Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Month That Was - April 2015

Life's a swirling vortex at the moment so you get a bit of a short shrift this month. Only two items, but they are both long, because I place absolutely no value on your time. Spring is upon us and that means chores. Work has gotten rather busier and is requiring some travel. Agonizingly slow progress in writing. Kinda same ol' same ol', isn't it? Except there's more of it. Hopefully back to more content next month.

[Books] Book Look: The World of Yesterday
[TV] Again, Toob Notes

[Books] Book Look: The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig

As I have pointed out occasionally, I have come, in the past few years, to appreciate the past in a way I never did before. I used to see the past as a mythology, the same shallow mythology that is passed down to most Americans, that frames the past as a black and white silent film or a withered old painting; a two-dimensional world filled with an unfamiliar predecessor of humanity. This mythology is, not surprisingly, self-serving. It is morphed to demonstrate both our progressive greatness and our honor stolid traditions as required to support whatever the bias of the mythologizer, in spite of any internal contradictions.

This changed for me when Mad Men came to TV. (That's an odd thing to cause an epiphany, but there you are.) Here was the world of some of my earliest memories, painstakingly reproduced, and the dominant contemporary culture responded to it as if it was some freak show filled with ignorant cavemen. The lightbulb went on over my head. First, it was obvious that I had been spun out of mainstream culture, as often happens to folks in middle age. This really didn't bother me because I have always been a contrarian sort, and mainstream culture can suck it. The cool thing it did for me was to make me lose adherence to the mythology. If the world looked at a past I knew to be as complex and deep as the present and chose to see it as shallow and backward, how could I justify doing the same to times before mine. History went from black and white cathode ray, to full-on IMAX 3D.

In this context The World of Yesterday has been a joy to read. Although sold as an autobiography, it is predominantly an overview of how life was lived during the lifetime of the author, Stefan Zweig. Zweig keeps the focus on the world and the events of the times rather than his personal life -- he was twice married but barely mentions either spouse.

Zweig was born in 1881, in Austria, and died in 1942 in the midst of WW2. Thus, his life starts in what is the late stages of one of the longest eras of peace Europe had ever known (there had been only small skirmishes post-Napoleon), a time that has been declared a gloriously free and stable age by virtually anyone who documented experiencing it. From that point, his world descends into the aimless slaughter of WW1 and the evil carnage of WW2.

(Quick note: because Zweig writes so clearly and accessibly, this review is going to consist mainly of quotes.)

From last month I quoted Zweig's description of the end of the 19th century and I'll repeat it here:
In its liberal idealism, the nineteenth century was honestly convinced that it was on the direct and infallible road to the best of all possible worlds. The people of the time scornfully looked down on earlier epochs with their wars, famines and revolutions as periods when mankind had not yet come of age and was insufficiently enlightened. Now, however, it was a mere matter of decades before they finally saw an end to evil and violence, and in those days this faith in uninterrupted, inexorable 'progress' truly had the force of a religion.
Science, the archangel of progress, had worked all these miracles. Social welfare was also proceeding apace; from year to year more rights were granted to the individual, the judiciary laid down the law in a milder and more humane manner, even that ultimate problem, the poverty of the masses, no longer seemed insuperable..Sociologist and professors competed to make the lives of the proletariat healthier and happier--no wonder that century basked in its own sense of achievement and regarded every decade as it drew to a close as the prelude to a better one.
Notice how the vision and language of progressive idealism has not changed for probably 150 years. This description could be a template for every politician, journalist, community activist, college freshman, or other loudmouth who speaks of the glories of the coming age when their pet ideas have finally triumphed. Are we there yet?

How about the generation gap, surely that came about with the brave new world in the beautiful 1960s, right? Well, no.
None of these young people believed their parents, the politicians or their teachers. Every state decree was read with distrust. The postwar generation [post-WW1] emancipated itself with a sudden, violent reaction...Anyone or anything not their own age was finished, out-of-date, done for...School councils...were set up, with young people keeping a sharp eye on the teachers and making their own changes to the curriculum, because children wanted to learn only what they liked. Girls had their hair cut in such short bobs that they could not be told from boys; young men shaved off their beards to look more like girls. Homosexuality and lesbianism were very much in fashion, not as a result of a young person's instinctive drives, but in protest against all the old traditional, legal and moral kinds of love.
Oh my. Zweig insightfully suggests that all this disorderly liberty contributed to Hitler's rise, keenly noting that the fascist rises not from creeping oppression, but in reaction to chaos.

Then there is this regarding the written word:
The definite article was omitted, sentence structure reversed, everything was written in abbreviated, telegraphese style, with excitable exclamations.
Sadly, they had yet to discover the glory of a 140 character limit.

One of the interesting aspects of Zweig's life is that he encountered seemingly most of the renowned artists, writers, and thinkers of his day, though many the names are now unrecognizable to the contemporary world. His description of the life of these figures is quite different from how we would picture a life in the arts today.
"To all outward appearance, the life of these Impressionists whose work now fetches tens of millions of dollars was just like the life of a petit bourgeois living on a small income--a little house with a studio built on to it, none of the showy splendors of the grand villas...The writers whom I soon came to know personally lived as simply as the artists. Most of them held minor public office in a job that did not call for much strenuous work...For instance, they might be appointed as librarians.others were doctors...or ran a little picture gallery...or taught in grammar schools...none of them were pretentious enough to base their lives on the independent pursuit of their artistic inclinations, like those who came after them and had inflated ideas of themselves as a result of films or large print runs of their works."
I am reminded of one of Jerry Pournelle's comments from long ago, that he saw no reason a writer shouldn't have a day job. Of course, I suppose it could be argued that for most people in the arts, self-promotion is their day job.

He gives a harrowing, yet strangely upbeat, account of the times of hyperinflation after the end of WW1.
Strangest of all is the fact that today, with the best will in the world, I cannot recall how we managed to keep house in those years, when everyone in Austria had to raise thousands and tens of thousands of crowns...just to survive, and then had to do it again and again. We got used to the chaos and adapted to it. Logically, a foreigner who did not see those days first hand would probably imagine that at a time when an egg cost as much in Austria as the price of a luxury car in the past, and the later fetched four billion marks in Germany--roughly the basic value of all the buildings in the greater Berlin area before inflation--women would be rushing through the streets tearing their hair, shops would be empty because no one could afford to buy anything, and theatres and other places of entertainment would have no audiences at all. Astonishingly, however, it was just the opposite. The will for life to go on proved stronger than the instability of the currency. In the midst of financial chaos, daily life continued almost unchanged. Individuals, of course, felt great deal of change--the rich were impoverished when their money in the bank and government securities melted away, speculators grew rich. But regardless of individual fates, the flywheel of the mechanism kept turning the same old rhythm. Nothing stood still. the baker made bread, the cobbler made boots, the writer wrote books, the farmer cultivated land, trains ran regularly...the bars and theatres were full to overflowing. For with the daily loss of the value of money...people came to appreciate true values such as work, love, friendship, art and nature all the more, and in midst of disaster the nation a whole lived more intensely than ever before, strung to a higher pitch.
Whoa. So much to comment on in that paragraph. First, our underwater mortgages don't hold a candle to real financial chaos. Second, it seems that in certain circumstances financial chaos doesn't lead to social chaos. Would our world of service jobs and energy dependence and class envy and entitlement fare as well? Gotta give this one to the cavemen.

This one is self-serving, but it's another observation that you could have just as easily read right here on this blog.
A book really satisfies me only if it maintains it's pace page after page, carrying the readers breathlessly along to the end. Nine-tenths of the books that come my way seem to be padded out with unnecessary descriptions, too much loquacious dialogue and superfluous minor characters; they are just not dynamic and exciting enough. I get impatient with many arid, slow-moving passages even in the most famous classic masterpieces, and I have often suggested a bold idea of mine to publishers--why not bring out a series of great works of international literature...with the unnecessary parts cut?
Heh, heh, heh. Preach it, brother.

When Hitler's takeover of Austria was imminent Zweig was travelling in the U.S. and South America. (He was one of the wise and/or lucky Jews who escaped.) That time generated this wonderful snippet.
But travelling, even as far as to other worlds under other stars did not allow me to escape Europe and my anxieties. It seems almost like Nature's fierce revenge on mankind that the achievements of technology through which we have taken her mysterious forces into our own hands simultaneously destroy the soul. The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time. Previous generations could retreat into solitude and seclusion when disaster struck; it was our fate to be aware of everything catastrophic happening anywhere in the world at the hour and second when it happened.
Why didn't he just log off Twitter and shut off his cell phone? Oh wait, this was 1938. TV was barely on the radar at that point, yet a similar rant is written on some blog just about everyday today. Could it be that our problems aren't so new and special after all? And how far back do you have to go to find solitude? Do you suppose the Neanderthals had it right?

Should you read The World of Yesterday? I found it so rewarding that I can't say no. But I also can't deny it will have only niche appeal. If you have the same historical curiosities I have you shouldn't miss it. If you don't really have historical interests or are comfortable with the mythology (no reason not to be) it's going to be tough to appreciate. Although there are some bits of interest from an artistic angle, including encounters with Strauss, H.G. Wells, Shaw, and Freud, they will not add much to your understanding of them or their work. But I found the book so rewarding that I can't imagine a thoughtful read not yielding pleasure.

