Monday, November 30, 2020

Could Artificial Intelligence Replace Writers?


Over a year ago, I came across this fascinating article about whether or not Artificial Intelligence could write a New Yorker article. The answer was essentially “no” or “not yet,” but it got me pretty riled up anyway. Ever since, I’ve been evaluating A.I.’s ability to correctly suggest even a word or phrase as it parses my text. In this post I wade into that history as I examine the question of A.I.’s (supposed) ascendance.

The New Yorker article

The New Yorker article, “The Next Word,” was in the October 14, 2019 issue. The writer, John Seabrook, talked with A.I. experts at Google about their “Smart Compose” feature, which predicts how your sentence ought to end and suggests the remaining words, so you can just hit tab to accept the suggestion. (If you use Gmail, you’re already familiar with this.) Seabrook also talked with the folks at another company, OpenAI, about their GPT-2 engine, which composes entire sentences and even complete paragraphs, with made-up quotations no less, in the voice of a real writer it “learns” and then mimics. GPT-2 is still under development; OpenAI claimed it has been delayed because it’s “too good at writing” and they fear society isn’t ready. (Yeah, right.) Seabrook tried it out, and in the online version of the article you can see its efforts at contributions to his story.

Seabrook included an extended quotation from Steven Pinker, a Harvard psycholinguist, that had been appended with text generated by GPT-2, and challenged the reader to figure out where the real quote ended and A.I. picked it up. (You can take the challenge in the online article.) I found this exercise really easy, but Seabrook reported that almost everybody he tried the “Pinker test” on “failed to distinguish Pinker’s prose from the machine’s gobbledygook” and concludes, “The A.I. had them Pinkered.”

Does this scare you? It sure scares me. I have no doubt that great literature will always be written by real writers, no matter how good the A.I. gets, but run-of-the-mill journalism and magazine writing, which mainly exist to serve up ads anyway, might someday be written by a clueless A.I. that has no more grasp of insight and fact than do certain famous politicians. As Seabrook puts it, “One can envision machines like GPT-2 spewing superficially sensible gibberish, like a burst water main of babble, flooding the Internet with so much writing that it would soon drown out human voices, and then training on its own meaningless prose, like a cow chewing its cud.”

Hoping against hope that this A.I. capability is overrated, I have been paying close attention to how well it has done across the devices I use, and recording its more salient failures, over the past year. In Internet time, a year is a pretty huge span—in theory I should have seen marked improvement in that period. Well, here’s what I found.

Smart Compose

I have to confess, I haven’t grabbed many snapshots of Google’s Smart Compose behavior because I only use Gmail at work, and I’m fairly religious about separating work and play. I did grab a few examples though, because they flew in the face of how the function was reputed to work. Seabrook quotes Paul Lambert, who manages this feature for Google, as saying, “If you write ‘Have a’ on a Friday, it’s much more likely to predict ‘good weekend’ than if it’s on a Tuesday.”

Weirdly, this didn’t work for me at all. Check out these samples of what Smart Compose suggested to me on a Friday morning: 

Neither “great week” nor “good night” makes sense here. Meanwhile, the fact that “gr” invoked “great week” whereas “go” pointed at “good night” is illogical, since people use “great” and “good” almost interchangeably and there’s no reason to assume that we’d want somebody’s week to be great but their night to only be good. I decided to slip between the horns of the dilemma by starting the sentence over entirely. This produced:

Given that Father’s Day was more than seven months away, this suggestion struck me as totally moronic. So I added an “r” after the “F” to see how it would recover:

This would make sense if Chris had wished me a happy Friday … but he hadn’t. I decided to shoot for “weekend” to see how that would go:

Huh? Whose “week ahead” starts on Friday? Oddly, Smart Compose seemed to be utterly neglecting the context of my email.

In the year I’ve kept an eye on Smart Compose, I haven’t again seen anything as egregiously inept. Mostly what I notice is that it doesn’t suggest words or phrases all that often … perhaps my work emails are too technical or otherwise cryptic. (The A.I. that powers Smart Compose was trained on millions of real emails, but none from Google’s business customers.) The A.I. is pretty good about really basic stuff, like suggesting “you have any questions” after I type “Please let me know if,” but that’s about it. As an experiment, I composed this blog post in Gmail and it didn’t suggest anything. It’s like I overwhelmed it somehow. So much for that.

Gboard predictive text

Perhaps more useful, day-to-day, than Smart Compose is Google’s predictive text for the Gboard virtual keyboard, which is bundled with their Android operating system. Predictive text seems to come into play with every app on my phone that relies on typed input. Frankly, I don’t like typing much on the phone so I do most of my writing on the computer. The main thing I type on my phone? Text messages, which I mostly trade with my older daughter who is off at college. (Alas, texting seems to be her generation’s preferred method of communication, at least where their parents are concerned, and I’ve decided to humor my daughter in this.)

My experience? Naturally, predictive text comes in handy, usually in the context of completing words I’ve mostly typed. I hasten to point out this is a lot different from A.I. actually composing anything. If I type “has,” it’s going to suggest “has,” “was,” and “hasn’t” because those are the most likely candidates, and most of the time I’ll accept one of those. If I type “hast” it suggests “hast,” “host,” and “hash,” and if I type “haste” it suggests “haste,” “taste,” and “waste.” (After all, “haste makes waste,” we all know that.) Android is not going to suggest “hasten” because apparently not too many people use that word. This is the bulk of how predictive text behaves, and though it’s not as sophisticated as Smart Compose (much less GPT-2), it works a lot of the time. It also fails a lot.

