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?

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Thanksgiving Invitation Template & FAQ


I know how it is: you decide to host Thanksgiving, and next thing you know you’re on pins and needles wondering who will actually deign to show up, since nobody RSVPs anymore. (Or is that just my family?) Well, I know this may be a little late, but help is on the way in the form of this handy template for the official Thanksgiving invitation. This is useful even after you’ve issued the verbal offer and the save-the-date, in case your people need a reminder or a little prompting.

Of course you’ll want to tweak this a bit for your particular family situation; for example, if you’re all football fans but backing opposing teams, you can start the trash-talk early. Or, if all of your family get-togethers devolve into ruthless character assassination, you can make light of that. Here are some guiding principles for all invitations, before you proceed to the template:

  • Brand it – this is more than a meal, more than a holiday, it’s an event
  • Keep it light – for example, don’t make too much fun of the vegans
  • Make it sassy – there will be plenty of cloying, sentimental speeches on the day itself so there’s no need to start now
  • Make it firm – if you come off as too beseeching, you just look pathetic
  • Provide actual information – even if this goes against everything you stand for

Thanksgiving invitation template

Hello all you family people,

I know this is really late in the game (though I don’t know what the game is, exactly) but anyhow, consider this your official invitation to TGV’23 at the Albert Headquarters in Albany! Please print out this email summons and bring it to show at the door. (If you can turn this guest authentication concept into a QR-code-driven thing, so much the better. Get your IT folks together with mine and they’ll set it up.)

As no other organizing principle presents itself I’ll make the rest of this invitation an FAQ.

Shouldn’t it be called TVG’23?

No, that was Uncle B—’s idea. I think he was referring to “TV Guide” though I can’t imagine why he thought that made sense. TGV’23 is not really an acronym, as all acronyms are passé.

What do you hosts need to know from me as you plan for TGV’23?

We need to know who all is coming (including plus-ones) and who is bringing the Bell’s seasoning. So far we think we have [list of invited guests goes here]. If anyone in that list is having second thoughts, dismiss them immediately.

Has the turkey been ordered?

Yes, which means nobody is allowed to flake. We ordered a very special turkey. We reserved it, in fact, before it was born. It was still in the egg. We met its parents. Since then we’ve supervised every step of its lifecycle, from its incubation (the mother and father taking turns), its early life (on a real grassy field, none of this fake plastic green grass like with an Easter basket), to its entirely hormone-free organic-grain-fed upbringing with plenty of opportunity to socialize. It is local, organic, fair-trade, and hopefully large enough.

Is lodging included in this deal?

L— gets dibs on the guest room (which she may still anachronistically refer to as “her” “bedroom”) and its magnificent new king-sized guest bed. If you’re nice she might invite you to a slumber party there. Other guests can fight over the legendary Bed of Sand down in the home office. Beyond that, we have a reasonable amount of floor space and two large sofas for those interested in the college-esque party-‘til-dawn experience, and if there are adventurous souls fancying a campout, we have flat (albeit stone) surfaces in the backyard and a large tent available. We would not be offended if one or more parties were to seek a motel/hotel/AirBNB/VRBO, especially given the relatively small number of bathrooms here (i.e., one).

I heard a rumor that the men are encouraged to pee in the backyard.

Yes, but only in the planting beds and the fountain. And please keep your micturition discreet so as not to scandalize the neighbors.

Does your new guest bed have a name?

Yes, we call it the Pound Cake Bed because the mattress is so much like pound cake, it’s tempting to take a bite.

Is there plenty of free parking?

Yes, we have a remarkable abundance of street parking. If your car is currently dripping oil, please notify us in advance and we will provide carpet swatches.

My car is a beautiful Dodge Charger Super Bee and its exterior paint has been polished, waxed, clear-coated, and festooned with glitter. Can I park it in your garage?

Our garage was designed around a 1927 Model-T Ford and can only accommodate a sub-compact car, and only then if we were to remove eight or nine bicycles. So, no.

Have all the  Albany Alberts been vaccinated?

Triple-vaxxed against COVID, flu-shots up to date, shingles vaccines complete, and screened monthly for cooties. No wonder we’re all practically autistic.

When should we arrive?

Wednesday seems reasonable. If anybody is flying, and the airfares are lower earlier in the week or something, well then come earlier!

When should we leave?

