Tuesday, January 30, 2018

From the Archives - Love Poem from a Coward

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


It’s a slow news day so here’s another old poem from my archives, with all-new footnotes and commentary. Enjoy please enjoy.

 Sonnet 17 - October 1, 1990

I see you in the classroom every day,
But hide my bashful face behind a book;                            2
At quite a cautious distance I must stay,
To satisfy myself with frequent looks.
I know it’s creepy, watching from afar
Instead of walking up and saying hi.                                   6
Alas, my social skills aren’t up to par;
I just can’t be that smooth and social guy.
A little voice says, “What is there to lose?
If you don’t try, you’re never gonna learn.”                       10
But I know better than to try to schmooze:
A louder voice says, “You will crash and burn.”
    Although approaching you makes perfect sense,
    I simply do not have the confidence.                              14

Footnotes & commentary

Title - 17

I named this “17” in a pompous attempt to seem Shakespearean. Giving a poem a number instead of a title was standard in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, just as using fancy words like “oeuvre” was standard among English majors in my day. This title was also intended as a pun because the speaker is 17 years old. (Did I reckon that would be obvious? I can’t remember.)

I originally wrote this for my high school creative writing class, and at that time it was indeed the 17th sonnet I’d written. But back then I named it “My Serious Love Sonnet,” to differentiate it from this one. Four years later, I extensively revised the poem for a college Shakespeare class. The professor had given us a choice: either take the midterm exam, or write a sonnet. That would have been a no-brainer even if I hadn’t already had a sonnet I could recycle. But I had to make tons of revisions because the original was embarrassingly bad.

Line 1 – in the classroom

The original high school version started, “I see you walking home ‘most every day/ And always want to help you with your books.” This was total garbage, of course. The idea of a teenage boy carrying a girl’s books for her was antiquated and schmaltzy even then. In retrospect, “classroom” doesn’t work that well either, because in a relatively small high school class no student should be forgiven for looking over at a girl 24x7 without ever talking to her. The notion would play better with a college-sized lecture hall … and yet that would make the speaker even more stunted, for surely a college kid should have put such abject shyness behind him. (I wasn’t exactly Big Man on Campus, but I was at least capable of striking up a conversation.)

Line 3 – quite

Using a word like “quite” here, just to pad out the line in service of the iambic pentameter, was a lame trick I leaned on excessively in my benighted youth. The original line was, “But always at a distance I will stay,” which avoids this pitfall but also sounds a bit off; in normal speech we usually put the verb first and then the prepositional phrase (i.e., “I will always stay at a distance”). So even the original line warped the language to force-fit the meter.

Line 4 – satisfy myself with frequent looks

The word “satisfy” here is totally wrong. The whole point is that the speaker isn’t satisfied by just looking. If he were, his anguish—which is the theme of the poem—wouldn’t exist and there would be no need for a poem at all (other than as a school assignment). Something like “stoke my appetite with frequent looks” would better capture the reality of a teenage boy who is all desire, and whose cravings are never gratified.

The professor circled “book” and “looks” in red and noted the imperfect rhyme. Sure, I could have put “books” instead, but that would suggest a stack of books that I’m peering out from behind, rather than a single open book that I’m peering over. I thought rhyming “book” with “looks” would be a totally permissible instance of poetic license so I was a bit annoyed at the red ink. That said, I got an A on the sonnet, so I couldn’t really complain.

Line 5 – creepy

I was, and am, just a bit uncomfortable with “creepy” here because it’s a pretty serious accusation, and the reader is naturally inclined to conflate the speaker with the poet. For that reason, I didn’t want to imply that these frequent looks were insufficiently discreet. For the speaker to be merely shy is kind of endearing; for him to be a stalker—not so much. And yet, “creepy” is also kind of perfect, because doesn’t every shy teenager with a crush feel like a bit of a creep? Needless to say this was years before Radiohead wrote “Creep,” but the sentiment is rather similar: “You’re so fucking special/ But I’m a creep/ I’m a weirdo/ What the hell am I doing here?”

Line 6 – walking up

Here, “walking up” seems like another throwaway phrase. I mean, what else is the guy gonna do? Yell “hi” from across the room? Obviously, “stepping up” would work better, but perhaps this expression wasn’t available to me. (Did people say “stepping up” in 1990?)

Line 7 – social skills

There’s something kind of clinical and dopey about the phrase “social skills” in the context of an angst-y poem in the voice of a tortured teen. (You think Radiohead would use the phrase “social skills,” other than ironically?)

To the extent that this poem is autobiographical, “social skills” doesn’t even cover it. My family culture growing up was socially … problematic. As a grade school kid I simultaneously believed that I was a) somehow intrinsically inferior to others and thus undeserving of their positive regard, and b) nevertheless above them, because they did stupid stuff like watching football on TV. So I was both terribly shy and slightly arrogant, which needless to say was the perfect recipe for social suicide and irrevocable pariah status.

By high school, though, I was more comfortable in my skin. I actually did have conversations with gorgeous girls, though I was far from smooth. For example, I was chatting with a total knockout named Audrey and she asked if I was going to register for the draft. I was too insecure to answer the question honestly—was I supposed to say no, so I’d seem like a rebel?—so I replied, “Yeah, I dunno … I haven’t really decided yet. How about you?” She laughed, “I don’t have to … I’m a girl!” I felt my face burning with embarrassment and that conversation was over.

