Sunday, December 31, 2023

Overlooked Posts of 2023


This evening I’ve been casting about for a post that would tie together the events of 2023 and kind of put this long and tiresome year to bed. In the process I discovered this fun article in the New York Times listing stories from this past year that their editors felt didn’t reach as many readers as they should have. That inspired me, and in this post I’ll go one better: I’ll not only list my least-viewed posts from 2023 but explain why you shouldn’t have missed them. (And if you did read these, this is your chance to feel all smug and validated.)


 “Ask a Fitness Dweeb” has so far received the fewest pageviews for January 2023. In fact, by my rough math, if I had ads turned on for this blog, this post wouldn’t have even earned me enough for a cup of coffee. And yet, doesn’t a fitness-themed post seem perfectly timely as readers ponder their New Year’s Resolutions?

Maybe it’s the “Dweeb” part. That was my daughter’s idea. Don’t worry, my persona in this post is no dweebier than ever. This (albeit contrived) advice column is particularly worthy if you check out the bit about gamification, and my description of the international training contest I run every year that is super easy, fun, and effective. (The Q4 contest just wrapped up today with, amazingly, a tie for first place!)


For this month, the most neglected post was “What We Should (and Will) Be Embarrassed By.” Ask yourself: has it ever seemed like people are more shameless than ever? Well, this post can be a useful guide for avoiding that. If you’re tired of the phrase “lean in,” and/or the promotion of cannabis as a “wellness” aid rather than what it is (i.e., a hedonistic drug that dudes like Jeff Spicoli use because they’re young and irresponsible and like to party), and/or you think Vitamin Water should be called “Stupid Water,” this post is for you.


I was pleased to see, in February, how well my (harsh) critiques of ChatGPT did. My two-part series, “A.I. Smackdown – English Major vs. ChatGPT,” garnered gobs of pageviews. I was a bit bothered, though, by a sense that the posts were slightly passive-aggressive, given that I was showcasing A.I.’s failings without exploring the potential upside. This led to curiosity about how ChatGPT would do if I tried to formally teach it, which I tried doing. This was, for me, a fairly fascinating exercise, though also tedious as ChatGPT apologized constantly for its repeated errors. What I discovered is that (as it eventually admitted) it cannot learn in any formal way, by taking instruction from a knowledgeable person. It can only train itself by ingesting vast troves of data from across the Internet.

I’m not sure why this post didn’t do as well as the other ones on this topic. Perhaps three posts in fairly rapid succession was just too much. Suffice to say, if you enjoyed the first two, you should definitely check this one out.


The loss-leader for this month was “Errata.” My jumping-off point was the policy of the Times copping to its various errors over time. Perhaps readers skipped this post because they don’t overmuch care to see my errors corrected, being more laid-back than that. But that would be missing the point: this is just a humor piece. Here’s an excerpt:

In “Everything You Wanted to Know About Getting a Vasectomy - But Were Afraid To Ask,” I wrote, “The nurse arranged towels around my groin until the entire area was reduced to the pink-red scrotum shrouded in white, like a sunburned toad poking out of a field of freshly fallen snow.” Upon reflection I realize that my freshly-shaved scrotum more closely resembled a frog than a toad.

Who doesn’t need a good laugh or two? Check it out!


Speaking of a good laugh, the post “More Tom Swifties” was my most unpopular for May (even though my original “Tom Swifties” post has done quite well). This post offers dozens of easy one-liners that ought to be a pleasant diversion for anyone. For example:

“Man, you really stink!” Tom fumed.
“I’ll just give my boss the finger,” Tom said flippantly.
“How do you feel about gay couples?” Tom queried.

In case you’re looking for something a little more sophisticated, this post also puts ChatGPT through its paces creating A.I. Tom Swifties. Spoiler: ChatGPT crashes and burns horribly; for example, “‘I’m terrible at baseball,’” Tom said bat-terly.” Huh?


Why did “Impromptu Commencement Address” do so poorly? Beats me. The premise—what speech would you give a college graduating class if given only twenty minutes to prepare?—seemed like a good one, and I’m frankly pleased with the result. I make fun of myself, of college grads, and of all the hand-wringing and anxiety saturating our culture these days. If nothing else this speech has some good stage directions (e.g., “[Wait for applause or maybe mostly silence, or the generalized murmur of people who have tuned out completely and are chattering away amongst themselves, and/or one or more people yelling things like ‘Get off the stage!’].” I also explore one of the pressing questions of our day: is it true the future is female?


Historically, my bike ride reports do quite well; for example, “Mount Baker (WA) with Brother & Nephew” has garnered over 2,000 pageviews. So why did “Gravel Riding in the Rockies” fizzle? It had the usual attractions: food descriptions, breathtaking landscape photos, and schadenfreude (e.g., “My rented helmet was designed, apparently, for Ernie, from ‘Sesame Street,’ but my head is evidently shaped more like Bert’s, so the helmet slid forward during the bumpy descents, mashing my sunglasses into the bridge of my nose, unless I tightened the bonnet hard enough to threaten a gradual concussion and/or some sanded-off forehead flesh”). So, if you’ve enjoyed my other ride reports, get over to this one and see what you think.


Okay, this next one isn’t just my biggest disappointment of the month, popularity-wise, but of the entire year: “If William Wordsworth Were Writing Today.” I get that Wordsworth is a moldy old British poet, and has likely been labeled “problematic” by modern scholars because he was white, male, etc. But trust me, this post is anything but stuffy. It presents a hypothetical instant-messaging dialogue that might take place if the great poet submitted a new work for review to a modern, sales-obsessed editor. It’s breezy, fun, and one of my shortest posts ever. Check it out!


I wasn’t able to cover the Vuelta a España on albertnet, but I wrote a special post, “Jumbo-Visma & the Kuss Conundrum,” about perhaps the most exciting thing in the race: an American, Sepp Kuss, had a couple of amazing days in the mountains and moved into first place overall, only to have his biggest challenge come from two of his own teammates. This was a major soap opera for anyone following the sport, and though I was perhaps a day or so late covering it, I was surprised how little traction this post got. To this day, YouTube is constantly offering me up more videos on the whole affair, even though I didn’t even use YouTube for my research.

This post advances ten theories on why a professional team would hamper their own star rider when he’s winning for them. My theories range from the quite plausible to the mildly facetious to the outright bogus, all in keeping with my primary goal, which is to entertain. Rereading it now, I think it’s held up well, long after the race itself has been decided.


I guess it’s not really fair to pick on one post in particular for October, since all four of them were on the same topic, that being my weeklong cycling trip in the French Alps. But the last installment, “Epic Trans Alps Cycling Trip – Part VI” has the fewest pageviews and doesn’t seem to be catching up. I guess six posts on the same topic might have pushed my readers’ patience. But if you missed this before, it’s a good one: lots of photos, with the best scenery of my entire trip, and perhaps the most potent Schadenfreude as I completely melted down on the legendary Alpe-d’Huez climb. Give it a whirl!


I am frankly offended by the notion that human beings don’t have free will. You can well imagine, therefore, that I’d be super annoyed when a vainglorious douchebag from Stanford, with a big dumb Karl Marx beard and long hair in ringlets, throws together a crappy book that pretends to prove, via neuroscience, that we don’t have free will. To make matters worse, the book is selling well, and a surprising number of intellectual types are apparently stroking their goatees and saying, “Yes, yes, this is all very compelling.” I bent over backwards with my critique, “Undeterred - A Critique of a Book About Life Without Free Will,” and even got my daughter to do a wonderful drawing of the douchebag in question, the bloviating, preening Robert Sapolksy. Naturally I’m disappointed more people didn’t read this post. Even if you never considered reading Sapolsky’s book, you should read this as a cautionary tale about academic types getting drunk on their own bathwater.


Okay, I’ll grant that it’s a little early to tell which post from this month is underperforming. It’s not like my posts open like Hollywood blockbusters. But I suppose I can feel a bit disappointed that “Cycling Smackdown – Small Cog Tale” hasn’t already gone viral and made me an overnight Internet celebrity, or at least racked up a really solid number of pageviews. This is a ripping yarn about an all-out cycling sprint on a cold, dark, rainy evening, depicting a classic confrontation between robust teenagers and a seasoned but middle-aged coach. I suffered horribly to produce this tale so you might as well honor that with a quick read.

See you next year!

Thank you for visiting albertnet. I look forward to another year of writing about, well, anything that amuses me, and I hope you’ll enjoy it too.