The arc of Zweig's life was ultimately tragic. He was born into a the comfort, peace and stability of the centuries-old Habsburg Empire and saw the world get progressively more bloody and savage through the course of his years, all in the interest of progress. He died a stateless Jew, effectively on the run from Hitler in 1942, never seeing the end of the 20th century European horrors. Had he lived to 135, he would have found today rather familiar.

[TV] Again, Toob Notes

Like last month, only different.
  • The last scene of The Sopranos is turning into a modern day Mona Lisa smile. The sort of thing everyone has a comment on, everyone sees what they want in it. We (by `we' I mean weird people on the internet, like me) still ruminate over what it all means -- is Tony dead or alive, what did it all mean? The only one who actually knows is David Chase and he just recently gave his most revealing interview about it. I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed. He has said in the past that Tony living or dying was not the point. I think that was pretty easy for most thoughtful people to see from the get-go. But there had to be more meaning, didn't there? The odd cuts; the innocuous, yet loaded dialogue; the staging; Meadow being late, the man in the Members Only jacket, the Cub Scouts -- it all had to mean something. It just had to.
    Now we have the most detailed description from David Chase yet, and it is rather disappointing. Could we have read-in all the symbolism we saw?

    The unusual camera cuts that made it seem like Tony was watching himself, or evaluating his life, were just an homage to the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Meadow trying to squeeze into the parking doesn't seem to have any special meaning, whereas I took it as a symbol of her finally fitting in with her parents lifestyle after all her youthful rebellion. "Don't Stop Believin'" wasn't a commentary on the ongoing need for self-delusion in humanity, it was just an kindly exhortation to never give up on living.

    Sorry but I can't accept this. I'm sticking with my own interpretation of what was meant. I think I'd know better.
  • A well done series finale can truly elevate the series, by tying up the core philosophy of the show, although usually they just become an orgy of closure - see Boardwalk Empire for a case in point, see Dexter for a counterpoint. It looked like there was a fair amount of closure throughout the last season of Justified, but in the end -- not so much. Oh, we have a good idea "where they are now," but by no means are their conflicts closed.

    Boyd is in jail and has resumed playing preacher. It seems like a dead end, but this is Boyd. He is no doubt working hard on an escape plan. Ava seems to have escaped Harlan alive. She's got Boyd's child and seems to be living an idyllic life in hiding. Raylan believes her story, but if push came to shove, you have the sense she'd wouldn't hesitate to step back in the game, probably in the name of providing for her son. But Raylan buys her story, or seems to, and actually goes to some lengths to make sure Boyd believes she is dead so if he does escape he won't come after her. Does Boyd believe Raylan's lie? Raylan goes to far as to bring the sacred "We dug coal together" oath in support of it. Who knows? Elmore Leonard characters never stop being Elmore Leonard characters. (Do I smell a movie sequel? The door is open.)

    The essential story of Justified -- which doesn't get enough notice -- is Raylan's daddy issues. Arlo's shadow looms large over everything Raylan did in his life, even in death. Justified's human story is of Raylan trying to get control of that. In that sense, the real climax of Justified came earlier in the season when Raylan found Arlo's "secret cabin" which, as a child, had all sort of scary myth surrounding it. It was empty. All that awe and mystery, and yet there was nothing to it. And so Raylan made progress in sorting himself out. He's not at rest. He's not a man in complete possession of his psyche. But, he's better than he was. He's trying to do well by his daughter, and generally being less of a dick.

    And so Justified doesn't really close. It just rounds out this phase of events nicely. Nobody is too much different than when they started, just enough to call it a character arc. Which is about perfect.

    I will miss that dialogue, though. I wish real life sounded like that.
  • I will not however, miss the dialogue in Daredevil, which is not to say I didn't enjoy the show. When I was a nerdy, awkward, 13-year-old lover of Marvel comics, Daredevil was my guy. A read the bulk of all the Marvel comics, but my key faves were the teams: Avengers (became the best action movie ever) , the Defenders (coming to TV, I understand), and the Fantastic Four (They mess of those movies, didn't they? How can you mess up the Silver Surfer?). I never really got attached to the X-Men for some reason. Daredevil, was the one solo guy I did connect with. I'm not sure what it was that attracted me to Daredevil. I could say it was his closeness to everyday humanity -- he just had some training and amplified senses, no world crushing superpowers, no immortality -- but who can explain why a fearful and sensitive child makes the connections he does.

    Anyway, Netflix's new Daredevil series got a lot right. They got the tone right -- gritty and more graphic than your standard Marvel fare. They got the villain right -- Vincent D'Orofino should get an emmy nomination for his wonderfully shaded Kingpin portrayal. They got the style right -- the settings and fight scenes were striking to say the least. But, oh, the dialogue was painful! Riddled with exposition and cliche, it was overly long and every time two characters got in a room and started talking the pace of the show fell through the floor. The actors did their level best with it, but they really have to sort that out for season two or this will fall off the watch list very quickly. That would be a shame because there is a ton of potential in this show.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Month That Was - March 2015

Apart from surviving another winter (my 55th) the life demarcation of the month was my mom's 90th birthday. She survived a childhood during the Great Depression, which makes our houses-underwater crisis look like paradise; served with the Waves in WW2, the sacrifices of which make our long lines at airport security seem like fly spec on the window; and she raised me and didn't end up in therapy, which should have earned her a Nobel Prize. She still drives to the store, still sits on her condo board, and still goes out to eat with her friends, and seems as happy as can be. Because of her I am convinced that, if you can stay relatively healthy, independent, and engaged with the world, happiness increases with age, not the reverse. Next target: triple digits.

Apart from that, still writing, still working, still pushing my way through life as best I can. I am 36 years behind my mom.

[Books] Book Look: The Devotion of Suspect X
[Rant] Fraternal Disorder
[Tech] The End of an Era
[TV] Latest Toobage
[Books] The Mirror of Yesterday

[Books] Book Look: The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino

For me, the toughest part of writing a novel is the plotting. I really struggle with a generating a complex, interwoven, causal series of actions to get my point across.So when I come across a book like The Devotion of Suspect X, which is exquisitely plotted, I am doubly impressed.

Yatsuko is a divorced mother working hard to raise her daughter solo. She is paid a visit by her scumbag ex-husband and things turn violent. In the process she kills her ex as he is assaulting her daughter. She frets that she is now a murderer and her fate is sealed, but her next door neighbor, Ishigami, overhears what happened and, as he has a secret love for Yatsuko, he takes it upon himself to hide the crime. Ishigami, it turns out, is a mathematical genius who uses all his clever intellect to arrange things so that even though suspicion might fall on Yatsuko, there will be so much misdirection and uncertainty that nothing will come of it. Unfortunately, the police are in the habit of employing Manabu Yukawa, a physics professor and former classmate of Ishigami, to assist in these sorts of investigations. His nickname is Detective Galileo, so you can expect a high order game of cat and mouse.

The novel doesn't necessarily dodge all of the shortcomings typical in police procedurals. There are potential inaccuracies: I am not familiar with criminal legalities in Japan but I find it hard to believe that a woman who kills a man while he is assaulting her daughter would be charged with murder like any other criminal. Perhaps there is no such thing as justifiable homicide in Japan? But this is required to trigger the action. Much of the investigation is based on “evidence" no person would actually think of as connected to the case. But again, this helps keep the narrative moving. There is manipulation: Detective Galileo keeps secrets from his colleagues (and therefore us) until it is dramatically appropriate to reveal them. And the characters, at least at the outset, are fairly cliched. This is all de rigeur for a police procedural and in no way out of line or jarring in this book.

And there is so much more on the positive side. First and foremost the story really moves. There are no dead spots. At no point was I thinking, as I often do, that the length could easily be cut in half. It is an exceptionally well paced book; tautly written and, presumably, tautly translated; that is half the battle in genre writing. And as I mentioned before the plotting is extraordinary. The step-by-step actions and reaction is interwoven seamlessly with the steady, teasing stream of reveals.

But the icing on the cake is the ending. The characters, adequately drawn for most of the book, suddenly take on a deeper humanity that brings a real emotional effect. Our protagonists go from hopeful of total escape, to acceptance of lesser suffering, to total devastation. Law is enforced, but Justice is only partially served. Unlike most books where the ending is almost a letdown, here the ending elevates the story above the crowd.

Should you read The Devotion of Suspect X? Yes. I can't think of anyone who wouldn't enjoy it, either as a connoisseur of well-written police procedurals or just for an engrossing beach read. Enjoy.

[Rant] Fraternal Disorder

When I was in college I belonged to a fraternity (this was at The University of Michigan). Of course, my fraternity was not anything like your stereotype. I don't recall many formal parties and, since we were really a bunch of low-end slackers, it wasn't like the sororities were remotely interested in spending time with us. A significant portion of our membership were there because they really had nowhere else to go, and because nobody complained too loudly about how much weed they smoked. I won't mention which fraternity so as not to embarrass anyone who has tried to lead an upstanding life since then.

So here's my SAE (Sigma Alpha Epsilon) story from thirty years ago. Every year there was a festival called Greek Week where all the frats and sororities on campus got together and held silly little competitions and various events, mostly for charity. Supposed to be a fun thing. Since there were many more frats than sororities, each team consisted of two frats and and one sorority, randomly drawn. One year, my frat, probably the least desirable one on campus, got teamed with SAE and some sorority I don't even remember. Needless to say the SAE Hitler Youth were not happy about this; it must have been a source of great shame to have to been associated with us. At one point a couple of them stormed over to our house and told us we were going to do whatever they told us, when they told us, or we were going to get our asses kicked. This was the mentality of these idiots.

