Monday, April 30, 2018

The Maple Syrup Relabeling Travesty


In my last post, I lambasted modern razors, which are excessively expensive and fictitiously superior to what your dad or grandfather used to use. I should probably blog next on a completely unrelated theme, but I have stumbled onto another economic absurdity that is sticking in my craw. This time, though, I’m going to exhort you to possibly spend more than you may be now.

I’m talking about maple syrup. Don’t pretend you don’t care about this all-important foodstuff.

Grade A vs. Grade B

For somewhere around a couple hundred years, maple syrup—I mean the real deal, not that imitation stuff—came in two grades: A and B. Grade A was better and cost more. It’s the better product, that naturally rises to the top when maple syrup is boiled. Grade A syrup is to Grade B what cream is to milk.

Now, when I say Grade A is better, I’m not just basing this on it traditionally costing more money. After all, cheap razor blades are better than expensive ones, and cheap- to mid-priced Mexican restaurants are often better than the more upscale places (which are often just annoying). I’m basing my statement on having done a highly scientific blind taste test onsite at a maple syrup producing facility in Vermont back in 1994. Here is the result of my test, from the report I made right afterward:
[My wife and I] conducted blind taste tests comparing Grade A Fancy, Grade B, and our own Shurfine Imitation Maple Flavor Syrup [purchased for reasons of economy during an 8-month bike tour].  We both preferred Grade A, then fake, with Grade B coming in a distant last.  (After our Shur Fine ran out, we got some Maple Jack that's 20% real syrup:  that is, likely 20% Grade B, cut expertly in the lab by large corporations that know what tastes good.)
Here is photographic proof of this taste test:

My report included this tidbit:
I’ve heard people say, “I’ve tried real maple syrup, and I prefer the kind you buy in the store that’s artificially flavored.”  My theory about this oddity is that those who prefer fake syrup had been served Grade B at a touristy restaurant.  It makes sense for a restaurant to serve Grade B syrup since it’s not only cheaper, but will impress tourists more:  they’ll say, “Wow, that’s so different, oh, yes, this is the real thing, we’re experiencing the real thing, oh my, what a fabulous vacation.” 
In the last few years, however, Vermont—the top U.S. maple syrup producer—discovered that a lot of people actually prefer Grade B. Perhaps some of this is because it’s so obviously different from Mrs. Butterworth’s and Log Cabin. Maybe its stronger flavor just seems more authentic. Whatever the reason (and you can see the Appendix below for some theories), the Vermont maple syrup producers evidently realized they were leaving money on the table by using the phrase “Grade B.” Why admit something is inferior when you don’t have to? This brings us to….

The disappearance of Grade B

Last fall during a visit to my hometown of Boulder, Colorado I was shopping at an overpriced, Whole-Foods-y grocery chain called Vitamin Cottage when I discovered that their different grades of maple syrup were all called Grade A. One label said something to the effect of “formerly known as Grade B.” I asked the cashier about this but she was clueless. I decided it must be a Boulder thing. (My brother Max, who lives in Boulder, has always preferred Grade B syrup himself.)

Well, I’ve done some research and have discovered (click here for details) that Vermont has refined the gradation scheme for maple syrup. Now, all maple syrup is Grade A, even the Grade C stuff that wasn’t formerly available for retail sale (being used only in the manufacture of food). This scoring revision is a little like my daughters’ kiddie soccer teams that gave every kid a trophy, even the ones who never broke into a run or even attempted to kick the ball. Here’s a schematic showing the new nomenclature.

When you think about it, this just makes perfect sense. Why on earth would you badmouth a product with a derisive label like “Grade B” when you don’t have to? Why create a hierarchy that lowers the price of your lower-end product? I’ll bet the dairy industry is kicking themselves for using the word “milk” when they could call it “light cream” and charge more money for it.

But does the maple syrup industrial complex charge more for Grade B Grade A Dark with Robust Taste now? Well, it’s really hard to compare now, because not all manufacturers provide the complete label. Look at this stuff, which is as dark as crude oil:

Its label says, “Grade A 100% Pure Maple Syrup (from the Sap of Maple Trees).” You know, as opposed to “from the Urine of Pregnant Beavers” or “from the Runoff of Feed Lots.” All those extra words about what “maple syrup” means, but they couldn’t manage to fit in the “Dark with Robust Taste” part of the label, or—more likely—“Very Dark with Strong Taste,” whichever of the two it is. This incomplete labeling is certainly deliberate and opportunistic; it gives them the ability to charge $9 for a 16-ounce bottle of what would be Grade B or even Grade C syrup in the original, non-muddled nomenclature.

When I try to compare two varieties of a single manufacturer’s product, I get nowhere. Looking at the Anderson’s products at Target, it appears the lighter and darker varieties cost the same, but I can’t be sure because it’s not clear how to put one or the other in your shopping cart. Looking at Amazon, I was totally buried in unhelpful labels and packaging options. Suffice to say, it’s no longer a straightforward proposition to get a lower-end product for less money. All has been obfuscated.

Expansion of relabeling opportunity

I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before other industries catch on and carry out relabeling campaigns of their own. Here are some examples of low-lying fruit:
  • Grade A Beef for Strong Immune Systems
  • Multivitamin for Those Preferring Vitamin C Only
  • Chicken Breast from the Leg
  • Whole Wheat Bread – Reduced Fiber Version
  • Extra-Strength Tylenol in Low Dose
  • MBA Degree in High School Equivalency
  • SPF 50 Sunscreen for Indoor Use
  • Express Mail Ground Delivery Option
  • Black Belt in Karate – Beginner’s Online Tutorial Edition
Appendix – Is Grade B Grade A Dark with Robust Taste better for you?

Part of the popularity of the syrup formerly known as Grade B is that it’s been recommended for the “Master Cleanse” detox regimen, which consists of fasting except for drinking tea and lemonade made with maple syrup and cayenne pepper. The originator of this cleanse, a charlatan named Stanley Burroughs, advised in his self-published book that you should use Grade B syrup because it is “less refined.” (Charlatan? Yes. As mentioned in the MasterCleanse Wikipedia article, “According to the Harvard Medical School, the laxative component of the diet can lead to dehydration and electrolyte loss as well as impaired bowel function.”)