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

2023 Last-Minute Online Holiday Gift Guide!


Thank goodness you found this post: if you forgot to shop for Christmas and need a surefire gift idea (and fast!), you’ve come to the right place. If you can order something featured here in the next hour or so, you’ll be fine (though you may need to get Santa to deliver it for you). Now, if you’re reading this even a day or two after I posted it, obviously you’re too late, but you know what? Maybe you should start thinking about next year! Plan ahead for once in your life!

I would like to point out that I have not received any free products or other remuneration for showcasing these gifts. Also, I haven’t seen, tried, tasted, or tested them. Caveat emptor! (That’s Klingon for “Don’t let these items hit you in the ass on the way out.”)

Heated hammock - $250

Winter is tough, innit? Perhaps the hardest part is that you’re stuck indoors with your husband 24x7 and, because he’s restless and over-caffeinated, you have to listen to him chatter away and/or mansplain stuff to you whenever there’s no game on. You miss the days of summer when he’d go pass out in his hammock in the backyard. Well, help is on the way with this electrically heated hammock! Just charge the battery, hang it up, and send him packing, no matter the weather!

Best of all, it has three different temperature zones (head, middle, feet) and at least one of them is bound to short out, giving him something to troubleshoot. It’s a win-win!

Handholding mittens - $38

Who among us hasn’t had that insufferable friend or sibling who was so happily in love he threw it in everyone’s faces, with blatant displays of affection, snogging in public like it was going out of style and talking incessantly about how happy he is? And then that vaunted relationship crashed and burned, and you had to hear your friend moan and groan incessantly about being heartbroken? Well, this is the ultimate revenge gift: couples handholding mittens.

There are two ways to enjoy this gift. One, you give it to your spouse/other and the two of you parade around wearing these goofy mittens in front of the fool-for-love, and even suggest that the three of you go for a walk or hike together in the brisk air. Speak at length about how warm that hand is, even (size permitting) making a big show of switching the mittens around so one hand doesn’t “get jealous” of the other, etc. Payback’s a bitch, eh? The other option is that if your annoying friend is still single, give him or her the gift and say, “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll find someone soon, and then you’ll be ready!” You might even suggest he mention the handholding mittens on his online dating profile. Your friend will hate you! It’s brilliant!

My Life Story: So Far - $35

I have to admit, at first I didn’t see the point of this item. At first blush, it’s a journal with various prompts to write your memoirs; kind of like an extension of those baby books that well-meaning new parents dutifully fill out for the first day or two of their newborn’s life. But this journal goes all the way through adulthood, like a template for an entire autobiography. Kind of pointless, right? I mean, if you’re gonna tell your life story, you already know the important bits, right?

But then I looked at some of the sample pages, and suddenly grasped the real point:

It turns out this is for an old person who realizes he or she is starting to become senile. This journal is really more like a cheat sheet, but a socially acceptable one. Imagine if you just used post-its or something to jot down notes of, like, your kids’ names … how mortifying it would be if someone were to find those? Instead, you give your spouse this journal and encourage him or her to fill it out … he or she is just feeding you the answers to embarrassing questions you’re afraid to ask, like “What’s your name again?”

Shower Affirmation Set - $28

This shower affirmation set is another gift idea that initially had me scratching my head. It’s just a set of little cards with encouraging platitudes like, “I am creating a life of passion and purpose,” and “I live in a universe where I am loved and supported.” What makes this gift unique is that these cards are waterproof and stick to the wall of your shower.

I couldn’t understand their purpose, since the world is replete with such messaging and a novel format didn’t seem necessary. And then it hit me: the affirmation isn’t the point, the shower is the point. This is just a ruse to get your slovenly teenager to shower once in awhile! All that praise will actually lure him or her to do a little self-care … brilliant!

Food indecision dice - $14

These dining dice help an indecisive couple decide what to make (or order) for dinner. One die covers the ethnicity, the other the food. I know this sounds pretty boring at first, with predictable outcomes like Mexican fast food and seafood…

But it’s when you get the weirder combos like Chinese pizza, Italian sushi, and Indian steak that this gift shines … you and your partner are going to become true innovators in the kitchen, taking fusion to new heights. Get this right and you might become celebrity chefs!

Bathtime essentials wine holder - $38

If you have a friend or loved one with a drinking problem, the last thing they want on Christmas is your judgment and condemnation. Why not just give them the gift that says, “I love you and I want you to be happy, even if that means drinking in the shower”? Sure, you’re technically being an enabler here, but what the hell, it’s the holidays.

This item would pair nicely with the shower affirmation set, wouldn’t it? Maybe you could even get some custom printed cards, like “It’s okay, Winston Churchill drank, too” and “Hey, you’re just taking the edge off.” Now, if you’re still hung up on that whole alcoholic-complicity thing, consider that eventually the plastic wine glass will get lost (over the edge of the back deck, or deep within the sofa cushions), and then your loved one will use a real glass, and once it shatters on the floor of the shower where shards are sure to draw blood, perhaps this person will realize he or she has finally hit rock bottom. Thanks, bathtime essentials wine holder!

Personalized rubber spatula set - $40

Let’s suppose rubber spatulas, or “splaulas” as you call them, are a really big deal in your family. Suppose when your daughter went off to college you bought her like six beautiful wooden-handled rubber splaulas, and she was so happy to have a bit of home there with her, and then her ridiculous roommates threw them all out without asking, because the splaulas “didn’t match the décor” of the apartment (which is a joke because it  was a fricking dive to begin with). Now it’s time to replace those splaulas … so why not with these?

Very nicely made, super attractive. And the best part is, these splaulas can be personalized, so buy three of them with engraving as follows:

  • [Name]’s personal property
  • Mess with these &
  • I will fucking kill you

Your daughter can tell her roommates, “You might think that’s a joke but my dad is literally a psycho. And he’s visiting over MLK weekend.”

Faceless portrait - $13

You know what’s really romantic? A portrait of you and your significant other. But you know what ruins it? When one or both of you just isn’t that attractive. This can be particularly bad if only one of you “has a face for radio.” Ugliness can kind of ruin the whole look of whatever room you hang the picture in. Well, faceless portrait to the rescue!

It’s stylized! It’s idealized! Squinty eyes, weak chin, huge nose? Gone! And even if somebody declares the portrait is totally creepy, you can plausibly deny it’s even of you! Problem solved … and on the cheap!

Evening primrose soap - $23

Gift giving is hard. How many times have you found the perfect item for someone, only to learn that he or she already bought it? Or that there’s some valid reason they don’t already own it? Often the best gift is the incredibly unusual item they never knew existed. I think this evening primrose soap would check that box for just about anybody.

I showed this to my younger daughter and she said, “Oh my god, that is so Humboldt. It’s just so … Earth goddess lesbian / psychedelic woodsy.” I’m not sure I’m qualified to confirm or deny that assessment, but there’s no question this thing is compelling. It’s both provocatively shapely and … a warty toadstool. What will it look like after it’s been used in the shower for a week? Will the curvaceous buttocks part be totally worn down, and the toadstool end practically untouched? Well, your lucky recipient is about to find out … am I right?

Beer shotgun funnel - $20

Do you have a friend with all the telltale signs of arrested development? Like, he thinks video gaming is still a good way for a 50-something to spend his time, and still has a miniature basketball hoop suction-cupped to his fridge, and still thinks parties should be called “ragers” and that everyone should play drinking games? Has he failed in particular to scale back his drinking in accordance with responsible adult behavior? Well, you can’t exactly give somebody an intervention as a Christmas gift, and that never works anyway, so you might as well roll with it. Won’t he be delighted by this gift, which says “Of course it makes perfect sense for you to be shotgunning beers but you should be doing it more safely”?

This thing just makes sense. I mean, when you’ve already been drinking, so your motor skills are shot, and then you puncture a beer can with a screwdriver or a key, and then put your mouth up to that ragged aperture—all of this with extreme haste because everyone around you is chanting, “CHUG … CHUG … CHUG!”—you’re likely at risk of cutting your mouth. (At least, I should think so … I’ve never actually tried this and only just learned the process via this charming YouTube video which my wife overheard and seemed skeptical about until I told her, “I’m doing research, for my blog!”)

