Thursday, May 31, 2018

Is It Harder to Get Into a Top College Now?


In my last post, I presented a list of college application “frequently asked questions.” Because research is a hassle, I didn’t do any. My answers were all based on what I’ve heard from parents in my community and from my older daughter. I regurgitated these people’s collected wisdom in slightly distorted form to inject humor. My main point was to satirize the doom-and-gloom attitude of pretty much everybody around me (except my wife, who also finds the prevailing attitude pointless and annoying).
That being said, I assumed that my answer to the first FAQ—”Is it harder to get into college now?”—was basically correct. (My answer was, “Yes, it absolutely is. Your child is way, way smarter, more industrious, and more resourceful than you, and yet won’t be able to sail through the process and attend a top college like you did.”) I took everybody’s word for it that top colleges really are more selective nowadays, simply because this opinion was always given with such an air of authority. I took it on faith that my community was actually basing this position on facts and research. It turns out that these people are all just a bunch of ninnies, mistaking fear for reality … Chicken Littles all, spouting falsehoods irresponsibly. This post debunks all that and presents a theory on the origin of this mass hysteria.

The conventional wisdom

All the parents and high school kids around me say the same thing: “It’s way harder getting into a top college than it used to be.” This is stated as irrefutable fact and when I’ve expressed skepticism, I’ve been shot down. The evidence given (if any) is the lower rate of acceptance—i.e., the number of rejected applications. So many more students are being rejected, the logic goes, our crop of kids may well be among them.

I have instinctively doubted this, and in trying to buck up my daughter I said, “It’s probably just more pack fodder. The field is larger, but not the front of the group that actually has a chance.” I chose this bike race analogy to try to make the dialogue briefer and a bit less dull. My point was, if you have 20 good racers who are all competitive, and then a bunch of poseurs buy fancy bikes and jump in to the race, without a prayer of placing high, your race hasn’t really gotten harder. It’s just gotten bigger.

My daughter refuted this counterpoint on the grounds that a) students with really good grades and SAT/ACT scores are being turned away, and b) everybody knows it’s gotten harder—this is just established fact. Out of sheer laziness and a sense that pessimists are usually right, I never pursued the truth. Until now.

The truth

The truth is, the increased difficulty of a top student getting into a top school has been greatly exaggerated. Here is a summary of my findings:
  • The number of high school seniors is shrinking
  • The number of qualified applicants to top colleges has not significantly grown
  • Students apply to far more colleges than ever before, out of fear of being rejected and because electronic application methodologies like Common App have made this so easy to do
  • This application inflation is greatly decreasing the acceptance rate
  • This acceptance rate number is illusory because so many applicants are not qualified
  • Colleges are deliberately encouraging behaviors that shrink this acceptance rate number, to appear more elite
  • Looking at the metric that matters—the percentage of top students accepted by at least one top college—paints a picture that is astonishingly rosier
I will cite evidence from six articles (all from mainstream news magazines) to support all this. My conclusion? Virtually every member of my community owes my kid and me an apology for all the unwarranted anxiety they have caused by perpetuating this myth of increased selectivity.

And now, here is my point-by-point evidence of the above, to thoroughly document and explain what is really going on.

The number of high school seniors is declining

This article in The Atlantic states, “The number of American high school seniors is shrinking, having peaked in 2011.” This is also stated by Time magazine here. (Actually, the Atlantic cites Time on this point, but presumably The Atlantic does fact-check.)

The number of qualified applicants to top colleges has not significantly grown

The Atlantic reports that “according to [education company] Noodle[.org]’s data, the number of seats at competitive colleges has grown faster than the total pool of qualified applicants—raising a student’s chances of getting into a ‘selective college.’” Meanwhile, US News & World Report declares, “As selective as they’d like prospective students to believe they are, colleges and universities have been watching enrollment decline for five years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Last year alone, it dropped 1.4 percent, or by about 270,000 students, at institutions nationwide…. Part of that is due to the shrinking supply of 18-year-olds and to families’ concerns about the high cost, and relative value, of college.”

Students are applying to far more colleges than before

The Atlantic reports, “Many high achieving students will apply to 10 or 15 schools, so you’re looking at doubling or even tripling the number of applications from the same pool of applicants. Application inflation is linked, [the VP] believes, to the Common App.” The Washington Post reports, “More than 800,000 students used the Common Application last year to submit some 3.5 million applications to more than 700 colleges. Plenty of students today apply to colleges they have hardly any intention of attending.” The New York Times explains it thus: “Enabled by technology that makes it easier to copy and send electronic documents and driven by the competitive anxiety that plummeting admission rates produce, top students have been sending out more applications…. In essence, the growth in applications per student creates a vicious cycle, causing admission rates at the best schools to artificially decline, students to become more anxious, and the number of applications per student to grow even more.”

Application inflation is greatly decreasing the acceptance rate

The Washington Post article describes the acceptance rate number in somewhat useful terms: “The top 20 national universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, for instance, enroll only about 100,000 students out of 17 million undergraduates nationwide. So the denominator is rising as the numerator stays the same in an equation that is more like the odds of playing the lottery for most students and parents.” This explanation is only somewhat useful, though, because of course colleges aren’t accepting students at random. This is the whole problem: the acceptance rate is being treated like odds in a lottery when in fact colleges have an objective basis to discard most applications.