Line 9 – little voice

Is it clear that the little voice is in the speaker’s head? I hope so, as that was my intent. This isn’t to say there weren’t actual voices weighing in on the matter when I grappled with my own real-life social foibles. There was this one girl in high school I was kind of into, who I was pretty confident would go out with me, but I just wasn’t sure that I wanted her to. For one thing, we were friends, and if I’d guessed wrong about there being a romantic opportunity, that friendship was sure to end or at least become awkward. Plus, dating in general seemed like a lot of hassle. So I did nothing, and after a while she must have told a friend to tell a friend, etc. and my pal David started hinting around that I should ask her out. I played dumb, until he grew impatient and said, “Look, here’s the thing. I have it on good authority if you ask her out, she’ll say yes. It’s like a slam-dunk.” I stared at him for a few seconds before finally replying, “So?” Exasperated, he fired back, “Let us not forget that our main objective here is to get laid!” He was half-serious, but also mocking me, and himself, and dating in general I suppose. His line became an instant classic.

Line 12: crash and burn

Look, it’s easy enough for you, the reader, to sit back and say, “What is this dude’s problem? He should just go talk to her! She’s probably perfectly nice.” Well, you didn’t go to my high school, and (maybe) you weren’t a nerd. Nowadays, nerds are kind of cool, but back then, in the Boulder Valley Public Schools, nerds and geeks and dorks were all basically the same thing and we were treated like vermin. Anybody who ran the risk of being cool to us was vulnerable to secondhand nerdiness. Moreover, any female who was cool to a nerd was in danger of being called “the geek-whore.” Not a geek-whore, but the geek-whore, like there was always one of them, though the process of selecting her was never clear.

How widespread was this geek-whore risk? I couldn’t really say. It’s true that a really gorgeous girl like Audrey was too far removed from nerdiness to ever run the risk of being called the geek-whore, but any girl that a nerd thought he might have a chance with was automatically in danger. A nerd hanging out with such a girl might hear about it from his nerdy friend later: “Dude, I saw you hanging out with the geek-whore at lunch!” If anybody overheard, and bothered to figure out whom the nerd was referring to, the poor girl was in great peril. These were dark times.

Line 13: you

There’s an obvious problem here with “you,” which originally meant the girl of his dreams, but then became a reference to the speaker himself, in the voice of his conscience. And now all of a sudden it’s back to the girl, whom the reader has probably all but forgotten about.

Interesting, isn’t it, how this poem has almost nothing to do with the girl being admired? That flaw came about through the revision. The original poem talked about the girl’s silky hair and pure skin, which was worse. It read a bit like a print ad for some fancy shampoo or skin cream. These details also increased the creepy factor somehow, even though love poems have traditionally fetishized the subject to some degree. My revised version, utterly bereft of information about the desired girl, has an air of “It’s not you … it’s me.” In that regard, it’s almost the opposite of an ode. At least I had the good sense never to show it to a girl, such as this one I was into at the time...

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, January 22, 2018

New Year’s Resolutions - Dental Hygiene Edition


Every January, the temptation to write a blog post on New Year’s Resolutions is almost overwhelming. But my own resolutions are off-limits because a) you quite rightly don’t care about my shortcomings, and b) I don’t have any (resolutions, that is). But I can’t exactly write about your resolutions because a) I don’t know what they are, and b) you don’t have any (shortcomings). And yet, here we are.

Today, I’ll offer up a single new year’s resolution that I think is the best combination of being a) undeniably worthwhile, and b) utterly achievable. Since I don’t know whether this resolution will apply to you, I’ll also offer the benefits of its polar opposite. And for good measure, I’m also including five resolutions that all dental hygienists ought to take on.

Part 1 - Take better care of your teeth

So here is your New Year’s Resolution: take better care of your teeth. Why is this a good one? First off, it’s achievable. We’re talking about spending just a few extra minutes a day, which can make a huge difference in your oral health. (I know … it’s impossible to talk about dental hygiene without coming across as pedantic and square.)

If you don’t always brush, and/or seldom floss, then it’s time to face the fact that your teeth and gums are probably disgusting. If your parents spent a fortune on orthodontia, it’s a shame that you’re taking such poor care of their investment. And if you didn’t get orthodontia, your teeth need all the help they can get.

On the flip side, if you’re one of those people who is so scrupulous about oral care that you think you don’t need to visit the dentist, think again. Everybody should visit the dentist twice a year. If you have insurance coverage, use it—this won’t cost you a thing, because your insurance company cares (possibly more than you do) about preventing expensive repair work later. (If you don’t have dental insurance, here’s another New Year’s Resolution: get a real job!)

My grandfather died a week or so shy of his 101st birthday, with all his original teeth. That was impressive. My father, who recently died a bit shy of his 81st birthday, was not on the right track. It’s not that he didn’t take care of his teeth—he was in the second category, thinking he was above going to the dentist. Well, I saw into his mouth a lot toward the end, what with trying to read his lips when his voice was weak, spoon-feeding him, and eventually, administering morphine. His teeth were in shockingly bad shape. I probably shouldn’t be admitting this, but I found it a bit of a relief (or at least a silver lining) that, through death, my father was escaping a looming dental crisis.

Yes, you should do all you can to take care of your teeth at home—flossing, stimulating (more on this later), and brushing. But you can’t go it alone. Dentists and hygienists have special tools that get your teeth whiter and cleaner than you can, period. If you hate going to the dentist, is it because you’re afraid and/or ashamed? If so, let that be your wake-up call. Do a good enough job with your teeth that you can walk into the dental office with your head held high.

