sponsor my bike team, and gave us free product.)

Because I’m not convinced that Airborne and the Camelbak tablets are based on real science, I refer to both as “placebo.”  Like, I’ll ask my wife, “Hey, do we have any of those placebos?” and she’ll know I’m talking about Airborne. Or on my recent Tahoe cycling weekend I told my pals, “Hey, I brought a tube of those Camelback placebo tablets.” My pals happily partook, without challenging my “placebo” label.

Look, I’m not an idiot. (Or at least, my position on placebos doesn’t by itself prove that I’m an idiot.) I rightly hold that homeopathic medicine is a total crock, and I believe that declining to immunize one’s child is tantamount to reckless endangerment. (If a person wants to try out questionable quasi-medicine on himself, that’s one thing—but putting one’s child at risk based on wacky beliefs is totally different.)

I believe in real medicine. But I also acknowledge that some things work without anybody understanding exactly why. As mentioned here, a chemist won the Nobel Prize for figuring out how aspirin works, like 90 years after it was discovered, and scientists still don’t think they understand aspirin completely. So if there’s some reason—any reason—to believe that something could work, I’ll might try it, so long as it’s not standing in for a proven medicine that I ought to be using instead.  And I limit my placebo use to scenarios involving a subjective experience of suffering.

Non-deceptive placebos

Some time ago I stumbled across an article about how patients being given a placebo found it effective even when they were told that it was only a placebo. I’ve just corroborated this with a little research, turning up multiple articles, eight of which read all the way through.  In case you are curious, here are links to them:  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8

That first link is to the original research, published in December of 2010, concerning irritable bowel syndrome. It’s a good start, though the study had had only 80 subjects. The researchers “tested whether open-label placebo (non-deceptive and non-concealed administration) is superior to a no-treatment control with matched patient-provider interactions” and found that 60% of patients receiving an open-label placebo reported relief from symptoms, vs. 35% who received nothing. That’s right, 6 out of 10 patients got good results from knowingly taking mere placebos.

That’s the good news about non-deceptive placebos. The bad news is that articles 2 thru 7 are all based on the same original study, so they don’t support it so much as reiterate it. Moreover, articles 4 thru 6 were published in 2016, and article 7 came out this year … which suggests no other studies on this subject have been done since the first one, almost seven years ago. I’d have more faith in this study if it had been replicated by somebody else. (This begs an interesting question: if I persist in believing in a study’s findings, even if they’ve not been substantiated, does that make the study itself an intellectual placebo?)

Article number 8, by the way, is a wacky “n=1” study (that’s right, just one subject) about a guy who takes placebo pills to alleviate writer’s block. As somebody who doesn’t have time for writer’s block, I’m going to lump that one in with homeopathic medicine.

Non-ingested placebos

Placebos aren’t limited to what you can swallow. This landmark study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that patients who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery fared no better than a placebo group, whose knees had incisions made but nothing else done to them (just instruments being handed around and saline “splashed to simulate the sounds of lavage”). This and other studies are described in this New York Times article, and the results were later replicated, as described here. The conclusions are twofold: 1) arthroscopic knee surgery isn’t very effective; 2) the very idea of knee surgery does provide some relief.

Fortunately, I can’t comment personally on the sham knee surgery thing; my closest experience with knee pain is the kind you can treat with ice. But I do have a ton of experience with a putatively pressure-point-based hiccups cure (click here for details) that might be more of a placebo thing. I’ve had excellent results with this cure for almost three decades, and I’m tempted to believe that it’s grounded in something physiological. 

But I’m not convinced, because the mere idea of this remedy is enough to cure my brother Geoff’s hiccups. We rented an apartment together in the late ‘80s, and worked together too, so I was always around when he got the hiccups, which was frequently. Knowing that this cure worked for him, I’d command him to stop hiccupping whenever he started up. The command alone was enough—he never even needed to apply the pressure to his finger! In fact, he eventually got kind of pissed off, because he wanted to have a sustained case of the hiccups from time to time, just to remember what it was like—but I’d never let him. Either this hiccups cure has a placebo component, or my authoritative command to stop was scary enough to cure his hiccups. (That was a joke, BTW.)

Machine-oriented placebos

Can a placebo work on a machine? Not exactly, but a human can enjoy a placebo effect from changes to a machine. I’m talking here about changes to our vehicles, primarily. This has come up a few times around bicycle wheels. Sure, if you put lighter wheels on a bike, it will take measurably less energy to accelerate it or propel the bike up a hill. That’s not a placebo. But not all technological changes have such a straightforward, undeniable benefit.  If we decide to believe a manufacturer’s claims, and then can “feel” the difference, but the improvement is really just hype, than we are enjoying a placebo effect, without having done anything to ourselves or ingested anything.