A self-interested purveyor of maple syrup, the Maple Valley Coop, promotes the Master Cleanse regimen and applauds Burroughs for recommending the syrup formerly known as Grade B, on the basis of it being less refined. But this other website explains that all grades of maple syrup are pure and unrefined. Can we trust this second website? Yep. My own tour of the maple syrup producing facility showed me that they produce all the syrup without adding anything … all they do is extract the sap and boil it. Here are the notes I took on this:
Tubes run directly from the trees to a giant storage tank, from which the sap trickles down (by gravity) to a giant open topped boiling tank that has many different maze-like channels in it.  The sap runs through the channels, driven by the current of the new sap flowing in, and by the time it makes it through to the final channel, it’s been boiled long enough that it’s the proper consistency and thickness of syrup:  that is, a gallon of it weighs 11 pounds (3 pounds more than a gallon of water!). Then, it’s separated into various grades by some process that was never explained to us very well  … something like fractional distillation, I suppose.  This yields the various grades, from Grade B (i.e., crude, and “suitable for cooking,” as they described it) all the way up to Grade A Fancy (the best).
Others have also claimed that Grade B is better for you. A website called “Nourishing Our Children” claims here that “The potency and richness of Grade B maple syrup amplifies its health benefits.” This is also nonsense; this Cornell University study concluded, “No research has demonstrated any differential health benefits related to this variation.” Meanwhile, common sense tells us that maple syrup is a damn condiment. Nobody should consider it a staple with which we nourish our children.

Speaking of which, I’m still a fan of the good stuff—the Grade A that has always been called Grade A—but you know what I gave my own kids when they were younger? Imitation syrup, like Log Cabin. Why? Because little kids are lame, and pour like a quart of syrup on a single pancake, leaving most of it behind on the plate. I refuse to waste my money on such behavior. Besides, they liked Log Cabin just fine—and why shouldn’t they have? I know firsthand it tastes better than Grade A Dark with Robust Taste.

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Ode on a Double-Edged Razor

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


Sometimes when I’m feeling grateful for a consumer product, I am moved to write a poem. This is one of those times.

The Poem

Ode on a Double-Edged Razor

“Cheap bastard” is a name I wear with pride
And yet I cannot stand to buy cheap crap.                               2
I love that special product that provides
A point where worth and value overlap.
My razor’s made of stainless fucking steel
Instead of plastic formed in fancy shapes.                               6
My blades are double-edged—the real deal.
I might get nicked, I know—but never raped.
You know who needs expensive lubri-strips?
A bunch of soft and craven would-be men.                           10
These cartridge blades in trays like ammo-clips …
It’s shameful how Gillette is playing them.
    A Feather blade shaves close beyond compare
    Rewarding anyone who grows a pair.                                14

Footnotes & Commentary

Title: Ode on

Though I’ve titled several poems (like this one and this one) “Ode to...” I think it sounds more literary to title a poem “Ode on….” For details on this English-major-y nuance, click here.

Line 1 – cheap bastard

How is it possible to be cheap and yet insist on high-end products? For one thing, you buy as few things as possible. I select durable stuff and use it forever, so I forgo having the latest-and-greatest of anything. (My 2006 Volvo still feels new to me because I retired my old Volvo at 360,000 miles.) Even with my favorite hobby, cycling, I apply this use-what-you-got ethos. Though 11-speed gear clusters are now commonplace on bicycles, and a patent has been filed for 14-speed, I am still on 9-speed. The shift levers I use came out in 1996 but they still work great. Who needs all those gears? I’ll just pedal harder/faster.

Line 2 – cannot stand to buy

As detailed here I really don’t like buying anything. I pity the burglar who hits my house … in so many consumer product categories I am willfully bereft.

Line 4 – value

Remember when “value” simply meant “the monetary worth of something”? Now it’s commonly used as a euphemism for “budget” or “low-end.” Avoidance of embarrassment is often used to upsell people (a tactic that probably works best on poor folks).

Line 5 – stainless fucking steel

I try to keep this blog clean, but frankly no other word than “fucking” would make this phrase connote exactly what I want. Call it poetic license.

Because the blades are so much cheaper for old-school razors, you can splurge on a really nice one. I bought a Merkur razor, for $23, made in Germany. It’s beautifully built and has a nice heft. The curved steel part that holds the blade down is a nice big hunk of metal so it holds a lot of heat. I run hot water in the sink, lather up, then place the razor head-down in the water for a couple of minutes. (This gives the shaving cream time to soften my beard and skin.) When I shave, the warm steel head feels good against my face.

Look how nice the Merkur is:

Shouldn’t all the objects we engage with be well-made and attractive?

Line 6 – fancy shapes

I cannot understand why consumers—grown men and women!—continue to seem impressed by modern industry’s ability to shape plastic into very complicated and fanciful shapes. How is this impressive when cheap kids’ toys are similarly crafted? Look at this modern razor … it’s grotesque.

The women’s version (of course Gillette decided women need their own) is even worse … it looks like some Disney Cinderella-themed toy my daughters had at age four.

Look at this totally weird razor:

And, because nobody should ever have to shave with something blandly colored:

Line 7 – doubled-edged

By double-edged I mean a flat piece of steel with blades along two parallel edges, like this:

The alternative, of course, is a disposable head that has two, three, or more blades like this:

There’s actually no evidence that having more than one blade makes for a closer shave. Cecil Adams, his column The Straight Dope, denies there’s any benefit. That hasn’t stopped the Disposable Blade Industrial Complex from getting into a number-of-blades arms race. I guess it’s understandable; after all, the American consumer has trouble with complicated value propositions but anybody can understand the more-is-better idea. On top of that, Gillette has made a number of neat little videos showing how the front blade lifts a hair up, cuts most of it off, and leaves the rest sticking up so the next blade can cut it. Click here to see one of the first such simulations.