So when I heard about the racist video from their Oklahoma chapter and I realized they were going to have the full weight of righteous progressive society dropped on them from on high, my gut reaction was that it couldn't have happened to a more deserving bunch of guys.

I don't really have a SAM (Sigma Alpha Mu) story. In my time, they were thought to be a decent sort; good Jewish boys, and such. Although SAM hadn't been exclusively Jewish for decades, it was still predominantly Jewish at the time. I have to think that changed because -- and this is not intended as a backhanded bigotry -- most of the Jewish people I know are way too intelligent to trash a ski resort in a drunken rampage.

Anyway, both those places -- the Oklahoma SAE chapter and the Michigan SAM chapter -- are history now. That's probably appropriate. Although I will say in a half-hearted defense of SAM, it's really hard to cause 400K in damages in a weekend, even for frat boys. My guess is the figure is closer to 100K and 400K is just the start of negotiations.

In further mitigation of outrage, I'll just point out that fraternities are an easy target; they are reviled in popular culture and you will see them get painted with a broad brush by people who would go into a fit of moral indignation if you engaged in such stereotyping in any other circumstances. All fraternities aren't full of drunken, spoiled brats who drug and rape coeds with impunity. All chapters of a given fraternity aren't the same from campus to campus or era to era. It's entirely likely that the SAE chapter at Michigan is no longer peopled with Hitler Youth. It is certainly true that my fraternity at Michigan is no longer filled with layabouts and scoundrels. Indeed, those times had changed before I even left.

But I have to say, given the events of the past few weeks I have never been happier to have been a part of a brotherhood of low-end, bong-hitting, undesirable slackers. Whatever our shortcomings at the time, at least we did no harm.

[Tech] End of an Era

Over the years I have documented my various misadventures with technology of all sorts, but through it all there had been one item that consistently merited praise. It will sound strange, but the most pleasing and reliable piece of technology I have ever owned is my SMC router. After going through a couple of name brand routers that failed pretty much the instant their warranty was up, I ended up with the SMC based on a review I read on NewEgg. I first plugged it in maybe ten years ago, it worked well, and it continued to work well, without fail. No phone, no tablet, no laptop, no TV -- no piece of technology has been as loyal and stress-free as my little router.

So imagine my shock a few months ago when I suddenly lost my wi-fi. I fiddled around a bit and eventually resetting the router got me back on-line. Just a fluke, I told myself. But then it happened again a month or so later. Then it started happening a bit more frequently. At this point I have to reset it every week to ten days on average. Not bad, really. I know of brand new name brand routers that don't work as well. But it is a sign that my dear little friend is sliding into dementia. There will come a point when resetting it won't work. That will be a dark day indeed.

I have purchased a replacement just in case. I don't want to be in the middle of something only to find myself untethered and having to cobble together something make-shift, or worse, head for the nearest McDonalds, to finish. The only question is When do I pull the plug? I think sooner rather than later. If I pull it while it's still working I can continue to use it as an emergency back up. I don't think I could bring myself to throw it away. Instead I'll let it sit idly on the shelf in well-earned retirement. Never can say goodbye.

Oh, the new one is a TP-Link AC 1750. Purchase based on a recommendation from The Wirecutter. It has a lot to live up to.

[TV] Latest Toobage

Justified is doing fine in its final go 'round. I'll should write a retrospective once it's over. It had its uneven streaks over the years but it was a cut above. Not eternal art, but top quality TV and it will be forever iconic in pop culture, I strongly suspect. Assuming Raylan Givens survives the finale, I can easily see a follow-up movie or mini-series. Once again, TV outdoes movies -- this time at interpreting Elmore Leonard.

Mad Men is coming, and going, in the next couple of months. I've pretty much written its eulogy before. It is the last gasp of TVs heroic age. Little more needs to be said than that. It was not high-concept like the holy trinity (Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire) it was simply the finest sustained character study in the history of film and video arts.

I am cheered by Better Call Saul. Vince Gilligan is proving himself to be awfully talented once again. And frankly, from what I've seen Better Call Saul has potential to join The Pantheon. (The Pantheon is the holy trinity mentioned above + Mad Men and Breaking Bad.)

There are a number of TV critics who think The Americans is the best show on TV now. One in particular, Andy Greenwald at Grantland, declared season 2 the best TV show of 2014. I had to check it out to see what I was missing. Short summary: I disagree. It's a very good, well made show, but there are too many holes in its game. I really struggled with tone. On the one hand there is realistic Cold War intrigue, but on the other hand they will end up with action scenes where a 90-pound Keri Russell is kung-fuing two-hundred pound men into unconciousness. That pulls them from being a tense, semi-realistic thriller into Buffy-style fantasy. There was also the suggestion that the show was fascinating in the way it made you root for Russian spies over your own country. It didn't do that for me. I found myself hoping the protagonists got caught and strung up by their jubblies. For a while that's OK, but it's remarkable how exhausting it is to watch a show where the bad guys always seem to get away. I tried to binge season 2 and got about eight episodes in before I gave up. Good show, top quality production, you'll probably enjoy it, but not as great as you may have heard. Still, I may finish it one day.

My other binge, Silicon Valley, is turning out nicely. Terrific performances and pitch perfect satire. One of my get-off-my-lawns is how inane dorks like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have conditioned the public to think that satire is just half-witted snark that confirms your views and massages your ego. It's not. Silicon Valley is satire of the highest order. In all the years I have been blogging I have never mentioned the company I work for but it's a big progressive multinational in the information industry and you can bet your gold Apple Watch that I see a lot of the sorts of things being satirized in Silicon Valley every day. Great, sharp-eyed stuff. There are weak moments of broad farce, and a fair amount of empty raunch, but at its best it approaches a level of comedy unseen since Archer in its heydey.

I have been one of the dozen or so people who have been watching Episodes on Showtime. Since you probably never heard of it, it's a lightweight comedy about a married pair of English TV writers who try to recreate their hit show in America and have all sorts of misadventures with a zany cast of characters. The writing is standard fare, but there was usually a good guffaw in each episode, mostly due to the fine comic chops of the actors, including Matt LeBlanc playing a douchebag version of Matt LeBlanc. They only did 8 episodes a season and first couple of seasons were fine; the third not so much; and the just-finished fourth one was pretty sad. A good case study on what happens to a show when you run out of ideas. Time to let it go.

Lastly, the big rumor is that one of my favorite shows in history, X-Files, looks to be getting re-start order as a short stack (6-8 eps). David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are on board, which is good, Chris Carter is going to be the showrunner again, which is OK, and he'll also do all the writing, which is not so ok. He was responsible for every boring episode of the original series and the lame movies as well. Unless he can lure back Vince Gilligan, Glen Morgan, James Wong, and the divine Darin Morgan to do the heavy lifting, I do not have high hopes.

Can't return soon enough: Second seasons of Fargo, True Detective, and Silicon Valley, and the 5th of Game of Thrones, of course.

[Books] The Mirror of Yesterday

I have been slowly working my way through The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer from the early twentieth century who had suffered a decline in notoriety, but has recently been given attention because Wes Anderson stated hisbooks to be very influential on his creation of The Grand Budapest Hotel. It is a remarkable book for many reasons, and I'll review it in full soon. For now, let me just give you an extended quote:
"In its liberal idealism, the nineteenth century was honestly convinced that it was on the direct and infallible road to the best of all possible worlds. The people of the time scornfully looked down on earlier epochs with their wars, famines and revolutions as periods when mankind had not yet come of age and was insufficiently enlightened. Now, however, it was a mere matter of decades before they finally saw an end to evil and violence, and in those days this faith in uninterrupted, inexorable 'progress' truly had the force of a religion.

Science, the archangel of progress, had worked all these miracles. Social welfare was also proceeding apace; from year to year more rights were granted to the individual, the judiciary laid down the law in a milder and more humane manner, even that ultimate problem, the poverty of the masses, no longer seemed insuperable….Sociologist and professors competed to make the lives of the proletariat healthier and happier--no wonder that century basked in its own sense of achievement and regarded every decade as it drew to a close as the prelude to a better one."
In my middle-aged pursuit of understanding the validity of our societal faith in cultural progress, have I not said almost exactly the same things in describing us (although probably not as eloquently)? Tell me if that does not sound like something I've written in the last couple of years. It shines a light on much of what I have been thinking and feeling about progressivism: that it is not new but must delude us that it is for it to hold. More next month, but I just felt like I had to offer a little taste.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Month That Was - February 2015

It's been a trying winter, one of the coldest in history, but I have to count my blessings. My house has been nice and warm, my car has never failed to start. I have been lucky to spend my evenings with a fire in the fireplace and cup of ramen. Still, it will be the cusp of Spring before I get away for any travel. In general, have come to terms with Winter, and not just as a counterpoint to green flora or a cost to pay for the beautiful summer. It is nice at times to have a respite from yard work and hornet's nests or other projects around the house. But immoderate winters like the last two (last year was the snowiest, this year the coldest) can really wear on the soul. In such times it's important to get away for a break of sunshine and warmth and I did not do that. That situation needs to be rectified going forward.