But this resolution isn’t just about avoiding things like root canals and crowns. It’s about avoiding food in your teeth and/or bad breath. This isn’t some selfish New Year’s Resolution that only addresses your personal quest for self-actualization; you’re doing all the people around you a favor by not being gross.

I use a gum stimulator (see photo above) after every meal, to work the crap out of the nooks and crannies between my teeth. It’s shocking how much my gum stimulator dredges up—food shrapnel that brushing and even flossing don’t get. Once you become aware of this detritus, which you’ve heretofore been flashing to the world after every meal, you should feel an intense retroactive embarrassment for all the times you didn’t use this simple tool.

Part 2 – Stop beating yourself up about dental hygiene

All right, calm down, I get it—there are readers to whom the resolution above simply doesn’t apply. If you’re one of them, congratulations. For you I have a special New Year’s Resolution: relax and stop beating yourself up.

Beating yourself up? Yes—I suspect that, if you’re like me, and dental hygiene is your life, you suffer a lot when you go to the dentist. Not because your gums bleed—they’re far too healthy for that—but because you don’t get the credit you deserve for all your good oral habits. Sure, you do sometimes—about half of my dental hygienists over the decades have worshipped me like a god, and all my dentists have—but you probably get a lot of unfounded criticism too. Being conscientious, you let this criticism get to you … but you shouldn’t. It’s not you … it’s them. Which brings me to the final section of this post.

Part 3 – Five New Year’s Resolutions for dental hygienists

The way some hygienists go on about my perceived failings as custodian of my teeth, I have to wonder what they say to people who eat too much sugar, and/or don’t floss, and/or (gasp) smoke cigarettes or chew tobacco. Their lectures must border on abuse: “You filthy degenerate, you don’t even deserve teeth!” Or maybe they go easy on the less diligent patients for fear of alienating them completely, while saving their scrutiny for arrogant patients like me who think they’re all that.

Look, I get that being a dental hygienist is a tough job, and these people have a big workload without a lot of socializing at the water cooler to break up the day. Surely lots of patients are a bit stressed out, and those with neglected mouths must be tough to take. But that doesn’t mean some of these hygienists shouldn’t try harder to improve my experience. And so, here are my New Year’s Resolutions for this crew.

Hygienist resolution #1: Stop making shit up

I’ve fielded various complaints from hygienists over the years. Here are some examples: 
  •  “You are pressing too hard with the floss and slicing up your gums.”
  • “You aren’t getting the backs of your front teeth.”
  • “You aren’t getting the back of your 12-year molars.”
  •  “You’re brushing too hard and causing gum recession.”
  • “You grind your teeth at night. Soon you’ll have no enamel left.”
For years I took these criticisms to heart and tried to do better—but how can I, when my dental hygiene is already world class? Finally I decided to ignore these comments altogether, for the simple reason that there is no consistency to them. No two hygienists have offered up the same criticism, and no single hygienist has offered up the same criticism on two different occasions. Moreover, I have yet to hear a single one of these complaints from the dentist. All the dentists go on and on about what a great job I’m doing with my teeth; they praise me more vociferously than my own mom. I’m convinced that the hygienists, perhaps frustrated because they couldn’t make my gums bleed no matter how hard they tried, are just making shit up. So, evil hygienists … just stop.

Hygienist resolution #2: Stop making this My Teeth Cleaning With Andre

Why are hygienists so chatty? I guess it gets a bit lonely when you’re only interacting with patients, not colleagues, but why don’t you people understand that I cannot talk when my mouth is stretched wide open and has your hands in it? You ask me these open-ended questions and I don’t know what to do. Due to the crowding from your fingers and your instruments, my tongue cannot reach my teeth, my alveolar ridge, or my hard palate, so basically all I can do is grunt. If you’ve wondered why my description of my holiday plans is so terse and unhelpful, that is why.

Where things get especially frustrating is when you take unfair advantage of my situation to criticize me, secure in the knowledge that I can’t really defend myself. So when you say, “Oh, I see you’re a mouth breather—but then, you knew that,” you shouldn’t take my “Huh” for any kind of agreement. It’s just that I can’t be bothered to twist my head away to disengage from your fingers so I can say, “Look, if I mouth-breathed in my sleep, my wife would surely call me on it. If the bit of gum between my front teeth seems a little raw, it’s because I exercise in the cold morning air, a practice that I refuse to give up just to avoid the minimal damage it may cause to my gums.”

Hygienist resolution #3: Keep your monologue anodyne

Many hygienists I’ve encountered are quite happy with my minimal contributions to our conversation because all they really want is to talk. Perhaps that’s why they chose this line of work. I’m fine with this, so long as their chatter is low-key and uncontroversial. Ideally, I’d like to be able to sleep through it, since it’s so rare to be leaning back in a chair like this with my head supported and nothing required of me. So, hygienists: please don’t upset me with diatribes about, say, the sorry state of public education, or worse, anything personal.

One hygienist started off by asking my why my arm was in a sling (for this I had to twist my head away long enough to say, “Bike accident”), and then she moved on to how dangerous bicycles are and how irresponsible it is to ride one on city streets, and then—I am not making this up—she went off on a tirade about how hard it is teaching her teenaged daughter how to drive, because the girl just won’t listen. She lamented, “I told my daughter to take the highway on-ramp and she flat refused, she was like, ‘Mom, I don’t feel comfortable,’ and I had to yell at her and say, ‘Just do it!’ and so finally she did.” I was very disturbed by this: not only was this person a total psycho, but she was having some kind of freak-out, while holding a very sharp pointy object millimeters away from the softest parts of my mouth.