I reckon either on Sunday, or right after you break something but before the breakage is discovered, or earlier if you have to, or later if airfares go down or whatever. Just wing it, there are no wrong answers.

I am kind of new to this family and when you all get together, I can’t understand half the stuff you’re saying. What gives?

Fear not: I have put together this handy glossary of Albert-isms.

Will there be gravy?

Look, there are some things we just don’t joke about, okay?

Do you miss us, and are you super-pumped about this, and will there be lots of baking (e.g., pumpkin pie, apple pandowdy), and should Uncle B— bring his biking gear (cleaksangry biker costume, and helmet), and will there be long hikes, and can people pursue their own activities as desired, and will there be leftovers?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and maybe.

Will there be dad jokes?

Does the pope wear a funny hat?

Was that a dad joke?

No. That was a cinematic reference. A dad joke would be more along the lines of “Two peanuts were walking down the street and one of them was assaulted.”

I heard you have a cat. Was it genetically modified to be hypoallergenic?

No, Freya was conceived the old fashioned way by a couple of strays. However, she has a subcutaneous RFID transmitter in case she gets lost, and because we added our credit card number to her online profile, we can use her as a mobile wallet. Ask for a demo! (As for anyone with a cat allergy, Benadryl is on us!)

Why do you use so many exclamation points?

Because I’m so doggone excited about TGV’23!!

If I’m honest, half the reason I’m even coming is so I can visit San Francisco with my plus-one. Is it a reasonable drive, and will my car get broken into?

If your car is a Prius, its catalytic converter will be stolen, even if you only park it out front of our house. But you’re in luck because with the local BART train system you can reach San Francisco in just 25 minutes, and the city is totally walk-able. You’ll have a blast!

How soon do you need to know we’re coming?

Oh, we already ordered the turkey, so you’re coming. You’re definitely coming. You better. But we don’t need any official total. It’s not like we have to pull permits or something.

Do you have any glue sticks?

As far as you know, no. We don’t need a repeat of what happened last year.

Will there be any strange, nonstandard dishes that will make me feel uneasy?

You mean like those weird tiny onions in the saliva-like sauce your ex-stepmother served? You bet! (Kidding! I never asked for the recipe, needless to say.) We’re sticking to the classics, mostly, though we’ll roast a couple of chickens (just to be “disruptive”).

Can we plan to burn off all those calories by hitting the malls on Black Friday?

Only if you really love window shopping. You probably wouldn’t enjoy actually buying anything here in Albany because have we some of the highest sales tax in the nation. (But it’s all good … I voted for that tax hike, and countless others.)

Isn’t the name, TGV’23, designed to summon the spirit of Train à Grande Vitesse since you love high-speed railFrance, and so forth?

Aha, you got me!

Well, I guess that pretty much sums it up. Please let us know if you’re coming, etc. and if you have any questions I didn’t think of.

Evil Uncle Dana

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Wednesday, November 8, 2023

From the Archives - Bits & Bobs Volume X


This is the tenth installment in the “From the Archives – Bits & Bobs” series. Volume I is here, Volume II is here, Volume III is here, Volume IV is here, Volume V is here, Volume VI is here, Volume VII is here, Volume XIII is here, and Volume IX is here. (The different volumes have little or nothing to do with one another.)

As with the last few installments, these are taken from ancient emails, back when I archived them as simple text files in the mistaken belief I’d be able to keep up with the practice. It didn’t last long, but has yielded some fun finds from a bygone era. I wrote all these when I was living in San Francisco, before moving to the burbs and becoming a parent.

December 26, 1994

[Having recently finished a 9-month bike tour] I’m still interviewing for a proper corporate-type job. In the meantime I’ve been working odd shifts at the bike shop in Berkeley, just to feel like I’m not a totally hopeless unemployed person. It’s a pretty ridiculous commute, first biking up and over California Street which has got to be at least a 15% grade, and then all the way under the bay on the Bart, for the typically paltry pay you get at a bike shop. Still, it’s diverting and often fun. For example, on Christmas Eve, a bike builder named Daniel, who has been on suspension without pay until further notice for sloppy work, brought in a 12-pack of Heineken, probably as a brown-nosing move. We threw it in the fridge, and brainstormed ways to get the owner, M—, to let us drink them on the job. M— was in a holiday mood, which was good; earlier, I’d “reminded” him of a policy of always buying lunch for members of the staff who wore staff t-shirts on Christmas Eve, and he went along with it. Well, by mid-afternoon the mad Christmas crowds were getting to me and the boys, and I proposed to M— the idea of discreet alcohol consumption to carry us through. M— said, “What, there’s beers!? Cool, gimme one.” Alas, it appeared we’d have no way to open them, lacking a bottle opener, but I grabbed a Maillard Helicomatic lock-ring tool and it worked great. In fact, it soon dawned on me that one half of the tool does the lock-ring, and the other is in fact nothing else but a bottle opener. You gotta love the French. Well, M— proceeded to walk out on the sales floor, beer in hand, and sell a bike. Needless to say it was a free-for-all after that.