I am building ideas for this year's travel and I am torn between doing things I have done before and know I love, versus new experiences. For instance, I would love to do the Bryce Canyon half marathon again, but that's a big undertaking and I would have to spend some time out there to make it worthwhile, but I've already seen all the highlights. If I'm going to expend that much effort, wouldn't it be better to go and see something new, like maybe Glacier National Park?

In any event, I am still making writing progress. That's important. And I still have my health, my friends, my intellectual curiosity, and my sense of humor. So I guess I'm doing pretty well.

Blessings counted.

[Movies] Action Summit
[Cars, Rant] Driverless Cars and The World of Tomorrow
[Books] Book Look: The Lost Domain
[Science] Start Making Sense
[Rant] Something from the Bar

[Movies] Action Summit

Just following up on an off-hand comment I made last month. Here's how I would rank the best action films of all time.
  1. Avengers - Joss Whedon is 2nd to none at action and he is just slightly younger than me so I suspect we had the same reading material as tweens -- Marvel Comics. With The Avengers he was in the element of his life.
  2. Iron Man 3 - Sir Ben Kingsley for the win: "Well I panicked, but then I handled it." Perfect blend of comedy and action.
  3. Thor: Dark World - arguably should be second place with a better finish than IM3, but lacks to top quality whimsy of IM3 at it's best.
  4. Dark Knight/Dark Knight Rises - the best non-Marvel properties. Striking for the unfashionable political themes that the action allows you to ignore if you want.
  5. The Matrix - a landmark that kicked off the action film pinnacle.
  6. Spiderman - a revelation at the time about how astonishingly good superhero movies could be and a bellwether for Marvel properties to come.
  7. Cap: Winter Soldier/Iron Man 1/Spiderman 2 - this is where things get murky and I lose interest in ratings...
There will be a cadre of folks who will make arguments for older films Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones, Alien(s), even some Schwarzenegger/Stallone/Willis style films. They certainly match the best when it comes to humanity, but the modern Marvel films excel at pacing, cinematography, editing, and the more technical aspects of filmcraft. These are linearly developable skills that make possible steady improvements over time, like athletic world records. I guess you could say when it comes to action films I'm a progressive.

Honestly, I have to admit this list is probably biased to my personal experience. I have written previously about how the tone and tenor of Marvel Comics from roughly the 70's-ish has come to dominate the blockbuster movie milieu. Beyond that, actually: the whole era of hyper-ironic, self-referential, magic realism that forms a huge part of our pop culture can, I think, be traced to 13-year-olds like me following Spiderman and The Avengers every month. In that sense this list may have been self-fulfilling. Is Marvel-ism ascendent because it is superior or is it just the cultural and economic influence of people like me forcing our opinions on the rest of you? If it's the later, then all I can say is you're lucky we're in charge otherwise The Expendables would be sincere and serious. For a more critical and less Marvel-oriented view of action movies you can watch this video.

Various aspects of culture peak at different times, either because of fashion or technology or just happenstance. For example, today there is fine music being produced as always, but no musical genre is at it's peak right now as say, rock was in the late '60s or the times of the Great American Songbook in the 30s and 40s. I don't believe any form of writing is at it's peak right now, although good writing is happening in so many different forms and being delivered in so many different ways that it's hard to tell. TV peaked just recently -- remember the days when Sopranos and Deadwood and The Wire were running simultaneously? TV is still good, but not what it was. I'm ranting about action movies because they are the aspect of our culture that is at its peak right now. Movies, in general, are not. They are, in fact, mostly awful, but action films are peaking. Even what we would consider an average action film today -- Edge of Tomorrow, for an example -- would have been a revelation 15 or 20 years ago. They may not be great and eternal works of art, but action films are what we do best at the moment. It's probably worth paying attention.

[Cars, Rant] Driverless Cars and The World of Tomorrow

The march to driverless cars is inexorable. Like it or not, they are coming. Now, it's slowly starting to dawn on everyone what an enormous societal upheaval this is going to be. To get an idea, check out this map of the most common jobs in every state. In 2014 commercial driver was the most common in about 29 states. Driverless vehicles will do away with every one of those jobs. Up until recently the notion of losing your job to automation has been a niche thing. A few factory workers here and there, often unionized workers who had at least some sort of cushion. In fact, a lot of displacement via technology has happened in more low-end white collar jobs as when the internet did away with discount stock brokers and bookstores/video rental. Driverless cars will be the first wholesale obsolescence of unskilled labor. I expect:
  • Unending breathless news reports about how horrible it is.
  • Protests, possibly riots. (We have spent far too many decades equating victimhood with righteousness for this not to turn ugly.)
  • Potential power grabs by organizations associated with class conflict and working class populism: Unions, Occupiers, etc. (These will likely fail because they invariably end up collapsing under the weight of internal contradictions. When the anti-elite win, they become what they opposed.)
  • Mad confusion as everyone twists the crisis to support their own causes: higher taxes, lower taxes, less immigrants, more immigrants, etc.
  • The well-intentioned upper middles who still have jobs will call for all sorts of assistance to the displaced, while their robot cars take the kids to soccer practice.
  • In the short run (perhaps not only in the short run), it's entirely possible that some of the displaced workers will be allowed to ride along with the robots as emergency backups, essentially being paid for nothing in the interest of social harmony.
In the long run, the problem remains. The further into the future we go, the less the value of people on the left hand side of the bell curve -- that's harshly put, but accurate. And as flip as I may sound, it is a real problem. It's hard for someone on the right hand side of the curve not to address this without sounding condescending, but I'm sincere. A world where huge swaths of the population are useless and purposeless is a monstrous dystopia, yet it seems to be almost inevitable.

My characterization of it as a bell curve issue implies a relationship to IQ and to some extent it is. High IQ people will adapt better in a world where more and more jobs require abstract thinking and information jockeying. The ultimate key however is a question of skilled versus unskilled. The abstract thinking required of a plumber is not great, but you can't be an idiot and be a successful plumber because the skill level is high, and that's a clue. Skilled blue collar jobs will probably be alright. I can easily envision a robot truck driver; not so much a robot plumber or electrician. Along the same lines, a low-skill white collar jobs is as likely to crash as a low-skill blue collar job -- entry-level jobs in retail sales, for instance, are at risk, as are something like actuaries and claims adjusters, or any information job that mostly involves following fairly well-defined rules and protocols. This is not to say skilled jobs won't disappear eventually, it just seems an order of magnitude further away.

That said, even though it looks bad I don't anticipate the apocalypse; just a painful period of adjustment. I suspect it will all settle in some new, unspoken social compact wherein there is more wealth transfer from the skilled to the unskilled. It won't be in the form of direct welfare since that angers both the givers and receivers. It will be in the form of payments for what is ultimately unnecessary work, or work made inefficient through regulations, or status premiums to hand-made goods, so as to keep people employed and make them feel of value and allow everyone, payers and payees, to maintain a plausible image of reason. Fringe elements will decry this as societal delusion and hypocrisy, but the mainstream will rationalize it because it keeps the peace and keeps civilization going. That is, after all, a hallmark of civilization: rationalizing hypocrisy for the greater good.

I'm getting into futurism now, which is not really my forte. Much of this will occur long after I'm gone. There is always a temptation to see the bad in change and weep for the settled world of the past, but the past was not so glorious, nor is the present. Neither will be the future. It will just be different.

Of course, in the very long run, all jobs will be gone and we'll all be dead brains in jars.

Related: Google's been in the game for a while, now comes Apple.

[Books] Book Look: The Lost Domain, by Alain-Fournier

Also known by the titles Le Grand Meaulnes, The Lost Estate, the Wanderer, The End of Youth, and probably others, The Lost Domain suddenly popped up on my radar when I read somewhere that it was a major influence of F.Scott Fitzgerald and could be thought of as an French equivalent of Catcher in the Rye. It was also spoken highly of by Nick Hornby of High Fidelity and About a Boy fame. Given its pedigree as a hidden influence on some great literature I almost had to read it.

There are really three aspects to the book. First is an idyllic description of rural life in France before the World Wars; a flowery, poetic existence filled with gentle youthful activities and provincial comforts (instructively, to my 21st century senses it seems rather like poverty). This is the world of the narrator, Seurel, who is in his mid teens. Into this mix appears a stranger named Meaulnes --
Le Grand Meaulnes -- an older and larger teen who quickly becomes a dominant force among the youth of the area and a great friend to the narrator. So it is clear this book is of the "stranger comes to town" genre.

Then a turning point comes. Meaulnes sneaks away on some juvenile escapade, gets lost, and finds himself at a private estate where a wedding is imminent. He is mistaken for a guest and joins in the festivities, which take on the feel of an otherworldly fantasy. In the midst of all this revelry, Meaulnes is lovestruck a beautiful young girl and develops strong bonds of friendship with the groom. Then, suddenly it's over. The groom receives a message that his bride is not going to marry him after all, he flees in shame and disappointment, all the attendees filter away and Meaulnes staggers back home completely changed by his experience.

The next section, the 2nd aspect, of the book takes the form of a quest. Meaulnes cannot remember where this estate was and so cannot follow up on his desire to help the former groom or find the love of his life. With the help of the narrator he leaves no stone unturned in his search to find the girl who bewitched him. They explore the area, make maps, pursue clues in the stories of their elders, until a final clue comes that compels Meaulnes to abandon his provincial life and his narrator friend Seurel, and make his way to Paris.