If we’re really going to count on A.I. to create content for us at any point, I see three things it absolutely has to right. First, it needs to not make any grammar or spelling errors, obviously, since you can’t have it making the putative human author look stupid, or burdening an editor with fifty times the errors a real writer would make. Second, the A.I. can’t commit any serious gaffs that would render the text offensive or at least laughably ignorant. Finally, the A.I. will have to really understand context if it’s to reach its intended audience (well, our intended audience, since A.I. can’t really have anything like intention). An A.I.-written article for the slightly racy GQ or Men’s Health magazine better not sound like Good Housekeeping; Hunter S. Thompson shouldn’t come off like Heloise.

So here’s how the A.I. on my phone has stacked up in these areas over the last year.

Grammar and spelling

It’s kind of remarkable that anybody thinks we’re on the brink of A.I. being able to compose anything when it still doesn’t really do so well with grammar and spelling in its predictive text. I could supply countless examples of errors in this realm, but that would get dull, so I’m providing one example each of the main types of errors I see.

First, it breaks very basic rules about capitalization, failing to capitalize proper nouns or the first word of a sentence. (Predictive text’s cousin, voice recognition, screws this up quite a bit as well.) If the human fails to capitalize a word, A.I. should fix it, rather than expecting us to bother with the shift key a lot. Here’s an example:

It also screws up with predicting subject/verb agreement, so lots of its word suggestions wouldn’t work without my having to backspace and add an “s,” which is clunkier than just typing the word right to begin with. I fight with this many times a day. Here’s an example:

I mean, come on! “We’re huge fan.” That’s not very helpful. “We’re huge favor.” Look, Android, the verb is “are.” It needs a plural predicate nominative. This is not rocket science.

One of the most annoying things predictive text (and its sibling, auto-correct) does is to “fix” my errors for me on the fly, without asking. Usually I end up sending the text before I notice the problem, and then have to explain to the recipient that it’s not my error, which is way more work than for me to just type everything myself with no “help.” (Yes, I know that youngsters these days have no problem sending messages that are utterly littered with errors, but remember, we’re talking about A.I.’s ability to compose text one day ... the bar needs to be higher.) Look at this travesty:

Another category of failure is when predictive text doesn’t grasp what part of speech the next word needs to be. Consider this example where “very” has been set up, within the sentence, to be an adverb modifying another adverb. There is zero benefit in predictive text suggesting an adjective here.

It doesn’t take an English major to grasp that “Text messages don’t convey irony very groovy” simply doesn’t make sense.

Finally, suggesting anything that isn’t really a word is pretty pointless. One of the three choices typically offered up is the fragment of a word you’ve already typed. Why offer this? It’s a waste of screen real estate. And then I’ve seen suggestions that either aren’t words, or basically aren’t words. Look at this example: 

Obviously “trifec” isn’t a word, so why give me the option of accepting it? If I really wanted it, I could just hit the spacebar. And “triger”? It’s basically not a word. It’s not in Google’s own spell-checker dictionary; it’s not in the American Heritage Dictionary; and it’s not in the Wiktionary. Okay, I found “triger process” in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, so maybe Android was setting me up for that phrase, which means “a method of sinking through water-bearing ground in which a shaft is lined with tubbing and provided with an air lock so that work proceeds under air pressure.” But what are the odds this is what I was writing about? Exactly zero. Android obviously should have guessed “trifecta.” If A.I. starts to write articles, will we have to suffer through tedious asides about digging through waterlogged ground?

Some seemingly phonetic goofs

Sometimes the A.I. seems to be working phonetically and makes a suggestion that almost makes sense—but of course almost doesn’t cut it when it’s supposed to save you work while maintaining (or ideally improving) accuracy. Check this out:

Any human could have guessed “all its splendor and glory” and Android almost got it. But “all its splendor and Gloria”? Really? (Could’ve been worse, I guess … it could have changed “its” to “it’s” again.) Here’s another failure:

Many American morons have called COVID-19 a hoax, but I doubt any have called it a Hoke. (If you’re wondering where it even got “Hoke,” I can tell you I’ve used that word in eight texts, referring to a character, Hoke Mosely, who appears in four Charles Willeford novels. Among book characters he resembles a virus in no way whatsoever.)

Here’s a final example of the A.I. seeming to fail via phonetic bumbling:

It’s almost as though the predictive text software heard somebody say “thirsty” and thought it heard “Thursday.” But of course that didn’t happen … you can see where I typed “thirs.” And how could anyone be Thursday? It makes no sense. On the other hand, if you told somebody to say the first thing that popped into their head when you gave them a prompt, and the prompt was “hungry and …” I’ll bet nine out of ten would say “thirsty.” (One out of ten would be somebody on a diet who might say something like “bitter.”)

It is hard to make a case that these goofs are truly phonetic in nature. But is it feasible these errors are simply random? Well … how the hell should I know? I never said I was a brain scientist or computer technologist. But I have a couple of theories, around context and … oops, unfortunately I seem to be out of space here. 

To be continued… 

Tune in next week for Part 2 of this essay, where I’ll explore some more ways A.I. can go wrong, with a number of wince-worthy predictive-text FAILs. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Travel Tips During the COVID-19 Pandemic


This post is available as a vlog as as service to the blind, the illiterate, and the lazy. If you are blind, I hope somebody will start up the video for you so you can listen. (As for not seeing anything, trust me ... you’re not missing much.) If you are illiterate, I hope the Play button is self-explanatory. If you are lazy, congratulations on making it this far. If you are none of these, scroll down for the text version. Or not ... whatever.


As if the COVID-19 pandemic weren’t bad enough, we as a nation are also facing a lot of scolds who have sky-is-falling, buzzkill attitudes about getting together with our families over the holidays. I say if we’re going to simply ignore or defy these naysayers, we might as well be responsible about it. This post tells you how.