Oddly, this idea went uncontested for many years until 2005 when Gillette came out with the M3Power razor, an electric vibrating version of the Mach 3. It made the same claim about lifting hairs up to better cut them, via a new version of the video. A competitor cried foul and Gillette went on trial; a U.S. District Judge ruled that ads claiming this benefit were “unsubstantiated and inaccurate” and in fact “literally false.” The sheepish response from the Gillette spokesperson was that “the computer-generated image of the razor lifting hair away from the skin was never meant to be taken literally.”

Amusingly, mockery of the multiple-blade design brought about a life-imitates-art scenario. In 2004, The Onion presented a Commentary piece facetiously attributed to the CEO of Gillette titled, “Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades.” Here’s an excerpt: 
The Gillette Mach3 was the razor to own. Then the other guy came out with a three-blade razor. Were we scared? Hell, no. Because we hit back with a little thing called the Mach3Turbo. That's three blades and an aloe strip. For moisture. But you know what happened next? Shut up, I’m telling you what happened—the bastards went to four blades. Now we’re standing around with our cocks in our hands, selling three blades and a strip.
A couple years later, Gillette did come out with a five-blade razor, which is now their biggest seller. I guess there’s no end in sight; a South Korean company now has a six-blade razor. Look at this ridiculous thing:

The brand of that razor is Dorco; needless to say, they should spell it Dorko.

The traditional double-edged blade, meanwhile, has an undeniable benefit over modern blades: you don’t need to rinse your razor as often while shaving. You do four or five strokes, then spin the razor handle 180 degrees and do four or five strokes with the second blade (i.e., the other side of the razor head). You spend only half as much time swishing your razor in the sink.

Line 8 – might get nicked

It’s been a long time since a company directly addressed the underlying reason people will spend more money on a fancier razor: fear of shaving cuts. Norelco ran a series of such ads in the early ‘70s, like this one:

Probably this tactic was abandoned because a) conventional wisdom is to accentuate the positive, and b) nobody wants to tell customers that they don’t have the skill to shave without cutting themselves. But that’s exactly what these modern blades are about: because the blades are held at a specific angle by the plastic head that slides along your skin, you don’t have to figure out this angle for yourself. It’s pretty close to idiot-proof (though I still did occasionally nick myself back when I used them).

Yes, the retro-style razor is a bit harder to use, especially at first. My first couple of shaves were a bit nerve-racking. It takes some practice to hold the razor at the right angle, and I did nick myself a few times during the first few weeks. But hey, it’s not like we never get a chance to practice! I reckon I’ve shaved upwards of 4,000 times in my life (not including my legs), and I’ll shave at least 7,000 more times if I live to 100. By now I’ve shaved around 400 times with my Merkur and I’ve gotten quite good at it.

Line 8 – but never raped

Are users of modern razors being raped? Well, in the sense of being robbed, I would say yes. If you buy replacement razor blades at the grocery store, you’ll pay over $5 apiece. Even in bulk online (e.g., Amazon), a Fusion blade runs about $24 for  an 8-count, i.e. $3 apiece. The cheapest online price I could find for a modern blade was the (now outdated) Mach3 15-count for $26, or $1.73 each. On the other hand, my favorite double-edged blades, the Japanese-made Feather, cost $23 for 100. So modern blades cost anywhere from 7 to 22 times as much as double-edged. That’s a total rip-off.

Line 9 – lubri-strip

The lubri-strip has got to be an even bigger bunch of bullshit than the multiple blades. I mean, think about it: you’re using shaving cream or gel that lubricates the crap out of your skin. How much lubrication are you going to get out of a little strip of plastic?

Oh, I’m sorry, did I say plastic? In this video a spokesperson wearing a lab coat and speaking with a foreign accent (so she must be an authority) explains, “[The lubri-strip] has a sponge-like structure that is infused with highly water-loving polymers called polyethylene glycols or PEGs.” And that’s not all: there are now two lubri-strips per head, one before and one after the blades! Amazing! Never mind that the strip still looks and feels like a wet piece of plastic, and nothing slippery is oozing out of it.

If you use a razor with a lubri-strip, and don’t get shaving rash, it’s tempting to assume the technology is legit. I’m reminded of a joke: this guy on a city bus, to the bemusement of other passengers, is reaching into an invisible imaginary box, lifting out fingerfuls of imaginary powder, and flinging them into the air. A passenger asks, “What are you doing?” The guy responds, “It’s to keep away lions!” The passenger protests, “But there are no lions on this bus!” To which the guy responds: “See? It’s working!”

Do I miss the lubri-strip of my old Gillette razors? Not a whit. I suspect shaving rash is a fake malady, like ring-around-the-collar. Or it’s an unfortunate idiosyncrasy of some people’s skin, for which there is no easy remedy.

Line 10 – soft and craven would-be men

Okay, I’ll confess this sounds kind of harsh and unenlightened. But if I’m going to appeal to people to switch to cheaper retro-style razors, I have to take the battle to Gillette’s turf. That is, I must directly combat all the marketing that’s aimed at men’s insecurities, or my arguments will be beside the point. The fact is, Gilette’s job is to coddle men with a foolproof, easy-to-use razor—Fisher Price Baby’s First Razor, they might as well call it—without seeming to. So they use all kinds of macho imagery in their ads, along with the slogan “The best a man can get.” A man, mind you. These razors aren’t for women. If a woman tried to use them—well, that would be a disaster, like if she tried to use his grill, or his power tools.

Check out this ad. In a minute flat you’ll see just about every manly role under the sun: running race, tux-clad wedding party, football game, Army training, baseball game, astronaut mission, father with baby, Wall Street trading, discus throw, and boxing. And check out this ad for the Mach3. It shows a fighter plane going so fast the damn wings come off, and then the canopy, and then the pilot’s helmet, eventually all we have left is the pilot—i.e., the man—and his razor. And a whole lot of testosterone.

