Tuesday, October 31, 2017

From the Archives - Seeking Office Work, or “I Played Myself”


Introduction

Back in college, I wrenched at bike shops to support myself. When I transferred from UCSB to Berkeley, I was feeling all fancy and thought maybe I could trade in my shop apron for a nice button-down shirt and make lots more money working in nice clean offices, doing word processing and database stuff (which required skills that, back then, were somewhat rare). This essay, from my archives, describes my job hunt, with copious asides about language skills and my hapless efforts to pick up chicks.

(Postscript: when I failed to find office work, I went right back to working at a bike shop. It was my destiny.)


Language Arts Field Study - August 1, 1990

It’s weird: I’m getting a degree in English, but I’m not learning very much about how language actually works. So I’ve been trying to learn how to communicate out “in the field”—i.e., in the real world. If I manage to edify myself, maybe I’ll try to figure out how to get some college credit for my efforts.

At the Manpower Temporary Service where I sought work, they spoke in special “temp” clichés. One such cliché is “temp” itself, which means “a person employed by a temporary service” who earns money by “temping.” Manpower employs entire sentences that are themselves clichés. “What is your biggest interpersonal strength?” was a rote question, read right off the intake form by the Manpower woman. Though I recognized this as a stock question, I felt like putting them on the spot for a change, so I said, “I’m not sure I understand.”

The woman rattled off a list of stock responses that were also clichés which I didn’t understand, so I was forced to reply in simple English: “I work well with people who are stressed out. At least, I don’t tend to make them angrier.” She searched her mental cliché bank and said, “Oh, ‘communication.’” Just like that, she listed “communication” as my greatest strength. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. I sometimes don’t communicate very well at all. The problem is mechanical. When I’m under stress, sometimes my vocal chords seem to dry up completely and are replaced by a flute reed, so my voice comes out pathetic and whistling and ineffectual. So, that bit I said earlier about working well with stressed-out people? That doesn’t include myself. So it’s probably a completely false claim, come to think of it.

Things went a bit better at the second agency I went to, Kelly Services. Yes, it’s Kelly as in “Kelly girl.” I’m aware that Kelly tends to prefer girls, but at least I have a girl’s name. Plus, I run, throw, and type like a girl. My brother says I even shoot baskets like a girl, with one leg swinging back from the knee, girlishly. I don’t really care who compares me to a girl as long as I start making the big bucks.

Kelly interviewed me more casually, without obviously using a preprinted list of questions. The dialogue felt more social and didn’t involve as many clichés—or did I just not notice them because I had hit my stride and was slinging them expertly myself? No matter … I was much less flummoxed than at Manpower. Who knows, maybe I was just less intimidated, because I didn’t have big, bold notions like “Man” and “Power” hovering around me. Just “Kelly,” which come to think of it can be a boy’s name, too.

The only problem is, Kelly Services requires its employees to work for 40 hours before getting free training. Which is, of course, a catch-22. After all, how can they place me in an office when I haven’t been trained? I guess I could start with something really menial, like filing. But that didn’t work out so well with Manpower. The first would-be gig Manpower offered me was “collating data.” I didn’t know what this meant, but it sounded high-tech and complicated. I tried to stall for time, on the phone with the Manpower recruiter, while I looked up “collate” in the dictionary. I couldn’t find it in time (I thought its spelling began C-O-A-L) so I had to turn down the gig. I only figured out that it meant basic filing after it was too late to accept the assignment.

Fortunately, when I interviewed at Kelly I came equipped with plenty of word processing experience, having used WordStar 3.3 for years. This software wasn’t listed on the application form, though, so I had to check the box next to WordStar 5.5. I was thinking, like, how different could they be? The answer is: very. I had to take a test on 5.5, complete with decimal tabulations, funky temporary margins, and other jumps through the proverbial hoop. I was forced to completely wing it, and hoped that the time I wasted scratching my head would be offset by my blazing typing speed.

I got the results back and only qualified for a Category IV ranking, which seemed like a disaster. After all, my only context for “Category IV” was Bikespeak. In bike racing circles, a Category IV is the scum, the newcomer, the very bottom of the barrel. But it turns out that in Tempspeak, the ranking is the other way around: Category IV is the highest ranking. The woman who interviewed me seemed impressed and waived the 40‑hour work requirement for free training, so today I went in for my first free training session, so I could learn a word processing program that offices actually use.

In my personal definition, “knowing a word processing program” means having so much experience with it that even the most complex operation is as automatic as the beating of my heart. With this in mind, I figured training in industry-leading WordPerfect would take a really long time, as in a week or two. I figured that winging it with WordStar 5.5 was only a temporary expedient, a computer one‑night‑stand, useful only for convincing the Kelly folks that I’d processed words before. But I was wrong: the standards that Kelly Services uses (and hence, their customers as well) are much more liberal. Apparently no office ever expects a temp to know anything, and trumped-up résumés are expected. And Kelly was all about trumping up my résumé.

What the hell am I talking about? Am I communicating this to you effectively? What is “this”? Okay, here’s what I’m getting at: in about an hour I completed the entire battery of WordPerfect training, and tested at Category IV with what Theresa, my supervisor, said was quite possibly the highest score she’d ever seen. She said only one other person she’s ever tested made Category IV. I left the office totally pumped. Do you know this word “pumped”? I never heard it used in Colorado, so I will assume it’s Californiaspeak. It means about the same thing as “stoked.” I figured with that rare Cat IV rating I would be pulling in big bucks in no time, just by waiting near the phone for assignment after plush, indoor, air-conditioned assignment.