Hygienist resolution #4: Enough with the face shield!

When did dental hygienists start using the clear plastic face shield? This device is ridiculous. Okay, I get it, you don’t want to catch cold from a patient, but let’s think about this. You’ve got a device stick in my mouth continuously sucking every drop of moisture out of it, and I’m not talking anyway. Before these face shields, I uncomplainingly tolerated the risk of dental hygienists’ spittle landing in my mouth (assisted by gravity, no less), but you can’t seem to handle the reduced risk of my spittle reaching you and making its way past your paper surgical mask. Meanwhile your face shield makes you look just a little bit like the riot police.

Think about it. Flight attendants, despite being bombarded with cosmic radiation, don’t wear unsightly lead vests and trousers. They know the risks of their profession, and they accept them. Politicians work giant crowds, shaking hundreds of hands a day, and they’re not wearing single-use rubber gloves. For most of the history of dental offices, hygienists accepted the risk of germs—why can’t you?

Hygienist resolution #5: Stop being so stingy with the water!

Back in the glory days, there was a little sink next to the chair, and the patient got a little paper cup of water, and could rinse all that powdery residue out of his or her mouth after the teeth cleaning. If he or she wanted another cupful, he or she could just ask for it. Maybe that got too expensive, or dental offices are trying to conserve water or cups, because now that sink is gone. I grant that this isn’t the hygienist’s fault. But why give me just one little squirt of water from your little nozzle? Are you that concerned about saving water, or is this some little power trip? Why not hand the nozzle to me and let me help myself?

While you’re at it, how about giving me, say, a full five seconds to swish that water around in my mouth before thrusting the suction back in my mouth and taking all the water back? You give me like a second and it’s not nearly enough time. What, are you in a rush? Where was this sense of urgency when you kept pausing during the tooth-scraping because you got so into your monologue?

From now on, maybe I’ll bring my own water bottle to my appointments. In fact, I’m making that my New Year’s Resolution.

Related reading 
For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Biased Commentary - Could Chris Froome Be Innocent?


I enjoy posting “biased blow-by-blow” reports of World Tour bicycle races. I label them “biased” because I when I think a rider is doped I can’t bear to bite my tongue like real journalists and commentators do. And, being just a blogger, I don’t have to.

Needless to say, I have never given Christopher Froome, nor his Sky team, the benefit of the doubt. And, with Froome returning an “adverse analytical finding” (i.e., a positive test) for twice the allowed amount of salbutamol, I seem to have my perennial accusations validated. Not surprisingly, Froome came right out and said, “Yes, I have been cheating all along—and I’ve let down my team, my sponsors, my fans, and my sport, and I am really sorry.”

No, of course he didn’t say that! Like so many dopers who get caught, he’s professing innocence (in the standard-issue tricky language, “I haven’t broken any rules”).  So I’m going to examine his nascent defense and the possibility that he’s actually innocent. And I’m going to be as fair as possible (with the caveat that of course I’m biased). And for those of you who (quite reasonably) are too jaded and cynical to care about Froome, I’ll examine what all this means to the sport.

In case this sounds boring and like ground that’s been covered before, I promise my analysis will be different. For one thing I’ll be pulling in some experts, like the philosophers William of Ockham, Karl Popper, and Marshall Mathers (aka Eminem).

Petitio principii

Because I’m biased, I need to be careful not to commit a classic logical fallacy, petitio principii, otherwise known as “begging the question” or “circular reasoning.” This fallacy occurs when the argument depends on the truth of a premise that is also the conclusion (usually in a disguised form). It’s an absurdly blatant kind of fallacy, but pops up surprisingly often.

Here’s how this would apply to Froome. We start with the premise that he’s a doping, cheating scumbag. Add to that his positive test. Since the test confirms what we already knew (i.e., that he was a doper), we know we can trust the test. And since a trustworthy test produced a positive, he is by definition guilty of doping.

Like many poor arguments, this one is one-sided. That is, it might stoke the coals of other Froome-bashers, but it’s not likely to win over any converts. So it’s non-useful and I won’t use it.

In Froome’s defense

Some riders have come out against Froome with statements that are lame enough to inspire a backlash. For example, Tim Wellens described his own refusal to use inhalers, even though doctors have told him it would help with his bronchial obstruction. “I could improve my breathing capacity by 7 or 8 per cent... but I'm against inhalers. If the public knew the number of riders who have an inhaler… it's enormous.” Another rider, Mathieu van der Poel, was more blunt: “Maybe asthma patients will understand the case better, but cycling and all sports in general are for healthy people.”

I’m not an “asthma patient,” but I do have bronchospasm, which is what afflicts so many cyclists. It’s not chronic the way true asthma is, but involves asthma-like symptoms during hard exercise (which is why it’s often called “exercise-induced asthma”). It’s more common among athletes than the general population, and it’s more common among cyclists than any other athlete. The reason is that cyclists move huge amounts of air through their respiratory systems, without the benefit of it going through their nasal passages to be warmed up and filtered. We can ride for hours at a time, day after day, and cold, damp, or polluted air, or very hot, dry air, can inflame our bronchial passages. (Mountain bikers have bronchospasm more commonly than roadies because of all the dust and dirt.)