The ad for the women’s Gillette Venus razor, here, has a slower, more muted soundtrack and a notable lack of explosions. I’m pretty sure the word “curves” would never appear in a Sensor or Mach3 ad. And there’s no tagline “The best a woman can get.” That notion somehow doesn’t work—it implies something unfair, like “The best she’s able to get” or “The best we’re willing to give her.”

Is there any way to market men’s razors without appealing to masculinity? Makers of traditional razors would have a hard time appealing to frugality (for fear, I suspect, of insulting their customers). Bic did do a campaign, way back, with celebrity John McEnroe—“ I don’t have to shave with a 20-cent bic … but I do!”—but I think that’s the exception that proves the rule.

What if Gillette or a competitor decided to use the ideal celebrity to endorse their razors? Who would that be? That’s an easy one—we’d look to the ultimate man’s man, a licensed-to-kill brute who’s also an epicure. I’m talking of course about James Bond, who has taken the sartorial lead in so many other areas (suits, watches, sunglasses, etc.). The problem is, it’s just not believable that he would shave with a cheesy plastic razor with a lubri-strip. If you don’t readily agree, just watch this clip.

Not only is Bond not worried about shaving nicks, he’s not worried about Moneypenny inadvertently cutting his throat … even though, earlier in the movie, she accidently shot him. Now there’s a real man.

Line 11 – like ammo clips

I can’t get over this firearm-themed cultural messaging. The razor comes in a little holder, and in the back is a place where a five-pack clip of blades—like a magazine—snaps in. Why the extra plastic? I’m sure you’re meant to feel like you’re loading a gun. It’s all very masculine, all very reassuring, to the point of thou doth protest too much.

Look, men, there’s no fighter plane, there’s no gun … it’s a razor designed to keep you from hurting yourself. It’s like those little plastic-dipped forks they give to babies.

Line 12 – how Gillette is playing them

The marketing strategy Gillette and its competitors have embraced is selling us a razor (or “razor system”) that will only take their proprietary and pricey blades. It’s lock-in, the same market force that has us (well, most of us) still typing on inefficient QWERTY keyboards. As Wikipedia notes, “With manufacturers frequently updating their shaving systems, consumers can become locked into buying their proprietary cartridges…. Subsequent to introducing the higher-priced Mach3 in 1998, Gillette’s blade sales realized a 50% increase, and profits increased in an otherwise mature market.” Show me a company’s huge increase in profits, and I’ll show you a lot of people getting ripped off.

Incidentally, the latest innovation in razor blade marketing is Harry’s, which doesn’t charge as much for blades, but sells them on a subscription basis so you can never forget to change out your blades (i.e., you end up buying more than you really need). Harry’s advertises so aggressively online, I now see their ads on almost every page I visit, thanks to all my razor-themed Google searches.

Line 13 – Feather blade

I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert, but I’ve tried three brands of double-edged blade and I like Japanese-made Feather blades the best. They were recommended by a friend who has an English accent and thus all kinds of automatic cred. (I remember the exact conversation, years ago during a bike ride to the Hotsy Totsy club.) This guy’s dad had been into mining or something and traveled the world, and for a while had actual lackeys who would inherit his worn-out blades and sharpen them for their own use. My friend cautioned against getting caught up in the high-end retro shaving culture, which would have us mixing our own luxury shea-butter-infused shaving lather in a special purpose-built porcelain bowl, applying it to our faces with a beaver-hair brush, and buying an expensive silk dressing gown to wear while shaving.

Notwithstanding their traditional double-edged blades, Feather isn’t a totally old fashioned company. According to this timeline, they introduced a new blade as recently as 1995. (Actual new blades will naturally appear less frequently than gimmicks.) It’s not clear what was innovative about this blade; perhaps just some cool way of making it sharper. The Feather company makes scalpel blades, “microtome blades for pathology,” a “micro scalpel for ophthalmic surgery,” and a myringotomy (ear surgery) blade. So even if they don’t produce flashy videos to teach gullible consumers about polyethylene glycol lubri-strips, I reckon they’re experts at sharpening a very thin piece of stainless steel.

Line 13 – shaves close beyond compare

Believe it or not, the cheap, old-school razor blade does shave closer. I did a blind test to determine this. I shaved half my face with a Gillette Sensor3, and the other half with a double-edged Feather blade. Then I went to each of the three family members in my household and had them do a face-stroke test. All three ruled, without hesitation, that the smoother skin was on the Feather-shaved side of my face. And if their testimony isn’t good enough, just look at all the hair that the Gillette blade left on my face!

Naw, I’m just screwing with you. But the blind test was real. The results were unequivocal.

Line 14 – grows a pair

I’m not saying that it takes balls to face the risk of shaving cuts. Rather, it takes balls (not necessarily actual testicles, but nerve, basically, which is non-gender-specific) to overturn the conventional wisdom that all this fancy shaving technology is necessary or even beneficial.

Speaking of balls, I have to confess it’s kind of painful to think of them in the context of shaving. This goes back to my vasectomy—which saw me getting my scrotum dry-shaved with a 20-cent Bic. But that’s a whole other story.

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

From the Archives - Fiction - Roommate


It being a slow news day, here’s a bit of short fiction from my archives. Enjoy please enjoy.

Roommate – June 1, 1989

It was an art, really. Nobody cooked ramen‑spaghetti like Nick did (albeit because nobody cooked it at all). The process gave him solace. No matter what was going wrong with his day, he could always count on his keenly precise cooking techniques to assure him that all was not lost. He would think, “Well, the ramen’s perfect anyway. At least there’s one thing in my life I haven’t screwed up yet.”

But today, Nick knew something was wrong as soon as he stepped into the kitchen. His demon roommate had stunk the place up. Scott, whose entire diet consisted of beans and brown rice, was sick again and thought he could cure himself by drinking gallons of tea infused with garlic. Scott wasn’t the first one to try this delusional home remedy. Nick’s own brother had tried it, too … when he was eight.

