Friday, September 30, 2022

From the Archives - Book Review: Bill Bryson’s “Lost Continent”


Did I really write a book review, for practically no audience, all the way back in 1994? Yes, I just now stumbled across it. This review was within a letter to my brother, who’d recommended Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America. You might as well read my review; it’s really more about dining out in small towns than it is about helping you decide whether to read Lost Continent.

Book Review: The Lost Continent – January 10, 1994

I must say, that Bryson fellow has a sharp sense of humor and a keen eye for detail. I especially like his made-up town names: Draino, Indiana; Tapwater, Missouri. And his mockery of American products: Hunk o’ Meat Beef Stew ‘n’ Gravy; Sniffa-Snax; Country Sunshine Honey-Toasted Wheat Nut ‘n’ Sugar Bits Breakfast Cereal. It’s an easy book to get in and out of, since it rambles along playfully without any complicated structure. I read it eagerly during my recent trip to Oregon, and then at the Amtrak station while waiting for my train, and then while the train was delayed.

Well, I’m almost done with the book now, and upon careful consideration I must conclude that as far as I can tell, Bryson has not given America a fair shake. After a while his clever critiques became tiresome, cranky complaints that I didn’t need to hear. My moment of epiphany came when I read his description of Wells, Nevada: 

              I spent the night in Wells, Nevada, the sorriest, seediest, most raggedy-assed town I’ve ever seen. Most of the streets were unpaved and lined with battered-looking trailer homes … Such economic life as Wells could muster came from the passing traffic of I-80 … I turned up my collar and trudged the half-mile from the town proper to the interstate junction with US 93, where the most prosperous-looking truck stops were gathered, forming an oasis of brightness in the pinkish dusk.

              I went into what I looked to be the best of them, the 4-Way Café, which I gather took its name from the fact that it consisted of a gift shop, restaurant, casino and bar … It was absolutely, in my opinion, the worst food I have ever had in America, at any time, under any circumstances, and that includes hospital food, gas station food and airport coffee shop food … I pushed the plate away and wished that I still smoked. The waitress, seeing how much I had left, asked me if I wanted a doggy bag.

              “No thank you,” I said through a thin smile, “I don’t believe I could find a dog that would eat it.”

I did get a chuckle out of that, but then realized, wait, I’ve been to Wells, Nevada, recently, and had a totally different experience.

It was the summer of 1991, when I was driving out to Boulder with a friend of a friend. We stopped for the night, got rooms at the Motel 6, and relaxed for a while before setting out to find a worthy restaurant. The motel was about like all Motel 6’s everywhere: clean, perhaps a bit too air conditioned for its own good, but generally a fair bit nicer than many of the apartments I’ve lived in. Scoping out the town didn’t take too long. We even went to the 4-Way Café, which as Bryson reported was a conglomerate of gift shop, restaurant, casino, and bar. But we never even considered eating there; it was clearly not even an option. Nothing obvious about it tipped us off as a lousy place; it just seemed lacking in whatever local flavor a café in Wells, Nevada could have. Wouldn’t anyone rather go to a place that’s only a restaurant? Have you ever encountered a gift shop or casino that appealed in any way?

We found a more promising little café not far away, right next to the visitor’s center. Now here’s something interesting: this so-called “raggedy-ass town” actually had a visitor’s center. It wasn’t a commercial operation, but more like a tiny museum of whatever heritage Wells happened to have. Free coffee, a cheerful docent, etc. Would the sorriest, raggedy-assed town in America have a visitor’s center?

The café we went to also seemed to try harder than it really needed to. It wasn’t overbearing or self-important, mind you; not like Zachary’s Pizza, which has all its awards framed and on display. But the mop-topped glasses-faced kid behind the counter was friendly, and looked at us intently, maybe trying to figure out where we came from and what brought us to Wells.

My philosophy about eating in strange towns, or even at strange restaurants in general, has just two basic tenets:

  • Stick with simple stuff. It’s hard to ruin a big steak or hamburger. Grilled ahi tuna 800 miles from the nearest ocean, cooked by someone who’s never had a chance to try the genuine article, is not a good bet.
  • Ask the restaurant staff what they recommend. If there’s a loss-leader on the menu, they’ll usually steer you away from it. And if you can spot actual enthusiasm about a dish, you know you can’t go wrong.
  • [For my more modern guide to spotting bad restaurants, click here.]

My rules for dining out are not nearly as humorous as Bill Bryson’s [which include prohibitions against photographs of the food, flocked wallpaper, live entertainers, bloodstains on the walls, or staff you can overhear talking in the kitchen]. My rules, though, may be a bit more practical. I asked the teenager behind the counter what he thought was the best thing on the menu. He broke into this wide Ritchie Cunningham grin, and with a little gleam in his eye, declared without a hint of hesitation, “The Super-Deluxe burger. With fries. Oh yeah.” It was just like when a customer at the bike shop asks me to tell him about my bike.

The kid did not steer me wrong. I love a good burger anyway, but the whole time I was eating it I was envisioning this guy back in the kitchen, inspired by my order to make a Super Deluxe for himself. He’s smashing down the patty with his little steel spatula, almost in tears, murmuring to it, “Oh, yeah, that’s it, boy, that’s my half-pound of grade-A American beef, oh, and let’s grill those onions!” He does a little spin, maybe, then flips that patty over with the skilled flick of the wrist that has become his trademark, and he can just envision the delectable grease slowly soaking into the sesame-seed bun.