I strode out to my parked bicycle, kind of floating above the sidewalk, soaring on a thermal of pure optimism, thinking divine thoughts like, “Dana Albert. Category IV. Yeah. That kind of temp.” In fact, I even did a fist-pump. O, what a rarified form of communication this is. It doesn’t even require a mouth: it’s non-verbal. I learned it only recently. Here’s what you do. Simply extend your forearm, palm up and parallel to the ground, with your bicep roughly 45 degrees to the forearm. Then make a fist and draw it straight back (keeping the forearm parallel to the ground) until it slides in right next to your belly (within a plane perpendicular to that of your chest, of course). The fist‑pump, I’ve learned, used to be accompanied by either silence or the somewhat stupid‑sounding exclamation “Boom, baby!” But now I sometimes do it with a quiet “Eeeyyyyeeessss!” This is kind of an elongated “yes.” It’s stretched out in the way that holy rollers can drag three syllables out of “Jesus” (i.e., “Juh-HEEE-zuss!”).

I rode home, parked my bike, plopped down in a chair, and waited for the phone to ring. This is the natural next step in the temporary service employment process. But the phone didn’t ring. It didn’t ring all afternoon, and it still didn’t ring the whole next day, or the day after that. This temp thing was supposed to be more lucrative than fixing bikes, but of course that’s only when on-the-clock, which I had yet to be. I sat around my apartment losing money for about a week before starting to worry that “Cat IV” doesn’t actually mean anything. It began to dawn on me that perhaps the recruiter had been exaggerating about my performance on the word processing test. I realized, with a pang, that she’d been lying through her teeth about the uniqueness of my WordPerfect abilities. And why would she do this? To boost my confidence, of course, so that in my first ten minutes at my first assignment I wouldn’t disgrace myself, and my temp agency, with the flute-reed-voice.

Finally I got a gig, but it wasn’t based on my WordPerfect abilities. It was a half-day stint as a receptionist in the University of California Office of the President in downtown Oakland. I was coached quickly in Receptionistspeak, which involves smoothly and glibly lying through your teeth. “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, but Bill has just stepped out of his office for a moment. Can I take a message and have him get back to you?” (Bill has told you in advance, even making a throat-cutting gesture for emphasis, not to put Mr. Smith through, and will under no circumstances get back to Mr. Smith, ever.)

I’m still somewhat weak with this language, because the incredibly long silent spells inherent in the job turned my vocal chords to mush and warped my sense of time. Perhaps the lack of phone interactions made me a bit crazy, all that dead silence, so I was trying to wring as much out of the rare call as I could. I haven’t fully grasped my own motives, but suffice to say my speech during these calls dribbled quietly and lackadaisically out of my mouth. With a bit of the right twang I reckon I could have even passed for a Southerner. This slow speech had a profoundly unsettling effect on the frenzied caller, who invariably had a deadline which he’d never make if enough people like me lacked his swift pace.

Fortunately, of the five floors of the Kaiser Building that the University of California occupies, my floor was the quietest so I spent most of my short receptionist career just sitting at the hugest desk you’ve ever seen, staring blankly down the hallway into which the elevators spill, listening to the only noise perceptible to me, which was a fan or humidifier or something. My responses became so dulled that whenever somebody called or asked me something, I played myself.

The expression “I played myself” is another one I never heard in Colorado, so I’ll chalk it up as more Californiaspeak. It means, near as I can figure, “I acted in such a manner as to fail in achieving my goal, and in such dramatic fashion as to rob myself of most of my self‑esteem, which of course will increase my chances of repeating this failure.” The term is most frequently used to describe errors made with a member of the opposite sex, generally resulting in being ignored or even told off (that is, being “shut down”) by said member of the opposite sex.

Notably, the emphasis with the term “I played myself” is on the fact that the person who played himself is totally at fault. In contrast, if a girl shut you down for no good reason while you were behaving perfectly, of course you didn’t play yourself. To describe this latter situation, you would use the Spanish idiomatic expression, “Dio me calabazas.” I pronounce this, for better or for worse, “Da meh caleh-BASS-us” because that’s how it’s pronounced by my gringo friends, who turned me on to the phrase. Its literal translation into English is “she gave me pumpkins” but its meaning is that which I have described above. Perhaps this is because pumpkins are almost worthless, making the statement roughly equivalent to “She gave me nothing in return for all the goodness I showed to her.”

The beauty of this expression is that its all‑too‑frequent use has resulted in its literal English translation being completely acceptable. For example, a friend will ask, “What happened to Connie?” and I’ll answer, “Aw, she gave me pumpkins.” (In fact, there is no woman named Connie. In the extremely specific and localized dialect of my apartment, “Connie” means “any girl on whom you once had designs.” This comes from a friend of ours who became infatuated with a girl over the course of a night out with a group of friends, and—unable to remember her name but thinking it might be Connie—called her this, but rolling the “C” into a kind of gravel-y “H” in the hopes that if he’d guessed wrong she’d simply think he was calling her “honey” and not be offended. Her name was, like, Monica, and she was plenty offended. But I digress.)

This “pumpkins” expression has proved extremely concise. My roommate was all pumped for a big date with the fly betty of his dreams, but it didn’t go well. When I got home, ready to ask all kinds of prying questions that would elicit painful answers, he stopped me short by greeting me with, “Dude, welcome to the 62nd Street pumpkin patch!” (Maybe I’ll ask somebody out in late October, so when she shines me I can tell Brett, “Dude, I met the great pumpkin!”)

Brevity is especially helpful—a lifesaver in fact—in the realm of dating because it helps the jilted would-be boyfriend abbreviate the long, boring story, larded with incessant whining, that would normally alienate his otherwise steadfast guy friends. If he truly believes he had a shot but blew it by being arrogant, or timid, or unexpectedly deploying flute-reed-voice, he can assign the blame to himself with a brief phrase—“I played myself”—in lieu of endless self-abnegating blather.

As potent as these crafty new phrases can be, sometimes utter silence is altogether better. Girls should consider this the next time they utter that most base and cruel lie, “I’ll call you.” This underhanded rebuke is absolutely never true, for the simple reason that even in this enlightened age, girls aren’t supposed to call guys. The guy is supposed to call, and call again, and never lose hope. If the girl calls, she insults herself. Why, I’d bet that the chances of a girl actually calling you are even lower than the chances of a temp agency calling you. The actual meaning of “I’ll call you,” when uttered by a female of the opposite sex, is “I will not call you.” The subtext is, “Don’t bother calling me. You have insulted and disgraced me with your [lack of confidence] [lack of good looks] [lack of cool clothes] [flute-reed-voice].”