This acceptance rate number is illusory

As reported in Time magazine, “What many parents and students don’t realize is that increasing numbers of applications isn’t necessarily a sign that it’s harder to get into a selective school; rather, it’s a sign of changes in behavior among high school seniors. More and more people who aren’t necessarily qualified are applying to top schools, inflating the application numbers while not seriously impacting admissions.” The New York Times makes a similar analysis: “[Admission rates] don’t represent the true odds of a well-qualified student’s being admitted to a top school. That’s because anyone can apply to college, well qualified or otherwise. Selective colleges immediately toss the long shots and dreamers from the admissions pile in order to concentrate on students with a legitimate shot at getting in. But they don’t parse their admissions statistics that way, in part because it’s in their best interests to seem as selective as possible.”

Colleges are deliberately shrinking the acceptance rate

US News & World Report declares, “Some [colleges] have encouraged the applications boom, with its resulting effect on their ability to predict yields, by urging marginally qualified students to apply. Known as ‘recruit to deny,’ this practice makes them appear more selective and boosts their standings in some college rankings.” The Washington Post reports, “Colleges buy more than 80 million names of test takers from the College Board annually. In some cases, schools simply encouraged more students to apply as a way to improve their standings in the rankings.”

As far as I can tell, my daughter has received solicitations from every college in the country, even the ones she’s sure would never accept her. She now holds the distinction of getting more junk mail than the rest of the family combined (to say nothing of her e-mail spam, which currently stands at over 2,500 messages with 50 in the last week alone). Hell, Carleton College even sent her a Frisbee!

The metric that matters

My favorite among these articles is the one from the New York Times, which makes a valiant effort to talk us off the ledge: “For well-qualified students, getting into a good college isn’t difficult. It probably isn’t that much harder than it was generations ago. The fact that everyone believes otherwise shows how reliance on a single set of data—in this case, institutional admission rates—can create a false sense of what’s really going on.” The article goes on to say: 
Some students are applying to 20 or more schools: to increase their odds of making a single match. The most important elite college admissions statistic, then, is not the percentage of applications top schools accept. It’s the percentage of top students who are admitted to at least one top school. And that number isn’t 5 percent or 20 percent or even 50 percent. It’s 80 percent. It turns out that four out of five well-qualified students who apply to elite schools are accepted by at least one…. Since there has never been a time when 100 percent of well-qualified students were successful in the college admissions market, the truism that elite colleges are far more difficult to crack than in years gone by can’t be correct: 80 percent is too close, mathematically, to nearly everyone.
Needless to say, this Times article should be required reading for all parents of college-bound teenagers, and for those teenagers.

My daughter’s reaction

When I presented all this to my daughter—the one person I’m willing to bother arguing with about this, because I hope to reduce her anxiety—she was understandably skeptical. She immediately began Googling all this for herself. “You don’t have to do that,” I said. “I’ve already compiled the relevant articles for you.” She gave me one of those looks. Acknowledging that of course she’d fact-check me later anyway, I asked for a few minutes of her attention to read her some of the passages I’ve quoted above.

My daughter didn’t actually seem relieved. Perhaps all this seems too good to be true given the atmosphere of doom she has been trapped in for the last year or so. Or maybe being optimistic just feels weird and wrong at this point. She immediately came up with some hard questions. “What do they mean ‘top school’?” she asked. I cited the article: it defines top school as “one of the 113 schools identified by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges as the most selective.” My daughter, naturally, looked this up on the spot and read off the list. I’d heard of at last 90% of the colleges listed, and they really are elite. (My alma mater, UC Berkeley, didn’t even make the list.)

Next she questioned how the Times defined a “well-qualified” student. The answer is, it’s “combined SAT scores (or an ACT equivalent) of at least 1300.” My daughter stared in blank disbelief. “That’s not high at all. That’s like 60th percentile,” she said. Then she fact-checked herself: it’s actually 90th percentile. Competitive, sure, but not insanely high. Could the Times really be right about this? Well, they based their findings on the applications of 800,000 students. And they’re the New York Times, for crying out loud.

Why the hysteria?

So the natural question is, how could every adult I’ve talked to about this be so wrong? Why this widespread panic? I have two theories.

First, it’s far more exciting and engaging to paint everything in the darkest shades possible. FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) gives a nice urgent edge to your sidebar chatter at book club. FUD also makes better headlines, which might be all most people bother to read. Consider this one , in Business Insider: “It was the hardest year on record to get into elite colleges—admissions experts explain why.” What’s remarkable about the article is that it doesn’t really support this “hardest” assertion, but rather says much the same thing as the other articles I’ve cited. For example: “The steady uptick of college applicants, especially at elite schools, is stark, driven in part by the emergence of Common App, which allows students to apply to many schools at once.” It goes on to say, “There may be reason to view this lowering acceptance rate with some skepticism.” It trails off talking about how the strong cohort of high-scoring international applicants, “while it may drive down the overall acceptance rate, likely has less impact on US applicants than is sometimes believed.”

Meanwhile, beyond being typical drama queens, I think a lot of these parents are responding to their deep-seated fear that their kid(s) will wash out. (If so, they’re likely sharing their kids’ experience.) Perhaps by portraying the college admission game as nearly unwinnable they’re assuaging, in advance, the shame of their kid’s defeat.