This is my memory of Wells, Nevada. I remember it was late in the afternoon, but still sunny, and nothing struck me as unpleasant in the slightest. Granted, I wasn’t expecting the earth to move for me; I was just glad to get out of the car and have some food and get some rest. When I read Bryson’s account of Wells, an unsettling question crept up on me: what would that teenager at the café think, reading about the “sorriest, seediest, most raggedy-assed town” our critic had ever seen? Would this guy go on thinking it’s even worth bothering trying to do right by snooty tourists? Does Bryson assume the citizens of Wells are all illiterate?

Reading this book, I am frequently reminded of Peter Jenkins’ travel book, A Walk Across America. Jenkins isn’t as funny as Bryson, to be sure. In fact, he admits in the first chapter that prior to writing the book, he had no idea how to construct a sentence. But it was enjoyable reading, anyway, and the author wasn’t so cynical. And yet, didn’t these guys tour the same country? How much of what they reported was based on what they’d hoped to find? Jenkins said his whole purpose in walking was to find out, as he hoped, that he was wrong to be ashamed of America. Bryson, on the other hand, seemed intent on proving beyond reasonable doubt that this country is going to hell in a handbasket (whatever that means).

The two writers’ methods are quite different. I saw Jenkins give a lecture once, and found him really charismatic. As you can read about in his books, he talks to people wherever he goes; lived with various folks here and there along the way; and even did his best to fit in at the cult-like commune called “The Farm.” He’s a real people-person.

Bryson seems like the opposite. He’s seems like kind of a loner, who doesn’t recall much dialogue other than brief exchanges with service-sector people whom he seems to always conclude are incompetent. His modus operandi is to drive from one tourist trap to another, silently build his case against the stupid tourists there, get back in his car, and drive on. The only distinguishing feature that separates him from his fellow tourists is that he takes mental notes and contrives clever ways to deride them later, while the tourists just putter around, buy souvenirs, and quite possibly enjoy themselves.

I also have to wonder if Bryson doesn’t actually look for trouble, in the service of his art. Maybe he chose the 4-Way Café because he predicted it’d be lame, which would give him a cleverer story than my admittedly sentimental, cloying one. I also suspect Bryson exaggerates a bit, and possibly even fabricates details. Consider this passage, about another place he ate at:

I was the only customer in the restaurant. I was quite clearly the only thing standing between the waitresses and their going home … The waitresses stood against the wall and watched me chew my food. After a while they started whispering and tittering, still watching me as they did so, which frankly I found a trifle unsettling. I may only have imagined it, but I also had the distinct impression that someone was little by little turning a dimmer switch so that the light in the room was gradually disappearing. By the end of my meal I was finding my food more or less by touch and occasionally by lowering my head to the plate and sniffing. Before I was quite finished, when I just paused for a moment to grope for my glass of iced water somewhere in the gloom beyond the flickering candle, my waitress whipped the plate away and put down my bill.

That’s definitely some funny shit, but I’m not sure I believe it. Consider Bryson’s qualifier, “I may have only imagined it,” about the dimmer switch. If what follows had actually happened, he would have no doubt that a dimmer switch was involved. If not, what could possibly account for the room getting so dark? I think he introduced this idea of a gradually darkening room on a lark, and developed it for maximum comedic effect without worrying too much about veracity. I could be wrong about this, of course, but at least my theory would help explain why nothing like this ever happened to Peter Jenkins, or to me.

When you really stop and think, in fact, the whole premise of this man’s book is absurd. What we have here is an expatriate, coming back for a visit in order to write a book about the place he has forsaken. When he describes towns like Wells, it’s like he’s run his experience through a filter of disgust and complaint. I almost wonder if he’s being careful not to enjoy himself too much here, so he won’t have any regret when he returns to England. If that’s true, perhaps we might conclude he’s more of an anti-travel writer than anything.

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Saturday, September 24, 2022

Biketronics II


This post is not about e-bikes (i.e., battery-assisted bicycles). I have a lot to say on that topic, actually, but that’s for another day. This also isn’t about electronic shifting; I cover that here and here. This post is about bike computers.

More than twelve years ago in these pages, I posted Biketronics, a survey of these handlebar-mounted computers (and related technologies like heart rate monitors, power meters, etc.). That was a surprisingly popular post. So, having recently purchased the fanciest (and perhaps wackiest) of these devices I’ve ever had, a Sigma Sport Rox 4.0 with GPS capabilities, I figured we could go another round. My every instinct tells me this is a terrible topic and that nobody could possibly be interested, but then I’ve been wrong before. (For example, my post on the spelling of “kindergartner” is now one of my most popular of all time.) So here we go. I’ll throw some totally unrelated gags in here and there just in case your interest flags.

By the way, a lot has changed since my original Biketronics post. Back then, of the fifty-two cycling pals I surveyed, only five were using GPS-equipped devices. Now virtually all my friends have GPS. So I’ll devote some focus to that.

Who even uses Sigma Sport?

Nobody uses Sigma Sport bike computers, at least in this country. I literally don’t know a soul who has one, except one guy in Germany. I had to order mine from some outfit in Spain. So why did I choose Sigma Sport? Well, Garmins are too popular, same with Wagoo or Wayco or Woohoo or whatever that other popular brand is. I don’t want to be like everyone else. Besides, I’m a cheap bastard, and all the modern GPS-enabled models are at least a couple hundred bucks. No thanks.

Besides, look at the loads of features you get with the Rox 4.0:

Sure, lots of modern bike computers have power meters built in, but how many have pierced earrings? You might say “plenty,” but you’re not paying attention: pierced ears are popular, but pierced earrings? Those are hard to come by. And I love the existential air of “protective seals removed and cannot be.” These seals, these seals … they cannot be!