The smell itself wasn’t the only problem. Beyond this, Scott had used Nick’s pot. Nick was used to his roommates using his kitchenware, but not this pot. It was a gift, like almost everything else, from a friend who had used it all through college. “If you can handle not having a handle, it’s a great pot,” she had said. She was referring to the steel stub that had once supported a wooden handle. The stub never heated up too much, since almost all Nick cooked in the pot was ramen. And it was the perfect ramen pot, being the perfect size for two packages.

Nick’s routine was like clockwork. While the water heated up, he would pour spaghetti sauce into his special bowl. He used to have an even better bowl, with a fill line for the sauce, but Scott had broken it. Sure, Nick couldn’t prove that Scott broke it; somebody started a crack and one day the bowl finally split in half. But Scott was his scapegoat. Every household needs one, he mused, and this demon roommate had earned the title. The bowl Nick used now was less handy, but cool anyway: a white china bowl with a blue Japanese‑looking fish on the bottom. One of Scott’s former roommates had left it behind when he abruptly dropped out of college, having gone crazy. As in, he was literally in a mental hospital.

Nick would put the bowl of spaghetti sauce in the microwave, but he wouldn’t start it right away. Once the water was boiling and the noodles were all separated, he would reduce the heat and then start the microwave. The sauce didn’t need to be very hot; cooking it served as a timer more than anything. On half power, the microwave would warm the sauce just enough. When the microwave timer showed one minute, he would turn the stove off completely. With the lid on, it would keep cooking. He doubted—no, he knew—that Scott never took this energy-saving step; Scott looked at conservation only from a financial standpoint, and therefore acquainted it with being cheap. As if he wasn’t a low-class, low-rent, low-tier guy to begin with. He might as well admit it.

As soon as the timer rang, Nick would test one noodle. If it was done, he would pour the noodles in the waiting colander, then slide them into the bowl atop the sauce. The warm sauce cooled the noodles just enough to eat immediately once stirred, with a good shake of powdered parmesan from the green cardboard shaker.

But today his pot was dirty. Scott had used it to boil his smelly tea. Scott stubbornly insisted on brewing the tea several times a day. He couldn’t make a whole pot in advance and reheat mugs of it throughout the day, because he couldn’t figure out the microwave oven. It was an old-dog-new-tricks situation (Scott was thirty-fricking-three). Nick tried to show him how the microwave worked, but Scott just refused to learn. All manner of electronics mystified him, which was ironic since he was getting his Master’s in computer science.

Scott never figured out how to use his digital watch, either. When Nick realized this, he played a trick: he set alarm to go off at 2:00 am every night, just to see if the demon roommate would finally sit down and figure out how to disable it. Amazingly, not only did Scott fail to learn this, but couldn’t even figure out how to silence the alarm mid-ring. It was as though he was afraid to push a single button on the watch. Instead he made a habit of putting the watch in his sock drawer every night so it wouldn’t wake him up.

How would this guy, upon finishing grad school, find a job in the computer industry? Rely on his good looks? Hardly. Okay, he wasn’t a bad-looking guy, but also wasn’t nearly as handsome as he himself believed. He was so damn proud of his highway‑patrolman mustache, he would just sit in front of the mirror admiring it, like Narcissus. Nick, laboring to suppress a sneer nearby, would eventually give himself away. Then Scott would say, “Yeah, you could never grow one of these, could you? That’s a shame. Man, I used to have a full beard. Looked damn good too. Did I ever show you the picture of that?” Nick would roll his eyes. Only about a thousand times. Scott would reiterate, “You never could grow one of these. It’s not in your genes. Guess you’re outta luck.” Nothing Nick could say would deter him. Scott would continue admiring his reflection, and Nick would just stand there wishing he had a gun.

Normally Nick didn’t have to worry about Scott using his special ramen‑pot, because it was steel. Scott, like a lot of paranoid people, equated aluminum pots with Alzheimer’s disease. But he took it a step further, avoiding steel as well. He had one stovetop-safe glass pot, but today it was covered in burnt rice, and the dirtbag had resorted to borrowing the ramen pot.

This was a guy who took liberties. He left messes, he borrowed your stuff, you might even find him in your own bedroom sitting in your chair listening to your stereo. He had an entitled air about him, like Goldilocks. He had even discarded his given name and rechristened himself Scott. He probably chose this just so he could nickname himself “the Scotsman,” despite being the farthest thing from Scottish. He loved to refer to himself in the third person. As in, “I met a young woman at the gym today and got her number. Looks like the Scotsman’s gonna get laid!

Now Nick was in a rush—to zip home between classes and have a ramen spaghetti meal before rushing back for his next class required clockwork precision. Now his whole system was thrown off. When the microwave beeped he hastily pulled one long noodle from the pot, let it cool for a few seconds, and tested it. It was perfect—the gears in his machine seemed to be meshing again. He signed contentedly—and poured the noodles down the garbage disposal. The colander! He had completely forgotten it! And it was all because of the Scotsman throwing him off his game!

He was furious. His lunch—gone. No time to start over—he’d have to go hungry. Nick’s mind raced. Scott and that damn tea, he thought. I’ll get him for this. I’ll kill him! But how? Suddenly, he remembered the Winchester 30.06. He knew just how to get it, too. It was in his neighbor’s glass display case, and the neighbor’s eight-year-old kid had the key on a string around his neck. But that was the neighbor in his hometown, more than a thousand miles away, and that little eight‑year‑old was probably in high school by now. What could Nick do? There was always the chef’s knife . . . but he probably didn’t have the nerve. He didn’t doubt that he could overpower his roommate—he could envision the old dude’s brittle bones snapping like twigs. But there couldn’t be blood—then he would lose the damage deposit on the apartment. No, it would have to be clean—the perfect crime.