I speak from experience when I say Wellens isn’t grasping the benefit of an inhaler. Without it, I will start wheezing ten minutes into my bike ride, which will hamper my performance (far more than 7 or 8 percent) for the whole ride. It’s unfair for van der Poel to accuse me, or any cyclist with bronchospasm, of being an unhealthy person. I’m totally unafflicted by breathing problems unless I’m riding regularly (which is, of course, my lifestyle).

That said, using an inhaler doesn’t give me special breathing powers; it just neutralizes a possible barrier to my normal respiratory function. It won’t give an edge to any person unafflicted by bronchospasm, any more than Viagra will make a sexual dynamo out of a person unafflicted by erectile dysfunction. As Dr. John Dickinson, an expert on asthma, states in this article, “We know that therapeutic doses of inhalers don’t touch performance, so if you’re a non-asthmatic taking a couple of puffs of salbutamol, it’s not going to do anything for you.”

Wait ... not so fast

The person I just quoted was talking about inhaled salbutamol. In the doses inhalers provide, this drug does a great job at reducing if not eliminating the inflammation that dogs bronchospasm sufferers, without conferring any unfair advantage. But taken in high doses through other means, drugs like salbutamol certainly can. According to this article, “Oral or injected beta 2-agonists can have anabolic effects and are banned in and out of competition.” Greg LeMond told Cyclingnews, “Taken orally or by injection [salbutamol] acts as an anabolic steroid, similar to clenbuterol, the drug that Alberto Contador was positive for.”

It’s not outlandish to assert that a very large dose of a drug can affect you in an entirely different way than a small dose. If you take the normal dose of Latisse, you’ll enjoy longer eyelashes. If you take the normal dose of Lumigan, you’ll effectively treat your glaucoma by lowering intraocular pressure. But guess what? They’re exactly the same drug! Only the dosage is different. So you see, one man’s side effect is another man’s performance-enhancing drug. This is why there’s a legal limit on salbutamol.

How was Froome using salbutamol?

According to this article, “Froome will argue that he took three puffs of his inhaler just before providing his sample to anti-doping after stage 18 of the Vuelta.” I’m not sure exactly where this assertion came from but it’s backed up by this quote from Froome: “I have a clear routine when I use my inhaler and how many times I use it. I've given all that information to the UCI to help get to the bottom of this." (Click here for the context.)

Naturally Froome would like us all to believe he took this drug the normal, therapeutic way, by inhaling it. As Cyclingnews explains, “Inhaled, [beta 2-agonists] are not considered performance enhancing. Inhaled doses are allowed in competition without a TUE at doses up to 1600 micrograms over 24 hours or 800 micrograms every 12 hours.”

Froome’s adverse analytical finding (AAF) is the result of having double the allowed amount of salbutamol in his system. That’s a lot, because the legal limit is very generous. I can say this with some authority because the amount of albuterol I need is just 180 mcg—less than a quarter of the legal limit.

Beyond my personal experience, I’ve been around road and mountain bike racers for decades, and I’ve done some calculations based on the most salbutamol I have ever known a person to take. During a full-blown bronchospasm attack, clearly audible to anybody in a 50-foot radius, this person needed two 90-mcg puffs, having taken the standard 2-puff preventive dose before the exercise. So that's a total of four puffs, which is 360 mcg. (All these inhalers provide the same dose.) Simple math tells us Froome would have had to take 18 puffs on his inhaler to reach twice the legal limit.

Giving Froome the benefit of the doubt, let’s suppose he really did get all his salbutamol via inhaler. What might that look like? Suppose he took two preventive puffs before the race, and then forgot he’d done so, and took two more. And let’s say that for some reason he had some breathing problems anyway, but that nobody heard him wheezing, maybe because of all the cheering fans, and nobody saw him use his inhaler during the race because he’s always surrounded by and thus eclipsed by his Sky teammates. So he was able to take a couple more puffs without being seen. That’s six total. And that’s a lot. The person I witnessed having four puffs total suffered jitters and shakes and was not comfortable and probably would have hesitated, to say the least, to take any more salbutamol.

But let’s say Froome is just tough as nails and shook off these side effects ... we’re still only at six puffs. Remember, the legal limit works out to 18 puffs ... so we’re supposed to believe that he took a dozen more puffs, all without anybody noticing, because the wheezing still wasn’t controlled? This seems pretty damn unlikely. Froome would like everyone to believe that the legal limit is really low, so an accidental overuse of the inhaler (e.g., one puff too many) could put him over ... but the numbers say otherwise.

Drug level detected vs. ingested

The rest of Froome’s defense centers around a possible discrepancy between the amount of salbutamol detected in his urine and what he actually used. As described here, “The threshold of 1000ng/ml was set by a scientific study, but metabolism of the drug varies greatly from person to person. In cases of an AAF exceeding the threshold for inhaled salbutamol, athletes can submit to a pharmacological study of their metabolism of the drug to try to prove exceeding the dose was unintentional.”