It’s tempting to have sympathy for these beleaguered people, but in fact I’m kind of pissed off. Their willingness to be readily duped by deliberately misleading statistics, and to heap that unfounded fear on their poor children—and mine!—has caused untold unnecessary anxiety. And that’s not the only collateral damage. By creating so much fear and angst, our communities are teaching children to be self-absorbed and monomaniacal. My teen years involved a lot of messing around, having fun, killing time, and basically being a kid. Our current crop of teens are like 16 going on 40. Practically every action they take has their college admission in mind. As a group they’re just a huge buzz-kill. You know who they remind me of? Stressed out middle-aged parents. It’s pathetic.

Will it ever end?

Alas, I’m not sure getting into a good college will actually help. By that point, worrying and hand-wringing will have become a habit that is hard to shake. I’m basing this on a couple of things.

The first is an anecdote shared with me by an acquaintance whose sister works at Duke University, and whose job includes interviewing prospective students—i.e., those who have been accepted—to determine scholarship eligibility. She was struck, my acquaintance told me, by how unexcited and often downright sullen many of these kids were. I mean, here they’d been accepted by Duke, but they seemed so downcast! So finally she asked one of them why he wasn’t more excited. “I’m still waiting to hear from Harvard,” the ungrateful, over-privileged little shit replied.

Here is my second anecdote, from spending an afternoon at UC Berkeley at an internship fair. My role there, as I was quick to explain to every Cal student I talked to, was simply to answer their questions and describe the culture at the company I work for. I made it clear that I wasn’t the one evaluating them. But almost every student treated our chat like a job interview. They all had pretty extensive résumés, even the freshmen (which made up a surprisingly high proportion of the group, given that they were only like six weeks into their college careers). They all had this air of desperation about them.

One interaction in particular illustrates what I’m talking about. This student asked me, “What classes should I take?” I replied, “Well, I didn’t major in Computer Science, so I wouldn’t know anything about that.” She pressed on, “No … I mean, what classes should I take?” She was practically winking at me. I finally grasped her meaning: she meant what classes would look good on her résumé and help her get an internship at my company. I had no idea. I told her, “What I’ve witnessed in tech is that a lot of engineering types don’t write well. I think you should take a couple of writing classes.” She seemed perplexed and asked, “Can I?” I replied, “Of course you can! You can take whatever class you want! And you should … I mean, you’re at a world class university. You should take advantage of your opportunities here!” Her expression was priceless, like a light bulb on a dimmer switch gradually coming on. She had clearly never thought about college in any other terms than advancement and career prospects. “Wow … I guess I can!” she replied, astonished.

Call to action

If you’ve been sowing doom and gloom by parroting all this received wisdom about colleges being more selective, please stop. If you have a freaked out kid, please tell him or her to relax and try not to worry. And if you don’t believe me about any of this, go click on some of the links I’ve included here and read these articles for yourself.

As for me, next time some fellow parent trots out all this malarkey about college admissions being way more competitive, I’m going to tell him flat-out that he’s wrong. No, I won’t subject him to a withering argument … I’ll go one worse. I’ll ask him to read this post. This of course will end the dialogue forever, since as you well know, nobody reads this blog … except, apparently, you (and I hereby offer my congratulations at your intellectual stamina).


This post only scratches the surface of my disgust at prevailing attitudes toward higher education. For a more comprehensive (but lighter-weight) survey, check out my previous post.

For further reading

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

College Application Frequently Asked Questions


I have a teenager who is a junior in high school and will apply to colleges this fall. Through her advance work and the helpful advice I have received from other parents, teachers, articles, and the community at large, I have learned a lot about the modern admissions process, and want to pass this information on to you. Even if you don’t have a teenager applying for colleges any time soon (or at all) you should read this anyway, for the schadenfreude.

Note: the beer in the photo above was mine, not my daughter’s. I want to be very clear on that.

College Application Frequently Asked Questions

Yes, it absolutely is. Your child is way, way smarter, more industrious, and more resourceful than you, and yet won’t be able to sail through the process and attend a top college like you did. In case you were feeling pretty good about graduating summa cum laude from a great school, just stop. You really achieved nothing. They were practically giving degrees away back then and you know it.

Is college more expensive now?

Of course it is. By way of illustration, tuition at UC Berkeley—which cost about $2,000 a year in 1992—now costs about $14,000. But that’s probably not a good example because there’s no way your kid will get in there. Nobody gets in there anymore, except a few insanely successful students.

Your kid will probably need to go to a private university, even if it’s not a very good one. It’s unlikely she’ll get a scholarship anywhere because all the kids are so much smarter now—smarter than you, smarter than your spouse, and smarter than your kid.

Is it important to tour the colleges my child is planning to apply to?

The conventional wisdom is that it’s pointless to tour a college that probably won’t accept your kid anyway. After all, this will only increase your kid’s heartbreak, while wasting your valuable time and money. But let’s be real here. College tours are important for two reasons. One, the college wants to see that your kid is serious about attending (in the event they’re even considering her). Two, you need to prove to your kid that you’re serious about parenting. She probably already resents you for having had it so easy, the way you soared effortlessly through the admissions process all those years ago. Don’t make things worse by being a cheapskate.

There’s a silver lining to the college tour, though: you get to brag about it. “Yes, we took our Priscilla to tour M.I.T. last weekend. She thinks it will be a great fit.” This might be as close as you get to being able to brag about anything college-related.

Is there any chance that my child will qualify for financial aid?

No. None.

 Is there any hope at all for a good college, or is my child doomed?