I also wanted a Sigma Sport because my old one served me well. It looked outdated the day I bought it, and certainly had its quirks, but it featured a groovy lap timer that would enable me to easily see the time, distance, and heart rate of my favorite climbs after the fact. Alas, the plastic bits enabling that computer to snap into the handlebar mount started to wear out to the point that I had to rubber-band it in place.

That wasn’t foolproof either so eventually I epoxied it to the mount, meaning once the battery dies I’m probably screwed—plus I can’t move it from bike to bike. So I wasn’t in a hurry to replace the computer, but it needed to be done.

I sense your interest waning—I know mine is—so here are a few good names for a rock band:

Duck Husband

Repetitive Stress Disorder

Nipple Confusion

Loofa Harvest

Good thing I wasn’t in a rush, because the new computer took forever to arrive. Tracking the shipment online was like trying to measure continental drift. It made its way across Europe in not much more than a week, but then was stuck in the Netherlands for twelve days. I emailed support and the retailer wrote, in an incredibly long, mostly boilerplate email, “Your parcel is currently on its way and it is due to be delivered to you very soon… Based on our experience, Customs can take between 15-60 days to unblock your parcel and proceed with delivery.”

Rox 4.0 documentation

I never did manage to find a complete list of specifications for this computer, even on the Sigma Sport website, so I guess I can’t complain that it didn’t come with a complete owner’s manual either. There was a nice thick booklet, but it’s only thick because it’s in ten languages, including Czechoslovakian and Polish. (I guess I should be grateful English is even among them.) The manual is actually just a “quick guide,” with a QR code for the “detailed instructions” web page which is mostly just little videos that cover only what is in the quick guide. There are no instructions anywhere, for example, on how to sync the computer to the heart rate monitor strap.

Here’s an example of the quick guide quirkiness:

“Active” and “Auto-Pause” aren’t actually defined. You start a workout by pressing the big button, and stop it the same way, and there’s actually a way to tell the state (running vs. stopped) on the screen—but the instructions don’t tell you what it is! And why are these “most important settings” anything you’d want to mess with during training? Think about it: you’re in the middle of a workout, hopefully not in the middle of a fast descent, and suddenly you think, “I need to calibrate the altimeter!” Why would you think this? And, if you wanted to manually set the altitude, how would you even know what altitude you’re at, other than to check the altimeter that’s right in front of you? Okay, maybe you’ve reached an elevation sign, but a) are those really common enough to make this among the most important settings, and b) why would you trust the sign, which is after all placed wherever it’s convenient to dig a hole, over a device that auto-calibrates itself via GPS, with an easy way to true itself up? It makes no sense.

First ride

I set out on the first ride with the new computer without having messed with the display settings. The display is highly configurable, which is pretty cool, but of the thirty touted functions, not all can be included in your configuration. That is, you have to choose your favorites. I figured while I was getting my feet wet, I’d just go with the factory configuration. I didn’t have any heart rate data because I searched too long in vain to learn how to set that up and was running out of daylight.

The first thing I noticed was a compass, which is nifty but totally needless because I seldom journey anywhere. There was also this weird directional arrow that seemed to point around randomly. Descending Wildcat Canyon Road, I noticed my speed fluctuating quite a bit, which you’d expect with GPS due to the satellite signal being blocked by tree cover, etc., but I had paid extra for the wheel sensor, so this shouldn’t have happened. Kind of annoying, but whatever … I was enjoying the big bold letters on the display, anyway.

But then, about ten miles into my ride, I noticed the mileage only read five miles. WTF?! Was this thing a total piece of crap, unable to actually measure distance? But the duration looked correct, and the speed (other than the occasional fluctuations) also looked about right, so it wasn’t totally whacked. But then things got even weirder. My confusion became outright bewilderment when the mileage number actually started dropping.

You’re probably just dying to learn the solution to this paradox, but I’m going to interrupt this post with a proposed title for a country & western song:

No one wears a mullet anymore

Two-thirds of my way through the ride, the mileage number was lower than ever, and it just dropped the whole rest of the way. By now you’ve surely figured this out, as I finally did too. The hypothesis I formed a few miles from home proved correct as I rolled down my street and the numbers went from fractions of a mile to matter of feet, and reached almost zero when I hit the driveway. That’s right, the device was showing my distance from home (presumably as the crow flies). So the accuracy was not an issue … but what a weird thing to want to display on your computer. I’m still scratching my head on that one.

The phone app & sharing

My old Sigma Sport uploaded its ride files to my phone over NFC (near-field communication) which was kind of a manual process and took a little while. The new one uses BLE (Bluetooth low-energy) and is swift and automatic. Look at the pretty display of my ride today:

I can share the ride, in Strava-like detail, via a URL to a (presumably) private website, with a much larger map, and I can drag my mouse along the graphs and such. (The units shown here are, alas, metric but I’ve already figured out how to fix that.)

I even figured out how to export these rides into a format that my old Sigma Data Center software can import, so I can still have an unbroken record of my rides going back years. And I think I’ve mastered the various features of this thing (other than integration with komoot, which I may never need).

And now it’s time for a few more rock band names:

Pack Shrapnel

Clear Rectal Discharge

The Harried Parents

Dark Yarn

Now that the Android app and PC software are dialed in, and I know how to operate the computer, the only remaining problem is…

The speed & mileage mystery

I’ve got this fancy sensor mounted on my hub to provide “even greater accuracy,” so why do all the totals for my standard loop come out low? And why does my reported speed suddenly drop from 28 to 14 mph and then pop up to 32? I decided to query my bike team, to see if they have this issue, and if it’s even worth having that sensor on there (since it’s kind of ugly).