January 1, 1995

I guess I forgot to give you my (kinda) new street address: it’s below. I had some fun moving in here. Our street is fairly flat, but our-cross street, Filbert, is crazy steep. They don’t call our neighborhood Russian Hill for nothing; our hills are as oppressive as Russia herself. Trucks and tour buses are prohibited on Filbert but that didn’t stop me from driving up it in the 14-foot U-Haul I rented. Its diesel engine was taxed to the limit, and I had this breathtaking, terrifying, yet oddly giddy feeling of impending doom. Halfway up—and too late to turn around—my inner ear started giving me (non-verbal) warning messages that the truck was about to pitch over backwards and tumble down the hill, end over end. It was such a fearsome feat that I almost got an erection. I held my breath and reassured myself with the fact that this time, I’d bought the full insurance. Anyhow, I made it over, down the other side on compression (the engine shrieking like it was gonna throw a rod), and then, as a final flourish, proceeded to parallel-park that baby in one of the toughest neighborhoods for parking in the entire city.

March 13, 1995

I am very gratified to get your response. The kind of honesty I indulged in via my letter to you, calling you out as I did, was admittedly dangerous—the recipient of such a letter can either take the painful, self-effacing route (which you did), or delude himself and continue to hide behind the falsity of his social veneer. This latter type, like a blindfolded tyke who has yet to learn object permanence, will assume that because he can’t see the truth, that it can’t see him. Of course such behavior is completely pathological. Right now I’m thinking of J— S—, whose insatiable desire to be cooler than me back in high school took the form of dissing me, like some kind of human sacrifice to the gods of cool. I thought to myself, “J—, can’t you do better than that? It’s not hard to be cooler than me—why don’t you try to be cooler than somebody who actually is cool? Like the Fonz? I mean, seriously … cooler than me? What kind of ambition is that?” I was originally drawn to J— as a friend, back in elementary school, because he was such a bold, unapologetic nerd. Unfortunately, it couldn’t last. Through what he probably thought was a social apotheosis from lowly dork into “happening dude” (his favorite phrase), I witnessed the slow, cancerous death of a personality.

May 2, 1995

Thanks for the warning about the virus! I’ve always wondered whether those anti-virus programs can detect viruses that come over e-mail. Fortunately, almost all my e-mail comes from trusted friends and relatives anyway. I did, however, receive a “junk mail” message at work. I guess business solicitations are frowned upon on the Internet, but on CompuServe [how I get and send e-mail], who knows, maybe anything goes. Anyway, I forwarded your warning message to everybody in my e-mail list (about 20 people).

So, yeah, e-mail sure is cool. It’s been wonderful to be able to write my brother Geoff without waiting for the normal three weeks or so it takes the postal service to carry physical mail to the Netherlands. Maybe I’ll get a sound card for my PC and record my actual voice, and send the recording as a binary file; Geoff could hear a reasonable computer facsimile of my voice on the other end! Of course that would be more of a parlor trick than anything useful. You know, the strangest thing about e-mail is that my dad, who by all means ought to be a master of this technology, has not actually joined up. And yet he has the computer, and the mind, for it. Bizarre.

August 6, 1995

You know what? Every time I make my Mexican rice, I think of the time I made it at your place in NYC, and scorched it. The horror! I am certain that you threw away the leftover rice, because it was, well, inedible. I only hope you didn’t have to throw away the pot since I’d blackened it so badly. I keep thinking about what a disaster that was. I say all this to my shame. I guess what I’m saying is, you should really come out to San Francisco so that I can try again with the rice, and show you that it really is good when the right ingredients and familiar kitchen equipment are on hand. I could send you back with a new pot, even. So if you get the chance, please come. Until then, I suppose you can just curse my name.