That depends on what you mean by “doomed.” If you mean she won’t be able to get into a good college, then yes, she’s doomed. If you mean she won’t be able to get a good job without a degree from a good college, then yes, she’s doomed. If you mean her friends will be disgraced by her failure to launch, then yes, she’s doomed. If you mean that she will resent you for her failure, and that it’s all your fault, then yes, she’s doomed, and so are you … this will haunt you for the rest of your life. Huh, come to think of it, this question doesn’t actually depend on what you mean by “doomed.”

You claim that nobody can get into the top colleges anymore, but several of my child’s friends’ siblings got into the Ivy League. Perhaps you’re exaggerating?

No, those students are the exceptions that prove the rule. And their grades were of course much better than your kid’s.

Is there anything my child can do, beyond straight As and stellar SAT/ACT scores, to improve his college prospects?

Yes, if your child chases after every activity that could (say this with me) “look good on a college application,” and manages to gain entry into programs like digging latrines in Ecuador, enduring an unpaid internship at an important-sounding company, launching a startup, and/or paying lots of money for college summer programs, his application will be more competitive.

Does this actually help?

Probably not. But he has to do it anyway.

Is there any value in my child having fun, enjoying her summer, trying to relax, and basically being a kid while she still can, knowing that adulthood is forever?

Of course not. How could you be so naïve?

No, pretty much every single one of her friends, along with her friends’ parents, her teachers, and her counselors are telling her this every single day. So, if you don’t feel like rubbing it in, you don’t have to. However, it’s important never to contradict your child when she reminds you of all this. Don’t you dare say anything absurdly false like “top colleges have always been difficult to get into.” This just undermines your student’s ability to blame the system for the cesspool of failure that she is currently wading into.

Should my child be talking all kinds of AP classes and exams?

Yes. These will (say it with me) “look good on a college application”—but only if your child scores high on the exams. If your child does poorly—which is probably a given, since the AP curriculum doesn’t match the Common Core, and because you’re probably raising your child in an inferior school district—than the AP strategy will backfire and make your child toxic to all good colleges. The good news is that the experience of taking these courses and exams will be really stressful, which is good practice for the rest of your child’s life.

I’m concerned about all the debt my child will take on, even if he goes to a mediocre college. Is the cost of tuition really a good investment?

Probably not. The only people making any money anymore are genius coders who launch tech startups. But since your kid isn’t going to be one of those, you kind of have to toss the dice on an expensive education.

Okay, I suppose there’s still money to be made in law and medicine. But don’t get me started on the ruinous amount of debt grad school involves.

Is there any benefit to going to college other than the possibility of realizing a fiscal return on your tuition investment?

Of course not.

It seems intuitively obvious to me that only STEM curriculums have any value, since the entire point of a college degree is to increase your income potential. And yet, some students do still pursue liberal arts programs. Why is this?

It’s because they’re idiots, married to antiquated notions like there being value in understanding and appreciating literature, nurturing curiosity around abstract ideas, knowing arcane things like the plural of curriculum actually being “curricula,” and so forth. Don’t worry, society will soon be rid of these helplessly impractical people.

My child slaves over his schoolwork, is preparing tirelessly for his SAT exams, is involved in multiple extracurricular activities, and has digested enough information about the college application process to write a thick book on the topic … and yet he is still totally stressed out about the process, with little hope for a positive outcome. Is there anything else he can do?

Yes, he should continue to worry as much as possible. This will drive him to unturn even more stones, because there must be some way to break through this impossible college entry barrier.

You just used the word “unturn.” Is that even a word? And if so, will it be on the SAT?

In fact, it is not a word. “Unturned” is a gerund adjective, but this is one of those weird cases of a gerund that cannot be used as a verb. And while “unturn” isn’t on the SAT, your child better know what a gerund is, even though he’s pursuing STEM, because that’s just how this game works. Your poor kid. You better go give him a hug.

Can things like hugs make my child less anxious about college applications?

No, I was kidding. Hugging your kid is just wasting his time. Don’t be so ignorant and sentimental.

Is there any silver lining to my child ending up at an inferior school?

Yes: the coursework might be manageable. At the top universities, where every single student admitted has an absolutely perfect track record, there will be professors who give Bs and even Cs, which these students have never received in their lives. The shock of this “failure” could cause major angst, even complete nervous breakdowns. But your kid, who has already learned to deal with blemishes on her record, can finally relax a bit once she is actually in college. Which brings us to our next question:

Are there good career prospects for college grads these days?

No. Getting a good job was so much easier back in our day. In case you were feeling pretty good about being gainfully employed, just stop.

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

Friday, May 18, 2018

From the Archives - How a Camp Stove Almost Cost Me My Marriage


It goes without saying that every obstacle thrown at us presents a litmus test of our value as a human being. If you can’t meet every challenge with grace and aplomb, they might as well take you out with the trash. With that in mind, I offer this true story from my archives. It takes place two days into an 8-month bicycle tour (and was written a week or two later).

Note: I hope it’s obvious I was kidding just now.

How a Camp Stove Almost Cost Me My Marriage - March 1994

Before setting off for a trans-continental bicycle tour, all the guidebooks warn us, you must begin a daily training regimen. One book told the sad story of a man who planned a long bicycle tour in Europe, but started off too quickly and “ruined his knees.” His ended doing a moped tour instead. Hardly a glorious enterprise, especially when you consider the French word for moped: mobylette. Pathetic. With this cautionary tale in mind, my fiancée and I are starting out slow.