Right away, I received replies from six teammates. Two of them actually answered the question (short answer: no difference between GPS and sensor measurement), and the others provided a variety of interesting tidbits:

  • The mph display often lags (jumps) while under tree cover, as does the elevation gain/loss. Piece of shit
  • The device connects with a satellite. The choice of satellite affects the data. The device usually has a Satellite setting. Galileo is US satellites. GLANOSS is Russian satellites. If you set your device to choose both then supposedly you’ll get more accurate data. (There may be a third set of satellites available now, too.) If you ride a lot in one location, then travel  (like if you ride from Oakland every day then one day start in Sacramento or France) this can confuse the device. The solution is to find the necessary obscure setting and leave it outside for a specified length of time. (Read the instructions. You’re on your own.) The device works better facing certain directions, like north, I think. Something to do with astronomy.
  • Dana if you get on Strava all your problems will disappear Do it! Do it! Do it!
  • GPS based measurements aren’t perfect. Absolute GPS accuracy is typically in the 5-10 meter range for consumer devices, so the GPS measurement is typically combined with an inertial measurement unit (IMU), which gives accelerations and rate of rotations that are then integrated to get linear and angular velocities using a Kalman filter. This also means that if the GPS signal is degraded due to building or tree, your velocity doesn’t suddenly read zero. Since the IMU in consumer devices generally sucks, it’s not going to be perfect.

Wow, that’s a lot to digest. I for one am not interested in having the Russian government tracking my movements, and I’m not sure which device (the bike computer or my phone) is doing the actual GPS work and would have the necessary obscure calibration setting to true it up. I’m sure I don’t want to start doing northbound-only rides and coming back on a bus or something. Above all else, I think it’s time for some more cool rock band names:

The Incestuous Mollies

The Quasi-Vegans

Leap Smear

Hard Floor Tool

Getting back to my teammates’ feedback, I reckon that the hub-mounted sensor I’m using is indeed the highly sophisticated IMU described, and it’s just not engineered well enough to be that accurate … which is a bit of a shame, since the old-school ones, which had a magnet attached to a spoke that passed by a sensor that counted the wheel rotations, was utterly simple and infallible. Perhaps part of my problem is that I’ve mounted this IMU on the rear hub (so I don’t have to look at it). I have just discovered (via a video buried within its website) that Sigma Sport recommends front hub mounting for “optimum reception.” Is it worth moving it, or do I ditch it entirely? That brings me to my next question.

Does any of this matter?

My friend Craig, who wrote about the IMU, went on to say:

Of course, you never precisely defined what you’re trying to measure. Do you want to know how far the tire patch of your front tire travelled? Or, do you care more about your rear tire patch? Even a rider trying to go in a straight line makes micro adjustments while pedaling, so the front tire travels ~0.25% farther! The more you turn, the greater the difference between the front and rear tire path will be. Or, perhaps you care more about your center of gravity? In that case, every time you rail a corner, your center of gravity takes a route that might be ~1% less (depending on the radius of the turn and your lean) than your rear tire patch. Of course, does it matter? Did you do less work because your new device showed that your ride was 2% shorter?

I think he’s being diplomatic here; the more direct version of his question might be, “Who cares what your mileage and speed are when the bigger question is, when are you going to start training harder so you don’t fall off my wheel when I’m trying to be nice and drag you through a headwind?” And he would have a point.

The answer is, at least in the short term, I want credit for every last foot of my rides because I’m doing a friendly competition called Cycle Around the Globe to raise awareness around the problem of suicide, and to engage in the collaborative effort to help prevent it. (My personal fundraising page is here.) Currently I’m sitting in 15th place with 540 kilometers ridden, though the leader has 14,000 kilometers, which he achieved in a single ride … so I’m guessing he’s not using a consumer-grade IMU. In fact, I think he’s even worse than those mopeds and e-bikes on Strava … he’s just making shit up. But for a good cause!

Lap timer

Alas, there is no lap timer on the Rox 4.0 (even though this very basic feature is available on a $14 Casio watch). I think I know why: the vast majority of cyclists are on Strava, which tells them their time on any segment they could want, automatically. But no, I won’t join Strava. That kind of thing’s not my bag.

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Saturday, September 17, 2022

Wine Tasting - Castello di Amorosa


Oh, shit! I just realized I’ve got only 45 minutes to write up my freelance article for Wine Spectator magazine, about my visit to the Castello di Amorosa winery! I better get right to it.

Wine Tasting  – Castello di Amorosa

The environs

The site of the winery, or terroir in viticulture parlance, is quite extravagant, almost exquisite. The castle is so imposing, I have to wonder if our military has an arrangement in place to appropriate the property in the case of an attack. It’s kind of hard to believe that all that goes on in this mighty fortress is the production, tasting, and sale of wine. Oddly, the grapevines themselves are virtually unprotected and in fact during our visit several goats escaped and started chowing down on them! Fortunately, stone walls are not the only protection: the castle turrets have arrowslits, aka balistraria, which are those tall slots that an archer can shoot arrows through. Or, a crossbowman can launch bolts through them. How badass is that? So let’s say I’m not even tempted to return under dark of night to steal grapes from this place. Besides, they just finished their harvest.