Now, as with the bathtime essentials wine holder, you might feel morally conflicted about seeming to endorse this chugalug activity—even to point of modernizing it with a purpose-built accoutrement. Well, get off your high horse … shouldn’t we give our loved ones something they want, vs. what we think they need? Besides, your friend will surely put this on his keychain and eventually it’ll make a hole in his pocket and he’ll lose his keys and have to retrace his pub crawl steps, growing ever more frantic at each stop, and when he gets to telling his woeful lost-keys story for the fourth time, to the fourth barmaid, whose pity is plain to see, perhaps he’ll realize he’s hit rock-bottom and it’s time to make a change … and you’ll have helped him get there!

Author clock - $199

A couple of years back, my albertnet gift guide described the Albert clock that gives you a math problem to solve instead of just telling you the time. I’m not a fan of the concept, which is why I declared it the perfect revenge gift. Well, this year I stumbled across another clock, this one, that beats around the bush; this time, it quotes a passage from literature that happens to include the time:

Damn it all, I wish I could figure out something snarky to say about this Author Clock, but the more I look at it the more I think this thing is actually pretty cool. Granted, I like to look at big hands on a wall clock, or little hands on my wristwatch, but I also love books and reading and why does this thing have to be so freaking expensive?

Electric salt & pepper shakers - $36

It’s kind of the curse of middle age: we’ve finally developed sophisticated tastes—for example, we’ll no longer settle for pre-ground pepper or even pre-ground salt—and yet we’re starting to develop repetitive stress injuries from traditional peppermills and really need to take care of ourselves. Well, your friends and/or siblings are in luck: check out this ingenious product!

Now, it’s not your friends’ first rodeo so you can expect a furrowed brow as they unpackage these bad boys. “Don’t worry,” you’re (ideally) there to tell them, “the manufacturer has relocated the battery compartment to the top, so you won’t get the salt powder corrosion your last set had. And they’ve switched to lighter weight AAA batteries so you won’t hurt yourself hefting them.” Now your friend is starting to get excited … but you haven’t even told him the best part. “Each has a built-in flashlight,” you declare triumphantly, “so you can totally use them camping!” Now your friend is grinning from ear to ear. It won’t even occur to him that these should logically be designed to sync with an app on his smartphone, and really ought to have built-in Bluetooth speakers. So you’re all set for Version 3.0, which will surely be available by this time next year!

Something for the blogger?

With all this talk of gifts, I’ll bet you’re already thinking about what to get me, the tireless blogger who has tried all year to amuse and enlighten you. Normally I would assure you I don’t need anything, or would suggest you perform, on my behalf, an interpretive dance on TikTok that will make this blog go viral. But this year I’m shifting gears: would somebody please buy me that Author Clock? Click here for shipping details.

Other albertnet holiday posts

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Cycling Smackdown - Small Cog Tale


I’m an assistant coach for the Albany High School Cougars mountain biking team. As described in a previous smackdown post, my bike—with its triple crankset—seems, to the Cougars, as antiquated as I am. (More on gearing later—I’ll bet you can’t wait!) Part of my role as coach is to inspire these kids, so I need to convey, through actions alone, that I’m not actually obsolete. This can mean giving them a run for their money which, as you can imagine, gets harder every year. Read on for a white-knuckled (or at least old-knuckled) account of my latest endeavor.

Small cog tale

The weather looked iffy but none of the forecasts matched, so although it had rained all morning, the ride was on. Coach M—, our fastest, was MIA so I got put with the fastest group. As we set out and headed up Thousand Oaks Blvd, I noted that C—, our top rider, was rocking his NorCal League Champion jersey from last season, with the California flag on it. I said to him, “Nice jersey! Where can I get one?”

C— said to S—, “Where’s Coach M—, our fearless leader?”(or something to that effect). S—, who looks like a Pixar superhero, and who almost beat me in two all-out sprints last week, said, “Actually, Coach M— is 0 for 2 this season.” C— asked, “Who’d he lose to?” S— gestured in my direction and said, “Coach Dana.” C— replied, “Oh, shit!” He was surely thinking about the final sprint of the ride, a tradition that, several years ago, was oddly named “VO2.” It’s contested along the final stretch of Wildcat Canyon Road, which descends at 1-2% and winds around like a serpent. The finish line is the intersection with Grizzly Peak Blvd, near the Summit Reservoir where the Cougar ride groups (and those of other teams) tend to congregate before the final (controlled-pace) descent to the high school.

By the end of the first climb a wind had picked up, big dark clouds had rolled in, and the temperature was dropping. We regrouped at the reservoir and then I dragged everyone along Wildcat Canyon Road, heading east. Several times I gestured with a flick of the elbow for somebody to pull through but either I haven’t successfully taught that signal to the riders, or they just didn’t want to help. I was hoping for a team time trial type of group effort, but when I pointedly pulled off and looked at C—, he launched a devastating attack. He totally soloed and S— dropped me too. I overhauled S— on the short downhill toward the Botanical Garden, before the climbing resumed, but never caught C—. We regrouped at Inspiration Point and as the rest of the kids (and the other coach) trickled in, it started to rain.

I decided to lead everyone down Wildcat to where it hits El Toyonal, and back up. Several kids protested but only pro forma … I think we were all electrified by the rain, which increased as I drilled it down Wildcat. Before the ride I’d put a new clear lens in my sunglasses and it worked great deflecting the spray off the road. I could actually (basically) see, though the ridge of hills and all the trees had effectively hastened the sunset. I reached the junction with El Toyonal and turned around. We’d agreed to regroup again at Inspiration Point again after the climb, so I didn’t wait for anyone … they’d be along soon enough.

True to form, C— blew by me with S— dying on his wheel. S— came off and I managed to stay with him to the top. When we arrived C— was jumping up and down to stay warm as he had no jacket and no body fat. Eventually the others arrived, and we turned on our lights and put on all the gear we had as the rain was pounding down now. I loaned C— a spare pair of arm warmers but his arms were too wet and he lost patience pulling them on and chucked them back to me.

A— was still futzing with his gloves when a number of riders rolled out. I yelled at them to hold up. They ignored me—a mutiny!—and ramped up the speed. The cowards! Apparently certain Cougars didn’t want me around to contest VO2. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for cunning tactics, but this didn’t seem very sporting.

Annoyed, I hammered to catch up, moving through our group like in a racecar video game, but it was pretty hopeless. Three of the kids were way off the front, taking turns pulling, fighting the wind together, and I was only one guy. Still, on the downhill toward the Regional Parks Botanical Garden I felt I could close the gap a bit since I’m bigger than these kids and punch through the wind better. But my progress was incremental and not enough.

I was ready to just call it a day—I mean, who cares, really?—when I remembered my mantra: “I … WILL … NOT … LOSE … EVER.” I guess it’s not really my mantra in the sense that I came up with it or anything; I stole it from some rap song. Plus, it’s kind of disingenuous because I actually lose all the time. But “I … LOSE … ALL … THE … TIME” is not a suitable mantra, and when I’m slaying myself on the bike in a dim rainstorm with possibly toxic levels of adrenaline coursing through my system, I sometimes become pleasantly delusional and can pretend I never lose. But how could I possibly manage to prevail now, when already so far off the back?

Ah, I thought. There’s always the “I hate pain” hill.

The “I hate pain” hill is the short, somewhat steep (perhaps 9%) climb between the Botanical Garden and the Brazil Building. My wife gave this hill its name, back when we were first dating. She rode over it and said, “I just learned something about myself. I hate pain!” I can usually do this one in the big ring, after getting up as much speed as possible on the downhill before. For some reason, the mountain bike team always goes around it, via Anza View Road, even though they’re young and strong and fearless. Probably the coaches set the standard ages ago and nobody ever thought to change it up. Well, on a previous showdown, during a ride with my road team that a former Cougar had attended, I’d had a chance to do a little A/B test. He’d dropped our entire group including me and, not knowing any better, went around the hill while I, in desperate pursuit, went over it and discovered that up-and-over is actually faster. So now I figured that maybe, just maybe, I could make up enough time to get back in contention.

Well, it worked perfectly. I came over the top, and as the road dipped down again I could just see the top three riders rejoining the road ahead. I gave it full gas and managed to claw my way across and latch on to the back. I hung out there for a bit, recovering, and before long the last of the three, G—, looked back and saw me there. Haha! Surely they’d looked back several times and confirmed I was nowhere in sight. It must have seemed like I came out of nowhere.