Of course, along the way we’re learning how to not get along. Prior to the last couple of weeks, we’d really never bickered about anything. It was one of those really placid romances totally devoid of passionate fights, of bathing each other’s hands in tears, of rending our clothes, of screaming “I HATE YOU I HATE YOU I HATE YOU!” and then getting to take it all back later in a wonderful reconciliation. We never made our friends feel important by soliciting their advice on matters of the heart. We never balanced daringly on the edge of deciding to “see other people for a while.” Everything has been really easy, and why wouldn’t it be? We’re young, unburdened, and had been leading a luxurious life in the paradise of San Francisco, eating at the best restaurants in the world, taking long walks in the gorgeous upscale neighborhoods, and saving all of our bad moods for our co-workers.

But now, what with the hardships of the elements, the fatigue of pedaling a loaded bicycle all day every day, and above all the tedium of the myriad logistical chores we now face daily—packing up the panniers, cleaning dishes without a sink, trying to dry out a rain-soaked tent & ground cloth, trying to fold the map, et cetera—we’re both pretty grouchy. For example, I’ll be impatient to load everything in the morning, so I’ll gripe when my fiancée has to dig back into one of her panniers to get the toothpaste, having realized she forgot to brush. Then, she’ll get impatient when we’re on the road and I’m digging through a pannier for the compass since I’m uncertain that we’re going in the right direction, and kind of want the security-blanket feel of having a compass handy. (When you’re carrying your world around in panniers, you’re always digging around for something, and out of eight panniers total, it’s almost impossible to find anything. We were lucky to dig the camera out in time to get a photo of a lizard. Preparing for the photo of the banana slug was much less frantic—we could’ve painted its portrait.)

So, since we’re both perpetually crabby now, we’ve got plenty of opportunity to practice those fair-fighting skills that so far we’d had no need for. Our partnership is being tested.

Exhibit A: my first engagement with our new camp stove. Weighing in at under 1.5 pounds, and capable of burning white gas, kerosene, diesel, unleaded, jet fuel, and probably liquid oxygen (what couldn’t burn liquid oxygen?), the MSR XGK II stove seems perfect. It has great features, was recommended highly, and is the most expensive stove on the market. I had to have it. So I bought it, threw it in the pile of “trip stuff” that seemed to grow as fast as the newspapers in the recycle bin, and then didn’t look at it until it was time to actually use it. The price tags were still on it, even.

That’s okay, I thought; a big, goofy, jolly guy I know who wears lots of plaid flannel shirts and loves the great outdoors told me, “Working the XGK II is a cinch. It’s way easier than the instructions say.” This was a relief, since the instructions run eight pages and seem to have been pretty hastily produced, without a lot of proofreading.

There are lots of confusing bits, such as “Use kerosene and only in a ventilated area.” If taken literally, of course, this defies the very selling point that sold me on this stove: that it would burn anything. I imagine that the intended meaning was, “If you use kerosene, you should have adequate ventilation.” But this too is problematic, since any idiot knows you should use adequate ventilation wherever you run a stove on anything, so it won’t burn your tent down or use up all the available oxygen so you keel over and die. More enigmatic was the inexplicable blank space in the instructions that ran for a couple lines after this stipulation, as though further instruction had been wited-out.

[Note: I have just learned, via this random blog post from which I got the above photo, that it was indeed Wite-Out obscuring two lines of text. The obscured text originally said, “… should weather conditions necessitate the use of the stove inside a tent.” My fellow blogger’s instructions had been altered with a Magic Marker instead, perhaps because his were printed on glossier paper.]

Another problem was that the instructions given are for the XGK model, not the XGK II. A little scrap of paper was enclosed explaining the substitution of instructions, but not explaining how to operate the stove that I had actually purchased. The main difference between the two stoves seems to be that my stove doesn’t have a knob that strikes a flint, igniting the fuel. Okay, fine: where it says to spin the knob, I won’t. (I mean, I can’t. There’s no knob.) But how, then, do I light this stove? Obviously, I would need to use a match: but do I need to take any extra precautions, so that I don’t light my hand on fire? The instructions do mention the “Stop, Drop, & Roll” method of extinguishing yourself, but I wouldn’t mind beginning my safety program at an earlier step.

These are minor points, however. I was not worried about my ability to get the stove working. It’s a simple mechanical device, nothing more. We all know the exceedingly limited potential for any such device to cause frustration. (If the last sentence did not strike you as ironic, by the way, then you are abnormal, and should be building model airplanes or something instead of reading fine literature like this.)

Well, I hooked everything up, turned the vapor control valve knob, and waited for “about a teaspoon of fuel to collect near the jet.” This process made me apprehensive since the schematic diagram of the stove, while pointing out all the obvious pieces such as “fuel container” and “wind screen,” neglected to point out the jet. No matter how long I looked at the picture, the “jet” label just never materialized.

I figured I would just watch very carefully for the jet, with a water bottle nearby so that if the jet turned out to be a centimeter from my eye, I could flush it out. Well, the fuel never really collected anywhere. So I dribbled gas on the place where I hoped the jet was, lit (with great effort) a (scarcely lightable) waterproof match, held my breath, and lit the stove.

The stove seemed to light, but it was impossible to be sure. It made a terrible gasping, wheezing noise; produced a small, orange flame; created a small amount of heat; in short, behaved in such as way as to create an utter mystery: was it not lit properly and in need of tweaking, or was it performing at 100% of its capabilities as a perfectly shitty stove? I realized at this moment that the guy who’d said, “It’s way easier than the instructions say” was probably lying, so that I’d look back on his words and think him some kind of genius. It’s a simple social trick, available to anybody with a total disregard for the truth.