(Note: I’ve just been advised, by someone reading over my shoulder, that terroir has nothing to do with territory and in fact pertains to the combination of soil, climate, etc. that influences the character of a fine wine. Yes, I’m embarrassed. But honestly, that sentence reads so well, I’m going to leave it.)

You might be wondering if there’s a moat. Hell yeah there is! It doesn’t look very deep, nor are there crocodiles, but who knows … maybe it has piranhas? Or maybe there’s an underwater cage of piranhas they can release on command, if anyone storms the moat? That would be so cool. Now, no moat would be complete without a drawbridge … so does this Castello have one? Yes! I’m not sure if it’s operational, though. The brochure says, “The heavy iron chains would be used to raise the drawbridge to prevent marauders from entering through the main entrance.” Well, yeah … it’s not like it’d keep marauders from coming through the side entrance. Or from doing something other than entering. But what really bothers me about that sentence is that the verb is in the hypothetical subjunctive, “would be used...” There’s such a whiff of “never” about that. How about “The heavy iron chains can be used…”? Or, since we all grasp the concept, how about just saying “the drawbridge totally works”?

So, does the castle live up to its reputation as “a magical place which will transport you to medieval Italy”? I can’t say for sure, since I’ve never been to Italy, but at a minimum the Castello transported me to modern Anaheim, home of Disneyland. But in a good way.

The tasting room is down a flight of stone steps. My party had been warned that it’s a cave and can be quite chilly, but in fact a) it’s not a cave, and b) it’s not chilly. Could my daughter have confused the Castello with some other winery she researched? Easily. The brick ceilings are hand-built which seems remarkable unless you consider the alternative: robot-built? Is that even a thing? The arches are impressively vaulted, if that makes any sense. The bars are travertine stone and present an impressive and quite functional surface on which to place glasses of wine and fill out our tasting forms. I’ll bet you could hand-mix ice cream or fudge on this bar, like at those tourist places. Or you could lay out a corpse on the stone surface. It’s like marble.

Here I am filling out my tasting form.

That’s not my purse, by the way. I don’t carry a purse. (It’s not that a purse would compromise my masculine dignity; I could totally carry it off. I just don’t happen to desire one. If I did though, it would be soft kid leather like the one you see here.)

White wines

Castello wines are sold only at the winery. I’m sure the vintner is tempted to say, “Not sold in stores!” but that phrase has such a strong association with the QVC network and/or Ginsu steak knives, it cannot be uttered. But it’s true: you cannot buy this Castello di Amorosa wine at any restaurant or store. So what happens if you’re entertaining late and run out of wine? Perhaps that is where the fortress, with its moat and drawbridge, come in to play. Don’t even try it.

During our tasting we were cared for by Elisa, who is new to the Castello, having just arrived from Italy. She spoke with a charming Italian accent, as in “We-a will-a start-a with-a the white-a wines-a and-a work-a our way-a down.” Come to think of it, it’s possible her name is Elise, and it just sounded like Elisa. (Full disclosure: as I mentioned before, I’ve never been to Italy, so it’s possible she’s not Italian at all and has just mastered a fake Italian accent. If so, she-a had-a me fooled!)

Pinot Grigio

At Castello the Pinot Grigio is vintned with a young Malvasia grape. (An old grape would be a raisin, from which wine cannot be reliably produced.) This being an Italian style wine, it is more acidic than a traditional American wine such as Thunderbird, or a soft drink like Kool-Aid. The fragrance, or nose, is beguiling, almost coquettish, with hints of come-hither. The taste is light and frisky, almost meretricious, like the sassy tongue of a young prostitute. Overall I find the wine very sippable. I cannot say whether it would be quaffable or guzzle-able since I was given only about an ounce. (The exact tasting amount is unknown, because Elisa knows only the metric system and I was too enthralled with the terroir to calculate the conversion.)


The Traminer grapes producing this varietal are notoriously difficult to grow, given their unstable genome, especially in Napa County, where the climate is a bit hot for them. As a result, the young grapes are often exposed to routine profanity and even abuse at the hands of frustrated growers. This results in traumatized grapes and a final product that’s easily the most hard-bitten bad-boy of whites I’ve ever sampled. The wine is initially sharp on the palate with notes of anguish (or agnosia in wine parlance) but tamped down by subtle hints of musk, lychee, and leach. The flavor starts out rather boldly and strongly, like a German with a megaphone, but then softens and dissipates like evaporating solvent and ultimately resolves into a graceful waft of gingerbread nostalgia as it rolls past your lingual frenulum.


The breadsticks come lovingly wrapped in a form-fitting plastic bag, suggestive of both high density polyethylene and old-school cellophane. Presentation is in a simple glass, and I had the small thrill of tearing into the bag myself. The sticks are long and pale, like a British rocker’s slender fingers, but the flavor is pure Tuscany, with tones of airy sifted flour and extra virgin olive oil. The finish is salty, like a good sea shanty, and left me yearning for more wine, ideally right out of the spigot like how I used to get it in my childhood home.

Red wines

The reds are justifiably famous at the Castello, earning a loyal following among wine aficionados and culinary epicures, along with a begrudging but undeniable sense of street cred. Two of the reds on offer for the tasting have won awards from the SFC, which (I admit, I had to look this up) stands for Sucka Free City, i.e., San Francisco. Imagine all those ballers from the Western Addition or the Mission district rolling up to the castle in their low-riders or souped-up Acuras with aftermarket spoilers, subwoofers booming. “Don’t gimme no Clos du Bois, we don’t swill that shit in tha SFC.”