Planning your trip

Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What about healthy families? It’s worth taking some time to think about your particular crew and its COVID-19 profile. If your family Thanksgiving dinners inevitably descend into vicious long-winded bouts of character assassination, with everybody yelling at once like protesters at a political rally, maybe it’s best to sit out this holiday season. On the other hand, if the grownups sit with their hands in their laps, staring at their plates and finding themselves once again at a loss for words, while the kids sit isolated in another room, peering into their smartphones, silent and sullen for the entire long weekend, then it’s game on for holiday festivities!

Let’s be realistic about it, though: there is some question as to whether traveling is safe right now. According to the Georgia Departmentof Public Health, “Cases of COVID-19 have been reported in many states, and some areas are experiencing community spread of the disease.” Wow. I did not know that. Thanks, Georgia! (Yes, click the link and see for yourself: they really did say that.)

As it stands, the pandemic is certainly escalating. One of the main risks right now is the colder weather, with everybody gathering indoors. So instead of you and your far-flung siblings rendezvousing in Duluth, Bismarck, or Fargo where your parents live, you should have everybody meet up in a warmer clime. Australia would be ideal, but avoid the big urban centers. Kiwirrkurra, which is 450 miles from the nearest city, would be ideal. Kiwirrkurra’s population is barely over 200, so there can’t be much coronavirus there! Plan your trip carefully though, because it’s probably no tourist mecca … chances are you’ll be camping out. And steer clear of the locals ... you wouldn’t want to wipe out an entire community.

Flying during COVID-19

A new study by the US Department of Defense suggests that aircraft ventilation systems aren’t actually spreading the virus as badly as previously thought. “Planes don’t spread lethal viruses—people do,” snarled retired Lieutenant Colonel Miles Briggs, who knows a guy involved with the study. Unfortunately, when I fact-checked this article I discovered that its conclusion was based on a misunderstanding: the authors were talking about two-seater fighter planes where both travelers have those cool helmets with built-in air supply hoses.

Notwithstanding the DOD’s little goof, it is true that even the CDC has acknowledged the efficacy of ventilation systems on airplanes. Thus, the chances of spreading the virus on the plane aren’t that high … you won’t start infecting people until you reach your destination or have returned home. Obviously the problem isn’t spreading the virus geographically, but contracting it somewhere between points A and B. After all, the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic is … wait. I’m getting a bit confused. Let’s move on.

It turns out the airplane itself may not be the most dangerous part of your trip. There are also the logistical hurdles at either end. Taking a cab or Lyft to the airport would obviously be a bad idea, so you’ll want to drive there and park in the long-term parking, expense be damned. But the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the terminal is also out of the question, so leave an extra hour early and walk.

The security line is of course a Petri dish of coronavirus. Look at this typical line. I don’t think that’s six feet between travelers; that woman’s mask has slipped down below her nose; and the dippy little dog doesn’t even have a mask! (Can a dog transmit COVID? Hello, we had a bat and a pangolin infecting people already … a slobbering, yapping dog is obviously a mobile four-legged superspreader event!)

Conventional wisdom has it that you should skip the long security line by using TSA Precheck or CLEAR, but that actually might be worse than the longer queue. Why? Because you’ll be in line with frequent travelers—the guys who continue to travel on business, all over the country, treating our beleaguered nation like their own personal coronavirus tasting menu. You want to steer clear of those guys, believe me. Instead, just walk from long-term parking right out to the jetway and simply board the plane, without having set foot in the airport! If you act natural, they’ll just wave you through. Note that this means flying only on those tiny commuter planes without the enclosed jetway bridges, so you may have to hopscotch a bit to your final destination, but hey, safety first!

If you can’t take a commuter plane and are forced to brave the airport security line, remember that the most dangerous aspect of air travel is forgetting to remove your toiletry items from their kit and place them in a Ziploc bag. If your toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo aren’t segregated like this, the virus has already won. Also, if you have any liquid in a container over 3.4 ounces, you can pretty much kiss your whole family goodbye, unless the TSA catches you and saves the day (again). The exception is that they’re now allowing alcohol-based hand cleaner in containers up to 12 ounces, bless their hearts. So you can bring plenty of that, whether it’s to clean your hands with or to squirt on fellow-travelers.

Brace yourself for some unpleasant changes, though. Airports, which were crappy to begin with, have become even worse. For one thing, they aren’t offering the same amenities, like that $9 beer you normally splurge on because your can no longer handle your (spouse, kids, loneliness) without taking the edge off. Tip: bring your own beer, and charge your (spouse, kids, neighbor in security line) $9 a bottle so they can feel a sense of nostalgic normalcy while you make a few bucks. Yes, you’ll have to consume the unsold beers quickly before going through security, but chugging three or four good IPAs in 30 seconds at the threshold of the X-ray (actually, it’s properly called a millimeter-wave full body scanner) is bound to get your flight off to a good start.

As far as the flight itself, the best way to ensure safety is to make sure you’re well-equipped. I’m not just talking about N95 masks—though those are a good start—but also a good sturdy face shield (not just for blocking droplets, but in case you get in a fistfight, which is not unlikely during these trying times) and also some great noise-canceling headphones, so you won’t be unduly stressed out by the sounds of sneezing and coughing all around you, or people barking at you trying to pick a fight. If you can get your hands on one of those cool fighter pilot helmets with the built-in air supply hoses, that would be ideal.

Most planes use HEPA filters, but how will you know in advance about the plane you’re on, since airlines swap out the aircraft at their whim? The answer is, you can’t know: so bring your own HEPA filter if you can. Since these vary dramatically in size and shape from one manufacturer to the next, practice at home first. Ideally, you can bend the filter so it conforms almost exactly to your head.