He didn’t have much time to hatch a revenge plot—Scott would be home by about five. He checked his watch, and was suddenly overcome with inspiration. Of course! The watch! As Nick watched the liquid crystal digits rolling over precisely, the seconds changing like magic, a plan unfolded before his eyes. The Scotsman had been talking nonstop about a meeting he was to have with the one professor on campus who still respected him. Scott freely—almost proudly—admitted that his flamboyant personality had irritated all the other professors to the point of complete alienation. And Nick knew a bit more than Scott had let on, since he had friends in the Computer Science department. Many people knew that Scott had virtually no hands‑on computer experience. Sure, he could write decent programs on paper, but that wouldn’t make him a real programmer. The ones who spent their entire lives in front of the computer—they would be competing for the jobs. For them, school was just a side‑show; they had been dominating the keyboards since they were teenagers. Scott, meanwhile, had spent ten years working at a factory after washing out in the white-collar world. Grad school was his second chance, but he needed to find a thesis advisor before he could finish his Master’s—and he had only one prospect left. Whether or not he could make a good impression at Friday’s meeting was up to him—until he decided not to wash that pot. Now, his fate was in Nick’s hands.

It was almost too simple. Nick would swipe Scott’s watch that night and change the alarm. The meeting was at 2:00 p.m.—he would set the alarm for 2:15. He envisioned the result: as the ignorant fool chatted with the professor, desperate to make a good impression, the watch would suddenly start beeping. The Scotsman, as shocked as the professor, would be powerless to stop the shrill “BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP! BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP!” For maybe five seconds, he would just listen to it, his face turning red, the professor becoming increasingly irritated by the unpleasant noise. Then, Scott would try in vain to muffle it with his hand. After about ten seconds, the professor would stare in disbelief as the computer science major clumsily fumbled with the band, finally stripping the delinquent watch from his wrist and shoving it in his pocket. The professor would realize the irony of the situation and burst out laughing. The damage already done, Scott could theoretically laugh with him, or make a futile excuse. But that wasn’t his nature. No, his explosive temper would take over, and he would blurt out something offensive and storm out of the room. He might reach the end of the hall before realizing that he had just ruined his last chance at getting a thesis advisor—and hence at getting his master’s degree in computer science. Once the word got out about his folly with the digital watch, and the ensuing loss of temper, he would be the laughingstock of the entire department.

Would the Scotsman then transfer to another school, to finally complete his degree? No chance. He was a quitter—always had been. A decade earlier, he’d received his first rejection slip from a magazine editor and immediately gave up all hope of becoming a writer, despite having a journalism degree. In like fashion, he would leave the university, unable to complete his goal, and return to the factory, a broken man. Nick’s revenge would be complete. And he couldn’t be punished! Even if he were convicted of tampering with Scott’s watch, was that a crime? In itself, no . . . Nick sat back, chuckling. It would indeed be the perfect crime.

Right around five, Scott arrived at the apartment, and between snorting, wheezing, and hacking up snot in the sink, he told Nick about this certain girl, who was so good looking, and not bitchy at all, but actually really sweet, and how he could tell she liked him, and how he wanted to “treat her to an active sex life.” Scott brushed his teeth, admired his reflection for a while, then continued his bedtime ritual by stashing his watch in the sock drawer. He was asleep within the hour, whereupon Nick retrieved the watch, put it in alarm set mode, expertly marched the digits across the screen until the alarm was set for 2:15 p.m., and returned the watch to its drawer. He had launched his magnificent plan and Scott would handle the rest, the mechanism of his own humiliation and rage set into motion like clockwork.

At precisely 2:28 the next afternoon, Nick looked up from his ramen to see the Scotsman crash through the front door in a blind rage. He crossed the room and began smashing his already bloody fist into the fridge. He spouted profanities, mingled with “professor” and “watch,” until he glanced over at Nick and fell silent. Nick, wiping tomato sauce from his chin, innocently asked, “What’s the matter?”

Then, as he locked eyes with the demon roommate, he found he was no longer able to keep a poker face. He jumped up, anticipating the attack, and when the Scotsman reached him, Nick let him have it.

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2018 Paris-Roubaix


Cycling commentators are professionals. That means they generally hold their tongues, and don’t bag on anybody, even the dopers and the clowns. I’m an amateur with nothing to lose, so I tell it how it is. Here is my blow-by-blow coverage of the 2018 Paris-Roubaix, one of cycling’s most famous races.

(Why is it famous? Here’s a hint.)

2018 Paris-Roubaix

As I join the action, the riders have exactly 100 kilometers to go. And there’s a crash! Looks like Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) and I think they said Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates).

“They”? Yeah, I am watching the Eurosport coverage and benefiting from their commentary. So I can act like I’m smart by claiming their observations as my own, while acting like a smartass by making fun of them. See how this works?

There’s a breakaway with 2:34 over the peloton, but they have no hope, really. They lost two minutes of their lead while I was in the bathroom. The only rider I care about in the break is Geoffrey Soupe (Cofidis, Solutions Credits) and that’s just because of his name. Who doesn’t like soup? And “Soupe” is even better because he’s French. But it’s really the “Geoffrey” that I like because that’s my brother’s name. When my brother did the “My Book About Me” project in first grade (i.e., Narcissism 101), for the prompt “One thing people don’t know about me is...” he wrote, “My name is Geoffrey, not Geoff, and I am not stuppid.”

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is on the front! He’s a major contender today, with his impressive results in so many races and his mountain biking background, but he has never had a very good Paris-Roubaix. He complained after the Tour of Flanders that the other teams wouldn’t help him work against Quick-Step Floors, which has dominated the 2018 season so far. Four-time Paris-Roubaix winner Tom Boonen bagged on Sagan for this, saying, “I don't think Sagan really should talk about a lack of cooperation. He is the one who always starts to drag. He looks to see what is going on, and then he comes forward once and starts waving his hand. If you do that you have to keep your mouth shut.”

That sounds pretty harsh, eh? Don’t worry, it’s all cool. Boonen told Sagan in advance that he’d be saying this. “Look, I’m trying to make it as a commentator now that my cycling career is over, and they’re telling me I’m boring, so I’m gonna have to light you up a bit. Nothing personal, eh?” Sagan just shrugged, because he doesn’t speak any Flemish and barely speaks English. (Note that I made this all up, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also true.)