Pinot Noir

After much hemming and hawing, I settled on the Pinot Noir Morning Dew, known among local tech millionaires as a perfect breakfast wine and a nice replacement for their beloved Mountain Dew, now that they’ve graduated from coding in the garage to grandstanding in the boardroom. The flavor awakens the tongue with all the sharpness and clarity of a modern OLED digital display, accompanied by the bold stride of berry and accented with a tannic spice reminiscent of silicon. For all its cutting edge spine, though, there’s a reassuring coziness to the mouth-feel: a tongue-numbing cloak of gentle clove, summoning wistful affection for one’s youth, such as one might experience stumbling across a Microsoft Encarta CD-ROM at a yard sale.

Cabernet Sauvignon

It is said a winery can be fairly judged by its cab, and the Castello’s has plenty of swagger, with a flavor-forward bite that electrifies the tongue. The zesty tones of pepper grinder, like those very long wooden grinders favored by fancy restaurants, put you on notice just before the strong-armed tannins kick in. This is a big proud cab that quickens your pulse. If you met this wine in a bar it would challenge you to punch it in the stomach as hard as you can … but you won’t find it in a bar because, again, Castello di Amorosa is available only right here at the castle!

Sweet wines

If you travel widely among the many wineries in Napa and Sonoma, you’ll start to realize the age cohort is edging upward. Let’s face it, with the global ascension of California wines driving up prices, the only people who can afford it are those who’ve broken the backs of their home mortgages and whose 401(k)s are well into seven figures. There’s a reason Tesla charging stations dot the Napa landscape: these people are as foggy and forgetful as they are rich. So what is the industry to do, as its ageing patrons gradually die off? The Castello has taken a page from the cannabis gummy playbook and is clearly courting the younger set with a nice array of unapologetically sweet dessert wines. Think Hawaiian Punch or Hi-C, but with legs—and plenty of alcohol.


After being pushed around so much by the Cab, I needed a friend—so when I saw the word Simpatica I was hooked right in. But I hesitated because this was last wine I’d get to taste. Would I be selling myself short by skipping the Moscato? Perhaps, but I couldn’t get past the “mosca” part, that being Italian for “fly,” and I just knew I’d take the bait and make a corny joke like “Elisa, there’s a fly in my wine, and he thinks it’s gazpacho.” (I’d already lost a bet that Elisa would make a joke about the wine-spitting bowl, along the lines of “We send that down to Charles Shaw and they bottle it.” She didn’t say anything of the kind. But like I said, she’s new.) In the event, the Simpatica did not let me down: this was a bright wine, redolent of pears and honey, that caressed my tongue, but then took an unexpected detour into light fizz, like fermented peaches at a salad bar, with just a hint of bong water. It’s a highly drinkable wine that says, “Hey, buddy, lighten up.” I could totally see myself drinking this out of a bota bag at a sweltering music festival. It would pair nicely with those weird cream cheese appetizers at P.F. Chang’s, or with Rice Krispies.

Il Passito

I only had a little sip of this, when my tasting companion insisted I try it. I know that, as a wine critic, I should use words like “remarkable,” but my honest reaction was OMG! This is by far the sweetest liquid I’ve ever had in my mouth. Honey is so over. The flavor is so fawningly unctuous, I thought this wine would try to sell me a timeshare in Honolulu. But as it lingers on the tongue it’s all Sweetness & Light, like old school Grade-A maple syrup without the maple. I suddenly had a craving for the totally crusty, blackened pork ribs you find in the dark corner of the grill toward the end of a barbecue. But Il Passito also has a regal flair; if this wine could talk, it’d tell a Bartles & James wine cooler, “You’re just a vulgar little street urchin.”

The scoring

Nobody in my party remembered to fill out the score card. Or maybe it’s not a memory thing; for me, numeric scores kind of seemed beside the point. I mean, would you give a point rating to the color of your child’s eyes, or to the length of your cat’s tale? Suffice to say, I shall surely return to the Castello di Amorosa, next time I need a full lineup of artisanal wines, or am fleeing a zombie apocalypse. As for which wine impressed us the most, I suppose that can be answered by the one we ended up deciding to buy: the Simpatica, at $30 for a 750ml bottle. I have a feeling it’s gonna go great with chocolate-chip-cookie-dough ice cream.


No, Wine Spectator never did run my story. This may have something to do with the fact that I never submitted it. Why would I bother, when I haven’t arranged for the Castello di Amarosa winery to place an ad with the magazine?


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Wednesday, September 7, 2022

What’s Wrong With Shimano?


Some weeks ago, a cycling pal emailed around this article concerning the new Shimano 105 electronic (aka Di2) groupset. I suppose the new 105 release was just a hook, to make the article timely. Most of what the writer focused on was Shimano’s decision to discontinue non-electronic shifting. Surely the point of my teammate’s group email was to kick off a spirited discussion.

Ten years ago, the discussion might have been a lot more lively and long-lived; this group is not shy about expressing themselves, as you can see here. But this time around, though the responses were as insightful and funny as ever, there were only nine of them. I sense we’re gradually tiring of such worldly matters. That said, after some reflection I decided to take the bait—hence this post.

Don’t worry, my thesis isn’t actually as pedestrian as “what’s wrong with Shimano?” but something closer to “is there anything funny, as in ha-ha-funny, about the society that has produced this nonsense from Shimano?” If you don’t get a chuckle out of this post, please be sure to leave a nasty comment below it that will spark an endless, mean-spirited debate sure to propel me from an unseen, unheralded blogger to a global Internet celebrity with my own line of spaghetti sauces and fake Oreos.