Without giving away details, let's just say this all ends in sorrow and tragedy and regret. So...yay for love and romance! The book's 3rd aspect, and in truth the overall theme of the book, which is clear from the outset more or less, is the loss of youth and innocence to the cold reality of adult life. A well trodden theme, but perhaps not so well trodden well over a century ago.

It's easy to see the F Scott Fitzgerald connection. The misguided juvenile motivations and obsessions show up in This Side of Paradise, and the tragic hero whose story is told by a well fleshed-out narrator form the structure of Gatsby. The Catcher in the Rye not so much; there is little cynicism.

Should you read The Lost Domain? I have to go with a qualified "no". The translated prose is rich and well-coiffed, if occasionally bordering on overwrought, but the Innocence Lost theme has no novelty for even a casual reader and in this case, it feels very distant culturally and chronologically. I could identify quite well with the actions of the characters in This Side of Paradise, but here the small actions, which (I think) were intended to be familiar and build an image of rural life, were not in my realm of understanding. More importantly, the teenagers presented seem overly precocious, filled with profound inner thoughts and a strong sense of solemn purpose. I cannot relate to that at all. In my experience youth equates to thoughtlessness, shallow beliefs, and a near total lack of self-awareness. This generated an underlying feeling of implausibility that I couldn't shake.

Alain-Fournier never wrote another book. He was killed in the trenches in WW1, so if this book came from his personal experience that youthful glee leads to tragedy, he sadly never got to experience the adult joys that balance it.

[Science] Start Making Sense

Mavens of cosmology and metaphysics will occasionally remark on what tremendous progress we have made in understanding our universe. To that I say, "Bah!" What you see as progress I see as a mess. We have "solved" our equations with gussied-up hand-waving in the form of Dark Stuff: Dark Matter and Dark Energy. These aren't actual things, you see. When our formulas and expected values don't turn out to be right, we need to invent something that makes them work, thus Dark Stuff. This is our way of saying "Our equations are failing, so either A) they are outright wrong or, B) there is something out there we can't see that makes them right. We pick (B), and because we are scared of being wrong." Well, (B) might be correct but treating the selection of (B) over (A) as progress is shameless.

The Physics arVix Blog discussed a number of paradoxes that our current theories cannot explain. Some strike me as pretty damning of our understanding. For example:
Perhaps the most dramatic, and potentially most important, of these paradoxes comes from the idea that the universe is expanding, one of the great successes of modern cosmology. It is based on a number of different observations.
What's curious about this expansion is that space, and the vacuum associated with it, must somehow be created in this process. And yet how this can occur is not at all clear.
We know, or at least we think we know, that "empty space" is actually something -- fields and potential energy and so forth. So how does "empty space" get created as the universe expands? Either we have something wrong or there is another Dark Thing doing the creating -- a Dark Creator (careful, don't say God). (As I look through those paradoxes it sure seems like our interpretation and use of redshift causes a lot of problems. Hmmm.)

The latest broadside against convention is that there is now a theory of existence that doesn't require a Big Bang. Clarity: It's not a "disproof" of the Big Bang, but a possible structure of the universe that doesn't require one. Sadly it does imply an infinite universe and so doesn't resolve the issue of Creation requiring either infinity or a brute fact, but the overall effect here is the Einstein and Relativity is coming under doubt. While this is not really a new development, it is starting to gain force. (Tom Bethell wrote a book called Questioning Einstein years ago, suggesting we have failed by accepting relativity to the exclusion of other possibilities. Too bad he can't be as thoughtful about website design.) Just so we are clear, the argument here is not that relativity is wrong. There are tons of experiment outcomes it predicts exactly. The argument is that relativity is unnecessary to explain these outcomes.

For all our confidence in progress and our scientific hubris, it seems we are as susceptible to error and foolish faith as everyone else. We are not that smart after all. We are the most arrogant era of man and yet we are at least as wrong as every one before us.

[Rant] Something from the Bar

One curious aspect of being me is that when I drink I am a happier person. That is not to say I am unhappy otherwise, it's just an observation of how I react to alcohol. As a former bartender, I can testify that there is a great range of potential psychological reactions to drink -- some people get depressed from drinking, some get violent, most everyone gets less inhibited -- in my case I tend to laugh more easily and feel stronger enthusiasms. For example, I might laugh out loud at something I would normally just smile at, or be quicker to express opinions even if they aren;t well thought out. Things I just like when sober, I love after a couple of drinks. It's not the real me, and I honestly don't think I would like to be like that all the time (although, maybe...), but it's not a bad feeling and it certainly makes drinking an attractive occasional activity to me. And if in vino veritas, then it's an indicator that I am deep down a happy person.

Drinking is not a risk to me, as far as I can tell. I do not believe I have an addictive physiology. When I was young I drank a good deal more than I do now. I can vaguely remember long stretches -- say 3 or 4 months -- where I had multiple drinks daily, yet I was never had any problem turning of the switch and doing without. About the only chemical in my life that I have ever had a physical withdrawal reaction from is caffeine, and the reaction consists of a headache for a day and then feeling out-of-it for a while because my body is so used to being caffeinated. But given how I feel when I drink, I can see the attraction of alcoholism to alcoholics. The worries fade, the world becomes a nicer place. I'm sure with frequent and consistent drinking anyone could become an alcoholic, and if you can live out your life with your worries stifled and laughing more, maybe that's not so bad.

There are trade offs, of course, otherwise everyone would be doing it. An alcoholic is effectively useless and a source of pain to anyone who may be depending on him. If you believe, as I do, the core object of life is to have a positive effect on other people, alcoholism amounts to abject failure. Judged from a purely narcissistic point of view, however, alcoholism is not a bad path. In some cases, it may actually optimize total personal happiness over a lifetime. Is it really that much different from whiling away your days in a Zoloft haze?

Tangent: There is endless irrationality and hypocrisy in our attitudes towards drugs (including alcohol). This is no surprise. As human beings there is endless irrationality and hypocrisy in pretty much everything we do. The evolution of societal thought toward rationality is a slow, ten-steps-forward-nine-steps-back process, but it does happen. For the great bulk of recorded history there were no laws or regulations limiting the use of any chemicals. The notion of "controlled substances" are a product of aggressive progressivism -- idealized behavior modification en masse. It's interesting to note how the this trend of prohibition and criminalizing drugs may have peaked in the 20th century. There was (capital P) Prohibition early in the century and the militarized War on Drugs in the later half. I detect a long term shift in this trend. Not just because we have dipped a toe in the legal pot pool. We are beginning to see acknowledgement that many of our drug taboos are too strident. The world is repelled by athletes uses chemical enhancements, but we are also starting to acknowledge that stuff like testosterone and HGH can improve the quality of life in certain circumstances. (Personally, HGH sounds wonderful to me. I hope to be wealthy enough to afford it by the time I'm 60.) The door is even opening for hallucinogenics again, if not quite at Timothy Leary levels of devotion. And I am told there are now shelters specifically for alcoholics that no longer discourage drinking. They offer a secure place to just let them drink their lives away. Changes comes slowly. End tangent.

No, my bigger concern with alcohol is the calories. A couple of beers or drinks and you're looking at 300 calories. Add 300 calories a day to your diet and you'll pack on pounds surprisingly fast. Were I to habitually take a couple of nightly drinks, I would have to knock 300 calories out somewhere else. That means finding the strength of will to forego all the sweets and such that people bring into the office every damn day. I don't think I could, which is pathetic, but realistic, of me. Were I what an economist might refer to as a "rational actor" that would imply that I am actually happier snacking at work than I am drinking at night. But I don't feel that way, so either I am deluding myself about the happiness work snacks bring me, or I am not rational. My money is on the later.

I have now completely forgotten where I was going with this, except as an observation that I should find a way to drink more and thus be happier, although as you read this I suspect you are thinking I need to drink less.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Month That Was - January 2015

This month has been rather depressing for me. I suppose I see little to look forward to in 2015. What I have for this year are house renovations and repairs, and a trip to Florida for my Mom's 90th birthday, and the usual round of other trips in conjunctions with races, and, um, well that's about it. At times it seems like nothing more that way for me to spend my savings with as little variation from habit and custom as possible. It's a good life, but like most people, a good and settled life doesn't translate into excitement and enthusiasm (although it should).

But that is under my control, right? If I want something to look forward to, I need to make something to look forward to. I would like to get a new DSLR and resume my travel photography hobby. That would require a) spending money on a new DSLR and b) spending money on travel. And whenever I think about spending money on a new venture the house puts on puppy dog eyes and cries, "What about me?"

The book continues to progress. I am making some decent headway in plotting, and working from an outline for the first time ever. It's still a long, long way off, but I think I can say that if I ever do finish it, it will be the first book I have ever written that has a shot at anything resembling commercial success.

And I have done one new thing this year. I have started working with a personal trainer. In all the years I have diligent about fitness this is the first time I have done this. It has nothing to do with the running or biking that I usually do. It's all weight lifting, which I have come to understand is exceedingly important as you age, just to combat the natural muscle loss that comes from being an old man. It's also expensive and exhausting, but come summertime I should know if it has been worthwhile.

Summertime. Will summer ever come?