The logical explanation for a higher concentration of the drug in a rider’s urine (mentioned in two of these articles) is dehydration. Is it plausible Froome was just really, really dehydrated on stage 18 of the Vuelta, when he returned the AAF? Well, two circumstances suggest otherwise. First, he had a great race, cementing his lead over Vincenzo Nibali. I, for one, do not ride well when I’m so dehydrated as to return double the concentration of any substance I could (hypothetically) be tested for. Second, according to the Cyclingnews blow-by-blow report, the temperature was only 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) that morning, and two other riders commented on it being generally rainy toward the end of that Vuelta. (That’s about all I can glean about the weather.) If Froome has always meticulously followed the same salbutamol dosing regimen—“I have a clear routine when I use my inhaler and how many times I use it,” he told Cyclingnews—then how has he not had an AAF for salbutamol at any time in his decade-long career when he’s surely been tested after very long, hot days on the road that would have left him dedydrated?

But you know what? We could spend an eternity considering the various possible factors that could lead to the test results being so far off, and that’s the wrong approach. If you’re asking, “Who says?” then my answer is, “Philosophers.”

Ockham’s razor

Scientists—including Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein—have long made use of a heuristic principle known as Ockham’s razor, devised by the philosopher William of Ockham. As described by Wikipedia, “His principle states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected or when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.... One justification of Occam’s razor is a direct result of basic probability theory. By definition, all assumptions introduce possibilities for error; if an assumption does not improve the accuracy of a theory, its only effect is to increase the probability that the overall theory is wrong.” 

If we apply this principle retroactively in assessing past doping cases, its reliability is almost comically obvious. What makes more sense: the complicated notion that Tyler Hamilton had a chimera (i.e., a vanishing twin that got lost in the womb) that produced a false positive for foreign blood population—or that he doped? Which seems more probable: that Alberto Contador got clenbuterol from beef brought to him all the way from Spain by a friend—or that he cheated? Which better passes the sanity test: that Floyd Landis drank over 60 bottles of water during a single Tour stage because he was just really, really thirsty, and he returned a positive test because the lab was totally incompetent—or that he doped?

Theories that defy the Occam’s razor principle usually start with some version of, “Wait, there must be some other explanation.” Let’s look beyond cycling history. Consider the song “Guilty Conscience” by Eminem. A scenario is laid out: “Meet Grady, a twenty-nine year old construction worker. After coming home from a hard day’s work, he walks in the door of his trailer park home to find his wife in bed with another man.” Eminem has an interior debate with his conscience, which is voiced by Dr. Dre.

Dr. Dre: “Wait! What if there's an explanation for this shit?”
Eminem: “What? She tripped? Fell? Landed on his dick?!”

Here again, the most likely scenario is also the simplest. Grady’s wife has cuckolded him.

How applicable is Ockham’s razor to Froome’s defense? Well, considering that Froome’s urine level showed twice the limit, and that the limit is so very generous to begin with, and that he hasn’t yet advanced any specific counter-theories for the test being so far off, and that the obvious dehydration explanation doesn’t match the circumstances of the race, doesn’t the idea that he’s somehow innocent seem a lot more complicated than the very simple notion that yet another pro cyclist cheated?

Karl Popper

Karl Popper, a widely esteemed philosopher of science, weighs in on Ockham’s razor in a way that provides more food for thought on the topic of drug testing in sport. Again according to Wikipedia, “Popper argues that a preference for simple theories ... may be justified by its falsifiability criterion: we prefer simpler theories to more complex ones ‘because their empirical content is greater; and because they are better testable’ (Popper 1992).”

Falsifiability” is a key concept to have in mind when we consider doping in sport. Falsifiability is the idea that a proposition is more believable if its veracity can be determined simply and equivocally through a test. For example, the statement “all swans are white” can be proven false by producing a black swan. Popper cites falsifiability as the “demarcation criterion,” such that “what is unfalsifiable is classified as unscientific.”

Team Sky principal David Brailsford made a grand statement that doesn’t begin to meet the falsifiability standard: “I have the utmost confidence that Chris followed the medical guidance in managing his asthma symptoms, staying within the permissible dose for salbutamol.” Brailsford is countering the existing falsifiable evidence with sheer emphasis, without employing any falsifiable evidence of his own, because nobody has even begun the process of creating a convincing alternative explanation to the AAF. His defense, strident though it may be,  is utterly theoretical at this point, so it’s not even as solid as “She tripped, fell, landed on his dick.” Drug testing is built on the principle of falsifiability, but guys like Brailsford get to counter them with vague what-ifs.

Returning to petitio principii

Look, I’ll be honest: I love the idea of Froome being given three puffs of salbutamol, starved of water, and then placed in a sauna—and then having this procedure repeated over and over again until he manages to produce a urine sample with twice the legal limit of salbutamol. I’d rather watch him do that than win another bike race, frankly. But it’s wrong to indulge him.

Why? Well, I started this essay by promising not to engage in a petitio principii argument that conflates the conclusion with a key premise. But that’s exactly Brailsford is doing by assuming that if Froome’s test returned an AAF, the fault must be with the test. The credibility of Brailsford’s whole team suffers when he automatically takes Froome’s side instead of suspending him from competition. Meanwhile, the credibility of cycling suffers when a rider who fails a drug test gets to keep racing because he is on a wealthy team and has a loud, powerful boss. (Whether or not that is exactly what is going on here is immaterial; this is how it looks to the world.)

No rider above the legal limit for salbutamol has ever escaped suspension by successfully establishing, after the fact, that he could produce an AAF after taking a legal dose. And no rider has surpassed this legal limit as egregiously as Froome. I look forward to the day Froome is finally brought down, but the circus we spectators will have to endure in the meantime will be even uglier than his doped-to-the-gills race “victories.”

Oh, and one other thing: doped or not, Froome is a jerk.