So, yeah, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my field study of how language is actually used, it’s this: if a temp agency says “I’ll call you,” it’s best to head straight to a bike shop and ask, “Are you hiring?” And if a fly girl ever says, “I’ll call you,” it’s best to go straight home and tell your roommate, “Dio me calabazas.”

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Tao of Blade Runner


Introduction

Tao is a Chinese word conveying a complicated array of ideas, such as the journeys the mind makes—these mystical and yet tangible paths, and the process undertaken by the wanderer. The printed character for Tao resembles, to borrow from Woody Allen, “an elephant making love to a men’s glee club.” Of late, applying Tao philosophy to worldly things is more than just an extension of “Zen and the art of [add worldly word or phrase here].” It’s also a way to attach a cool title to a blog post I barely have time to write.

No, I won’t talk about Tao or any philosophy at all here. I don’t have time, and you don’t care anyway. This post is a review, without spoilers, of the new sci-fi flick Blade Runner 2049. Needless to say, it’s impossible to review this sequel without comparing it to Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner from 1982.

My review

The director, Denis Villeneuve, of whom I was instantly suspicious on the basis of his practically having a girl’s name, acknowledged the pressure of making a movie worthy of its predecessor. “I know that every single fan will walk into the theater with a baseball bat,” he is reported to have said. Sounds like a bit of a drama queen to me.

The fact is, the original movie, though a classic, isn’t perfect. I happen to own it on DVD and watched it with my older daughter as a rite of passage. We both enjoyed it, of course, but I couldn’t help feeling like it hadn’t lived up, in my daughter’s eyes, to all that I’d promised. The original Blade Runner mainly just looks cool. The plot isn’t all that, and the dialogue is just a tiny bit cheesy at times. For example, there’s the scene when Deckard grabs Rachael by the shoulders and utters some macho rough love folderol like, “Say ‘kiss me.’ [Say] ‘I want you.’” My daughter was shocked and I felt myself wincing.

That said, there were also scenes with great dialogue, like Deckard interrogating Leon in the beginning (the bit about “The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over,” etc.). But the scriptwriter didn’t have a perfect ear; for example, Rutger Hauer’s character’s final speech was dancing on the brink of twee. He managed to stick the landing, and because I couldn’t resist (damn it, I’m running out of time!) I did a little research and discovered that Hauer disliked the original speech. According to Wikipedia, he described the proposed final monologue as “opera talk and hi-tech speech with no bearing on the rest of the film,” so he “put a knife in it the night before filming” by trimming it down a fair bit.

My other complaint regarding the original movie is the absurd costumes, particularly Rachael’s ginormous shoulder pads. And the way her giant molded hair suddenly became this kinky Flashdance hairdo is almost laughable when you see it with your jaded 2017 eyes. It’s not easy to escape ‘80s silliness but some movies have.

But still, there was so much to enjoy visually in the original movie, like the dystopian but oddly recognizable, run-down, squalid but electrified rain-pummeled city, its buildings coated with giant electronic billboards, and the cool flying cars slowly rotating as they descend, like helicopters. The atmosphere was so much thicker and deeper and awesomer than just about any sci-fi movie before it.

So does Blade Runner 2049 uphold this standard? Well, yeah, mostly. But that’s not really enough, is it? I mean, since we still have the original available, do we really need a rehash? Much is lost simply because it’s not fresh. Not much new ground is broken aesthetically, and some landscapes in 2049 are too monotonous and blasted to be that interesting. To be honest, several of the scenes are just too dark.


The giant digital billboards are better than ever, but still, a retread is a retread.


Why did Peugeot pay for product placement here? (It’s visible on the dash of K’s car, too.) Does Peugeot even sell cars in the US? And check this out:


Is it possible we’re getting this billboard just to gratify the yen for nostalgia that ageing viewers like me are assumed to have?

Where new ground is broken, quite brilliantly, is with K’s virtual girlfriend, Joi (played by Ana De Armas). We’re introduced to her gradually, like Vladimir Nabokov introduced Lolita. First we get Joi’s voice from another room, so we’re curious, and then we see the projector, on ceiling-mounted tracks, that brings her into the room. She appears suddenly (as abruptly as when you flip on the TV with a remote), and of course it doesn’t hurt that she’s really pretty. But that’s not all: as soon as she appears she undergoes one instant costume change after another, and it’s not clear whether this is her own effort to please her man, or Officer K flipping through the outfits like a bored TV viewer channel-surfing. Their relationship—often warm and tender, but subject to modern realities like Joi freezing suddenly when K gets a visual voice-mail—is far more interesting than what we got in Her. Joi is my favorite character in the movie and her scenes steal the show.


(Should I apologize for blatantly favoring a character who happens to be good looking? Let’s be real. My wife rented Thor, despite having historically shown zero interest in Marvel comics, solely because it stars Chris Hemsworth. She knew the movie would be lame and that I also have zero interest in Marvel comics and their film adaptations, but she rightly assumed I’d roll with it because Natalie Portman also stars. Unfortunately this is one of the dumbest movies ever made and Portman is terrible in it.)

The other 2049 characters are a letdown after Joi. Officer K, the main character, has two things wrong with him. First, we know right off the bat that he’s a replicant. I wouldn’t necessarily say a replicant is automatically less sympathetic than a human (though perhaps this is the case), but K just doesn’t seem to suffer. He gets the crap beat out of him and shrugs it off like the Terminator. Huge misstep by Villeneuve there.

The other problem with K is that he’s played by Ryan Gosling, who is a good enough actor I suppose but totally unconvincing in an action-adventure tough-guy role. He was perfect for La La Land, but his simpering little half-smile destroys the gravitas we expect in a beaten-down blade runner. According to IMBD, he was the only actor considered for the role by Villeneuve, which is all the proof you need that this director doesn’t really know what he’s doing.


