OP here again, with what I hope is the final update. My observations about my Nexus 8:
1) Smooth shifting under light load is possible for all shifts, EXCEPT;
2) The 5-4 shift occasionally ends with a "pop" as soon as I apply significant load.
OTOH, ALL shifts done while pausing pedaling completely are smooth. There is no slipping or noise while riding in any gear.
From reading numerous other posts about Nexus/Alfine shifting issues, it seems that my hub is more-or-less normal. Perhaps with more "running in", the sliding clutch that disengages in the 5-4 shift will move more freely, and I'll be able to pedal lightly while doing that shift as well.
Thanks to Brucey, in this thread, and in the many others about Nexus/Alfine problems that I've read, I've learned a lot about how these hubs work! Now I want to concentrate on enjoying the use of it
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