October 24, 1995

Using the formula f=mgh, and my stopwatch and altimeter data, I have calculated my power output for the climbs I biked up today: over a period of 16:30, I averaged 0.37 horsepower. But what does that mean? Does it mean I have a third of the strength of a horse? Well, not really; I don’t think horsepower applies to horses in the real world. But we do use horsepower to describe certain things. For example, my output was .0037 times the horsepower of a 1985 Volkswagen Jetta, I happen to know. And it would be more than enough to power a Hoover Mighty Might vacuum cleaner. If that’s not interesting to you, consider that 0.37 horsepower translates into 272 watts. That tells us my output is enough to power one of our chandeliers and a desk lamp.

November 1, 1995

Why yes, I’ve been to House of Nanking many times, and thanks for asking. I guess I can’t really recall what my favorite dishes are there, as I try to mix it up each time. Until recently, my strategy was to spend my time in line asking everybody else what they usually get. But the last time, I was in the mood for chow fun and asked the waiter, who is also the owner, if they had it. (In my experience, you can ask for just about anything, including chili mac, at a Chinese restaurant and they’ll have it, even if it’s not on the menu. Not that I have ever actually asked for chili mac. I’m just sayin’.) Well, the owner looked at me as if I were some kind of uncultured rube (which I may well be). “No, chow fun is white-man food!” he laughed. “This your first time here?” I said, “Uh … no.” He nodded and said, “I’ll set you up.” What then transpired you can well imagine, as you described your own Nanking dining experience so well in your last epistle … I need say nothing more. I love that place. It’s always worth the wait. I like the strange vegetables that they use—yams, for example. Totally unique (plus I normally hate yams). As far as the place being greasy, sure, it’s greasy, as Chinese food tends to be, but compared to most places, it goes down (and stays down) pretty darn well. Man. Now I can’t get that place off my mind.

August 27, 1996

How cool, I just figured out how to hook the CD-ROM in my computer into my boom box. It works great—so it looks like I bought computer speakers for nothing. Oh well. Now I can play CDs, which I never could before. Only problem is, I only own two CDs and they were both freebies that E— got from her work. I guess I could check out CDs from the library and tape them. Or of course I could do like everyone else and just go to the record store and buy music, but E— and I are trying to save up for a house one day, which is no easy feat in this area. We looked at a 2-bedroom condo a few doors down and it’s $250,000! There are 1-bedroom condos on top of Russian Hill for $1 million … as if! Sausalito is probably only slightly cheaper than San Francisco, and we’d have to pay $3 a day to commute in over the Golden Gate Bridge (not to mention fighting the traffic … no thanks). So we have to be pretty frugal while we figure out where, one day, we might be able to afford a place.

December 2, 1996

Just had the stomach flu. As if in some awful parody of the three-squares-a-day rule, I deposited my Thanksgiving dinner, in three installments, into the toilet (out the front end). Damn!

December 23, 1996

In reply to your question:

>>You’re set in Internet EtheReal Estate, hottest property going 
>>(the new frontier). But still one question: where do you put 
>>the relatives when they come to visit?

Well, it’s really pretty BASIC. First, I should say that my family members aren’t exactly queuing up to visit me. But when one or two of these characters feels the need to offload, I’m happy to let them nest in any free partition in my home. I help download their luggage (we have a little cache to store any valuables they might have). If they stay the night, I have a strange kind of cot I fashioned out of a kind of braided fiber (a web, you might say) that I’ve stretched over a mainframe. I have a nice spreadsheet for the cot, and some other soft wares, to make guests as comfortable as possible. Usually I keep the bedding compressed, but sometimes I set it up just for CIX and floppy down on it myself.

I’d really like to keep my domain open, but I normally limit it to friends and family. I mean, entertaining is a real effort for me—I guess I’m just not a natural-born server. Multi-tasking is hard for me so I just can’t monitor everyone all the time. I struggle to be a good host sometimes, and some guests I don’t like the slightest bit. Most are basically OK, but many just don’t observe the proper protocol. I can handle it if they’re not PC, but I won’t tolerate bad language. In fact, the next time I get a cursor, he’d better be ready to run, because I swear I’ll boot him!

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