If you can, get a window seat. Studies show that people in the aisle are there for a reason—usually because they use the disgusting lavatory several times during the flight, pace up and down the aisle constantly, rummage around in the overhead bin touching whosever bag they want, and otherwise act out annoyingly. Having one of these dirtbag extroverts right across the aisle can’t be a good thing. Meanwhile, if you’re sitting in the window seat and things get a little stuffy, you can open the window and get some air.

Keep your eyes open during the flight in case of unsafe behavior around you. For example, the guy next to you might remove his mask for no good reason, or let his nose poke out, or has a big greasy beard with possibly pestilent saliva dripping down it. Or maybe his mask is made out of tissue paper, or a pancake. Give that guy a proper N95, or ask to change seats!

Using an aircraft bathroom is sketchy during the best of times, and especially dangerous now. The number one rule? Keep it quick! But wash your hands for at least twenty seconds. How is that quick? Doesn’t proper hand washing violate the number one rule? Hey—nobody said this pandemic would be easy. One more thing: if you suspect a pangolin has used the coach class lavatory, don’t take the risk of following it in there. Go through the forbidden curtain to the first class restroom, no matter how much the flight attendant and first class passengers yell at you.

Since the most dangerous part of a flight is removing your mask to eat, you don’t want to do that—and yet you still need hydration and sustenance. I recommend you purchase the Self Help Personal I.V. Kit for air travel ($48.99 from, though the needle must be purchased in the airport gift shop or newsstand). With the Personal I.V., you can just run a quick intravenous line, and infuse a bag of saline if it’s a short trip, or Gatorade if it’s a long one. Heck, if it’s a full flight you might even consider putting a little bleach in there!

The road trip option

If you decide it’s just not worth the extra bother of flying, taking some extra time to turn your vacation into a road trip is an excellent idea. I fear for Generation Z, with their reluctance toward learning to drive and getting their licenses. Will they miss out entirely on the classic American young-adult road trip experience of blasting along I-70 at 90 miles an hour, sending toilet paper comets flying out the window, eating greasy fast food and blasting Nine Inch Nails at party volume to drown out the roar of air through the open moon roof? Well, maybe the pandemic can be their savior. Of course, it takes months to learn to drive and get your license, so it’s a little late for that now. Once again, the parents will have to drive, which means windows rolled up, AC on, and Maria Carey, Coldplay, or Sting on the stereo. But there are arguably worse things, like dying of COVID.

Once again, staying safe during the trip will require extra precautions. Going to the bathroom, for one thing, is going to be harder. Many service stations are using the pandemic as an excuse to shut down their restrooms, and others are simply understaffed so their restrooms are filthier than ever. The obvious solution—just pulling over to the highway shoulder, walking a ways out into the bramble, and peeing on a rock or tree trunk—isn’t fair to the women or girls in the car. Luckily, there’s a solution: you can now purchase a Foley catheter in their new “Road Warrior” edition (, $58.95), designed specifically for consumers who aren’t comfortable with restrooms.

If you will be driving for several days, sleeping accommodations become a necessity. Campgrounds may not be open, and sleeping in random city parks with homeless people might be bad for your family’s morale. Clearly you’ll need a motel, but are they safe? Once again, the conventional wisdom—to find places that have high reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor—doesn’t apply here. Look, the most dangerous part about lodging is people: so you want to stay where nobody else is willing to go. Look for one-star reviews ranting about how filthy a place is. The gold standard here is a review containing something shocking, like “toadstools growing in the bathtub!” To remain safe, bring a large supply of disposable latex gloves, Tyvek bunny suits, plastic sheeting for the beds, and of course all your own toiletries and bedding.

Is holiday travel ethical?

It has been suggested that getting COVID-19 tests in order to travel more confidently is ethically questionable, when the number of tests—not to mention the personnel to process them—are limited. This can be a problem when we have front-line healthcare staffers to think of, and service-sector and manufacturing workers who don’t have the luxury to earn their living over videoconferences. To them I say hey, this is America. Anyone who can afford a test should just go get it. What’s all this money for, after all, if not to purchase the life we want for ourselves? Read my lips: we are having Thanksgiving with Grandpa, and yes, this means other people may die. You don’t like it, tough titty: this is just how capitalism works. You want you go spend your holidays in Russia? Be my guest. (Well …  theirs. Whatever.)

In closing: ten easy travel tips

Here are ten easy tips to keep in mind when planning or conducting holiday travel during the pandemic:

  1. Get tested for COVID-19 before, during, and after the trip.
  2. If you plan to visit a family member who has extra risk factors such as type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, heart conditions, cancer, or obesity, make sure these are cured before you visit them.
  3. Quarantine for two weeks before beginning travel and again when you arrive at your destination, and require all family members, including your hosts, to do the same—and then quarantine for another two weeks, ideally in a hermitically sealed room, before heading home.
  4. Download a COVID-19 app to your smartphone and use it regularly, being sure to rub down your phone frequently with an alcohol wipe.
  5. If you’re flying, get tested for COVID-19 before, during, and after the airport security screening, and before, during, and after your flight—ideally, without removing your mask.
  6. Demand COVID tests of those around you: at the airport, on the plane, at the florist, at the gift shop, and before hugging any family members.
  7. If any take-out food is served at family gatherings, make sure it’s safe by putting it under the broiler for at least 30-40 minutes, and serve it on paper plates, employing gravity rather than utensils to achieve the transfer from pan to plate.
  8. Keep your guard up—if somebody around you, whether it’s a family member or a complete stranger, endangers you by not wearing a mask, not keeping six feet away, or speaking too loudly (or worse, singing), take that dude out (but remember to wear disposable latex gloves if you strike him with your fists).
  9. Be smart about this: if you’re not that smart, read some books, take a few classes, get educated!
  10. Reconsider your actions as the situation changes. For example, if COVID-19 cases should happen to rise during your trip, don’t hesitate to just turn around and head home.