[Rant] To Do List: 2015
[Tech] TechnoBedlam
[Rant] I've Solved Poker, Says the Fish
[Books] Book Look: The Martian

[Rant] To Do List: 2015

No resolutions for me, just hopes and dreams. For the house it would be a remodeled master bath and new flooring in the living room. Both are doable and casual inquiries have been made. That would leave the kitchen, the basement, and the upstairs, in that order, for the future.

Honestly, if I get those two things done on the house, and keep up on my fitness goals, I would declare the year a success.

Fitness-wise, like a I mentioned above, there's the personal training adventure and I'm sure I'll do my usual mishmash of races. I would like to finally do a triathlon, after vowing to the last three years. I'd like to get in another Tough Mudder which should not be a problem since the team all wants to get together again. I'd like to get a half-marathon done, just so I don't backslide on distance. I think all that is doable.

As to travel, well, here's where I've scaled back from the days when I could go somewhere or do something every month. I made a conscious decision a few years ago to ease up on travel and devote my resources to the house, and I don't see a way around that. I'm thinking a spring trip down to FL to for my Mom's 90th, so that means doubling up a couple of nights in Sarasota with something else. Not sure what. Thanksgiving is Vegas again, this time with the emphasis on the week before, possibly a Monday-to-Monday situation. Details TBD. I'm sure there will be at least on Chicago weekend in there, during a time when it is warm enough to bike the lakeshore.

So I think I can do another reasonably sized and priced vacation in there somewhere. But where? Lately I've had a hankering for going back to Miraval, but that's an arm and a leg at the cheapest. Alaska is another possibility I've been considering for years, but it too is on the expensive side. Back to Hawaii? The Big Island needs to be seen, as does the North shore of Kauai, but: expensive A convenient possibility would be Bermuda, which was my first serious adult solo trip 18 years ago (!). This will require the pleasant sort of thinking with which I can while away a weekend afternoon.

But one key thing is for me to try to learn something new. To challenge my brain to remain plasticky enough to adapt. Again, I don't know what that would be, but I need to find something to which to devote an hour every other day or so that will just keep me slightly out of my comfort zone. I have taken to griping more than I should and dwelling on my age and shortcomings. The best thing I can think of to break the trend is to step outside it.

More thinking is required. Or perhaps less thinking and more doing.

[Tech] TechnoBedlam

Wherein I let up on my car this month -- whatever its ergonomic failings, it drives like a dream -- and take up arms against a different type of machine.

I have an enormous and stunningly beautiful 65" Panasonic flat screen in the basement. One of the last of the plasma TVs, it will likely be a collector's item one day. It weighs something on the order of 3 tons and gives off close to 50,000 BTUs of heat (all numbers approximate). But it has a failing that virtually every modern TV has today and that is there is no audio out, other than a somewhat weird optical audio out which requires a special sort of cable.

You see, the proper way to hook up your entertainment system in 2015 is to a) get a smart TV and, b) get a set of modern powered speakers; something like a 5.1 setup, which means 2 front, 2 rear, 1 center, and subwoofer (the subwoofer the .1, don't ask me why). Typically that weird audio output thing will hook up directly to the subwoofer which is then wired to all the individual speakers or, if you are sufficiently advanced, bluetooth instead of wires. This is a good set up. Your TV remote controls the volume, the TV source (streaming or cable), and you use your cable remote for changing channels and setting the DVR. You can theoretically drop to a single remote of the remote is programmable (more on that in a minute).

I am, of course, congenitally incapable of doing anything the easy way, and even when I try, circumstances conspire against me.

I have the non-smart, big-ass TV, a low-end Pioneer receiver, a Sony smart DVD that I use to stream (I don't actually have any discs), a Polk subwoofer, and a pair of Mission speakers that I have a had since forever and am quite attached to, a lastly my Charter cable box/DVR. Thus I am a living example of how technology is making life into swamp of soul-sucking bedlam.

Try to follow this: The cable box plugs into the TV's HDMI 1 port. The DVD plugs into the TV's HDMI 2 port. The TV's weird optical audio output goes to the receiver. The receiver powers the speakers. This setup affords me the genuine pleasure of using the maximum number of remote controls possible. They are arrayed in front of my sectional like a selection a hors d'oeuvres: 1) TV remote to switch between HDMI sources, 2) cable remote to change channels, 3) DVD remote to run streaming services, 4) receiver remote to control volume. I have to really think it thorough anytime I attempt an action. I can't conceivably suggest a guest enjoy some TV on my big screen without some form of fairly intensive preparatory lessons, after which they deem me to be some sort of sociopath and settle for watching Netflix on their phone.

Now, a lot of this could probably be solved with a good programmable remote, and the Charter cable box remote is programmable, but it doesn't work right. For instance, I can get it to power down the receiver, but not power it up. And I can't get it to control the volume on the receiver. And honestly the streaming menu on the DVD is pretty complex; I haven't a clue how that would work.

Why does this have to be such bedlam? The answer: because, by default, the fabric of the universe is woven into the pattern that will cause me the greatest annoyance. That's just plain science. A related, and more constructive, question: Is it conceivable to ever get down to a single remote without investing in a programmable? Theoretically, if you have a smart TV and a smart speaker system and the cable remote functioned exceptionally well and there was no legacy equipment around anywhere, then yes. In the real world, no. In the future, when all TV is streaming TV, you may be able to control your smart TV/bluetooth speaker setup that way but not now.

Related Update: Get this. I had been struggling with a cable box problem for years now. I wasn't sure what I was doing wrong, but I half blamed myself. I shouldn't have.

Some functions, especially the navigation functions when using the DVR, required the buttons on the remote be pressed multiple times, even dozens of time before the box reacted. Didn't matter if I put the remote right up close to the box, didn't matter if the batteries were new. It got so bad that I went and got a new box and remote from Charter (who were very nice about it). Guess what? Made no difference. I was completely confused. What are the chances of getting a defective box and/or remote twice in a row. I tried the remote from the unit in the living room: same problem - so it wasn't the remote's fault.. The cable boxes were entirely different models so unlikely they shared the same flaw. What in the actual hell was going on?

Then I discovered this. Unbelievable. My Panasonic plasma, the best and one the most expensive TVs available a few of years ago, emits enough infrared radiation to confuse the signal to the cable box. I have to figure out a way to shield the box from the TV or at least somehow to move it far, far away. Unbelievable.

Why does this have to be such bedlam?

[Rant] I've Solved Poker, Says the Fish

Anyone who has ever gambled knows a guy who claims to have a system. Everyone has a buddy who "always wins at blackjack". If we're friends, then you have a buddy with irrational confidence in his football betting system. But nobody really has a system, or at least nobody has one for long. This is what came to mind when there was a big todo about someone having a sure bet computer program for winning poker.

There is no such thing and I'll tell you why. First, when they say poker, they mean a very specific variation of poker which nobody plays. They mean Texas Hold'em, which is fine because it is the most common game; with a limit on amounts bet per hand -- OK, most Hold'em games are played with no limit, but limit games are legitimate and not uncommon; and the game has to be heads-up -- meaning just two players at the table, which never happens except at the end of tournaments or in dedicated heads-up tournaments, and then it is almost always no limit. I know of no such thing as a Texas Hold'em limit heads-up tournament, nor do I know any casino that runs a limit heads-up money game. So to start with they have solved poker by reducing it to a pretty much non-existent mutation of the game.

Next, they make liberal use of the term "long run." Since even this program cannot win every hand, it is easy for a player to gain an advantage in the short term and then just quit. Computer loses. "That's not fair you, didn't play long enough" does not fly. There is no whining in poker, unless you are Phil Hellmuth. Even if it can be proven that given enough time the computer's winnings will be greater than zero, I'd still prefer to be the guy who had a hot run, won big, then walked away. That is to say, you don't "win" poker by being up a $100 over three years of steady play, you win by being up $100,000 after one crazy night and then spending it on hookers and blow.

Lastly, it appears this program constantly hones its play via a feedback mechanism by which it determines what actions have proven right and wrong in previous hands and then adjusts its behavior accordingly -- how often and in what circumstances a bluff should work, for instance. But I cannot see how this optimization can't depend on expectations of what the opponent will do based on the opponent's past behavior, and any human being, and particularly a skilled poker player, can alter his behavior at will. If they've gotten around this issue I'd very much like to know how.

I strongly suspect this will be debunked in the upcoming weeks. I also suspect a skilled player could have this computer smoking at the ears and crying "Norman, coordinate!" without much effort.

[Books] Book Look: The Martian, by Andy Wier

I have spent most of the years of my life with at least one foot in fairly nerdish cultural circles. And since nerds tend to read sci-fi, I have often been recommended science fiction books to read, almost all of which have left me cold. Most I do not finish. I have been told that is because I have almost exclusively been recommended what is called Hard Sci-Fi. Hard sci-fi books focus on ideas and technology. Commonly these stories are formulated along the lines of "What would happen if...?" and the consequences of the ideas and/or technology is the topic of the book. Short shrift is given to character arcs and dialogue and stylistic concerns and such.
There is often action but little character development besides the drawing of a quick cliche and a boatload of expository dialog.