Harrison Ford is just fine as Deckard, but he brings to the role the same slightly annoyed, slightly disgusted air that he did to that Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie. Perhaps he’s bothered by the similarity between the two movies: upstart actors and characters new to the franchise head out on a long quest to find him, to give their knockoff movie more cred. I guess I can’t blame Ford for this ennui. In any event, he sets a good example of weariness and gravity for Gosling, which only serves to accentuate the flimsiness of Gosling with his ingratiating little half-smirk.

And then over here you’ve got Niander Wallace, the mastermind overlord (the 2049 equivalent of Dr.Tyrell). This character, as played by Jared Leto, is an annoying, wet-behind-the-ears, hipster-bearded douchebag with no redeeming qualities, and every moment of him on the screen sucks the life out of the movie.


Robin Wright does a good job with the role of K’s boss, Lieutenant Joshi, but she doesn’t have a whole lot to do. Sylvia Hoeks, as the evil replicant curiously named Luv, is pretty and also very badass, but her character is a bit too evil and cruel to be very interesting. What I loved about Rutger Hauer’s character in the original film was, ironically, his humanity. Luv is basically an evil robot type. Kind of a waste of Hoeks’ time and ours.


Speaking of wasting time, please indulge me in what I hope isn’t too lengthy a side note. I mentioned Nabokov above, and there’s a tribute to him in this movie. K’s mental health is evaluated, post-mission, via a strange protocol where he must repeat snippets of text including this passage from Nabokov’s poem-within-a-novel, PaleFire
Cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.
Lest viewers miss the reference, a copy of Pale Fire is clearly visible in K’s apartment. How does this tie in to the film? Answer: it doesn’t. I’ve read Pale Fire at least half a dozen times, and I can’t see any link to the themes of 2049 at all. The poem within Pale Fire concerns an ageing professor ruminating on the hereafter, and the passage quoted is about a vision the man has during a mild heart attack. It has nothing to do with A.I., technology, slavery, androids, or electric sheep. My guess is that Villeneuve is just borrowing an air of intellectual legitimacy from Nabokov. And yet, I find an amusing link that must be unintentional: the bulk of the novel Pale Fire concerns a scholarly parasite who, in the course of 200+ pages of commentary totally dwarfing the poem, tries to co-opt the poet’s work into something of his own. I cannot think of a better metaphor for these movie sequels and prequels that seek to capitalize on the success of earlier works by more original writers and directors.

Okay, onward. Another complaint I have with the movie is the music. The original film had a gorgeous score by Vangelis, which was fundamental to its atmosphere. (I even bought the soundtrack.) But this 2049 movie barely has music … the main instrument is a big drum. We get a bunch of silence and then this big somber BOOM and then some more silence. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if we’re hearing some sound effect or something that’s supposed to be music. I have just discovered, via IMBD, that “Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was attached to compose the music for the film; however, in August 2017, he dropped out from the project for unknown reasons and composer Hans Zimmer, along with Benjamin Wallfisch, were hired to replace Jóhannsson.” Aha, so the new “music” was tacked on at the last minute, like an afterthought. Well, it shows. Why spend $150 million on a movie and then skimp on the music? What a bonehead move.

Gosh, I’m starting to sound old and crabby and constipated. Look, it’s actually a pretty fun flick. I had a nice time seeing it with my teenage daughter. (Being a source of info and insight into the preceding movie, I suddenly had some cred in the eyes of a teenager, which is a rare thing.) And 2049, whatever opportunities it may have missed, does look really good. Go ahead and see it—don’t wait for DVD or whatever.

Now that that’s over with, let me complain some more. The screenplay for this movie is a mess. It’s based on a sparse 110-page novella, but there’s way too much going on to properly depict even in a rather long movie. A number of scenes must have been thrown out, because there are tons of loose threads. We also get subplots that could be their own movie, and flaws in logic that I can’t forgive. I won’t go into these because I don’t want to give anything away, but I could point to at least three gaping plot holes that any moviegoer who isn’t stoned ought to have a problem with.

All this being said, there is one scene more thrilling and chilling than anything I have seen in recent films. I can recount it without spoiling anything only because it’s so utterly disconnected from anything else in the movie. K, fairly shattered by all the beatings he’s been taking both physically and emotionally, is sound asleep when Joi wakes him up at like 3 a.m. and says, “We gotta change Deckard’s bag.” So they go to his room and Deckard’s ostomy bag has totally blown out, all over his gown, the sheets, it’s everywhere, like a massacre. K and Joi have never changed one of these before and the stench of the military-green quasi-stool is almost enough to make them wretch. (If you don’t think it’s realistic for a replicant and an A.I. projection to be grossed out by this smell, you’ve obviously never encountered it in real life and should consider yourself lucky.) So the whole bag apparatus is soaked in this foul goo, even the wafer that’s stuck to Deckard’s ostomy. The last nurse to change the thing screwed up and left some of the backing on the wafer’s adhesive, which is why it failed. Deckard, bearing considerable discomfort and indignity, is grumpy even by Harrison Ford standards, and K and Joi are obviously winging it, without much brio. K takes a deep breath (big mistake) and sticks down the wafer. He presses it down firmly which makes Deckard groan in pain. Now K’s got to attach the bag, which affixes via this thing kind of like a Ziploc but it’s round, and the bead is really narrow. “Hurry!” Joi cries, because a new flood of green goo is crowning from the ostomy. The ordeal seems to take forever, bringing the movie’s runtime to 164 minutes.

Wait, hold on. I think I’m confused. That whole scene recounted above? That wasn’t actually in this movie at all—why would anybody film that? I’m sleep deprived and confused and not sure where that came from.

It feels like over a month since I watched 2049 and you know what? I’d love to escape into a dark theater and see it again. Maybe this whole review is unfair. At a minimum I guess I should go delete that last paragraph, but I’m just too tired. Maybe I’ll rewrite this someday when I have my normal life back, and maybe then I’ll give Blade Runner 2049 a rave review.

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For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Cheap Bastard’s Guide to Inflating Tubeless Tires


NOTE: This post is rated PG-13 for mild strong language, coarse humor, and mature themes.