Here is the main bunch. You can see Sagan in there with his world champion jersey.

To be fair to Sagan, he has a lot of trouble because his team isn’t very good. Probably their best guy is Marcus Burghardt. They also have Peter’s brother Juraj, who fielded accusations of nepotism by saying, “My name is Juraj, not George, and I am not stuppid.” Is this really nepotism? Of course. Juraj did win the GP Boka (whatever that is) in 2009, was 6th in the 2010 Giro Del Veneto (ditto), but other than winning the Slovakian National Championships a couple times has never done anything remarkable in the sport. I wish my own brothers were well-connected and could hook me up like that. At least they’re not stuppid.

Okay, this is interesting. There’s a small chase group now that looks important. It’s one of the main favorites, Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors), along with Nils Poliitt (Katusha Alpecin) and Mike Teunissen (Sunweb).

At the back end of the peloton, the blatant cheater and shameless liar Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) is struggling just off the back. Good. Serves him right. After his disgraceful behavior at the 2016 Milan-San Remo, I hope he never wins another race.

Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) has dropped out after a crash. I have nothing personally against Thomas other than him riding for Sky, a team so riddled with drugs they should all just go away. There, I said it. By the way, Boonen stuck up for Froome recently, so he (Boonen) is now dead to me. (Froome was of course dead to me all along.)

Tony Martin (Katusha Alpecin) is chasing now, all by himself. And this dude, whoever he is, is racing without gloves. WTF!?

Now Sdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors) is on the attack.

In the time it took me to check the spelling on “Sdenek” (and I still got it wrong, there’s some weird accent mark I can’t be bothered with), the Gilbert group was pulled back.

One of Sagan’s teammates, I think it’s Burghardt, is on the front, and Sagan moves up too. This is probably more about positioning for the next cobbled section than about the breakaway, which is down to 1:12 anyway with about 70km to go. Stybar is still going it alone and now he passes one of the breakaway riders who is going backwards.

There is one American in this race, Taylor Phinney (EF Education First – Drapac). He has had some great results in the past and could actually do something here.

Okay, Eurosport just killed their stream so I’m watching the Dutch coverage. So I’ll have to make sense of things for myself. For one thing, Stybar is still killing it.

Okay, I spoke too soon. Stybar is getting caught. And now his teammate Yves Lampaert attacks. I’ll be honest, I’ve never heard of this guy, but I suppose this does force the other teams to chase so Stybar can get a rest and maybe try again.

Sagan takes a pull! Be careful with this expression when you’re talking to Brits, by the way. It means something entirely to different to them, involving a monkey being punished. Man, it’s a strong pull ... I think Sagan has gapped the field without exactly meaning to.

Sagan is solo! The Dutch commentators are oddly blasé about it. If Sagan catches the lead trio and any of those guys turn out to have been loafing, that could be very good for him. But chances are they’re not loafing, they’re fried.

Sagan catches the lead group. It’s only 26 seconds ahead of the peloton, though. Just in case these three don’t turn out to be irrelevant, their names are Sven Erik Bystrom (UAE Team Emirates), Jelle Wallays (Lotto Soudal), and Silvan Dillier (AG2R La Mondiale).

Two riders are trying to bridge up: Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Wout Van Aert (Veranda’s Willems-Crelan). Wout, wout!

Yikes, a crash!

Looks like Kristoff was caught up in that. Could be the end of his race.

At the front, Sagan is drilling it and the lead is back out to 48 seconds!

In the time it took me to get that snapshot, the lead went up to 55 seconds! Sagan is really going for it!

Looks like Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) was caught up in the crash. He’s the only rider my wife cares about, based on his looks. “Care” is putting it a bit strongly, actually. He’s the only rider she doesn’t detest for being too skinny.

I think this is Taylor Phinney on the left, leading the chase.

The Sagan group has lost somebody. Their lead is coming down now as well: it’s only 39 seconds now. Wait, now it’s 42, now 43. Now 44. I guess it’s coming back up. But there are still 42 km to go ... probably this won’t last unless somebody bridges up or Sagan has an amazing day.

Indeed, it’s Phinney toward the front. A chase group with six riders is floating a bit ahead of the main bunch. It’s Gilbert, Phinney, Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First – Drapac), Jasper Stuyven (Trek – Segafredo), reigning Paris-Roubaix champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), and Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), who recently won the Tour of Flanders.

Sagan’s group now has 1:06 over the main bunch, and 58 seconds on the chase group. There are 35 km left in the race. The other two in the break are actually doing some of the work. That’s gotta be pretty exciting. It was Bystrom who got dropped, by the way, so this is Wallays and Dillier with Sagan.

Wallays looks like he’s hanging on for dear life now.

Nike Terpstra is leading the chase group. The way he is holding his body, he looks a bit tired ... or am I projecting?

Here’s a nice close-up of Sagan and a young fan.

What the hell?! Sagan seems to be adjusting his stem while he rides. This can only indicate mental illness. I mean, okay, I suppose it’s possible that there’s actually something wrong with his stem, but what are the odds a rider would be carrying a wrench for that? This is not a rhetorical question: the odds are zero. No rider brings wrenches in his jersey pocket, except a crazy person. The last rider to do mid-race bike adjustments was Eddy Merckx, who wasn’t exactly crazy, but had some definitely odd idiosyncrasies after a horrific crash motorpacing that killed his coach. Afterward he could never get comfortable on the bike and would often make adjustments when possible, such as when the peloton was waiting for a train or stopped by protestors. But I don’t think even Merckx tried to make adjustments while riding! This is so bizarre! I don’t care what happens for the rest of this race ... it’s already the best Paris-Roubaix ever.

Okay, let’s think about this. Maybe Sagan’s stem was loose, and he didn’t want to wait for a new bike, so he went back to his team car while I wasn’t looking and borrowed a wrench? I guess that could be it, though I’d rather have this be a glimpse into serious psychological issues.

Now Wallays has been seriously gapped by the breakaway. I think he’s done. And Sagan is totally drilling it on the front, with just 25 km to go!