According to a test I took in a high school Health class, I have a “Type-A Personality.” This means that I am a hothead and control freak; am headed for an ulcer; am a pain in the ass to get along with; and will suffer high blood pressure. The recommended remedy for this personality was a daily regimen of being put in a dimly lit room with pastel walls, where I would lie on a suede couch with a cold compress over my eyes and listen to New Age music. Since I have failed to implement this protocol (though I did get a massage once), conventional wisdom has it that I’m doomed to have every little annoying glitch in my life build up inside me while my face reddens, my blood pressure building up higher and higher, until I ultimately explode, shattering my skull from within and spattering innocent women and children with red pulp.

But I escape this fate through my own method of coping: I share. I make my problem everybody else’s too, so that by comparison, I am one of the less miserable people around. I vent, in other words, which is different from whining, griping, and complaining in that it is an accepted method of dealing with stress, like beating on an inflatable dummy with a Wiffle bat. But I don’t even need the bat; like Caliban, I use foul language to release my ire.

As I fumed over the stove, my need to emote increased significantly when I noticed my betrothed doing me the disservice of simply not caring about the stove. She sat there and read a novel, like nothing was wrong. Every so often she asked an innocent question like “Should I be smelling gas fumes?” to which the obvious answer is “NO, YOU SHOULDN’T BE SMELLING GAS FUMES, YOU SHOULD BE DRINKING HOT COCOA THAT YOUR FIANCÉ HEATED UP FOR YOU!”

Of course, venting shouldn’t get personal, so I spoke only to the stove. Meanwhile, I tried to be more rational about solving the problem I faced. For example, I considered using an alternate fuel, like firewood thrust into the stove at high velocity. But the stove wasn’t the actual root of the problem: the real problem was me, or more specifically my stupidity. I cursed myself for not having tested the stove earlier, back when I could have gotten help or taken it back to REI. Too late now … the receipt is either in Ashland, Oregon with most of my stuff, or in Sacramento with the rest of my stuff. Or I threw it away.

As time dragged on and the stove did seem to stay lit, I had to wonder if—notwithstanding the gasping, choking sound it was making—it might in fact be working properly? The answer was, how should I know? I’d never seen an XGK II in use in my life! So, I decided to compare my stove’s performance to the statistical results given in the product literature. Finally, something objective to hitch my poor brain to.

Well, the specifications say that the XGK II will boil water in 3.4 minutes. I looked at the fine print to find out what conditions they assumed. Sea level, starting water temperature of 70 degrees, and white gas as the fuel … okay, that’s all fine. But how much water? A teaspoon? A gallon? The specs didn’t say. So, after failing to bring a quart of water to a boil in forty minutes, I decided the stove was as crippled as it sounded.

Furious, I vented my findings to my fiancée, who was still kicking back with her novel. “Just blow it off,” she said. “We can eat something else.” Unspoken subtext: “Just give up, since you’re obviously incompetent and worthless. Why continue the struggle when you’re obviously no smarter than a baitfish? I have no faith in you … why do you continue to pretend you’ll eventually succeed?”

The problem with this method of undermining my self esteem was that it was so passive. If she’d outright accused me of being lame, I could have monunted a defense, perhaps challenged her to fix the stove herself, etc. Damn it, when I’m overreacting, I want the company of somebody at least as irrational and heated as I am! The downright sensibility of her statement infuriated me (particularly as it gradually dawned on me that her castigation was probably all in my head).

I decided to start over from scratch. I blew out the flame, completely dismantled the stove, inventoried all the components, figured out which piece had to be the jet (it’s smaller than a pencil eraser, by the way), took apart the fuel pump, cleaned a little ball that is a part of the check valve system, completely shined, polished, and praised every little piece, reassembled the whole thing, figured out how it worked, and now it runs like a top (though it’s still surprisingly loud). My stove now can actually boil water, in my lifetime. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the process (which lasted several hours) involved quite a bit of that therapeutic venting, and by the end my wife-to-be had decided that I must be angry at her, since surely nobody could get that angry at an inanimate object, or at himself, for that long. I exonerated her by explaining how the stove was a symbol of my ascent into manhood, and that childhood camping experiences in which I was denied the opportunity to even operate a stove, much less fix it, had set the stage for an inevitable camp stove crisis with my entire ego hanging in the balance. We established that the future of our relationship was not at stake, especially since I did eventually get the stove to work.

Amazingly, it appeared that, notwithstanding my embarrassing display of anger and frustration, and my admission of the worst kind of maleness, this woman somehow still wanted to marry me.

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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Beer Pix - Pure Beck’sting Satisfaction

NOTE: This post is rated R for alcohol references, mild strong language, and an obscene gesture.


As I’ve noted before, people seem to really love photos of beer. Once in a while I forget to turn Location Services off on my phone before Beck’sting, and Google Maps asks if I want to add my Beck’st to their giant consumer-facing photo library. As a result, this chance photo of one of my beers has been viewed almost ten thousand times to date, dwarfing the popularity of the blog posts I slave over:

What, what did you just ask? “What’s Beck’sting?” You mean you haven’t heard of Beck’sting? Well, click here for the full scoop. It’s a tiny bit like Frexting, except that men tastefully send photos of their beer instead of themselves. Not only has this global phenomenon totally outpaced Frexting, but if you google “is frexting still a thing?” you’ll find my groundbreaking Beck’sting post on the first page of results.