C— was on the front driving a furious pace. I was getting a pretty good draft off G— (who must have grown three inches since last season) but he was dying and letting little gaps open, so riding behind him was unwise, like getting too close to a drowning victim. To G—’s credit, it took me a few tries to take S—’s wheel away from him. As I’ve taught the riders, you look at the wheel you want, not at the rider who’s on it, and you just have to kind of insinuate yourself onto the wheel. Eventually I had S—’s wheel but he’s not such a good draft. I was bent way over the bars, but I’ve got this giant Camelbak stuffed with the tool set, the first aid kit, every size of inner tube, extra clothes, and other bulky stuff so I wasn’t very aero.

The pace was relentless, and pedaling was even harder than usual because my shoes, being absolutely soaked, seemed to weigh about five pounds each. The chamois in my shorts was also sodden and droopy … is this what it’s like having a full diaper? I sensed S— starting to tire … so it was time to move into second. He didn’t seem to mind when I came past him; he knew he’d get a sweet draft off of me and have plenty of time to recover, so he could try to come past at the last second. (He’d come so very close to pulling it off last week, after all.) So now I was right on C—’s wheel and he’s just as lithe and wiry as a greyhound, blocking the wind even less than S—. It was absolutely brutal staying in that draft at that searing pace. C—’s rear tire sprayed up a rooster tail of water right in my face, but my clear goggles protected my eyes, and the water hitting my mouth, though befouled with grit, was almost refreshing. Meanwhile, C—’s unrelenting verve was inspirational, and as I clung to his wheel for dear life I tried to conjure up a plot to defeat him.

This kid had been pulling ever since I’d caught up, and probably almost the whole way from Inspiration Point. Sure, he’s the League Champ, but he’s not invincible … possibly I could come off his wheel with like 100 meters to go and punch his ticket. I was actually more worried about S—, who was just sitting perfectly in position behind me, and who’d have a pretty good idea of when I’d launch my sprint. I decided I had to go early, for the element of surprise.

There’s a spot maybe 300 meters from the end where the road curves around and the downhill gets just a bit steeper, from like 1% to 1.5%. It’s subtle, but the perfect moment to take advantage of my 11-tooth cog. I guess that’s not really such a tiny cog by modern standards—after all, my daughter’s bike has a 10—but that’s because most kids are running the so called “one-by” setup, with only one chainring, which is typically a measly 32-tooth. My triple crankset has a 42-tooth big ring, giving me a 20-30% higher gear than they have, and at a high enough speed, it’s like having nitro or something (if only my legs can manage to push hard enough).

Needless to say what you’re reading here isn’t technically a Big Ring Tale, because we’d all already been in our big rings, and/or our highest gears, for several minutes before the denouement of our battle began. For me, the battle came down to the cog. All last season I couldn’t use my smallest rear cog because it was worn out and skipped like crazy. This season I finally got around to addressing it—but I couldn’t find the new cassette I thought I had somewhere. I ended up finding some random, lone 11-tooth cog floating around in my big bin of extra parts. I had no idea where it came from or what kind of shape it was in, but  to my delight it works great—no skipping at all. So instead of setting up the climax of this yarn with the standard convention of  “I threw ‘er in the big ring,” this is the part of the story where I get to tell you “I dropped ‘er in the small cog.” (Who knows, perhaps with the growing popularity of these one-by setups, and mountain biking vs. road, the term “big ring tale” will become obsolete, and “small cog tale” will take its place.) Now, full disclosure, I might well have already been in the small cog, but that’s immaterial … the point is, now I launched the big move that demanded the 42x11 gear. I was going to spin that gear all the way up or die trying.

Well, the good news is, I did succeed in taking both kids by surprise and quickly got a good gap. The bad news is, with the rain and the dark and my somewhat fogged-up goggles I’d totally misjudged where we were; maybe it was wishful thinking that we were finally close to the end. I’d gone several curves too early! No wonder my sudden move had been so effective: you’d have to be a  fool to go from that far out! O my god, what had I done? But there was no way to change my plan now … if I let up at all, both kids would fly by and that would be the end of me. There was nothing to do but try to make the move stick. I had that 42x11 turning pretty well now. (Having gone back and done the math, I can tell you my cadence was just under 100 rpm, which isn’t so fast for a track racer, but pretty much perfect for a mosher like me.)

I died over and over again with every pedal stroke, and the wimp in my brain was chanting its usual defeatist litany, notions like “It’s over, you went too early, you’re doomed, just sit up, these kids are in their prime, S— looks like a Pixar superhero, C— is the reigning League Champ, there’s no shame, you gave them a good run for it.” Fortunately the song in my head (there’s always a song in my head), which was “King of Pain” by the Police, was drowning out the inner voice. Going early had not been the plan, of course, and yet I seemed to be following a familiar script. There seemed something so inevitable about the excruciating suffering I was going through once again: the blood-taste in my mouth, the turbine-like whoosh-whine of my breathing, the white-hot burn in my legs. It could be no other way and I wasn’t going to let up for a second until I’d won or lost. No looking back, either—I cannot fathom why pro racers in solo breakaways so often look back; it’s like the kiss of death. Just face forward, face the music: “I will always be King of Pain!

I was around the final curve, out of the saddle now, thrashing, feeling like I had a bear trap clamped to each leg. This twisty road with the tall trees around it, and the dark and gloom, with sometimes even a bat or two, have often made me think of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and now I felt very much like Ichabod Crane dashing madly toward the final bridge, the Headless Horseman hot on my tail. The end in sight, I flogged myself like it mattered, and less than 50 meters from the finish still no kid had flashed by. With 25 meters to go I finally looked back. C— was there, of course, but well behind me, not even in my draft, and S— was nowhere to be seen. I’d pulled it off! Something like a wicked laugh fluttered to life deep within me but couldn’t make it anywhere close to my mouth, not with all that sucking wind and other respiratory havoc. But the feeling that flickered there was real and joyful. Can you imagine it? Actual joy, at my advanced age?

Needless to say my triumph, for all the thrill of the moment, was actually meaningless, a matter of pure trivia, something to be forgotten almost instantly (were it not for the stubborn persistence of this text). Surely C— didn’t much care. It’s just one more sprint of many, and like every coach I’m just a stepping stone on the kid’s way to greater things, if even that. But hey, that’s what I’m here for … my glory days were over thirty years ago and the point here is the current crop, the Cougars. When, some weeks from now, an actual race—a sanctioned NorCal mountain bike race—comes down to a final sprint, and C— wins it through timing, tactics, and grit, I will be stoked to have played any role at all in helping him reach that level. As for myself, I’m just glad to still be in the mix.

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here. 

Friday, December 8, 2023

From the Archives - Careergate


I recently came across a letter to my brother from 1995, recalling a shameful episode from my past, dating back to first grade. This being a slow news day, I figured I’d post it here. I’ve fleshed it about a bit, from memory. Believe me: I remember this ordeal all too well.

— July 9, 1995

In first grade, we did a big unit on careers. First we watched some film loops (remember those?) about various careers including middle manager, quality control technician, and comptroller. Naw, just kidding, it was the normal assortment of clichéd vocations like doctor, nurse, construction worker, teacher, farmer … the stuff it’s easy to imagine and picture, even if it represents only a sliver of the wide variety of actual careers out there. Various parents came in to talk about their careers as well, though I didn’t pay much attention. The only one I remember well was a long-haul truck driver. He described, in great detail, the methamphetamine regimen that kept him awake at the wheel, along with its various side effects. (Okay, fine, I made that part up.) Then we kids had to decide what we were going to be when we grew up, and make a big poster showing ourselves on the job. The year before, my brother Max had chosen “ambulance driver,” mainly (I believed then, and continue to believe) because he thought he could draw a pretty cool picture of an ambulance. My parents were pleased at his choice and made a nice fuss over him.

I didn’t put much thought into deciding on my career. I believed at the time, naïve as I was, that I would have a chance to revisit this decision later. I had no idea that this initial stab at a career plan would forever cement my reputation among my peers, my teacher, and my parents. So I thought about the project for about thirty seconds before deciding I could probably draw a TV set, and that it would be fun to draw a TV showroom with not only a few TVs in it, but also a big picture window, through which you could see the street and a cyclist riding by. I thought it would be a nice challenge to draw this well enough for the window not just to look like another TV. So I chose the career goal of TV salesman.