In a nutshell

The thoughtful and well-written article, in a column called “Jim’s Tech Talk,” gives four reasons why “it’s a mistake for Shimano to only offer electric shifting road groups.” Jim’s reasons are as follows:

  1. Higher prices
  2. [Planned] obsolescence
  3. Electric derailleurs wear out
  4. Greater chance of user error

I won’t go into each reason because a) you can read the article yourself—it’s not that long, and b) everything he said seems reasonable and doesn’t warrant a critique. But he missed a couple points, which to me are the most important ones. Those I’ll cover.

Shifting is already easy

First and foremost, modern mechanical shifting is fricking awesome on any halfway legit road bike (and I’ll define “halfway legit” as “Shimano 105 mechanical or equivalent on up, from about 1996 onward”). Electronic shifting is a solution looking for a problem. It’s erroneous to suggest that the ostensibly improved performance justifies the expense (to the extent that we shouldn’t even be given the opportunity to save money on traditional cable-pull gear).

This Shimano 105 Di2 video enumerates the supposed benefits. We’re told Di2 “makes shifting much easier” with “more consistent performance.” Bullshit. Ever since the introduction of Hyperglide cassette cogs and chains, modern chainrings, and indexed shifters, gear shifting has been consistently easy. (Before that, shifting was more difficult but I didn’t care, just like I don’t mind making drip coffee instead of insisting on the brainless ease of a Keurig.) The Shimano 105 promo video says there are “no cables to stretch over time,” but so what? Adjusting cable tension is really easy. You just turn the little barrel adjuster on your derailleur counter-clockwise a quarter turn to see if it gets better. If so, you’re done. If not, turn it half a turn to the right. It’s simple trial and error, and if you don’t even have a bike stand, you can just do it while riding.

(Yes, there is a simpler way to do this. Put the chain on the second-smallest cog, and look at the derailleur pulleys. They should be directly below, or perhaps very slightly to the left, of the cog. A thousand YouTube videos are just waiting to teach you this. Just like there are a thousand videos to teach you how to adjust your electronic shifting.]

But wait, there’s more!

To be fair, the Shimano 105 video’s initial claims are kind of hard to evaluate as they’re pretty subjective. But what really annoys me is that the video goes on to state something that’s plainly untrue, in the most patronizing and degrading language possible:

“Unlike mechanical shifting you can shift under load. Now, that’s a fancy way of saying you can keep pedaling while changing gears. So you can keep going, even on that steep hill.”

I shift under full load all the time. I’m riding Shimano Dura-Ace 9-speed levers that I bought used, over ten years ago, for $100. They’re beat to hell at this point, but still work perfectly. I routinely shift from a smaller cog into a larger one (i.e., the harder type of shift) under full load, while riding out of the saddle, on serious grades like Lomas Cantadas. I’m similarly aggressive with front shifts. I shift under load for fun. I do it because I can. I’m delighted how well it works because I couldn’t do this before about 1997.

And what’s this shit about “shifting under load” being “a fancy way of saying you can keep pedaling while changing gears”? Does the presumed viewer of this video, who’s supposed to drop close to two grand for a 105 Di2 groupset, or spend more than three grand for a 105-Di2-equipped bike, not know what “shift under load” means? And actually, except with internal-geared hubs, don’t cyclists have to keep pedaling while changing gears? And this bit about “you can keep going, even on a steep hill”—what the hell are they even saying? That with mechanical shifting you can’t keep going? You try to shift, it doesn’t work, so you just turn around and find a flatter route home? Or call an Uber?

The video concludes, “The 105 Di2 energizes you. Now there is nothing holding you back.” I got news for you, Shimano: even if mechanical shifting were inferior, poor shifting almost never holds anyone back. When I’m held back, it’s sometimes age that does it, but more often it’s time, because I’m too busy working (so I can afford my disconcertingly expensive lifestyle). And I’m one of the lucky ones. You know what holds a lot of people back? How damned expensive bikes have become. They’re a luxury item now, pretty much by design: companies like Shimano are obviously happy to cater only to the high end customer, and the more ignorant the better.

I wish this were a live demo instead of a video so I could say to the guy, “Wait, hold on. You lost me with that ‘shift under load’ thing. Despite my vast bicycle budget I’m a complete novice.” And then when the Shimano guy happily explained what that “fancy” language means, I could say, “But shifting while pedaling … does that help? Does a bicycle need to be pedaled at all times?” No, he would explain patiently, but pedaling is always necessary when you’re pointed uphill. He’d be all too happy to dumb it down for me because I would seem like the perfect customer: I’m just absolutely shitting money but I’ll never wear anything out or demand a warranty. I’ll just upgrade my fleet in a couple of years despite everything being in mint condition, so I’ll always have the latest and greatest technology, just like with my smartphone.

(Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against technical innovation and in fact really dig it—when it produces a tangible benefit. I have waxed rhapsodic about Dura-Ace aero wheels, here. And I actually dig Shimano components—I’ve equipped my road and mountain bikes with them for decades. And lest you think I’ve never even tried electronic shifting, I have: click here for a full report.)

Then and now

When I started racing, there was no planned obsolescence in bicycle components. My first Campagnolo derailleur, a Nuovo Record, which I bought used (of course), was from 1974. I knew because the year was embossed right on it. The shifting performance was only okay, which was fine, because the derailleur was light, cool looking, and above all durable (e.g., unfazed by crashes). Back then you could open up a Bike Warehouse catalog to the Campy small parts section and order any replacement bit you could want for the component you needed to repair. (This was the mail-order outfit that changed its name to Bike Nashbar because too many people, particularly teenagers, affectionately called it “Bike Whorehouse,” or at least that’s what I’ve always assumed.)