Case in point: my friend John bought some fancy new wheels for his racing bike recently, and explained their features and benefits thus:  
The bike shop owner described in detail the spoke lacing and why it had more “lateral stiffness blah blah when out of the saddle, but had more [unintelligible] when in the saddle.” I was all, “Really?  Cool….” The rear rim is “asymmetrical” in profile. Something about making it so spoke tensions are equal on drive side and non-drive side. Anyway, the result is new wheels on my bike, and… they feel great!  I kept trying to figure out what I was really feeling and what I was trying to convince myself of because I’d just spent a bunch of money.  I have to say they feel way smoother in multiple ways.  The most noticeable is that little bumps and cracks in the road are now less jarring, probably due mostly to the much wider rim.  I feel like they roll better too, but I could be making that up.
I myself am a believer in these wider rims, though I have to take it on faith that they really improve the ride. I went with these fat rims purely on the recommendation of ten or so bike pals who recommended them (details here.) Right away I could feel the difference … but was I perceiving anything real?  I told my dad, a former rocket scientist and engineer, about these fat rims and how the change they make to the tire profile makes the ride better (etc.), and my dad said (in a calm but authoritative voice, as if holding back exasperation), “I don’t see why they would.” More recently I put the question to a friend who’s a professor of mechanical engineering, and he also seemed puzzled at how a wider rim would improve the ride. I still do feel better on these wheels, but I don’t know enough to say where the design basis for this improvement lies along the spectrum between snake oil and aspirin.

Nocebos

In describing nocebos, Wikipedia is insistent on this point:  “We can never speak in terms of simulator-centered ‘nocebo effects,’ but only in terms of subject-centered ‘nocebo responses.’” Whatever, dudes. The point is, just as you can have a presumably unwarranted positive response to a non-drug, you can similarly unwarranted negative side effects from the same non-drug, or outsized side effects from a real drug. Prior to embarking upon this post, I’d never heard of this, but I guess it makes sense. This Times article nicely fleshes out the topic. For example, it describes how patients warned of erectile dysfunction as a side effect of a specific drug were three times as likely to suffer it.

In fact, I have firsthand experience of the nocebo effect—er, response—as well. The other night, I was suffering from some pretty bad hayfever, and I decided that my normal placebo—generic Zyrtec—wouldn’t be enough. (Even though Zyrtec has a bona fide active ingredient, it seems to make so little difference in my symptoms, I’ve decided it’s more of a placebo than anything. If this seems silly to you, consider this Times article about how hard the Claritin manufacturer had to work to get FDA approval, because the FDA medical officer declared it was “not very different than placebo clinically.”) Wanting real relief, I brought out the big guns: generic Benadryl. This drug has always worked wonders on my allergies, though its principal side effect—the near inability to wake up the next morning—is a beast.

Well, the drug did its job: my allergy symptoms were completely wiped out, though I had a really hard time getting up the next morning. My head was all muddy and I was stumbling around in the bathroom for quite a while trying to get my deodorant applied and my contact lenses put in. And then I spied something that kind of amazed me: the little pink generic Benadryl tablet, sitting there on our little bathroom shelf, uneaten.

I have no doubt this was the very tablet I thought I’d consumed, as it had been the last one in the package. So the antihistamine benefit, along with my Benadryl hangover, were both based on belief alone … a placebo paired with a nocebo.

Reverse-placebo effect?

This begs an interesting question: could the benefit of a drug be retroactively hampered by the suggestion that it was only a placebo? For example, if you suffered from appendicitis and had your appendix removed, and then were told later the surgery had been a sham … could your pain come back? In other words, is there any such thing as a reverse-placebo effect? Could you ruin the effect of a legitimate drug, or the results of an actual surgery, by telling the patient he hadn’t actually received it?

I don’t see any practical value in such a thing, but it would be an interesting thing to study.  Perhaps some silver-tongued professor or researcher is able to drum up some research funding. For what it’s worth, my recent experience with the generic Benadryl suggests that the placebo effect, along with the nocebo response, were unaffected by lifting the veil. I put the unconsumed tablet back in the package, shrugged, and continued to enjoy an allergy-free but decidedly hungover morning. But then, as I said, I’m a placebo believer.

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.