So, to slake my readers’ likely thirst for beer photos, I’ve decided to share some highlights from the hundreds of Beck’sts I’ve exchanged with three friends and one of my brothers over the years. I’ve grouped most of these thematically. Since a Beck’st isn’t just a photo, but a photo with a caption and/or commentary, I’ve included that too, and the initials of the Beck’ster. Where you see one letter only (e.g., “T—”) that’s generally somebody’s spouse.

Lakeside Beck’st

JL: I took this at a party last night. A colleague of W—’s just bought a house on Cayuga lake, turned 70 and had a kidney transplant, so it was party time!

DA: When you’re getting ready to party hard, it’s always good to start with a fresh kidney, especially when you’re super old! Really great photo ... makes me want to crack open an Anchor and then not jump into the lake!

Paying the rent

DA: “Paying the rent” while I blog at The Pub. Coaster notwithstanding, this is a Racer 5.

JL: That’s not a pub, that’s a library! Look at the green tint pull-chain lamp! Stop drinking in the library you degenerate!


DA: Watching Paris-Roubaix at the chichi road bike shop. Don’t yet know what this beer is but it’s a Belgian style and very tasty...

DW: Nice looking beer...but, I have to say, I don’t like drinking beer in those glasses. Maybe it’s a Berkeley thing, because I noticed that’s what they served an IPA in at Fieldwork. Maybe that’s because I ordered from the wrong line though.

DA: Now, are you against all “stemware” or does it depend on the beer? The Chimay label shows a little picture specifying stemware for the beer. Seems kind of pretentious and wine-y (as in, what a wine person would do) but I’m fine with it. What I cannot abide are small glasses that hold half a beer. That drives me crazy.


DW: This is a Snake River Pale Ale. We are in Dubois, WY. This little town is about 50mi east of the Tetons. I had one of these beers when I was here about 12 years ago and it was delicious...still is. You have to buy alcohol in this town at a drive-through window at the saloon. Press this little buzzer and the saloon gal will set you right. She is a gruff, tough, woman who somehow knew I’d been wearing Lycra earlier in the day … this showed in her attitude.

Cheers to you all - btw, my daughter bought me this pint glass. It says ‘Yellowstone’ on the other side. She understands what a proper beer glass is.


DW: I had this at Pelican last week with some overpriced Fish & Chips. This is called the “Umbriaga Negra.” A Pacific Northwest version of the a Mexican dark lager, like Modelo or Dos Equis Dark. I was thrown by the name, Umbriaga, but checked in with T— and she told me it meant “drunk.” It was actually really good and the high ABV% and low IBU was a good combination for me. I asked the bartender if there was any stemware in the house for the Umbriaga and he looked at me, completely puzzled, then with scorn, and walked away. That’s him in the background looking into the ocean, searching for answers, doing some soul searching after I dropped the stemware question. He did not come back and ask if I’d like a refill; just kept looking at his watch and then at me.


DA: Boulevard Tank 7 by Under the Sun Brewing in Boulder.

DA [later the same evening]: This is a Big Krane Kolsch. Fcuking off the chain! Good times, bitches!

DW: Finally...a decent picture of beers in a proper glass. I couldn’t even look at the other two wussy beers. Where are your lapdogs in the first pic?

Brotherly Beck’st

DA: This is a Mojo IPA from Boulder Brewing. Pretty yum! Note the reflection of my checkered napkin, and of course Evil Uncle B— in the background.

BA: Too bad your phone has such a tiny lens with such a small aperture, otherwise you’d be able to blur out the background a bit better!

DA: Actually, I was thinking the main flaw with this photo is that you’re so bald.

Deluxe/Getaway Beck’st

DA: Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA at a nice restaurant near Mendocino. Long weekend getaway, sans kids! Livin’ large!

Pliny the Elder

DW: This is a Barley Brown’s Pallet Jack IPA.

DW (continued): Damn good beer! There are only a few places in town that carry Barley Brown’s and it’s only on tap, kinda like Pliny the Elder. There is a big mystique about Pliny and people up here are very secretive about its whereabouts.

DA: I had Pliny the Elder a couple summers ago, at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa. We were meeting friends there, one of whom had formerly managed the Flamingo, or maybe just managed its restaurant, or maybe just its bar, or who knows, maybe he was just a bartender. (I hope I’m remembering this right and that he wasn’t just a bar patron.) The Flamingo didn’t have the Pliny on draft or anything; my pal had some of it up in his room at the hotel. That felt kind of creepy, going up to somebody’s room for a secret stash of beer, in a little cooler like a World Tour rider’s EPO or blood bags. Kind of felt a bit like scoring your black market beer on the mean streets. I suppose this should have added to the Pliny mystique, but the whole affair felt a bit squalid. Anyway, the Pliny tasted fine, but after all that build-up (believe me, the fact of my being real lucky to get this, and the size of my friend’s largesse, were well emphasized) it didn’t seem amazing or anything. Of course I would drink it again, but I’m not going to wax eloquent about its citrus or citra, or its hint of pine, its whiff of tobacco, or its meth-y malt. I wish beer descriptions weren’t going in the direction of wine descriptions but I guess that’s inevitable.