More reading on the pandemic 


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Sunday, November 15, 2020

From the Archives - Thank You (Not) for the Cheesy Microscope


If a picture is worth a thousand words, and HD video captures 30 frames per second, then a ten-minute video is worth about 18 million words. That seems more efficient than reading a 1,600-word essay. With that in mind, I've made this post available as a vlog. The traditional text version, as always, is further down the page.

Note that if you are viewing this on a mobile device and don’t see a thumbnail of my vlog above with a Play button, that’s because Google “improved” (i.e., wrecked) their Blogger interface. You can either scroll way down this page and choose “View web version,” or open this post on your PC, or click here for the video.


Back in like 1982, my brothers chipped in and gave me a really nice birthday present: a microscope. This might have been a bit of a shock, as they were only like 17, and I could have thought it a really extravagant gift. But I knew better: I’d seen this microscope before, in the gift shop of Fiske Planetarium. It was significantly discounted, which makes sense … why would a microscope sell in this gift shop, after everyone’s just finished being transported to the celestial heavens? A microscope takes you in exactly the wrong direction! 

It was marked down a whole lot but not enough for me to consider buying it. For one thing, who uses a microscope at home? What would I peer at with it? I did use a microscope in biology class in high school, but that was an assignment, and besides, you had to do something during the time you’re sentenced to be in school. I remember we were tasked to try to grow something (mold, fungus, whatever) in a Petri dish, and I got the gnarliest result of the whole class. My secret? I swabbed the rim of the restroom urinal. My sample went fricking nuts. That really was impressive to see magnified 10x.

My older daughter also used a microscope in bio, during middle school, and was either assigned to draw the instrument or decided on a lark to do so. Of her actual viewing of the microscopic world she remembers little. “Yeah we used microscopes in class, they were pretty cool but most of what I recall was fighting over them with my group mates,” she reports. Here is her drawing.

So, getting back to the microscope my brothers gave me, the biggest impediment to my actually using it was that the thing was cheesy. It was almost all plastic, including (I think) the lens. It was evident that my brothers had hoped I wouldn’t know about, or remember, its having been on sale. The second price tag had been carefully removed—gone without a trace. The original price tag, reading $39.95, was still on there. Of course my brothers knew it was tacky to leave the tag on, but the ostensible price—and thus their supposed generosity—was the whole point. If they’d been cleverer, they’d have blacked out the price with a magic marker, but made sure to do it lightly enough that if I squinted, I could still read it.

I halfheartedly pretended to be excited about the microscope, but clearly I was being played for a sucker. My brothers probably got it for free, being close personal buds with the planetarium’s director. He was probably throwing it out.

Fast-forward about nine years, and I unexpectedly received a birthday gift in the mail. And guess what? It was the same microscope, still in its original packaging! I’d actually taken it out and dinked with it a bit all those years ago, just making sure it wasn’t actually totally awesome, which it wasn’t, and then I’d put it all back in the box and forgotten about it. The proud, dishonest price tag was still on there. I sat right down and—well, okay, it took me three weeks, but—I wrote them a nice thank you letter, which I post here because a) it’s a slow news day at albertnet, b) you might find this amusing, and c) it should serve as a useful example of an important form of correspondence: the utterly insincere thank-you.

(Via the miracle of the Internet, I’ve found a photo of the very microscope in question. I have no idea what became of mine.)

Thank you letter for cheesy microscope - July 17, 1991

Dear Geoff and Bryan:

Imagine my awe when I saw the gleaming plastic, shining brightly through the thick, industrial grade cellophane stretched tight over the box. Before I even read the label, its words boomed through my head, startling me out of my everyday daze and sending goose bumps over my entire body:


Fighting the impulse to tear the elegant display box to shreds like a kid on Christmas morning, I gently removed the fitted storage box, precisely cut to form in expanded polystyrene foam, from the luxurious cardboard housing, and with almost excessive eagerness, lifted out the microscope. Noticing its weight in my trembling hand, I knew quality when I felt it. We can all sense when we’re in the presence of any best-in-class creation. BMW motorcars. Ralph Lauren Polo shirts. Rollecta pasta makers. And now, the 3 Way Microscope Lab with Viewer and Projection Device.

I guess I don’t even need to explain to you how much more this is than a simple microscope. Surely you did endless painstaking research before settling on this jewel of scientific technology, with its astonishing array of features, and its flat black finish, its base and arm richly adorned with chrome-like accouterments. From the Ocular down the Body Tube to the Revolving Turret (or REVOLVER, per the alternative nomenclature in the user’s guide), all the way to the 3 Way Objective Lens, this microscope struck me as the finest of its kind. Anywhere.

Part of me wanted to stop for a moment and just pause, savoring the moment, standing as I was at the brink of limitless scientific investigation, an endless journey of the unseen world. At the same time, I was driven by an irresistible impulse to throw myself headlong into it, as a surfer is hurled toward the beach by a tremendous wave. With trembling fingers I withdrew the first of six slides from the Lab’s casing: Monocotyledonous Stem of Corn, from Japan. I was getting ready to clip this specimen to the Stage when I realized with a jolt: I hadn’t even read the Microscope Lab’s instructions!

