Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The Month That Was - February 2017

It was a fairly productive month. Or at least it felt like it, but only because I made progress towards actually doing things in the future. I made strides toward getting the house painted, made progress on taxes, made arrangements for getting my second ever colonoscopy (joy). I also had a productive month at work, although that is not a topic for discussion.

I'm slowly zeroing in on travel plans, too, and being a good boy about staying fit over the winter -- the unseasonably warm weather has made that easier. So, as usual, I have no complaints.

Two more book reviews this month. I've been doing a lot of reading lately. I don't know what meaning to assign to that.

[Books] Book Look: Crazy Rich Asians
[Books] Book Look: How Much For Just the Planet?
[Movies] Flick Check: Dr. Strange
[Rant, Good Links] Irrational Follow-up

[Books] Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan

If you were to ask what the perfect beach read is, Crazy Rich Asians might be my answer. It's a well worn story -- actually parallel stories. A woman is shocked by how rich her boyfriend is and how his rich and predatory relatives conspire to break them up. This goes hand in hand with an identical sub-plot but in this case the girl is the rich one. Along the way we are treated to excess in all things; an entertaining litany of lurid commercial voyeurism. The rich folks consistently exceed all limits of spending and one-upmanship, behaving in the way rich people do in the fevered dreams of envious poor folks. It all sounds a bit Jackie Collins-ish, and it is. Furthermore, it is amped up a bit because the moneyed folks are all Asians from Singapore, because that's where the rich still behave like "The Rich" of a glitzy bygone era in the West.

Nothing terrible happens, beyond standard issue rom-com tragedy; nice for a change not to have everything be of urgent importance to mankind. Within the scope of the trashy nature of the story, Kwan keeps the quality high. The prose is clear and smooth. Humorous relief is plentiful and well-timed. Even the Hollywood happy ending fits well. And Kwan does a good job of making it seem completely natural how the characters are trapped and threatened by their wealth -- that is to say, little seems emotionally contrived, which gives it an authentic feel.

How authentic it actually is with respect to Singaporean culture I couldn't say, but it feels realistic and Kwan is, after all, from Singapore. The influence of the West ripples throughout, from the characters names, to the fact that they attend a Methodist Church, to pop culture references, to the academies and educational institutions they value. That was of interest to me. In many ways these characters do not much care about staying in touch with their Chinese roots. It almost seems as though Singapore is an outpost of the Anglosphere.

Should you read Crazy Rich Asians. Unless you are dead set against reading for entertainment as opposed to enlightenment, I can't see why not. Get a copy for you next vacation. You may want to read it before it becomes a major motion picture, though. You can be ahead of the curve.

[Books] Book Look: How Much For Just the Planet?, by John M. Ford

Well, that was interesting. This is a Star Trek book, which I know from adolescence to be pretty much pure pulp and would normally never hit my radar, but I had it from informed sources that it was something special. And special it certainly is.

Occasionally, in the course of a long running TV series, the writers are given the opportunity to have some fun with an episode. Often this takes the form of a musical or a comedic farce in the middle of a season full of drama. Examples would be the Buffy musical, or any X-files episode written by Darin Morgan, or in a Star Trek vein: The Trouble With Tribbles (which was also the source of a similar episode on Deep Space Nine). How Much For Just the Planet is the equivalent of such an episode in the form of a book.

To wit: The inhabitants of dilithium-rich planet tend to break into Gilbert and Sullivan musical numbers. Kirk and a Klingon counterpart get involved in a slapstick set piece. Scotty gets in a duel of honor with a Klingon officer in a game of golf, played in the middle of a battle. Uhura and a Klingon fan of Earth noir movies practically re-enact The Maltese Falcon. And naturally, it all ends in a pie fight. It's utterly silly, but rollicking good fun.

The book itself could use some structural refinements. It's very easy to lose track of threads and who's who and in what manic situation, and as the madness runs on it also runs a bit thin (this is often the problem with three act farces). Still, considering the sad state of the Star Trek efforts at the moment, what with the Abrams movies getting increasingly ham-fisted and the upcoming series engulfed in production chaos, it might be an energizing idea to do a special event based on this book. Joss Whedon could make it a masterpiece (if he can stop freaking out about Trump). Outside the box would be Seth MacFarlane. Yet further outside would be Trey Parker and Matt Stone. All of them understand musical comedy. It might add a little life to an increasingly stultified franchise.

So should you read How Much For Just The Planet? Probably not. It's a good book, almost poetic in places, but it is clearly meant as a novelization of a musical farce yet to be made. Still, high points for doing a Star Trek book that isn't space opera pulp, and for having some fun with it.