DA: Here it is, gents! Pliny the Elder IPA! Like you said, Dan … rare, seasonal, kind of a big deal around here too. It tasted, well, pretty good.

PCS: Why are you flipping us off?

DA: That’s not me flipping you off. That’s my “friend.” Our food had just arrived with the drinks, and as you can see, my pal only got a salad. I asked him, “Did you order a tampon with that?” Perhaps that’s why he saw fit to desecrate my photo in that fashion.

DW: Thanks for rubbing the Pliny in my face, Dana. You know that is highly coveted in these Pacific NW parts. A guy at Crow’s Feet Commons pulled me aside last week and quietly told me that they might be getting a keg at the end of the month—“after the tourists go home,” he said. I forwarded your Becks’t to another friend who is also on the lookout for this mystery beer. I wonder if it is really that good.


DW: I heard about this secret wine store that had some Pliny the Elder in the back. I had to go there and try this mysterious beer. T— would not go with me, she was just fine reading by the fire on a rainy afternoon (man, I was ripped off in this marriage: she does not like coffee or beer and is not really fond of hanging out in breweries, unless we are playing a card game that requires way too much thinking for me! On the other hand, ha ha, she loves to watch cycling). So, here it is, my first Pliny!

Dana, I have to agree. It was just “fine.” It was really smooth and tasted good, but not nearly as good as some of the other IPAs I’ve had, like the Mosaic, or anything from Boneyard or Barley Brown’s. I wanted it to blow me away. I went in with a super open mind, cleared my pallet, gave it a good wiff and huh, just fine. I must lean a little to the Pacific Northwest flavors. I don’t think I will need another Pliny. So...

... because I’m a hypocrite and don’t really understand my wife after 30 years, we stopped in at Pelican after a nice walk on the beach and I had a most excellent 20 ounces of Mosaic and put it on a pedestal; like all beers from Cascadia (Dana, is this the proper use of a semicolon?).

JL: I nominate this Becks’t for the Best Becks’t of October Award, the coveted BBOA!

Branded pint glass

DA: Double IPA. Most beers at this Jack Russell brewery are $5 or $6, or for $9 you can get one in a commemorative pint glass you get to keep. This beer is like 8% and $8 ... or $9 with the pint glass. SCORE! Awesome—a proper (stemless) pint glass for a buck! E— hassled me about bringing more junk into our home but I can’t be stopped. Not this time, anyway.

DA (continued): The only problem is this warning sticker on the bottom of the glass:

DA (continued): Dr. S—, do I need to be worried about this? Or does it help that I have already been born?

PCS: You'll most surely have a 2-headed child after using this glass!

DW: Do you have any plans to be born again?

Mystery Beck’st

[I cannot recall who sent this ... I think it was PCS. The photo metadata was lost at some point. Maybe I’ll do some more forensics next time I’m bored. Oh, wait, I never have the luxury of boredom anymore. Sigh…]

Selfie Beck’st

DA: I almost wasn’t going to send another boring photo of the same Lagunitas IPA on the same round blue table against the same brick wall with the same framed photo at the same coffee shop. But then it occurred to me that my laptop has a built-in selfie camera (the one on my phone being broken). I hunted around and found an app, pre-installed on my laptop, that actually makes use of this camera. It is a crappy camera indeed, but I have a hunch that this will give my photo a grainy, gritty, handheld cinéma verité look that will make you admire me a whole lot. I hope I’m right.

DA (continued): The young buck at the next table is singing along with Coldplay. Ah, millennials. I just read some article that they’re going to be the brokest adults in ages. Oh well. At least they’ve got their freedom, unlike corporate wage slaves like me, nursing at the blue-chip teat like a suckling pig (as the millennials would surely think of it).

JL: “Corporate wage slave”? That photo of you looks positively blue collar, man! Angry, tired and just wanting a goddamned beer! And I hear you.

Autofill Beck’st

DA: South Beach, you’ve met your match! This beer obviously isn’t some amazing discovery, but I do like it contains all your belongings and it was hella good to me and my liver via the app and the girls are going to backfill for the next few days so I can drive to the airport and then we can go from there to the full pint. Most of the preceding sentence was brought to you by Android Autofill word suggestions. I hope you enjoyed it.

JL: Go home Android Autofill — you’re drunk!

“Something missing” Beck’st

DA: I totally meant to have a beer tonight, just for the empty calories [to try to regain weight after losing too much on the South Beach diet], but I plumb forgot! And after eating so much that the skin of my belly is stretched tight as a drum, well ... what’s the point?

JL: This is by far the craziest Beck’st to ever done been beck’sted. I cannot conceive of forgetting to have a beer. That just doesn’t happen in my house. I’m not sure which one of us has the problem…

DA: I agree with you. (Above response generated by the Google via its A.I.-driven one-touch reply suggestions.)

JL: Man, you should let the Google answer all of your emails! Though I would soon miss the trademarked Dana Acerbicity[TM]. Acerbic-ness? Ornerarity? There’s a word. Here’s an example of a beer that I did not forget to drink (I rode for 80 minutes on the trainer — I earned this!):

DA: As much as I like “acerbicity” and would like “acerbitiousness” even more, I guess the real word is acerbity. I wonder if Google’s machine learning will start to offer up more acerbic responses to the e-mails I receive? The Google has a long way to go before it’s passing the Turing test.

Gratuitous eye-candy Beck’st

DA: Fieldwork wheat Saison … brilliant!

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