Back then, an aspiring racer could afford the sport since there was lots of used gear out there, because it didn’t wear out. And components weren’t that expensive to begin with. In high school, I could afford great stuff on a paperboy’s salary: in 1985 I bought a brand new full Dura-Ace groupset via mail-order for $400. According to a quick Google search, that’s around $1,000 in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation. A Dura-Ace Di2 groupset today, meanwhile, costs $4,600 online (and this no longer even includes hubs). That huge price tag isn’t the end of the world, of course, because nobody needs Dura-Ace, but remember: the new entry-level Shimano 105 is now almost two grand … almost twice the inflation-adjusted cost of early Dura-Ace. Yes, of course 105 Di2 shifts better than my 1985 Dura-Ace, but so what? What good does all that technology do for someone who can’t afford to buy it? What middle-class teenager today has an extra two or three grand available for entry level equipment?

Also back then, teenagers racing their bikes on a paperboy’s salary had to learn how to maintain their own bikes. This was doable because the components just weren’t that complicated. It was a great learning opportunity which for many of us led to gainful employment during high school and/or college. Now, with the more advanced designs, it’s a lot harder.

The yuppie problem

Despite many years working in bike shops, I was initially apprehensive about bleeding the hydraulic brakes on my mountain bike. That repair seemed complicated to me in the sense that I actually don’t have much understanding about how these brakes even work. After putting off my hypothetical DIY “learning project” for many weeks, I finally just took my bike to a local shop to have them do it. I was a bit disappointed in myself, sure, but also figured heck, I have money, why not support a local business? But then the mechanic breezily said it’d be $60 per brake caliper, and he could have it done in two weeks. WTF?! $120 for a routine bit of maintenance? That doesn’t sound like a reasonable labor rate designed to give a bike mechanic a living wage. That sounds like kind of a luxury tax based on the supposition that the modern bike customer is a totally helpless, ignorant yuppie with a limitless budget. (Needless to say, I balked, bought some tools and brake fluid, checked out some YouTube DIY videos, and now I do this repair myself. And I’ll even do yours for you, for $30 a caliper.)

The attitude shown by these shops may be the new normal as cycling becomes an increasingly yuppified sport. A teammate of mine, an accomplished racer well acquainted with the art of bike repair, took his bike to a local shop recently to have the bearings replaced in the headset and bottom bracket. He knows how to do the work, but didn’t have the specific tools required. He told the shop that the brand of bearings he’d selected last time didn’t end up lasting very long, and asked what other brands they carried. “Don’t worry, we always source the most appropriate bearings,” they told him. “Just drop your bike off and we’ll go over the whole thing and figure out what it needs.” In other words, “Based on our assumption that you’re totally gullible and unconcerned with how much anything costs, we’ll print our own money by doing all kinds of unnecessary ‘repairs’ that you don’t need to worry your pretty little head about.” (My friend, duly insulted, bailed and bought the tools he needed.)

I want to be clear here: I have no issue with wealthy cycling enthusiasts paying top dollar to bike shops if they don’t feel like getting their hands dirty. But what I cannot stand is the overall effect that the bias towards the high end is having on the industry, which seems to have learned to equate wealth with helplessness. It’s as though they assume money actually strips us of capability, to where we’re at their mercy.

This business model isn’t restricted to the bicycle industry, of course; modern cars are more difficult to work on as well, and increasingly expensive. As this Wall Street Journal article explains, “Detroit has jettisoned many of their lower-priced compact and subcompact cars like the Ford Fiesta and Chevy Cruze that have traditionally been starter cars for young buyers.” Modern auto makers prefer the higher profit margins of higher-end vehicles targeted at wealthier customers. Remind you of anyone?

But wait, things get worse as you go up the luxury scale. As detailed in this article, in some markets BMW is now charging customers a monthly subscription fee to enable their built-in seat warmers. The cars are all outfitted with this feature at the factory, but it’s locked out in software until you pay up. This seems inconceivably greedy and cynical to me. I totally get it that a tech company like Cisco Meraki charges a license fee for the software on their Internet/WiFi products, because they are constantly working to improve the software, making updates to protect against new security threats. But seat warmers are nothing new, are available in virtually every new car built by any company, and don’t require any updates. This subscription fee is BMW saying, “We know you have enough money to just throw it unthinkingly at any obstacle that you bump up against, so we’re cashing in on that. Because we can.”

Reading that article was painful enough … but what really threw me were the reader comments below it, some of which justified and accepted BMW’s business model. It’s as though wealth is actually making these customers stupid; that is, excess discretionary income apparently leads just shrugging and accepting absurd price-gouging behaviors. Another of my teammates, responding to the “Jim’s Tech Talk” article, wrote, “The next step will be Shifting-as-a-Service: $10/month to use your derailleurs.  Discount for single chainring.” His irony is closer to reality than he might have thought.

So when I see Shimano throwing itself into this model, where the target customer has gobs of money but doesn’t know what “shift under load” means, I feel a little embarrassed to be part of the sport. A neighbor of mine speaks fondly of his childhood in South America playing soccer in a dirt field with all his friends; their ball didn’t even hold air. I love the idea of kids playing stickball in the street in a big city, or pickup basketball on a public court (never mind if the hoop doesn’t even have a net). And then there’s cycling: wealthy and privileged patrons only, please. And the only tools you’ll need are a trash can and a credit card.

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