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Friday, January 5, 2018

Race Report - San Bruno Mountain Hill Climb 2018


I don’t race very often anymore ... the old guys are just getting too fast for me. Once in a while, I do race the San Bruno Mountain Hill Climb on January 1. This gives me a good excuse to skip all the New Year’s Eve parties I get invited to. (It’s shameless how all the different hosts compete for my attendance ... so I find  it’s easier just to shun them all.)

My bike team has a tradition of food-centric race reports. What follows is my report to them, in small, medium, and large. If you’re looking for a summary of how the cat-and-mouse tactics played out in the Pro/1/2 race, you will have to look somewhere else.

Executive summary

Lunch was amazing. My race ... not so much. During the last month I focused so much on weight loss, I kind of forgot to train. But I dug deep during the race, managed an okay result, and (most importantly) had a glorious post-race meal.

Medium report

Breakfast: nothing. I didn’t want to ruin my South Beach success with a bunch of last-minute ballast. My final pre-race weigh-in was 173, not too shabby, and this was before my multi-session pre-race elimination protocol. I’m pleased to report that in that realm I’ve still got it!

Lunch: At a nice restaurant near the Berkeley marina, we started with some white-flour-centric focaccia. (My spell-checker has flagged “focaccia.” Note to Microsoft: get your head out of the sand! Focaccia exists! It’s probably more popular than Bing!) Then we moved into some mussels in this crazy Point Reyes Farmstead blue cheese sauce with bacon bits. There was so much sauce, we decided we’d better get some straws. On second thought we asked for more focaccia to soak it up with.

In other news, I was going to get a beer, because “Brilliant! Booze in the afternoon!” but they wanted $6.75 for a Lagunitas IPA. Celebration be damned, I wasn’t going to pay that, so Erin and I split a Kona Brewing Longboard Lager ($5.95, which is actually a worse deal if you go by ABV). Right after our toast, all hell broke loose (see full report below).

For my entree I had the Hangtown Omelette (buttermilk battered oysters, fresh spinach, root beer glaze, and “county potatoes,” which was a misspelling of “country potatoes”). I also ate a bunch of everybody else’s food (since they were stuffed on foccacia): lobster bisque with puff pastry; salmon; shrimp; cheddar grits; and fried green tomatoes. Of course we finished it off with a rich chocolate dessert ... I’m trying to remember what it was called. Chocolate Intemperance? Chocolate Dissolution? Chocolate Profligacy? Chocolate Debauchery? Chocolate for the One Percent? Chocolate Travesty? Chocolate Depravity? Whatever the name, it was thick and chewy and came with a goat cheese quenelle, raspberry sauce, and fresh berries. (How is it Microsoft’s spell-checker has “quenelle,” which is a word the restaurant probably made up, but not “focaccia”?)  

Note to world: my single New Year’s Resolution is to gain weight! South Beach is so 2017! Onward, to new heights in gluttony! I’m BACK!

Full report

The main reason I decided to do this race was to hang on my daughter’s coattails ... we’d both decided it was time she did her first road race. I feel like I’ve failed to bring much glory to the East Bay Velo Club, and this failure is probably based on poor character, not poor genes, so I might as well let my daughter pick up the slack. And if she’s going to the race, I figured, I might as well bring my bike too ... after all, it’s been more than three years since my last road race.

My other reason for racing San Bruno is that I needed a good excuse to lose weight, after some intensive calorie-therapy related to a lot of serious stress I went through this past fall. Of course there are many normal reasons to lose weight, such as improved health and so forth, but they don’t scare you into action like the prospect of a looming bike race—and a hill climb, of all things. It is widely known in the bike racing community that to be a good climber, you need to be so scrawny you can wrap your thumb and forefinger around your ankle. I’m still pretty far from that, but at least strangers no longer come up to rub my belly and say “Happy Buddha.”

This year I finally got smart and put the bike rack on the car the night before, and packed my race bag in advance. So we got there not long after registration opened and had plenty of time to pin our numbers, suit up, and warm up.

I have it on good authority that even in the WorldTour, the pro racers have to pin their own race numbers. Only a truly privileged racer, like my daughter, gets the number pinned for her.

We parked right next to our EBVC teammate Mike Wachter, just to show the rest of the peloton that we roll deep. Here we are warming up.

I want you to look very closely at this photo. Look in particular at my head. Or, should I say, heads. It’s amazing! I have two heads! And this confirms something I’ve always suspected, and in fact  felt deep in my bones: I have a doppelgänger, an evil double, a chimera (i.e., “vanishing twin”) like Tyler Hamilton had. This trickster has long plagued me: changing the answers on my multiple-choice exams, deciding to eat that second piece of pie, and just generally messing up my life in untold unseen ways. That second head is also that much more weight to haul up the climbs, even after I’ve managed to shrink down my (well, our) belly. And now I have photographic evidence, so if I ever fail a doping test due to “foreign blood population” I’ll have a good defense. (Spoiler alert: I was not tested after this San Bruno Mountain Hill Climb.)

I warmed up good and hard and for a long time, especially because there was some random car accident on or near the course so they delayed the race by half an hour just before staging was supposed to begin. By this point I was super sweaty so if I’d stopped riding, I’d have gotten really cold. So I just kept going, and via my warm-up logged almost five times the distance of the actual race. (In case “good and hard” is too vague a description of my warm-up, here are some numbers from my bike computer.)