It is probably the case that Mrs. M— explained how the posters would be put on prominent display for all to see, including the parents who, on Parent Teacher night, would be pleased as punch at how Bear Creek Elementary, and Mrs. M— in particular, were grooming their children for highly successful and prestigious lives. But I wasn’t paying attention and thought this was another pointless project that would be soon forgotten. That is, I didn’t realize I was about to shame myself and my entire family, as I was too engrossed in the task at hand to see the big picture. I thought my drawing came out fairly well. It showed a man at a counter taking some money, and the happy customer with his hand on the TV set. In the background was a window: if you looked closely, you saw, through this window, a bicyclist riding by. I was most proud of that scene through the window. I felt it embodied happenstance—a little snapshot of life, caught by random, totally unrelated to the sales transaction. Naturally, I didn’t think these things in these words, but the feeling was there.

I find it noteworthy that I undertook the project without so much as a glance at what my classmates were doing. I was accustomed to being unorthodox, since I was raised if not by wolves, at least by slightly odd parents who in some ways diverged from mainstream society: we didn’t watch much TV, certainly didn’t follow sports (I mean, we didn’t even know the basic rules of football or baseball), used good grammar, were often ignorant of pop culture, and were put on the swim team instead of in Little League. I so often felt lost in the world that I’d just learned to accept this feeling and went through life in a fog, long pondering a great many mysteries but never thinking to ask anyone about them. For example, I couldn’t understand the Snickers ad showing a candy bar being sliced up to show off the peanuts and peanut butter nougat, and ending with the words, “No matter how you slice it, it comes up peanuts.” I’d never heard the expression “no matter how you slice it,” so the entire ad was a mystery. Who, I wondered, goes around slicing up Snickers bars, and why?

And, when I listened to the Carole King album “Really Rosie,” and its title song, I couldn’t fathom the point of the lyric “I’m really Rosie and I’m the most/ Beat that drum, make that toast.” I mean, okay, beating a drum to celebrate someone, sure … but making toast? “Wow, you’re really the most, let me make you some toast. Whole wheat or white?” I had no idea people clinked together glasses of wine or champagne while wishing each other well … I’d never seen such a thing. In my family we drank powdered milk from plastic cups and never offered up good tidings.

So, when I finished my career poster and happened to glance at what my classmates had done, I think I actually felt smug at how hackneyed their career plans were, compared to mine. All the boys in my class chose fireman, doctor, policeman, or U.S. President, and the girls chose actress, nurse, or nun, maybe even saint. You’d think Mrs. M— would kind of snicker at the utter predictability of it all, but she fawned all over them like they were child geniuses. When she got to my poster she kind of turned her nose up. “Where did you get this idea, TV salesman?” she asked, with a distinct note of contempt in her voice. “We didn’t have any parent presentation on this. It wasn’t in the film loops. You wanna sell TVs?

I just shrugged. I had long before written Mrs. M— off completely. She had lost my respect by tearing masking tape with her teeth, while telling us not to do it; by chewing me out for wiping my nose on my sleeve, which I knew full well was an unassailable privilege of childhood; and by holding a special meeting with my mom to discuss my poor attention span. (My mom described to me the entire encounter. She’d been unconcerned, either because she didn’t see my daydreaming as a problem at my young age. Confronted with the negative report, Mom replied, “I’m sure he’ll come around eventually.” Mrs. M— slammed her fist down on the table and retorted, “That time has got to be now!”)

Anyway, I wasn’t about to reassess my career goals: the picture was already drawn. I asked Mrs. M— what she thought of the bicyclist in my poster, seen through the window, frozen in time. Isn’t that cool? A lone rider trapped forever in a two-dimensional depiction of life itself? Pedaling, and yet going nowhere? Caught in the act of existence? Alas, it would take someone with a college degree in literature to assemble the body of rhetoric necessary to defend my picture, and I was just a dumb kid. I pointed at the bicyclist, and said, “Look at him! He’s not on TV, he’s really there, through the window!” Mrs. M— just rolled her eyes and moved on, freshly flabbergasted by my idiocy.

Even after this icy reception of my poster, I was kind of proud of it, hanging right there on the wall with all the firemen, presidents, nurses, and doctors. I remember feeling a strange kind of pride: nobody else had a window in their pictures. And besides, Chris Phillips’ fireman looked exactly like David Brown’s. Same ladder, same fire hose, same burning home in the background, everything. Moreover, what I saw were a lot of hats. Fireman’s hat (well, helmet), policeman’s hat, nurse’s hat. Like on “Sesame Street,” with its “These are the people in your neighborhood” song. Such simple, foolproof choices. Nobody had even attempted to capture the essence of simultaneity: the skew paths of the featured persons (salesman, customer) vs. this unimportant background character, who is unaware of the brazen, undiscriminating promiscuity of existence, like a nameless renter in a giant apartment building who’s unacquainted with the neighboring tenants. If nothing else, I derived a peculiar pleasure from being the only future TV salesman in my whole class.

Well, I hadn’t heard the end of it yet. I guess it was one thing for my mom to shrug off Mrs. M—’s criticism of me in a private conference, but to have her kid’s utter lack of ambition showcased there in front of all the others at Parent Teacher Night didn’t go down too well. Perhaps she was oppressed by all the proud parents there, all of them giddy in the anticipation of their children’s futures, entranced by the obvious nobility represented by their career goals. Firemen saving homes and families! Nurses helping doctors! Doctors saving lives! And what was her kid planning? To facilitate mass brain erasure by selling televisions?

When she got home Mom gave me a hard time about it. She seemed disappointed, and possibly embarrassed. I could no longer be cavalier about it… I had to face the evil of my ways. I took a hard look at myself, and I didn’t like what I saw. A TV salesman … it was disgraceful. I hadn’t been brought up to sell TVs; our dad didn’t even allow us to watch TV! Since he was so seldom home to police this, he had removed the knobs from the TV set so we couldn’t operate it, forcing us kids to reach in with needle-nose pliers and endure powerful electric shocks! Officially at least, TV was beneath our family’s intellect. So where had I gone wrong? How could I so breezily trash my personal brand among my fellow students, not to mention with my family? Was this what I stood for: a livelihood based on brainless transactions, selling boob-tubes to people so ravenous for simple entertainment, all I had to do was basically collect the money, like some schmuck working a toll-booth?

My mom’s criticism was like catnip to my eavesdropping brothers, who treated this like a major scandal, like I’d murdered somebody’s pet or something. They endlessly mocked me for it, to the point that our dad overheard (or had my mom actually told him?) and now he was all sore, too. Looking back, it was kind of an amazing academic performance on my part: I’d made an entire family feel bad. I was miffed at my parents for making such a big fuss, angry at my brothers for teasing me, and felt bad about myself for having so little ambition. My brothers, though delighted at the dustup, surely lost (even more) respect for me; my parents felt bad about me, of course, and also about themselves, and perhaps about my school. Perhaps my mom even wondered if my TV salesman ambition was rooted in some kind of rebellion, lashing out against my dad’s prohibition of TV in our household, in which case this shameful episode may have increased her animosity toward him. As for my dad, who knew full well that he himself was perfect, any defect in us kids was surely my mom’s fault, so he was probably almost as miffed at her as at me. I think it takes a pretty special school project to do all that.

One thing was certain: all of this could have been avoided if I’d just toed the line and gone the conventional path, deciding to be a cop or fireman or doctor, instead of following my fancy. It’s a good thing I was an arrogant little bastard and mostly uneducable, or I might have taken a bad lesson from Careergate. Instead, I just kept muddling on in my clueless way, shaken by the incident but not stirred to any action, such as trying to do better. Story of my life, I guess.

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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Because It Amuses Me: the albertnet Subhead


My wife is starting a business, and recently read up on how to build a good website. This has given her some ideas for albertnet, one of which is to have some kind of subheading, beneath the masthead, that conveys the nature of this blog. I guess the subhead is meant to be kind of a slogan, or a mini-mission-statement. It should ideally answer the question of why the business exists: i.e., what is the point?

Having been thus encouraged to apply this idea to my blog, I’ve had to do some head-scratching. One result of this is the subhead you see above. At least, you should see it above, if I updated the template properly. In any case, you can see it below:

My thought process, including further examination of the question “why albertnet,” follows below. If you’ve ever wondered what the hell this blog is even about, this is your chance to (maybe kind of) find out.

Not a business

First and foremost, albertnet is not a business. Since I pay for web server storage and for my domain names, but receive zero revenue because I refuse to turn on AdSense advertising, this blog is actually a cost center for me. This means the answer to “why?” can’t simply be “because money.” Meanwhile, I can’t call this is a non-profit, pro bono type of business, because I have no way to tell if it’s actually benefitting anybody. To date, this blog has had about 890,000 page views, which pales in comparison to a great many blogs (though in absolute terms it strikes me as a somewhat large number). I’ve posted over 700 times over a period of about 14½ years, so 890,000 views is not a lot of bang for the buck. I also don’t know whether a page view represents somebody reading an entire post or just glancing at it and deciding it’s not the Google result he was looking for, and closing the page. So to assume I’m serving some market and satisfying readers would be pure guesswork.