The chase group is still holding together but are about 1:10 back now. Not sure how far it is back to the main group. Sagan looks seemingly infinitely powerful.

Dillier is doing some of the work and actually looks pretty good too, his expression notwithstanding.

The gap is up to 1:26. Terpstra and Van Avermaet are working pretty well at the front except they’re just not going fast enough. Still, 21 km is a long way ... maybe they’re letting Sagan hang out to dry? Or maybe they’re hoping his handlebars fall off?

Sagan’s bike is really ugly. I like Specialized bikes—I really do—but the gold just looks cheesy. It’s like the cheap gold paint you put on cardboard blocks to simulate gold bricks when you’re in like third grade. It’s the color of the lame plastic sword you get with a cheap Halloween costume.

Maybe this really is Sagan’s day ... maybe Boonen really pissed him off so he’s out to prove something. His lead is up to 1:30 and he actually is getting some real help from Dillier!

It seems like the chase group is holding together pretty well. Alas, all the footage is of the breakaway so I can’t tell what’s happening behind.

Phinney works hard at the front for his teammate, Vanmarcke. Man, those Education First – Drapac costumes are ugly. Who came up with those colors? It’s like Pepto-Bismol pink with puke-y neon green, like a teenaged Easter bunny in the ‘80s.

Terpstra takes a pull and looks like he means it. As if in direct response, the gap drops to 1:12 very quickly ... so Sagan doesn’t have this in the bag by any means.

Sagan is totally hammering, whether in response to the dropping gap or because Dillier is starting to make him nervous. The gap is down to 1:08. They’re reaching the end of the last really serious section of cobblestones.

There are only 13.6 km left in the race but the gap is down to a minute. Sagan has got to be pretty much shitting himself now. Fortunately, Dillier takes a turn at the front. He’d probably be pretty happy with second place here, and who knows, I guess it’s possible he could beat Sagan in a sprint if Sagan did a ton of work and was just fried or paused to give that stem bolt another good turn.

The chase group is down to just four riders: Terpstra, Van Avermaet, Phinney, and Vanmarcke. The winner today will very likely be either Sagan or one of these guys.

Dillier takes another turn at the front as the gap drops to just 48 seconds. Man, we’ve got a real bike race here! My daughter shows up and I catch her up on what’s going on. Perfect timing, that.

The main bunch is way back at 1:25. Nobody in that group will be a factor at the finish. And Sagan and Dillier are under the 10km banner! Gap is now 47 seconds.

Dillier has really ugly sunglasses.

With  7.7 km to go, the gap is 45 seconds ... such a nail-biter for those who bite their nails. I wish we could get some help for those people, the nail-biters.

And it looks like Wilfred Peters has brought his own weather to this race.

Hmmm, he’s also not wearing a helmet. I think maybe that photo isn’t current. It’s from 2001! How did that sneak in here?

The gap, amazingly, is back up to 51 seconds! Unbelievable! I don’t know how Sagan does it. He’s been out there since like 54 km to go. I’m starting to think the only thing that could stop him now is that loose stem.  The gap is now up to 54 seconds, with only 6 km to go. What’s wrong with these chasers?

Terpstra is drilling it now, and gaps Phinney!

Probably it’s too little, too late. This really could be an amazing win for Sagan. It would be the first time in 37 years that a reigning world champion takes Paris-Roubaix (the last being Bernard Hinault in 1981).

With 3.6 km to go, the gap is back up to a minute! Wouldn’t it be amazing if Dillier actually won? He really is looking good and doing his share of the work. But Sagan has a legendary sprint. Hell, even I probably couldn’t beat him. Oh, wait, I just remembered I’m not a World Tour racer.

I think they’re done with the cobbles now and on some pretty nicely manicured city streets in Roubaix.

Maybe Sagan’s handlebars will come completely off during the final sprint! That might not cost him the win, though. He can do a no-handed wheelie, after all.

The racers now have the velodrome in sight!

Why on earth is Dillier leading it out? How did Sagan swing that?

Like clockwork, Sagan comes around Dillier as they approach the finish line!

And Sagan has got the win! The sprint was a formality due to Sagan’s earlier work with the allen wrench.

My daughter’s hands are trembling with the excitement! She’s a true fan! It’s a great day! Sagan gives Dillier a little handshake.

Sagan, needless to say, is thrilled. His handler, however, looks bored and a bit annoyed.

Terpstra takes third. Like you care. Like I care. Like he cares.

Since Sagan was never considered even an outside favorite for today’s race, one of the organizers has to scramble to get the plaque ready for his trophy.

Sagan is being interviewed. “I kept going until the end,” he declares. “I am very happy to came the first.” I love this guy. Strong like bull ... smart like tractor. Not that I would be any more eloquent if I had to say anything in Slovak, of course.

Okay, they just showed some highlights from the race and indeed, Sagan did drop by the team car to borrow a wrench. It appeared to be an allen key, which is pretty dangerous. With those carbon fiber steerer tubes on modern forks, you really need a torque wrench. It’s a good thing Sagan didn’t overtighten it, and that he didn’t linger too long at the team car holding out for a proper wrench. I’d say he played this one just perfectly, tactics-wise.

Look at this handler. He still looks bored and slightly annoyed. I guess he couldn’t care less about bike racing. What a shame ... I would love to have that job (for a day) though I’d have to gain a lot of weight before being qualified for the job. But one time during the 1985 Coors Classic I got to hold Bernard Hinault’s bike for him while he went up to the podium. That was a thrill.

Here’s your top 10:

They’re preparing for the podium. What’s with the ski goggles? Must be a sponsorship thing. Or maybe he is crazy after all.

Dillier looks reasonably happy, I suppose, after missing the win.

Notice how the podium girls are at the far edges of the stage this time around. They’re on their way to being gone altogether. Is this Bernard Hinault presenting the trophy to Sagan? I hope not ... he doesn’t look so good.

Here’s your final podium.

That does it, I’m going to go out and buy some neon green ski goggles.

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