I lifted out the brochure with a sigh of satisfaction, knowing how richly I would benefit from the Manual, drinking in every drop of wisdom it could and surely would impart. From its first heading, “INTRODUCTION TO A MICRON WORLD,” to its intriguing opening sentence, “There are innumerable living things in our world,” I poured myself into its pages—both of them. Such rich instruction! Such literary poise, unadorned by preening, erudite flourishes but rather straightforward, clear, and direct! All the literature I’d held in high esteem before—Hemingway, Nabokov, Steinbeck—suddenly seemed weak and childish compared to the confident prose of the Manual:

In the case of Zoom Microscope, turn left the nut underneath eyepiece and make it loose and dislocate the eyepiece, and insert the viewer head in the body of microscope and turn right the nut tightly.

Lost in my wonder and appreciation, I must have let my guard down, for to my utter horror I was startled out of my keen focus by movement in the room. Raising my head from the crisp pages, I observed my roommate handling the Projection Device! He’d just wandered in, and now betook my instrument as though he were qualified and welcome to do so! Granted, his care and obvious awe exemplified his respect for the integrity and opulence of the Lab, yet my immediate instinct was to grab his wrist and wrest the Device from his hand, which he obviously hadn’t even washed first. I acted upon this instinct but caught myself before going further—I’d wanted to strike him a blow across the face with the back of my hand! I did loudly admonish him for his irresponsible behavior. How could he be so impertinent? Was he even a scientist?

My roommate glowered at me sullenly, his eyes burning, red-rimmed circles of resentment and jealousy. Had this fellow always been so ugly, such a stark embodiment of envy and evil? Or was our conflict recasting him in my sight due to my heightened sensitivity? I cannot tell. Over the last three weeks I have learned far more about human greed, envy, and paranoia than I have ever wanted to know. In fact, only my newly acquired knowledge of the Micron World surpasses this perception of malevolence, the kind of bone chilling sense of wicked covetousness that haunts a man night and day.

Only in the latest hours of night can I prop a chair against the door of my chamber and, in the ominous glow of a single burning candle, remove my Lab from its secret hiding place and carefully prepare the slides and gum media for a few painfully short hours of serious learning. So great is my fascination for the Micron World, not only tiny bits of lint or nose hairs but also the old standbys provided with the Lab—Monocotyledonous Stem of Corn, Fruit Fly, and Woody Stem of Pine—that I put aside my fears and drift into total educational bliss, totally detached from the Macro World that presents such threats to me and my 3 Way Microscope Lab with Viewer & Projection Device.

But none of the threats to my Lab need concern you … rest assured I shall guard this most prized possession with my life, sending you frequent dispatches of what I learn of the teeming micron world hiding all around us, in plain sight to those equipped to see. Thank you, my brothers, thank you again and again for this masterpiece. This is a gift and a birthday I will certainly never forget.




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Saturday, November 7, 2020

Biased Blow-By-Blow - 2020 Vuelta a España Stage 20


To me, sport seems kind of pointless during this pandemic. The articles on the front page of the sports section of the paper (yes, I get an old school paper newspaper, a phrase which seems redundant but obviously isn’t) seem almost insultingly trivial: “Niners face weak defense next week,” or “Smith starting in St. Louis despite hangnail.” And yet, we have to do something during shelter-in-place so I’m bringing you an (almost) live report of the final and decisive stage of this year’s Vuelta a España, a brutal course finishing on an hors categorie summit (or “especial” as they call it in Spanish).

Don’t worry: if you’ve ignored this Vuelta thus far, I’ll bring you up to speed along the way. And if there’s any funny business around a rider doing something “not normal,” I won’t bite my tongue.

2020 Vuelta a España Stage 17 – Sequeros to Alto de la Covatilla

As I join the action, there are about 52 kilometers left in the stage, which means nothing really is happening as the course is merely lumpy for a while. The announcer is describing some castle, reading off his cue card. You know, they could just make shit up, nobody would know. “This was the fortress of the 98th king of Spain, Juan the Bloated, or ‘Juan el Hinchado’ as they called him, the inventor of the gordita, named after his daughter, who was chubby—but cute! Hinchado famously had his chef executed for substituting ground turkey in his gorditas.”

A rider has punctured and needs the service car. To be clear, the rider himself didn’t puncture, it was one of the tires on his bike. Can you imagine if it were the rider himself? He’d need more than Shimano neutral support. Speaking of which, it’s sad not to see the yellow Mavic neutral support cars anymore. I guess Mavic folded. Anyone who enjoyed the wonderful reliability of GP4 rims back in the day will be sad about this.

So here’s what’s been going on over the last three weeks. Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), last year’s champion, is on fire, winning several stages and holding the GC lead (as well as the points jersey, the extra layer being welcome as the weather has been chilly). He looks bigger and beefier than he did in the Tour de France this year, which was his race to win until he spectacularly faded in the final time trial (though to be fair, it wasn’t such a bad ride but was overshadowed to say the least). In a post-stage interview recently, Roglic even called himself a sprint specialist, which is noteworthy because it’s the first interesting thing he’s ever said.

Missing from the lineup this year is last year’s third place Vuelta finisher, Tadej Pogacar. Pogacar is just plain worn out, after winning the Tour de France along with its KOM competition, its young rider competition, its Bic Best Handwriting competition, and its Lola Ascore Most Elegant Rider competition. He was even Prom King at his junior high this year. He’s wise beyond his years to insist on resting now.

I’m not hugely fond of this Aussie announcer, and I’ve just realized whom he sounds like: Borat. It’s not the same accent exactly, but there’s a similar mournful quality to his delivery. Joining him is this British gal who, being British, sounds super smart.