Does that mean I shouldn’t bother trying to promote my blog? Not necessarily; after all, what writer doesn’t want to attract an audience? But that doesn’t mean I have the time or patience to work much at it. After all, technical tricks like search engine optimization and content marketing are not nearly as interesting to me as, say, writing. So what if I double my page views? From the financial perspective, two times zero is still zero. From the “actual reader” perspective, leading people here does not make them read.

What do readers want?

For a blogger—that is, the kind of writer who can’t simply look at book sales to see if he or she is successful—page view counts might seem very valuable. Data mining is certainly a popular practice in corporate America; I recall a big boss once advising me, “Metrics are important in this space.” (Man, I think I actually bruised my eye sockets at that moment, so forcefully did my eyes roll.) Another time my director was counseling my boss and me on a tough decision we had to make: “Go with your gut,” he said, and then—seeming to suddenly remember the business zeitgeist of the time— he quickly added, “but make sure it’s data-driven.” Um … okay.

Okay, fine, I’m poking fun at puffed-up pronouncements here, not the data behind them; what does page view data actually have to say? Could I use blog post popularity data like a mini-focus-group? Well, consider that my most popular post of all time, as of today, is “Spelling Focus: Is It ‘Kindergartner’ or ‘Kindergartener’?” which has racked up over 11,000 views. Should I conclude that this the kind of post albertnet readers love, and do more posts like it?

Well, not so fast. I think when companies make data-driven determinations like this, they’re using the feedback to try to react quickly to the market. But if this “Kindegart(e)ner” post were a TV show, it’d have been canceled immediately, because it was initially stillborn and generated practically zero page views for the first two years it was up:

This isn’t an isolated phenomenon: my most popular post of the past month (though it’s only so far climbed to fifteenth overall), “Selecting Bicycle Wheels – Part I,” was largely dormant for over nine years before suddenly gaining traction about six months ago. It’s been going strong ever since, getting almost 1,700 page views (about 60% of its total over time) in the last three months alone:

I see this again and again with albertnet posts: “Everest Challenge ‘Pep Talk’” took six and a half years to go anywhere and is now my tenth most popular ever; “The Problem With Soccer,” my eighth most popular, malingered for almost a decade before building any momentum. So why should I put any stock in page view stats, knowing that any of my 700+ posts could, theoretically, suddenly tip? All I can really glean from the data is that albertnet posts are not timely. But then, I knew that.

Now, it’s tempting to think I could set the numbers and timelines aside for a moment and simply look at the topics of my most popular posts and try to figure out what they have in common. Here are my top five of all time (as of today):

Hmmm. No single theme is jumping out at me. The top post is about spelling. Second most popular is a news story about a cyclist setting a world record. In third place is an essay about whether highbrow entertainment is actually superior to lowbrow. Fourth goes to a harrowing personal history about having my balls shaved and my vas deferens snipped. And the fifth most popular is a poem about bicycle gearing. In terms of topic, these posts almost couldn’t be more different.

Could it be some other characteristic they share, that makes them popular? Well, I guess they’re all arguably funny—but then, I try to find humor in everything I write about, and these posts aren’t necessarily standouts in that regard. The one about the cycling world record, for example, has a few decent gags but isn’t nearly as funny as, say, “From Farting Liberally to Liberal Arts: the Flatulence Files,” which has performed dismally, with under 600 posts total over nine years.

Should I care what readers want?

When I look over those top five albertnet posts, I can remember how each of them came about—and in every case, worrying about whether the topic would attract readers never crossed my mind:

  • The corn cob post was a result of a cycling teammate of mine ribbing me about the randomness of my blog topics. As I wrote in the post’s introduction, he said, “You could write an essay about each cog, or better yet, you could write a sonnet, an ode to the corn cob!”
  • The vasectomy post was simply a great yarn that demanded to be told; from the shaving of my scrotum, to the mysterious ConMed Hyfrecator machine, to the mid-procedure power outage, to the doctor declaring ominously, “I’ve got your vas,” the confluence of events was practically literary entrapment
  • The “Highbrow vs. Lowbrow” post came about because I’d wasted a bunch of money at a museum and wanted something to show for it, if only an essay
  • The cycling world record post almost didn’t happen … it seemed like an interesting opportunity to actually report on some breaking news, but I was feeling lazy, and prevaricated before finally deciding, what the hell, I’d go ride South Park Drive a bunch of times with a wannabe world record holder
  • The “Kindergart(e)ner”post was simply to help out a curious friend, who puzzled over the spelling but wasn’t as keen as I to dive down rabbit holes after arcane knowledge

The common thread you can discern about those posts is that the likelihood of an enthusiastic audience wasn’t the point. And why should it be? Writing for me is simply a hobby, and how many hobbies are measured by some worldly notion of success? Does the fly fisherman care how many fish he catches (particularly if he always releases them, as many do)? Does the bird watcher mainly do it for the bragging rights? Does the Netflix binger hope his encyclopedic knowledge of “The Crown” will bring him glory at the office water cooler? No … we do these activities simply because we enjoy them.

The joy of not caring

At the end of the day, many if not most bloggers are amateurs. Many of us have probably considered writing for a living, but that means pleasing our publisher and editor and getting worked up about what critics have to say, and how well we’re selling. That sure seems like it could take the fun out of the activity. If I always write with some potential readership in mind, then I’m really doing this for them. But since this is my hobby, why shouldn’t it be about me? And if others happen to find my stuff useful, funny, or insightful, why not just consider that a bonus?

So if you’ve ever come to the end of an albertnet post—perhaps this very one!—and thought, “Man, that really didn’t do it for me,” don’t be disappointed. This blog was never about you. It’s about me, and more specifically, whatever I think it’d be fun to write about. And thus the answer to “why albertnet?” is a simple one: “because it amuses me.” (I hope it happens to amuse you, too.)

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Undeterred: A Critique of a Book About Life Without Free Will


Is it responsible to review a book you haven’t even fully read? Well, here’s a thought experiment: suppose somebody came out with a new book about UFOs and in the introduction mentioned casually, “I never go UFO hunting without dropping acid first.” You’d have a pretty good justification to dismiss the book without even going out and buying it, right? Of course, bothering to review it would seem beside the point … but what if it were an “instant New York Times bestseller”? And what if you had reason to believe that thousands of otherwise appropriately skeptical people might somehow embrace the book? What if your family members decided that the denial of UFOs was a NASA conspiracy, and resolved to start dropping acid regularly? Wouldn’t you want to weigh in?

Something kind of like this happened a dozen years ago with Amy Chua’s irresponsible and stupid book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I wrote a blog post criticizing her book without having read it—but I did read the excerpt of it in the New York Times which I felt was enough. If Chua’s own distillation has enough wrong with it to fundamentally undermine her argument, do we need to read the full book? (To make an analogy, if you’re at a restaurant and your appetizer has a cockroach in it, do you need to stay through the entrée and dessert to conclude the restaurant has a problem?) Bestselling books in this vein have a way of smearing their overall message across the zeitgeist, whether or not people engage with the source material. For example, my wife, who also didn’t read Chua’s book, was somewhat swept up in the chatter around it and started wondering aloud if we needed to start getting all tiger mother on our kids’ asses. At that point I felt the need to stand up and say something.

I’m feeling that again now about Robert Sapolsky’s new “instant bestseller,” Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will. I read two profiles of Sapolsky, which struck a nerve, and then I waded through enough of his book to take its measure. The book is total drivel, and yet it’s clearly making a splash … almost as though people are taking Sapolsky seriously.

In this post, I will delve into my issues with the book: not just that it’s poorly written and reasoned, but why I disagree with its very ambition. This examination will involve a lot of logic (something Sapolsky occasionally dabbles in between bouts of self indulgent blathering). But first, just as a warm-up and for your amusement, I’ll start with an irresponsible ad hominem attack against him, since this blog prioritizes entertainment over utility.