So imagine my surprise when I found The Martian, by Andy Weir, to be a real page turner. A mission to Mars runs into trouble and has to be aborted early, leaving astronaut Mark Watney presumed dead, but actually stranded on the planet with nothing but the leftover mission equipment to use for his survival. He must find a way to send a message to Earth so they know he's alive. An even if he does, it will be years before he can be rescued so he will have to survive by his skills (he is both an engineer and a botanist) and his wits on a planet without food, water, or breathable air.

The reason this is compelling is not simply the idea that it's possible to do this. (Of course it's possible in the circumstances constructed in the book. It wouldn't be much of a story if the guy died after the air in his spacesuit ran out.) It is the sketching of the sort of character it would take to get through this, even when it is theoretically possible. First the guy is a full-on engineer, by which I mean he is totally dedicated to problem solving given the constraints. He does not spend a second bemoaning his situation or fretting over his fate. He simply prioritizes his needs: 1. Air, 2. Water; 3. Heat and Shelter, 4. Food, 5. Communication. One problem at a time. Just put the blinders on and keep going. I cannot overemphasize how refreshing it is to see such a character celebrated in a world that seems to exist only for the expression and glorification of personal feelings.

Second, and almost as important, is the portray of Watney's ironic sense of humor and appreciation of the absurd. I can't imagine how anyone can get through normal life without those things, never mind survive on Mars. I suspect that once you have managed to build yourself a settled relatively safe routine for survival, as Watney does during the first portion of the book, only to have a freak accident blow up your habitat and kill all your food, a certain wry appreciation of the the dark soul of comedy is about the only thing that keeps your from losing your mind, never mind getting back to the work of survival.

Should you read The Martian? Sure. It's a great adventure story. Robinson Crusoe in space. It's well paced, and quite funny in parts. There are a couple of red flags, though. One is that the shifting narrative devices can be jarring. We have first person in Watney's log, third person point-of-view commentary back on Earth, aboard the spaceship you might either first or third, and even a bit of third person omniscient toward the end. Also the technical details of the repairs can get a little long in the tooth. But even though you know from the tone of the book that you can count on a happy ending, the suspense builds very well. Perhaps most importantly, this is very positive book: positive about human will, postive about people in general. That too, is a refreshing take in our increasingly negative popular culture.

Tangent: Originally, Weir simply posted this book chapter by chapter on his website in 2011. His fans pressured him to put it on Kindle, which he did for 99 cents. It sold so well that Crown publishing bought the rights for six-figures (and upped the price to $5.99, still a bargain), and 20th Century Fox has a movie lined up to be directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. That's a real life happy ending right there.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Month That Was - December 2014

Wait a minute. There's going to be another year? I don't recall voting on this. How did this happen?

Like many things in this world, Christmas has gotten easier. From back in the previous century I remember long lines at the post office and dire warnings from the clerks about how long it will take them to deliver my package, what with the holiday volume and all. In recent years my Christmas shopping has taken about 15 minutes spread out over a couple of days of casual web surfing. You get it online or you don't get anything. Easy-peasy.

What, you thought I was a Black Friday warrior or something?

Making good progress on writing. The new book is coming along nicely. Also, I note the Basho's Inward Road garnered a 5 star review from some kind soul on

I'm getting disgusted with myself for slacking so thoroughly on the house, which I pretty much did for the bulk of 2014. That has to change in 2015. Flooring, master bath, landscaping. I must bite the bullet and make get stuff going. And I must mean it.

Apart from that vow, no New Year's resolutions for me. No places to visit or fitness goals. I'll make ‘em up as I go. In fact, just as long as I still able to go, I'm probably lucky.

[Books] Book Look: House of Leaves
[Movies] The Golden Age of Monsters
[Cars] Infuriating Excellence

[Books] Book Look: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

It's hard to describe House of Leaves without making it sound like a gimmicky mess. And it is to no small extent, but it is not so gimmicky that it hides the well-told story at its core. Let me give you an idea of the structure.

The subject of the book is a reality style film (one suspects it is in the "found footage" style) in which a Pulitzer prize-winning photographer and his family discover that their recently purchased house is bigger on the inside than on the outside. A closet appears where there was none and it leads to an immense, blank, dungeon-like realm where space seems to shift and distance expand and contract to some unknown end.

The core of the book is found manuscript -- a critique of this film and its cultural influences, written by a somewhat eccentric, old, academic. We learn the contents of the film through this extended critique. This academic critique was found in the apartment of its author upon his death of either natural or unnatural causes.

The finder of this critique is one of the neighbors of the deceased academic. He is something of a low life, but he feels compelled to investigate the validity of the critique and peppers it with footnotes of his discoveries and interpretations.

Got it so far? The book is an academic critique of the film with extended footnotes by the third party low life. Except...

The low life may be crazy to the point of delusion. At first he hints that it is the manuscript itself that is driving him insane, but as his footnotes get more deeply autobiographical, we realize it may be a pre-existing condition or simply a grave emotional crisis brought on by confrontations of childhood trauma.

And there is considerable evidence that the film being critiqued doesn't actually exist. All of the cultural references in the critique appear to be made up. Also, the author of it was blind and there is no way he could have describe the film in such vivid visual detail from spoken descriptions.

As a result we are left with two somewhat parallel narrative both of questionable literary authenticity: the low life's footnotes and the description of a film that may not exist. The good news is, although this sounds like it must be some sort of mad jumble, it actually is not difficult to keep track of both narratives. The other good news is that the narratives, whether they are intended to be real or not, are excellent.

The better of the two is the narrative of the film. It is a standard haunted house story wherein the house is a metaphor for familial and marital troubles that ends with lovers joined and wiser, but it is remarkably delicately handled and the characters are drawn so well and sympathetically it transcends the cliche. The framework of describing it as part of an extended academic critique allows for interpretive commentary and perfectly timed digressions to heighten the suspense. Really, it's just exceptionally well done. Just the narrative of the film would have a made a great stand-alone horror novella.

The gimmicky parts got a little long in the tooth however. Since this was supposedly a presentation of the "actual manuscript" all sort of gymnastics were done with the text from missing and misspelled words to entire pages with a single word or sentence fragment, to mirror text, to extended list of items that had little relevance to the story. The hope was to emphasize the weirdness of both the story and the storyteller (the old, blind academic) but to me it was unnecessary. The words were enough to convey the correct tone and atmosphere. The gimmicks just got in the way.

The second narrative, the low life's story, had less of an impact on me. Probably because I don't share pop culture's fascination with low lifes, and the grueling descriptions of sexual encounters were, well, grueling. Still, the progression of the madness and the slow exposition of it's (probable) source were expertly handled -- perfectly structured and timed.

Danielewski is a writer of enormous gifts of craft. Whether either of the narratives touch you or you react positively or negatively to what I have called the gimmicks, there is no denying the astounding level of creativity that went into the formulating this book. Should you read House of Leaves? If you are attracted to unconventional fictional structure (or if you are at least not repelled by it) then yes. It's a very entertaining story (or stories) any way you approach it. If you are a very casual reader and struggle with anything that isn't a straightforward and fully resolved, or if you are just uncomfortable with uncertainty, then no. That is a key point that elevates this book above the crowd, the uncertainty is deeply integrated with every aspect of the story and becomes part of the experience for the characters and for the reader. It's a real stand out in contemporary fiction.

[Movies] The Golden Age of Monsters

I was channel surfing briefly on late night and I stumbled across a new (I think it's new) network called El Rey in the 800-level channels. It is apparently a network dedicated to camp, cult, and grindhouse style productions. Sort of a network dedicated to the tastes of Quentin Tarantino. Could be of interest if they find oddball films or do some original programming. Anyway, they were in the middle of a Japanese monster (or more properly daikaiju) festival starting with the original Godzilla (or more correctly Gojira).

Confession: when I was a wee lad I loved watching these monster flicks. There used to be something called The 4:30 Movie, which came on one of the three VHF channels every weekday at, yeah, 4:30pm. They typically ran all sort of low-rent movies, peppered with uncountable commercial breaks. But it was timed perfectly for when I got home from school. Every once in a while they would have monster week and when they ran these films and I never missed them. So forgive my nostalgiac need to write about them.

The story of the original Godzilla is well known. There are two version that are available to English speaking audiences. One is a straight voice over of the original Japanese film called, Gojira. The other is a that same film, chopped up and interspersed with additional scenes that feature Raymond Burr as an American journalist watching and commenting on the monster mayhem, and renamed Godzilla, King of Monsters. Common opinion is that the Raymond Burr version is deeply inferior and undeniably inauthentic. I somewhat agree, but I actively resist the smugly fashionable conceit of authenticity, even when it comes to monster movies. I will say that the original, despite the cheesy genre, has some excellent moments. The shadowy camera work and way tension is built in many early scenes is really striking, even to this day. It's easy to see how, in a darkened theatre, at a time when we weren't completely desensitized to special effects, in Japan, where there was common memory of a massive destructive force emerging from the East, this would be terrifying. Interest pretty much ends, however, when Godzilla appears and it is so obviously a guy in a clownishly amatuer-looking rubber suit, kicking over balsa wood models.

After that there were a handful of sequels introducing other monsters, specifically Rodan (a giant bird/reptile thing) and Mothra (a giant moth who is killed). Then came Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster, a movie that simply could not have been made without the consumption of untold quantities of LSD.