Introduction

This post is about how—and why—to build a soda-bottle human-powered air compressor for inflating tubeless bicycle tires. For a few dollars you can create a non-electric equivalent of that giant, loud, coin-operated air compressor that you might use at a gas station.

I freely acknowledge that I did not invent the soda-bottle air compressor, nor am I the first to showcase it on the Internet. But I’ll give you a more thorough account than you’ll get elsewhere, which might a) prepare you for the kinds of difficulties you might encounter (since I encountered them all), and b) give you the opportunity to laugh at me. You’ll also get some safety tips.

Why build your own compressor?

My friend Peter (“Uncle Peter” to my kids) is like a superior version of me, except that he can’t be bothered to blog. He introduced me to the human powered air compressor concept, via an e-mail to John, Dan, and me, which included this photo:


Uncle Peter wrote, “I went riding with some jackass this summer and we were on a dirt road and he flatted twice thanks to pinch flats ... the humanity!” He was of course referring to me, and this ill-fated ride.

John and I were cycling teammates in 1981 and have been friends ever since. (He lives way far away and my kids couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, so he’s not yet an honorary uncle.) He replied to Uncle Peter’s e-mail: “So many questions… First, this looks like a home brewer’s still, not an air compressor. What are the details on this contraption? You can buy an actual air compressor for about $100 —why go this cheap route?”

It’s very tempting to take John to task for being a yuppie, not being resourceful, etc. but I would just sound bitter. Probably he was baiting me, and if so it worked—I’m a cheap bastard, allergic to throwing money at a problem. It’s not that $100 seems like a lot to me (though it does); any time I buy anything I feel a sense of defeat.

Meanwhile, there are non-fiscal reasons to make your own compressor. For one, electric compressors are loud and take up a lot of room in your garage, whereas you can throw the soda-bottle generator in the trunk of your car. (Perhaps John is reading this and thinking, “You can buy an actual portable gas-powered generator for about $400 to power your compressor with—why go this cheap route?”) Dan replied, “I love the idea of pulling up to the pre-race parking lot extravaganza, where everyone is pretending to not be checking each other out, but that is exactly what is happening, and then pulling out this plastic bottle thing. You would automatically get a call-up at a Cross Crusade race I think.”

Now, regarding a portable non-electric solution, some reader is going to bring up CO2 cartridges so I’ll head him off at the pass. Yes, there are little disposable CO2 cartridges that many people use to seat tubeless tires. But I hate this solution. First of all, it can take several tries to seat a tire (especially a new one) which means potentially going through a lot of cartridges. Plus, we embrace how hard cycling is … why be wusses about it and clutter up landfills with these cartridges? And, they cost money.

Naturally that won’t be good enough for some of you, so I’ve done a little homework about another downside of CO2: it leaks out of your tires faster than air. Someone told me this has to do with the size of the molecules, but I wasn’t sure I believed it. In fact, as described here, the size of molecule isn’t important, but “the leakage rate of CO2 is huge, and the reason is that it is actually soluble in butyl rubber and is thus not constrained to normal permeation loss; it can transfer straight through the bulk rubber resulting in severe tire pressure loss.” This explanation, and the empirical tests confirming the theory, are corroborated here. But I wasn’t sure if this phenomenon applied equally to tires vs. tubes (i.e., to a tubeless setup) until I read this article. It not only gives the same explanation—“CO2 is actually soluble in butyl rubber—it essentially melts right through the material without having to wait for permeation”—but the writer tested CO2 vs. air on tubeless car tires. Despite the thick rubber, the difference in leakage rates was demonstrable.

Which leaves the final alternative to this soda-bottle compressor: one of these fancy new tubeless-specific floor pumps with an extra chamber that compresses the air in advance. (That is, it does the same thing as this soda-bottle compressor but without being kludgy.) What’s wrong with this approach? Well, this pump and this one are butt-ugly. They’re also really expensive—even more so than a compressor. And this (also expensive) Lezyne pump looks really nice, but I already have five Lezyne frame pumps and two Lezyne floor pumps and don’t want another. My most recent Lezyne purchase was a high-volume pump that supposedly can seat a tubeless tire. It cannot. And, after the first time I used it on a Schrader valve, its over-designed chuck—which is supposed to work on either Presta or Schrader—doesn’t work at all, on anything. Don’t get me wrong, Lezyne pumps are really nice, when they don’t suck like this. I’m almost as bitter about this pump as my wife is. (She doesn’t know a pump chuck from a hole in the ground, but she can count, and I have more than ten bike pumps in all—she wouldn’t stand for another.)

A final note on these pumps. The marketing people must think they’re pretty clever with the naming:  “Flash Charger,” “Pressure Over Drive,” “JoeBlow Booster.” You know what, guys? If you wanna get really edgy, I dare you to name your next pump “Blow Job.” I double-dog dare ya.

How does this homemade thing work?

I’ll answer both interpretations of this question: 1) what is the method for building and using this contraption, and 2) how well does it work?

Even after the basic justification for this compressor was supplied, John replied, “But I still don’t understand—is there water in the bottle? Or do you just fill the bottle with air (using a standard pump) and then connect that piece of fish tank pump tubing to the valve on your wheel? For some reason I’m thinking there would be some water in the bottle, but I’m not sure why (the incompressibility of water would help for some reason…? Boy my physics knowledge and intuition has totally atrophied…).” Before you malign my friend, consider that he has a Ph.D. in geophysics from UC Berkeley. But that didn’t stop me from ribbing him: “No, there is no water! Stop trying to turn everything into a bong!” (This is an inside joke: John, Dan, Uncle Peter, and I are among the seemingly rapidly collapsing minority who don’t smoke weed.)

Dan chimed in, “I was looking at that contraption and thinking that you were making moonshine on the weekends! Cheers to that. But you burst my bubble of mirth and raised my curiosity. How did you seal the valve to the plastic bottle? Caulking?”