Irresponsible ad hominem attack

Just look at that picture above, a drawing my daughter did of the photo accompanying the Sapolsky profile in the New York Times. Can’t you just imagine this guy cornering you at a cocktail party and holding forth? I wonder how that beard came to be. It could be he just has a weak chin, which would make his beard a better idea than his new book, but probably the superabundant facial hair is more about the intellectual air he hopes to achieve. I can picture him looking in the mirror thinking, “Would I look more like a guru if I had a big, fluffy grey beard? Or would I just look like Santa? How can I look more like Karl Marx?” Maybe that’s why he also has the really long hair. Now, let me be clear, I think long hair on a dude is totally fine, when he’s young. But an ageing adult needs to have a little decorum. I mean, he’s got fricking ringlets! Doe he use product in his hair? And check out the odd difference in coloration between his beard and his hair … makes me wonder if he actually dyes it. If so, how vain!

Also note his wise, world-weary expression … does he always look like that, or only when he’s posing for a photo that will appear in the New York Times? Of course, it could be the photographer saying, “Okay, that’s good, but could you try to look more contemplative, maybe a little world-weary? Could we get, you know, a little more guru going here?” In that case Sapolsky shouldn’t have gone along with it. He should have just smiled naturally, because he gets to be in the Times and that’s a pretty big deal. But of course he needs to present this persona, so he stares gloomily and intellectually off into the distance, little realizing that he does not, cannot convey an air of gravitas when he’s wearing plastic clogs. With white socks. Sure, I have flip-flops I wear around the house, but for the Times I would dress up a bit, show a little respect. Look, Sapolsky, you might hang around college kids but that doesn’t make you hip or cool. You’re trying to shape widespread public perception of deep philosophical matters … try to be a grown-up, would you please?

One more heads-up

Full disclosure: I hold free will to be a capacity people should cherish, and to deny or even doubt its existence is to threaten our ability to seize it. That is to say, anybody’s effort to discredit the existence of free will invokes my ire on principle. (As I describe here, I frequently bring unnecessary physical suffering upon myself simply to prove, to myself, that I have free will.) So to be perfectly candid, Sapolsky’s very intent (combined with his douche-y beard, vainglorious long hair, and Stanford pedigree) made we want to hate him right off. Nevertheless, as somebody truly interested in this topic (having read a number of books on existential philosophy), I was willing to read what Sapolsky has to say, even after reading the profile of him in the New York Times and a critique of his book in the New Yorker, both of which only deepened my sense that he’s a tool.

Alas, his book is really popular around here so I couldn’t get it from the library. (There are 35 holds ahead of me.) I don’t like to buy a book unless I’m pretty convinced it’ll be good. Sometimes all this takes is a paragraph ... if the opening to a book is good enough, I will take a gamble on that alone. If a book doesn’t start off great, but I still think it may have promise, I’ll read a few of the free sample pages Amazon serves up. In the case of Determined, Amazon was unusually generous, and for the first time ever I found myself longing for the end of the free pages. The excerpt of this poorly written, poorly reasoned tract just went on and on, until—32 excruciating pages in—Amazon finally cut me off. Now, based on the two profiles and the pages I’ve read, I’m prepared to say I’ve revised my initial opinion (that Sarposky is a tool) to more precisely and accurately state that I find him a self-indulgent, glib, preening old fool whose brazen dismissal of a vast body of thought going back hundreds of years is the height of arrogance. There’s no point trying to pretend this blog post is an exploration … it’s a take-down.

(Note that I’m not being ageist here. I wrote “preening old fool” because it’s sad how foolish Sapolsky still is despite the many years he’s had available to him to have gained wisdom … years that he has apparently squandered.)

Thirty-two excruciating pages

Right off the bat, I have an issue with the title: Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will. What’s with “a science”? Science isn’t supposed to be a realm where everybody gets to have his own version, his own private belief system. It’s about building consensus, and improving our understanding in this way. A scientist investigates, builds a hypothesis, proves it in the lab, and then other scientists attempt to recreate the experiment and either confirm or deny the findings. That’s why the normal phrase is “the science of,” not “a science of.” Contrast this to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. “An inquiry” makes more sense: you would never have “the inquiry” since the number of inquiries into a realm as general and squishy as “values” is infinite. But science is supposed to be the leading edge of the best effort of scientists to build a common, tangible understanding of how the world works, based on experiments that produce data, which describe and predict behaviors and other demonstrable phenomena. The phrase “a science” suggests that Sapolsky doesn’t fully support the collaborative mission that science is supposed to have.

Rather than illustrating any specific line of scientific examination, Sapolsky seems to use his reputation and authority as a biologist and neuroscientist as a flag that he waves. His grand assertions really beg the question. For example: “Once you work with the notion that every aspect of behavior has deterministic, prior causes, you observe a behavior and can answer why it occurred: as just noted, because of the action of neurons in this or that part of your brain in the preceding second.” Here he includes a footnote directing the reader to an introduction to neuroscience that he includes as an appendix (which presumably we’ll ignore other than as a rubber stamp of his authority, or else it wouldn’t be an appendix) and to another book he wrote on neuroscience that he warns us is “agonizingly long.” It’s as though he’s saying, “Yeah, there’s all this science behind understanding behavior but it’s really complicated, so just take my word for it.”

But even beyond how complex this science might be, let’s back up a second: he’s asserting that we can explain any behavior in terms of deterministic, prior causes having to do with brain neurons in the preceding second. Seriously? We could actually catalog and describe all these neural events leading to the behavior? How could we possibly chase them all down? But it gets worse: he goes on to say that those neurons were activated in the minutes before the behavior, and that the behavior was also influenced by hormones from hours to days before that, and that the function of those neurons was influenced by experience and environment in the preceding months to years, and by the person’s development in the womb and what his or her pregnant mother was going through, and further by culture that has evolved over decades, even centuries. So really, there’s no way we’re actually “answering why the behavior occurred,” because who has data going back that far? It’s only a theoretical explanation.

In terms of tying a behavior to past events, neurological and circumstantial, I can suggest a simple scenario that defies the idea. Have you ever been on the fence about an action you had to take, and decided to flip a coin in order to decide? I think plenty of people do this, from time to time. Our willingness to base an action on the outcome of a flipped coin flies in the face of determinism. We have decided in advance to act based on the random outcome of this coin-flip, thus the behavior that follows this flip cannot be predetermined because until that coin is flipped, there is/are no predictive, deterministic preceding event(s). Since the result of the coin flip is random, one can’t go back and trace the resulting behavior to anything except the decision of the coin-flipper to base his or her next decision on heads vs. tails. How is that not freedom?

Sapolksy doesn’t seem to begin with data and use it to lead us towards a conclusion; rather, he starts with an attractive notion to get our buy-in, so that perhaps so we’ll go easy on him when he builds his case. At the end of his first chapter he asks us to imagine a college graduation ceremony with all the happy students and their proud families milling about, and then draws our attention to a (hypothetical) garbage collector in the back. He asks us to consider the background of this garbage collector compared to that of the graduates. He declares, “Trade every factor over which they had no control, and you will switch who would be in the graduation robe and who would be hauling garbage cans. This is what I mean by determinism.”

What a smarmy, smurfy load of shit. Yeah, being born to college graduates in a wholesome community surely helps a person’s educational prospects, but it doesn’t determine how far they get. It just changes the odds a bit. Both my parents went to Berkeley; my dad earned a Ph.D.; one of my brothers—though lucky enough to grow up in one of the best school districts in the nation—dropped out of high school. Meanwhile, the rapper Lil Wayne (as he describes in this interview) was raised in a school district so dangerous that his mom, upon seeing him packing a gun in his backpack before heading to class, implored him to drop out, which he then did. And yet, Lil Wayne (despite the distraction of a platinum-selling music career) earned his GED and later enrolled at the University of Houston. So there are two counterexamples, right off the top of my head. Sapolsky’s little anecdote doesn’t effectively convey the gist of determinism. It’s sentimental, simplistic, and twee.

This backwards-looking attempt at establishing causality breaks down so easily upon close inspection. How is it not free will that my brother Geoff moved to the Netherlands? Is it fair to say that, having been born to the parents that he was, with the genes that he had, developing as a fetus in the natal environment that he did, growing up in the community that he did, and attending the college that he did, there was no other possible outcome than relocating to Europe? What about his identical twin brother, who—despite having the same parents, the same genes, the same fetal environment, the same community, the same friends, and the same (initial) college—stayed on this continent? Shouldn’t these two have been deterministically pushed into the same inevitable decision about where to put down roots?