Getting back to my recap: sitting second on GC is the Ineos Grenadiers rider Richard Carapaz, who is only 45 seconds back. He lost five of those seconds on a sprinter’s stage yesterday, because Roglic contested the finish and took second—like a boss! It’s so rare to see a GC rider duking it out in a bunch sprint … I was pretty impressed. Plus, you can watch Roglic yelling, “Fuck!” at the end, as if it were a great shame not to beat all the real sprinters at their own game. I watched this a number of times because I needed to confirm he really said this. (“Fuck” is not his native tongue, of course. Being Slovenian he should have yelled “hudiča!” though that would be more cumbersome.) Notably, Roglic lost yesterday to Magnus Cort (EF Pro Cycling) who recovered from COVID just a few weeks before the Vuelta started. I know this sounds like the kind of crap I would make up, but it’s actually true. Click here for details.

As the riders approach the base of the penultimate climb, it’s starting to rain. Good, good. I want this to be epic!

So yeah, Carapaz is only 45 seconds back, and is a damn good climber. He’s also a very aggressive rider, as we saw during last year’s Giro d’Italia, which he won handily (despite starting as a domestique for the always-disappointing Mikel Landa), having impressively soloed to a mountain stage win in the process. Carapaz’s Ineos team kind of sucks right now (which warms my heart) but he can’t be counted out. Could Roglic falter today? Wouldn’t be the first time.

The announcers are talking about the riders’ shoes. Insoles, to be precise. So you know you’re not missing anything as I ramble on about the current GC.

Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling) sits third on GC only eight seconds behind Carapaz, and has been named the strongest rider in the race by no less an authority than Alberto Contador. Carthy won the queen stage this year, on the famous Alto  de l’Angliru climb. (Don’t worry, the announcers are talking about a church right now, where, they say, two bored nuns invented the bikini—no they didn’t—so you’re still not missing anything.) If you want to see a thrilling stage, go back and watch that one (it’s Stage 12, from last Sunday). Roglic faded that day, and Carapaz tried to do maximum damage, but Roglic’s stalwart teammate, the American Sepp Kuss, did an amazing job of pacing Roglic and helped him minimize his losses.

The announcers are talking about pedal systems so there’s still nothing to report, so I’ll alert you to a great tale from years past, that being my own coverage of the Angliru stage of the 2013 Vuelta. That was an amazing stage, the penultimate test of that year’s Vuelta. I reread it last year just before getting to do a fundraising ride with Chris Horner, the winner of that Vuelta. I wanted to be able to recount that stage if I happened to have the chance to chat with Horner during the ride. Amazingly, I did … in fact, he gave me the whole story as we rode up Wildcat Canyon. Talk about a biased blow-by-blow! It was great. I told him, “I always kind of liked Nibali,” to which he replied, “Oh, he’s an asshole!”

Movistar is on the front, driving the pace to set up their leader, Enric Mas, who sits fifth on GC, 3:29 down. Mas is very good, and is rocking the white best young rider’s jersey (as he did in the Tour, IIRC), but he had a fairly lousy time trial.

Marc Soler (Movistar Team) attacks! Why would he, with a teammate to support? Well, he has a history of this. I guess so long as he doesn’t drag anyone with him, it’s fine … a second stage win for him would be a bigger deal than Mas taking fifth on GC.

I guess I should mention there’s a breakaway. It has only 1:15, down from over three minutes when I started watching, so it’s not likely to stay off. Speaking of doomed efforts, twice a Deceuninck-Quick Step rider has tried to solo in a stage in this Vuelta, only to be caught with like 2 km to go. Yesterday it was Remi Cavagna … pretty heartbreaking to watch.

You know it’s a cold day because Soler is sporting full leg warmers and arm warmers. You almost never see that despite the guys’ single-digit body fat.

Soler’s numbers are colored red. I reckon that’s due to his team leading the overall.

One clever thing about Soler’s attack is that it takes the burden off Movistar to do any pacemaking. Of course, that burden was Movistar’s own choice anyway. Now Jumbo-Visma dutifully takes up the chase.

Soler’s teammate Imanol Erviti, who’s been up in the breakaway, comes back to help him. Classic move, nicely played.

With 24 km to go, the riders finish the Alto de la Garganta and descend toward the final climb.

Now the breakaway hits the climb. Mark Donovan (Sunweb) attacks as they hammer up the cobblestone street.

What an awesome, narrow little road. This climb would be hard enough without the riders’ world being pixellated!

Interestingly, the breakaway’s gap is going up with 16 km to go. It’s at about 2:30 now.

The upcoming Alta de la Covatilla is pretty tough: a 7.1% average grade, with ramps of 10 to 12% for 3 km straight. Wouldn’t it be funny if I screwed up and called it the Col de la Covitalla? Because that would mean “the cabbage of the Covatilla.” Yeah, you’re right. That wouldn’t actually be that funny.

The breakaway is very large and their gap is up to 3:09. This is a bit annoying because now I have to try to figure out who they all are. I’ll give you the first three: Ion Izagirre (Astana Pro), Gino Mäder (NTT Pro Cycling), and Donovan. They have a 39 second gap to the rest of the break.

Here’s Izagirre. He looks suitably badass.

Back in the GC group, Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) detonates. He’s supposed to be helping his teammate David de la Cruz, who sits tenth on GC, but clearly Costa doesn’t have the minerals today. On top of that, he was relegated to last place in the lead group yesterday for a dangerous sprint. Maybe that demoralized him. Should we care, with 9.5 million Americans falling victim to the coronavirus? Probably not.

As the GC group begins the final climb in earnest, Carapaz doesn’t have a single teammate left. What happened to Ineos? Did their medic quit in a huff? Did they have supply chain problems getting their “marginal gains” products? Who knows, and who cares. By the way, as far as doping, I’ll give Carapaz the benefit of the doubt at this point. He only just joined the team this year.

With only 7 km to go, it’s clear the GC group doesn’t care about the breakaway. Jumbo-Visma is just watching Carapaz, hoping he doesn’t have the ability to attack. Everybody is pretty blown of course, after 15 stages. Sam Bennett and Kuss set the pace for their Jumbo-Visma leader.