To wit: An south seas island whose natives worship an enormous and deeply creepy-looking caterpillar. Twin fairies, about a foot tall, who speak in unison, can summon the caterpillar via song, and live in a what appears to be a modified make-up kit. An androgynous woman who is clairvoyant and claims to be from Mars, but may actually be the resurrection of a human princess. (In the original Japanese version she was from Venus. They changed it to Mars for the US release for reasons that I'm sure it made sense when they were tripping.) A group of assassins in black suits from the princess homeland; these men are referred to as "the killers". And lastly Ghidorah itself, a three-headed, two-tailed dragon from outer space that shoots lightning out of its mouths and has no purpose other than wanton destruction.

The events are surreal. At one point the twin fairies appear on a sort of TV talk show and are challenged by some wise-ass kid to sing to the caterpillar. The androgynous woman is heckled by a crowd and told to do a striptease. The caterpillar has to convince Godzilla and Rodan to stop fighting and team up against Ghidorah by imploring them not to be "bullheaded". Pause to consider that one: A giant caterpillar called a giant bird and a giant reptile "bullheaded" as translated by twin telepathic foot-tall fairies speaking in unison. The mind reels.

Then there is the three-headed monster itself. It appears to have no purpose other than malevolence. It doesn't eat, sleep, breed, or do anything but break things kill people. Visually it is actually quite disturbing. It's three heads fly about haphazardly in all directions firing lighting wantonly, without any targeting intent. It emits an earsplitting shrill mechanical sort of shriek without pattern. It's a Lovecraftian vision of unfeeling, meaningless destruction. If I had to fight Cthulhu I would sick Ghidorah on him. It's clear at least one of the special effects team must have gotten a bad tab of acid.

You'd probably have to be pretty bored to actually seek out Ghidorah but if you notice it in your channel guide you may want to DVR it just to get a taste how weird the ‘60s really were and how the weirdness wasn't just confined to the West. Or you may want to check it out just to be in the know, because it appears the sequel to last Hollywood Godzilla, the one with Heisenberg, will mark the return of Ghidorah. I don't have high hopes for it. They don't make hallucinogens like they used to.

[Cars] Infuriating Excellence

Many years ago sci-fi author and technologist Jerry Pournelle coined the phrase "infuriatingly excellent" to describe a terrific piece of technology that was marred by some sort of inexplicable bug or, more likely, a misguided design feature. I would say infuriatingly excellent describes my 2014 Acura TL to a tee.

We have previously discussed the stupefying bizarreness of my car's keyless ignition system. It works like a dream, but if you lose the fob you are in a world of trouble. It's just expensive and slightly annoying if your are close to home, but if you are roadtripping far from a dealership you are in a world of pain and suffering, as there is no way to enter or drive your car with the fob. At that point you are going to have to go in search of rental car just to get you in a position where you can get a replacement key, and you better hope you are not leaving your (now bricked) car somewhere where it will get towed. Bottom line -- I could easily see a situation where you drop two grand or more. For losing you key.

Here's how: I am hundreds of miles from home or the nearest Acura dealer. I park in the lot a some beach or park, and then I lose my key fob. I cannot enter my car at that point. And even if I could I cannot start it. I can't keep spare fobs around because the keyless entry system only allows two to be in existence at any time and if they are in proximity to the car it will be effectively unlocked. At that point I am looking to rent a car, drive home, get my backup fob, drive back, only to discover my car has been towed for parking overnight where I shouldn't have. Then once finally retrieving my car (hopefully undamaged) then driving to the Acura dealer and ordering a new fob at a cost of about $400. Between fines, rental fees, and replacements I figure that would be about two or three grand. The life disruption is just a bonus.

That said, by careful planning, clever storage of the backup fob, and timely disabling of the keyless system I could protect myself from this. But why should I have to do this on a premium vehicle. Lesser brands have standard key backups. In 30 years of driving Toyotas I never worried about this because I could have a dozen keys made for a few bucks and always have one in my wallet.

As long as I have the fob the system works great. It's a terrific convenience not to have to dig in my pocket (and I suppose if I were a woman with a purse it would be an even greater convenience). It's excellent, but if I ever lose that fob, "infuriating" will be an understatement.

Then there are the little things about the electronics setup that are maddening.
  • The standard XM radio interface is lame -- it will display the station or the song info, but not both. My cheap little external unit I used in my previous two cars displayed more than that. You can get the AV display to show all the info but it reserves half the screen for the menu which is useless while you are driving. and it is awkward, and a bit laggy, to change stations.
  • You also can't set AV display to default to the radio. It always tries to start up to the live navigation map, and it always forces you to click through a disclaimer message telling you not to drive off a bridge even if the nav system tells you to. Always. Every time you start the car. Pull up a to a gas station, kill the engine, fill up on gas, then start the car -- you will have to click through the disclaimer. If you don't click the disclaimer in a certain amount of time the AV display clicks off. If I own this car as long as my previous ones I conservatively estimate I will have to click through this message on the order of 15,000 times.
  • The Nav system itself is good once you get an address entered, but getting an address entered is a crap shoot. You start by entering the name of the street -- not the street address, just the name of the street, and you better get it exactly right If you just enter "Main St" when you needed "South Main St" or "S Main" or "Main Street" you may have problem. Google and Microsoft have astoundingly flexible and forgiving interfaces for their maps. This interface behaves like a brain-damaged lookup from the early 90s internet.
  • The phone interface seems to work well; it reads my texts to me and answers voice calls properly and handles bluetooth flawlessly, but it will not import my contacts from my phone for some reason, so making calls via the voice interface is out unless I can figure out why it doesn't work. May have to do with Windows phone. I have never needed to do that anyway. I may just have to hand enter a few key numbers just in case.
All in all, it seems to be damning evidence that the value added by all this technology is counterbalanced by the frustration.

Now, ‘14 TL was the last year for the TL. It's been around a while, which is a selling point to me as it is well know car model have bugs and reliability issues worked out for the course of their model run. But it also may mean the the tech is out of date too and it's possible most of these problems are solved on newer models.

And I have to say the when it comes to actual driving, the TL is a flawless. The six-cylinder engine is smooth and strong in every situation, the transmission shifts are hardly noticeable. IT handles so well that I doubt an average driver like me would ever come close to finding a point where it was out of control. Unlike the pillowy rides of my previous Camrys, you can feel the bumps on the roads, but they do not jar you. It's truly a sweet, sweet, driving car. Over the road it is pretty close to flawless.

I just need to come to terms with the tricky electronics. Until Ii do, I would have to say given the opportunity to buy a different car, I would. It's possible this will be the first time in my life I don't keep a car until it falls apart. We'll see.

And with that I shall stop. Over the past three months it seems like I've written way too much about this. Isn't it just like me to struggle getting a few paragraphs of fiction written, but write a small novella's worth of gripes about my car? I'm done now. Until something goes wrong. Then I shall rail like nobody's business.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Month That Was - November 2014

No idea what happened to this month. I looked up and it was nearly gone. Let's see… I continued my battle to figure out a strategy for lost car key recovery. I have failed so far. As I write this I am on vacation, a few days on the sunny Gulf and then the traditional Thanksgiving in Vegas. I have made a bit of progress writing. We had a visit from evil friend, the polar vortex, just before I headed south. And now I'm left to figure out what happened to the month.
As I write this, I'm back from vacation and I have no idea where the last ten days went. I'm late posting this and you still get a short shrift; a car rant and a trip report. Hopefully back to normal pointless chaos next time, provided I escape this temporal vortex.

[Cars] Car Keyed
[Travel] Thanksgiving As Always

[Cars] Car Keyed

No, my car wasn't keyed. The keys are the problem. Or maybe it's just some kind of obsessive overreaction on my part. You be the judge.

My new Acura has a keyless entry system. That means the car has proximity sensors in the doors and the trunk that sense and react when the key is near. So if I have the key in my pocket all I need to do is touch the inside of the door handle and the door unlocks. Then, once seated in the driver seat, I can just press a button on the dash and the car starts. I never have to take my key out of my pocket, or if I were a woman, I would presumably never have to take my key out of my purse. Nifty.

It goes further. You get two keys (labelled 1 and 2) and the car knows which key was used to open it. Each key can have specific radio presets and seat positions, so if you have two drivers the car automatically sets itself up correctly for whoever is driving the car. I don't have two drivers but I can see where that would be useful.

Here's the problem. You can only have two keys at once, ever. You get one key 1 and one key 2. That's it -- no backups. You can get a replacement key but it must be programmed to be either key 1 or key 2 and once it is programmed the previous key 1 or key 2 no longer will work. You will only ever have two keys in existence that will start the car. There is no old fashioned key back-up that you can keep in your wallet (which is what I have done for decades). If you are hundreds of miles from home and you lose your key your car becomes a $30,000 dollar brick. You have to make arrangements to get it to the nearest Acura dealer or you have to make arrangements to get home and get your backup key. A replacement key itself along with the programming of it will run you about $400. Couple that with whatever transportation arrangements you have to make for yourself and/or the car and you are looking a four figures for a lost key. Yeeow!

You ask: Why not just keep both keys with you? Possible. These are big fat key fobs. It would be almost like carrying an extra cell phone everywhere. Also, you would have to take the time to program the car identically for both keys or it would be confused about where to set the drivers seat and the radio presets. Do-able but annoying as hell.

You ask: Can you hide the spare key somewhere on the car in one of those magnetic boxes? Maybe. But remember the proximity sensors will simply open the car if a key is near. So that would be risky.