But let’s assume that a person’s behavior could be tied to a pattern of neuron activity and historical factors. How would the scientist determine, much less prove, causality that is so airtight as to deny the possibility of free will? The perfect test would be if the scientist could then use his understanding of the precise mechanism of that behavior to make predictions about future behaviors as well. If we’re confident we understand exactly why that man pulled that trigger, shouldn’t we know his next move?

The last time I checked, biologists haven’t proven to be great prognosticators of human behavior. (Business people have done okay here, in terms of understanding basic principles such as are used in advertising, but they don’t pretend to be scientists.) Doesn’t it seem like Sapolsky is overestimating what science can do for his thesis? To put it another way, if Sapolsky really thinks there is a solid scientific basis to his refutation of free will, why shouldn’t his scientific findings be subject to peer review instead of just published to a lay audience as a general interest book?

Actually, from what I can tell, Sapolsky didn’t even do much of his own research for this book; it’s more of a survey of the existing stuff. Well … some of it. Which brings us to an overarching failure of logic in Sapolsky’s approach. He declares in his first chapter that to accomplish his goal of convincing the reader there is no free will, he’ll “look at the way smart, nuanced thinkers argue for free will, from the perspectives of philosophy, legal thought, psychology, and neuroscience. I’ll be trying to present their views to the best of my ability, and to then explain why I think they are all mistaken.” Um ... what? He’s going to discredit everyone who disagrees with him? Sure, his book is 528 pages long, but how is he going to evaluate even a moderately representative sample of the existing literature across these four gigantic fields? To be more honest he’d have to write, “I’m going to look at the way a VANISHINGLY SMALL PROPORTION of smart, nuanced (BUT NOT TOO SMART OR NUANCED SINCE I’VE CHOSEN TO INCLUDE ONLY THE ONES I THINK ARE WRONG) thinkers to explain why I think THIS TINY SAMPLING of them are all mistaken.” His approach only makes sense if he could refute all the great thinkers who’ve studied this question, which is of course impossible: it’s like proving a negative.

So, he digs himself in pretty deep with his stated intention to base his argument on a glancing review of these four realms while pretending that’s sufficient. Then, although he acknowledges that individual scientific studies can’t disprove free will, he goes on to say, “But—and this is the incredibly important point—put all the scientific results together, from all the relevant scientific disciplines, and there’s no room for free will” (italics his). Is he really purporting to have done this? He sure hasn’t presented the findings of such a comprehensive effort, which is no surprise because it would be simply impossible. ALL? ALL SCIENTIFIC RESULTS? There’s no way. Again, what he’s really asserting is more hypothetical; it’s like he’s saying, “I’ll bet if you looked at all the scientific results you’d find they’d collectively deny free will. In fact I’m sure of it. Just take my word for it.”

If it seems like I’m accusing Sapolsky of essentially cherry-picking his evidence: yes, I am. Consider that, as he willingly admits (in both profiles I’ve read of him), he has denied the existence of free will since he was thirteen years old: that is, since before he was educated and before his brain had even fully formed. So although he’s using biology and neurology to bolster his decades-old belief, he’s not doing so in the responsible manner of a scientist exploring the matter—he began his research with his mind already made up. It looks to me like a classic example of confirmation bias.

After his first chapter, which defines a lot of terms and explains his approach, Sapolsky’s book gets increasingly boring and pointless. He starts his second chapter with an exposition of one of the methodological approaches scientists have taken, through various studies, to evaluate the existence of free will. After a brief outline of this approach, Sapolsky concludes, “I think that at the end of the day, these studies are irrelevant.” Why, then, does he spend the next ten pages (well, at least ten—at this point the Amazon sample mercifully ran out) describing one such study in excruciating detail? How does simply knocking down other people’s work support his own improbable conclusion? (It’s like two economists discrediting a typewriter keyboard layout by basing their findings on a single previous study conducted about it, as I describe here.) I’m aghast at what passes for scholarship, and that this book is popular. Perhaps it’s just like the Tiger Mother book … it’ll be something to talk about at cocktail parties for a while because it’s timely, and then it will sink out of sight forever.

Beyond his poor execution

As described above, one of Sapolsky’s stated goals is “to convince you that there is no free will.” His second stated goal is “to take seriously all the implications of there being no free will.” With this second goal he seems to focus on whether or not we can hold people morally responsible for their behavior in the absence of free will. He says free-will skeptics (like himself) are “less punitive and more forgiving.” This seems to be at the heart of why, and perhaps how, he was able to publish this book: he’s positioning himself and his mission as a way to be a kinder and more liberal person, and as readers we can (choose to!) join him. Don’t hate the guy who broke into your car, he implies, because it wasn’t really him, he didn’t mean to do it, it was just the desperate position society put him in. So we’re sort of coaxed (or bullied) into accepting Sapolsky’s position so we don’t come off like the heartless old-school moralists who would throw a homeless man in prison for stealing loaf of bread.

The trouble is, such sentimental appeals cannot and should not stand in place of actual intellectual rigor. The New Yorker writer Nikhil Krishnan, in his review of Determined, questions Sapolsky’s assertion that free-will skeptics are less punitive and more forgiving:

But he can’t really have meant that... If free-will skepticism means never having to say you’re sorry, then it also means never being forgiven. Forgiveness is, as much as vengeance, a concept that can be applied only from within the first-person point of view. Sapolsky’s ethic of forgiveness demands that we retain something of our old-fashioned belief in holding one another responsible.

Ah, but I’m delving again into the failure of Sapolsky’s argument (because it’s just so easy!) when I’ve been trying to get into something else: the ramifications of accepting his ideas and putting them into practice.

My biggest issue with Sapolsky’s book is that if we truly embrace his goals of 1) agreeing there is no free will, and 2) living according to this belief, we are denying the possibility of making better choices. And yet isn’t making better choices the noble purpose of some of our most important human behaviors? Think of education, counseling, coaching, even self-reflection. If our every move has already been decided, what’s the point in trying to be better, by trying to choose better?

If we want to advance the argument that humans are slaves to our brain chemistry, it seems like nicotine addiction would be the ideal poster child. This NIH report, describing how nicotine activates reward centers, and how it rewires the brain of the addict, should be right up any neuroscientist’s alley:

Nicotine causes the release of dopamine in the mesolimbic area, the corpus striatum, and the frontal cortex. Of particular importance are the dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, and the release of dopamine in the shell of the nucleus accumbens, as this pathway appears to be critical in drug-induced reward… Likewise, nicotine withdrawal is associated with significant increases in intracranial self-stimulation reward threshold, consistent with deficient dopamine release and reduced reward. The decrease in brain reward function experienced during nicotine withdrawal is an essential component of nicotine addiction and a key barrier to abstinence.

The nicotine addict, then, would seem to be a classic case of somebody with no free will. As the same NIH report states, “Approximately 80% of smokers who attempt to quit on their own relapse within the first month of abstinence, and only approximately 3% remain abstinent at six months.” And yet, my brother—who had smoked for over forty years—decided exactly a year ago that he had to quit, and he did. For this to happen, he had to believe that he could … that he could fly in the face of statistics and his own fraught history with tobacco. But in Sapolsky’s view, my brother doesn’t get any credit for his resolve and tenacity—that is, for deciding enough was enough. Are we to believe Sapolsky that for my brother to quit smoking was predetermined somehow, just like taking up the nasty habit in the first place (even though he had the same parents I did, and grew up in the same health-crazed community)? So my brother’s behavior was all preordained, from the forty-year chemical addiction to the bold refusal to put up with even one more day of it? Seriously?

What if Sapolsky’s book had come out a year ago and my brother read it, decided he had no free will, decided to be more compassionate with himself because it wasn’t his fault he was a smoker, that he had no say in the matter, and that his lungs were already doomed based on neurons, environment, and history? Would he have taken that huge step of deciding (or, fine, pretending to decide) to quit?

Sapolsky seems to be trying to couch his worldview in being fairer: in not holding criminals responsible for their crime, and in not praising this or that lucky guy for his achievement. But we don’t need to deny the existence of free will to be more fair. We can acknowledge that a person choosing between hunger and theft was dealt, by society and history, a worse hand than the guy choosing between a savings account and a mutual fund. The world isn’t fair … we get it. But why not focus more on what all of us humans can choose (or seem to choose) to do, like taking better care of our bodies, our minds, our families? Why not behave as though we can improve, even if—worst case and unbeknownst to us—our free will is just a placebo? I mean, who cares … besides the preening, self-aggrandizing academic who needs to publish?

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