The answer is, you drill two 5-millimeter holes in the bottle’s screw-top cap, far enough apart that they don’t touch but close enough together that they don’t touch the edge of the cap. You take a couple of old Presta tubes, cut off all the rubber around the valve, shove them through the holes, and then screw down some valve rings really tight with a pair of needle-nose pliers. (For an invaluable discussion of valve rings, and bicycle inner tubes in general, click here.) Thankfully, no caulking is required.

The next step is to remove the valve core from one of the valves. Do this with the little plastic wrench that came with your tubeless tire valves, or with some needle-nose pliers. Now, a quick aside: you don’t need the full tubeless kit that comes with the fancy rim tape. Just buy the tubeless valves, a bottle of Stan’s NoTube tire sealant (or “jizz” in the vernacular), and some Gorilla tape. (Is there a better product than Stan’s? I don’t know and I don’t care.)

You’ll also need a spray bottle full of a water/dish soap solution. And you’ll need some extra Gorilla tape (or duct tape), a 2-liter soda bottle, a pair of vice grips (or some other crimping device), and of course a floor pump. Finally, you’ll need a foot or two of surgical tubing. (What diameter? I asked Uncle Peter what he used and he said, “I think it was 4mm. About the size of your dick.” Nota bene: 4mm is the inside diameter. Of the tubing.)

Okay, because you’ve been so patient with all this text, here’s a pretty picture.


As I’ll get to later, you should eschew the 1-liter bottle shown above and go with a 2-liter Schweppes bottle.

Next, you shove one end of the tubing down over the valve that has the core removed.


The tubing should be a jolly tight fit over the valve. You could use electrical tape to secure it, but don’t bother. First of all, it’s extra work. Second, I have discovered that under sufficient pressure, the tubing will pop off, but this isn’t a bad thing. Think of it like a fuse: if the tubing pops off, the bottle won’t explode. And you really don’t want the bottle to explode. That would be very loud, and possibly dangerous. That’s why you wrap the bottle in duct tape or (ideally) Gorilla tape.

How likely is an explosion, assuming the tubing doesn’t pop off the valve? The good news is, these bottles can take a lot of pressure. I saved you the effort of researching this by finding this video showing how much pressure various bottles can take before exploding. Most 2-liter bottles can handle 150 PSI. The Schweppes bottle doesn’t explode at all; rather, it splits a seam and the air hisses out harmlessly at 140 PSI. That’s the bottle you want!


Fortunately, with a 2-liter bottle you’ll only need about 60 PSI to inflate a brand-new tubeless mountain bike tire, so the explosion risk is quite low. That said, you should absolutely wear safety goggles just in case.

To get a new tire ready to be seated, you should mount it to the rim with an inner tube inside, pump that bad boy up good and hard (the maximum the tire is rated for), and leave it overnight. Then, remove the tire and tube, remove the old rim strip, and tape up the rim with your expensive fancy-pants purpose-built rim tape or the Gorilla tape. If using Gorilla tape, you’ll have to cut so it’s the perfect width for your rim. Use a safety razor blade or a utility knife. If you don’t cut the tape just right, or if you use the wrong width purpose-built tape, then you are not a good person and should take up some other sport, like golf. (That is, you won’t have a perfect seal.)

Then, install your tubeless-style valve but don’t tighten the ring down very tight just yet. Mount the tire to the rim (without the tube, duh), leaving one section open. Pour in the jizz (whatever amount the bottle says—I think it’s 2 ounces?), then seat the rest of the tire. Hang the wheel from something, like your bike stand. Now spray soapy water all around the bead on both sides. This will help the tire bead seat. That’s the name of the game here: that bead has to make an airtight seal all the way around. What makes new tires such a bitch to mount is that they are shipped all folded up, and those creases create giant gaps where air leaks through like a sieve.

(Now, if this all sounds like a total pain in the ass, consider that most of the hassle here isn’t specific to using a homemade human-powered compressor. Tubeless is inherently kind of a hassle, but then so is puncturing during a ride. Obviously it’s worth the trouble or we wouldn’t be here.)

Okay, so this is where it all comes together. You shove the other end of the surgical tubing over the valve stuck in your rim. You pinch the tubing closed with your vice grips, some inches from the valve. And you attach your pump chuck to the valve on your compressor that has the valve core intact.


And—don’t skip this step!—you put on your safety goggles. Here’s the whole setup in one photo:


Then you whale on that floor pump like there’s no tomorrow. Pump the soda bottle up to about 60 PSI, maybe 70 if it’s a really fat tire. Then release the vice grips and—whoosh!—all that air flows in with a quickness, and if you’re lucky, the tire will seat, making this glorious popping sound, and you’re good to go.

Now … did this work for me? No. My first three tries were dismal failures. Look at that photo above: what mistakes can you see, right off the bat? Well, first of all, I used the one-liter bottle that Uncle Peter sent me. (He built my compressor. There. I said it. I was tempted to leave that kind of vague, so you might think I made my own, and frankly I’d planned on making one, but before I got around to it, Uncle Peter mailed me one he made. This astonished me. He hates going to the post office. When I left my helmet in his car once, it took him like 8 months to get it to me.)

For a road tire, whose pressure is higher but whose volume is way lower, a one-liter bottle is probably fine. It also worked great when I removed and re-seated a used mountain bike tire. But it’s not enough air volume to mount a new mountain bike tire. Don’t even waste your time. Just buy a two-liter bottle to begin with.

What else did I do wrong? The wheel wasn’t hanging from anything. The deformation of the tire, where it touched the ground, surely hurt my cause. Man, what a waste of time and spirit. I had my daughter making a video of all three efforts, which wasted her time too, and surely eroded her respect for me (a precious, rare resource). A neighbor friend even happened by to witness my disgrace. Damn. I called Uncle Peter and he pointed out all the mistakes I’d made. “Man, you’re the worst student I’ve ever had!” he jeered.

So, I headed to the grocery, bought a 2-liter bottle (alas, I hadn’t seen the video and didn’t know Schweppes was the ticket), drank a glass of (grossly cloying) ginger ale and dumped out the rest, taped up the bottle, hung the wheel from my Park stand, summoned my camera operator, and tried again.