Up in the break, Izagirre attacks!

Mäder is able to react, but Soler is shelled! Now it’s just between these two.

Back in the group, you know the hammer has gone down because the riders are all stretched out. Ide Schelling (Bora-Honsgrohe) is on the front with Jumbo-Visma still vigilant.

Plot twist! Donovan has made his way back to the leaders and now goes right to the front.

In the GC group, Schelling continues to hammer on the front.

The fog gets thicker as Izagirre makes his way, suddenly solo. When did that happen?

No sign of anything from Carapaz. Perhaps he’s just knackered.

Crazy! Up in the break, David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) has come out of nowhere, caught Izagirre, and now attacks!

Gaudu quickly gets a gap!

And now, back in the GC group, Carthy attacks!

Carapaz (in the green points leader’s jersey, on loan from Roglic) is right on Carthy! The cameraman is so excited he’s trembling and can’t hold the camera still, so the picture is all blurry!

Kuss looks like he’s in trouble! Roglic has to chase the attack down himself!

Now Mas attacks but Carapaz is right on him! This group is dwindling fast.

And here it is—Carapaz attacks! Roglic has nobody to help him! He chases, but the gap immediately goes up! Carapaz is aided by the blinding sunlight, diffused as it is by the mist!

It’s head-down time for Carapaz! The camera guy is so fired up, he continues to shake! Maybe he needs a cigarette! Maybe he’s got the delirium tremens!

Mas fades and it’s all up to Roglic now!

Carapaz suddenly has 21 seconds! He’s totally drilling it! He’s halfway to closing up the GC gap and winning the Vuelta!

The grade eases and Carapaz is in full TT mode!

Suddenly Roglic has a teammate. It’s Lennard Hofstede. Wow, he really got his ass in gear and now might just save this Vuelta for Roglic.

Carapaz passes some guys from the break. He’s crushing it! And yet, without a steep climb at his disposal, his gap over Roglic is bound to shrink.

At the front, Gaudu is still solo. I think he’s got this, unless he has a headwind or something. Note the windmills in the background.

Carapaz has 25 seconds. Remember, he needs 45.

Gaudu takes the stage win!

It’s really unfortunate that he did the cheesy make-a-heart victory salute. He’ll probably regret that later, when the euphoria of the stage win (his second in this Vuelta) has worn off.

Now Carapaz is at the 1 km kite. But his lead has dwindled to only 19 seconds.

Second and third are taken by breakaway riders, so there are no more time bonuses.

Carthy heads for the line solo, giving it everything, in his bid to move up on GC. He must be thinking of the 8-second deficit he started the day with, not the greater deficit that now exists due to Carapaz’s big attack. I can’t blame Carthy for getting confused … it’s been a long Vuelta. If I were in his shoes, I’d probably get so confused I’d ride in the wrong direction entirely and have a head-on collision with somebody.

Carapaz hits the finish line, and it looks like he won’t have a big enough gap! Still, it’s impressive he made the attack, despite having no teammates on the final climb and probably being a bit wappered.

And now Roglic is solo, giving it everything, looking a bit silly with his bright yellow arm warmers but nonetheless defending his Vuelta with aplomb.

Roglic approaches the finish line, with plenty of time left. But suddenly there’s another rider, some Astana guy, trying to beat him to the line! But the Astana guy is going the wrong way! He’s heading for the wrong end zone! What the hell is he thinking?! And now he’s pulled his foot out of the pedal! He’s a disaster!

All is well. Roglic’s catlike reflexes carried the day. Turns out the Astana guy just wanted to be the first to shake Roglic’s hand.

They’re interviewing Gaudu, the stage winner. The interviewer asks him something in Spanish, probably some version of “How’d it go?” The probable language barrier doesn’t seem to matter because Gaudu just starts spewing—I mean, he’s just talking up a storm, doesn’t need any prompts. He’s like the opposite of Roglic. Unfortunately, it’s all in French, and despite having studied this cryptic language for years, I can’t quite keep up. Here’s my best effort:

“I’d like to thank my teammates because that’s kind of, like, required. Also, I want  to apologize for that stupid make-a-heart-shape victory salute. I don’t know what got into me. In the moment you just get emotional, you know? See, I woke up this morning and I said to myself, the cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness, so today has to be my day, my soul’s escaping through this hole that is gaping,  this world is mine for the taking, make me king, as we move toward a New World Order, a normal life is boring, and I’m sorry—did you say something?”

Here’s Roglic on the podium, having valiantly defended his GC lead today.

And now here is the stage result:

Here is the (almost) final GC (heading into the final, nothing sprinters’ stage tomorrow):

Now they’re interviewing Enric Mas, who consolidated his 5th overall today along with the Best Young Rider jersey. “Would you like to do this in English or Spanish?” the reporter asks. “Oh, English is fine,” Mas says. “I’m working on my English. Today I tackle the hypothetical subjunctive: I would have liked to have had a better day today and perhaps make the podium.” Wow, he nailed it! Unfortunately, the cameraman seems to have abruptly bailed so we don’t get to hear any mo.’ No Más.

And now, finally, they’ve found Roglic, who had gotten lost in one of the changing rooms, to interview him. “It is very nice to defend my lead today,” he says, and then suddenly I can’t hear anything else because he’s drowned out by a sudden burst of noise from a bunch of fans’ vuvuzelas. It’s crazy, they just came out of nowhere, and there’s also the clanging of a bunch of pots and pans being banged together. It goes on and on. And oddly enough, the sound isn’t coming from my laptop, but from outside my house. Something is going on right here, in my neighborhood. Oh, I’ll bet it’s about the election! In fact—I gotta go!


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