On the start line with my group (the Masters 45+ 4/5, mixed with the 45+ 1/2/3) was Chris Phipps, a name-brand racer with 44 career wins. He won San Bruno in 2014 with a time more than 2 minutes faster than my personal best. Why do I care, since obviously I will never challenge him? Because he dragged our field along pretty much from the gun. I don’t know how long he went on dragging everybody because, needless to say, before long I was no longer around to see it.

Really, my race was between me and my younger self. I was looking to shore up my fragile male ego by being faster this go round than I was last time, four years ago, which effort was, in fact, a disgrace. On the positive side, my towering disappointment with that race gave me hope that—the bar being so very low—I could do better this year, despite being four years older.

Well, I hung with the field longer than last time before getting sawed off. Fortunately, when I did, I took a bunch of guys with me off the back. This has always been my fortĂ©, ever since I was a junior. My friend and former teammate Peter described it thus: “When you go out the back, it’s like this giant vortex just sucking people along with you. I’ll be like, ‘What the [heck], where is everyone going? Oh, I get it, Dana’s getting dropped!” I derive a strange satisfaction from this—it’s like I have Command Presence or something, in this one tiny realm of my life. (Well, actually, there was also this time when I got lost walking through an airport, with my daughter in tow, and when I got to a total dead end, I turned around and there were like a dozen other people behind me. “Daddy, why did all these people follow you?” my daughter asked, perplexed. Beats me!)

Here’s a photo somebody snapped of me right after I got dropped.

Wait a second, that’s not from this race! That’s from the North Boulder Park Criterium back in 1981! But you know, it’s the right anguished expression. Not much has changed since then ... I just have a better helmet now, and a cooler bike. And shorter socks.

The great thing about bringing people off the back with me is that when they see their mistake and chase back on, I have one more chance—sucking their wheels like an anaerobic remora—to latch back on. Here I am right after two of these suckers re-dropped me:

Look at my damn elbows sticking out! I’m no better than Chris Froome, the rider I most mercilessly mock in my WorldTour race reports! God, I wish I could at least lose with dignity. I had no idea my elbows ever stuck out. I’m going to blame the high school mountain bike team for which I’m an assistant coach. We coaches are taught to accentuate how bent our elbows are, so the riders don’t fail to notice. Now let’s see ... who else could I blame? Well, my parents I guess—for marrying each other, instead of somebody with some damn talent.

Here’s an action shot. I include this for three reasons. First, it may be of zoological interest to some readers that, in order to take in more air, I’ve unlocked my jaw like some snakes can do. Second, it’s a pretty good photo my wife managed to get, notwithstanding how hard it is to photograph bike races. (I did help by going so slowly up the hill.) Third, at least I’ve tucked my elbows back in. Sheesh.

At the halfway point, I’d chased back down the two guys you saw above. (There was a short descent and a flat part, which I used to maximum benefit.) My average speed by that time was 12.47 mph. I’d calculated beforehand that if I averaged 12 mph, I could beat my old PR (set back in 2010). So I was still on track! But then two things happened: I got dropped again, and I started to die.

For the rest of the race my average speed dipped ever downward, slipping toward 12 and then right past it. Meanwhile, these last two guys who’d dropped me dangled out there just ahead of me, taunting me with their lack of actual superiority. Pete had recommended I do some interval training before this race, which surely would have helped me match their accelerations at key moments. Alas, I did not take his advice (intervals being the main reason I quit racing in the first place). I was sure regretting it now. Though I was definitely gaining on these two by the top, I ran out of road. Also, I suck.

Did I get a new PR? No. Did I at least get a better time than four years ago? Let’s not go into that. Instead, let’s look on the bright side: I placed higher, in sixth. Does this mean the field was weaker this year? Of course not. It was windy out there, okay? Plus, the field is cleaner now because of the improved doping controls. (I had a good race, honest I did!)

Here I am hanging out with another racer at the summit.

Huh, that’s weird, I think I pasted the wrong photo. That’s from almost 36 years ago, of me and my friend Aaron Pickett-Heaps. This time around, I actually had a slightly older person to hang around with post-race, with a very impressive radio antenna as a backdrop.

I won’t say anything about my daughter’s race because, like all teenagers everywhere, she’s working on her own race report right now. Mike will probably file his own report as well so I’ll stay mum about his race other than to say that he also, obviously, made the summit.

So, that bit I wrote earlier about all hell breaking loose at lunch? That’s actually a bit of an exaggeration. But right after toasting the new year with my wife, I was setting down my half-glass of beer to get my phone back from my daughter (who had just snapped our photo for a Beck’st), and I knocked over the glass, soaking the nice cloth tablecloth. Four cloth napkins later we’d mostly mopped up the mess, and the waitress arrived and apologized, like it was her fault, and told me she’d bring me another beer. I protested, but largely for form, of course, because if you do the math, I’d be getting a whole beer for free having lost just half a beer. It seemed too good to be true, but sure enough, a bit later another server brought out a whole second beer.

I managed—my poor track record notwithstanding—to pour half of this in my wife’s glass without spilling a drop. We finished those quickly and handily (because beer isn’t like a fine brandy you nurse all day) and presently our original waitress came out with another replacement beer and an extra glass. I told her, “Oh, no, another server already brought us the replacement.” She said, “Oh, really? ‘Cause I just yelled at someone over this! So you’re drinking it, I’m not taking it back!” So just like that, 2½ beers for the price of one! Needless to say, 2018 is off to a great start....

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