This time it didn’t work at all. Something was horribly wrong. Finally it hit me: I’d forgotten the vice grips. I wasn’t compressing anything. Easily solved. I clamped those bad boys down and tried again.

This time the tire came a lot closer to seating—it actually got some shape to it—but alas, the flow of air wasn’t quite fast enough and found a way to leak out. For a terrifying moment I battled despair and was on the verge of rending my garments, gnashing my terrible teeth, and roaring my terrible roar—but my daughter was there filming. So I confined the profanities to my interior monologue and made one final tweak to my setup: I removed the valve core from the valve installed in the rim. This would, I hoped, speed the flow of air into the tire.

Did it work then? Well, check out this video!


Yeah, baby! It’s not the greatest camera angle, and you can’t hear the bead popping in, but that’s for safety’s sake. I had my daughter stand way back and use the camera zoom, because I only have one pair of safety goggles. Suffice to say, this time the compressor worked like a champ! Alas, when I pulled the tubing off, the air rushed out fast enough that the tire unseated. So I had to inflate it one more time, and this time I was ready with my thumb when I pulled the tubing off. I managed to get the valve core back in without the tire unseating, and my long ordeal was finally over.

Now, I’ll give you one final word of advice. Once you’ve got the tire seated, you shouldn’t just leave it. You should put the regular pump on there and inflate the tire to its maximum rated pressure. Then tighten down that valve ring (you left it loose before in case the base of the valve fought with a tire bead). Then you need to give the wheel a good spin, and shake it back and forth (like you are trying to bop yourself alternately on the forehead and then the belly with the tire), moving your hands from place to place. Here is a good video of that process. Then bounce the wheel on the ground a whole bunch of times. Then set it horizontally across a trash can for a few minutes before flipping it over. This sloshes the Stan’s jizz around in there so it coats the whole inside of the tire.

But even if you do all that, you still might not be done. The first time I installed tubeless, I did all that, and even bounced my wheels on the ground for several blocks while walking home from the auto repair shop. Everything seemed fine, even the next morning, but by afternoon when I wanted to ride, one tire had lost its pressure and puked jizz all over the floor of my garage. So I highly recommend you go for a short ride once your tire installation is complete, to spread the Stan’s around even more. If possible, take your camera operator with you on the ride, if he or she is your offspring, so you can justify the project to your spouse as “quality time.” If your offspring is shy about being photographed during this victory lap, snap an artsy photo like this one.


Epilogue

Is there an even better compressor out there? Well, consider this user comment to one of my blog posts:
Great device. I think he don’t feel tension who has a Kensun AC / DC Heavy Duty Air Compressor Tire Inflator Review. Because it is portable and anywhere we can carry this for pumping tire and best air compressor I have ever seen in market 

Note: I can’t vouch for Charles’s knowledge of compressors, or for Charles being an actual human.

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Saturday, October 7, 2017

Biased Blow-By-Blow - Il Lombardia 2017


Introduction

Il Lombardia is the last big classic on the World Tour calendar. I’ve never bothered to watch it before, despite its being one of the “Monuments”—a word the press came up with when they decided “classic” just wasn’t impressive enough. Remember when “the media” was called “the press”? Those were the days.

Il Lombardia used to be called Giro de Lombardia, which made sense. But then the organizers changed it to Il Lombardia, so they could laugh at the stupid American journalists who call it “The Il Lombardia,” which is as bad as “the L’Alpe D’Huez.” Which is as bad as “TCBY Yogurt” and “ATM machine.”

Anyway, this race is a big deal. And I’m going to report it as I see fit, which means pulling no punches when an obviously lubed rider (e.g., a Team Sky rider) does something “not natural.” That’s where the “biased” bit comes in. Because I’m biased against dopers. I can’t help it. It’s just how I was raised.


Il Lomardia – Bergamo to Como, Italy – October 6, 2017

As I join the action, Manchester United is doing a great job of moving the ball up and down the gridiron.


Wait, something’s wrong. That doesn’t look at all like cycling. And yet it’s somehow familiar. Oh, yeah! It’s that other sport, football! Something is wrong with my live Internet feed … as usual. But good news: I just found another one, which is blurry and grainy and in French, but it’ll do for now. I gather that as I join the action, there’s a breakaway of nobodies with a decent gap over the peloton. The climbing is just beginning in earnest.


It’s just so blurry, I can’t even tell how far from the finish they are. I think it’s 50 kilometers.

OMG! Laurens de Plus  (Quick-Step Floors), one of the breakaway riders, has gone over a guardrail! You see that shiny thing at the top of this photo? That’s his fricking bike!


They’re showing an instant replay and my screen just froze, so I’m poised on the Print Screen button so if it un-freezes I can get a better shot. Here you go:


Is it okay to be wowed by this kind of terrible accident? Should I be looking away? Perhaps, but in fairness, I was also captivated when watching an ER doctor put a foot-long drill bit right through my fricking tibia a few years back. My wife was there and she also found it fascinating. Obviously I’d feel terrible if the guy died or something, especially if by “the guy” I mean myself. Though usually nobody dies from having a hole drilled in his leg, nor from going over a guardrail on a bike.

Okay, I have a clearer feed now but it’s still in French. Not that French is bad or anything. It’s not you, French language—it’s me. I studied and studied that language and I still can’t understand shit.

So it looks like 38 km to go, and the lead rider is Mickael Cherel (AG2R La Mondiale). He’s got like a minute—but over whom, I can’t tell.


An ambulance is tending to de Plus. And now Cherel begins the next climb.


Back in the chase, we’ve got a very dangerous duo: Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and Alessandro De Marchi (BMC Racing Team).


De Marchi is a pretty cool name—I mean, the guy just sounds fast—and of course Gilbert was a major favorite for this race going in. Look at these guys! They’re haulin’ ass!


Okay, I don’t know what the hell this ad is for. Actually, I don’t think it’s even an ad, but a hostile takeover of my video feed by … what? What in the hell am I looking it? Appears to be some kind of pressure cooker. Maybe it’s a special device for sterilizing old, clenbuterol-laden Spanish beef that spent too long in a cooler on its way across Europe?


And now, a tour of a sausage factory, as though anybody ever wanted to see that. It’s easy to see where Roger Waters came up with the conveyor-belt student march scene in “Pink Floyd The Wall”:


What the hell is this? Is Tiz-Cycling doing an infomercial? Or were they hijacked by some macabre factory food channel? This whole Internet coverage thing is such bullshit. You know who ruined it? Those Fubo bastards. Once they came out with their paid service, steephill.tv stopped providing links to free coverage. Fubo must have paid them off. You know what? I refuse to pay for Fubo. They’re banned for life. I’d rather start covering some stupid American “sport,” like video gaming or online poker.

So here’s what’s happening in the race. I lost over 10 kilometers during my side trip to the underworld of meat, and now that I’m back (well, okay, temporarily back—I got about five seconds of coverage before my screen froze again) I’ve learned that Cherel has been caught by Gilbert, De Marchi, and Pello Bilbao (Astana Pro Team), who kind of came out of nowhere. This break could really get somewhere.


Some good news I gleaned from one of these little sidebar chats (that for now are substituting for any actual footage): de Plus, the rider who went over the guardrail, is not badly injured and is alert and chatting with his Quick-Step staff. Whew!

Okay, ten minutes of Internet struggle later, the race is down to 17 kilometers, and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) is somehow now in the lead. And now Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), a former winner of this race, is catching him!


See that stupid yellow bar blocking the screen? I can’t get rid of it! I click the X and all it does is take me to a new page that attempts to install a virus on my PC. Curses!

Rigoberto Uran Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) is leading the chase. He’s been on the podium three times in this race and has had good form lately. Not sure what the gap is. Nibali and Pinot are bombing the descent. Nibali is a great descender; Pinot normally sucks. But Pinot seems to be doing a pretty decent job today. Wait, no, I take it back. In the span of a huge screen-blocking ad that took 25 seconds to go away, Nibali dropped Pinot.

Okay, I have a new, super-grainy feed now but at least it’s in English and there’s no ad at the moment. There are just under 10 km to go and Pinot is totally isolated. Uran looks like he’s dropped the chase group!


Nibali has 9 seconds on Pinot and 45 on the next chase, which is Uran and now some Sky guy. It’s now 7.5 km to go and there’s at least one more climb. Pinot doesn’t look so good … there’s just something lackluster about his chase. Or am I projecting?

Nibali looks rock solid. I wonder if this race feels scripted to him … this is just like his victory on the same course in 2015.


The Sky guy has dropped Uran Uran. And the commentators have dropped one of the Urans. Everybody used to call him Uran Uran, and now it’s just Uran. Maybe he lopped one Uran off himself, to save weight. Seems to be working out for him. Maybe next season his name will just be Ur.


Nibali is on the last climb. If he does a good job here he should be able to hold his lead on the final descent and the bit of flat run-in to the line.

Okay, Uran has definitely been dropped.


Looks like Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) is leading the chase—but what’s this? Fabio Aru (Astana Pro Team) drills it and Quintana is going backwards!

Pinot is way behind now, like 38 seconds. He’ll get scooped up by the peloton for sure. And sure enough, here comes Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), blowing by him.


Nibali has only 3.7 km to go and he’s still looking good. But Alaphilippe is solo, and is bombing the descent!


I’m not sure if it’s Alaphillipe or Gilbert, actually. Those guys are dressing alike lately. Maybe both riders are solo. Maybe Alaphilippe is closest to Nibali and now Gilbert is coming up from behind. But I don’t think it matters because Nibali is under the 1 km banner!


I keep checking cycling.today to see if they’ve fired up their live stream, but I guess somebody called in sick. For the first half hour I was checking, it was a countdown to their footage, but when it reached zero it just started counting up. So here’s what I get instead of live cycling action—a little ticker, just to rub it in how long they’ve been blowing it:


Nibali has got this race in the bag. Whoah, he’s flipping off the crowd! No he isn’t. He was just waving. This feed is so grainy. And now he’s doing something really weird, which makes this the strangest victory salute ever: he’s trying to suck his nipple! Oh, wait, he was just talking into his radio or something. Never mind. And here’s his victory salute.


Some guys are sprinting in for the minor places. They don’t actually care and neither do I. My inability to get good, clear, consistent footage was just way too distracting and I never really got into this race. Stupid fricking sport. You know what? I think I’m done with this blow-by-blow tradition, and with trying to watch bike races at all. If I followed something like American football, I wouldn’t be nine hours behind, and I could watch it live in a sports bar in the evening, on a big flat screen, in the company of fellow Americans who would yell at the screen and thump me on the back and gloat with me (provided we were rooting for the same team) and we’d be drinking good, watery American non-craft beer and it would just be so fun. Instead I’ve got like fifteen screens open and I’m just fighting to see something, like a little kid stuck behind a bunch of grownups at a parade.

Speaking of parades, here’s a true story. I was with my family at the Christmas tree lighting-up ceremony in Ashland, Oregon many years ago and Santa was standing on this balcony officiating, and he was completely drunk! Slurring his words, poor motor control—I actually thought (and half-hoped) he would fall off the balcony. So, needless to say it, was the best civic event ever in Ashland. Fast-forward a few years and I’m there at the ceremony again, this time with my brother and his family, and we’re all super-excited because hey, drunk Santa! But there’s no Santa this time, just a stupid parade, and it’s lamest parade in history. Each float looks like it was thrown together in about five minutes, and the music is coming from a single weak battery-powered boom box. Somebody is throwing candy, but such a paltry amount that it’s causing small children to fistfight in the gutters. As we leave, cold and dejected, and begin the long walk to the van, my four-year-old niece says, “Well, that parade pretty much sucked.” My brother glares at me, and I glare at my older daughter. There’s no question where my niece has picked up this new expression. My daughter looks back sheepishly and says, “Sorry Dad.”

So, yeah. That Lombardia pretty much sucked. Here’s the top ten. Like I care.


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