[Movies] Flick Check: Dr. Strange

Probably among the weaker efforts in the Marvel MCU, it's still a cut above any most non-MCU superhero movies (note: have not seen Logan yet.). Dr. Strange gets points for trying to stay true to the original comic book by angling for a hippie/spiritual/psychedelic head trip vibe and it succeeds to some extent. One critique is in tone. It was clearly a struggle to find the right balance between the sincere, reverent tone that characterizes most spiritual journey-type plots with the wisecracking irony so essential to the charm of the MCU. Dr. Strange is played by Frumious Bandersnatch Benedict Cumberbatch employing an American accent which, given his ubiquity in his normal voice, is quite dissonant. Perhaps this is part of the reason that snappy dialogue isn't all that effective here: there is not much of it and what there is is given solely to Cumberbatch, everyone else gets standard sci-fi/action movie words and roles. It's a moment of happy relief when the post credits tag brings Thor into the mix, if only for a few seconds.

Overall I'd guess it was a struggle to make Dr. Strange as formulated carry a film on his own. He needs a foil like Sherlock needs his John. Unfortunately, Martin Freeman already has another role in the MCU. To live on, Strange needs a partner to bring out the best in Cumberbatch, and a villain and supporting cast who are more than dire drones.

This review turned more negative than I had hoped. I don't want to scare you off of Dr. Strange. It's a solid entry in the MCU and a good couple of hours of entertainment but don't look for anything too special. It's mostly just a plot advancer for Infinity War.

[Rant, Good Links] Irrational Follow-up

The last couple of months I discussed my sense of depression over the realization of how emotional, willfully closed-minded, and immune to reason the human race is. Allow me to present some relevant links on the sad topic.
  • Last month I mentioned a possible evolutionary source of this irrational behavior was something called Coalitional Instinct. At the time all I could find on it was a speculative post on The Edge, but now the New Yorker has taken it up so I suppose that means it's officially mainstream.
  • My longtime fave Robin Hanson has a bit less meta take on the issue, pointing out the contrast of facts and values in influencing behavior and decision-making, staying away from the strict irrationality angle.
  • And then along comes Cracked to go in the opposite direction and come right out and call the fashionably outraged a bunch of Dopamine Puppets. Bless.
Of course, all this is pointless unless you realize it applies to you, not just the Other Side.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The Month That Was - January 2017

I'm even later than usual. It feels odd to be posting about the new year when we're nearly halfway through February. I blame the persistent inconvenient state of the world. A lot of month end stuff I have to prioritize over this.

The days are finally getting longer and as we tough out another winter. I have to admit it's nice to have a break from yard work. So far this year is turning out to be nothing particularly special, and that's OK. I am still procrastinating on house work. Still spending too much time at the gym and too little time at the keyboard. I except all that to continue -- until it doesn't, at which point I will look back on this as good times. The salad days.

[Books] Book Look: Let Me Be Frank With You
[Rant] Looking Ahead
[Rant] More Depression
[Music, Tech] Solving Music

[Books] Book Look: Let Me Be Frank With You, by Richard Ford

I am a big fan of the Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe series. Over the course of four novels he has traced the life of a man in full. A true everyman: an Upper Middle Class white liberal, yes, but a man who has been through confusion, grief, divorce, career change, remarriage, filial emotional churn, disasters, triumphs, and finally old age.

A quick summary of the journey that spanned four books.

The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe is a failed writer of fiction who has taken a job as a sportswriter. We discover he is divorced; an event that is hopelessly entangled with death of his young son. He has a girlfriend who really doesn't fit with him -- that also ends. We finish with Frank not remotely sorted, but at least feeling somewhat optimistic about the future.

Independence Day follows and Frank is trying to get his head around his new life as a realtor. He meanders through minor events with friends and clients and his ex, eventually escorting his somewhat troubled son on a guy's weekend for a some evidently needed bonding. An accident happens (not too serious) that causes him to find a certain understanding of the need to commit himself rather than live in self-sufficient detachment.

The Lay of the Land Frank is now well into middle age, fairly wealthy, and living on the Jersey shore. (Previous he lived inland in "Haddam", a fictional city that some think is meant to approximate Princeton.) This one went a little further out there. Frank's second wife has left him for her previous husband (who was declared dead?). He seems to feel more settled and permanent, but he still struggles with his wayward son and daughter. He also struggles with his prostate. He comes to some realizations about his life of the sort that you only come to when you're past fifty, not the least of which being that he is still mourning the son he lost decades ago. It ends bombastically and at the time was thought to be the last of the trilogy.

Then unexpectedly we get Let me be Frank with You. Now Frank is legitimately old. His kids are dispersed. His marriage is settled. His professional ambition has passed. He is living back in Haddam, where he has spent the bulk of his life. We follow Frank over the course of a weekend in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The encounters here seem to focus mostly on death, or at least mortality: A chance encounter with the former owner of his home where a horrifying tragedy took place; a meeting with his ex-wife who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's; and a fateful encounter with an old friend who springs a secret on him. Frank doesn't really want any of these encounters. He needs no more reminders of mortality, nor is he all that interested in rehashing the past, but he is given little choice. It is the nature of old age.

As with all the books, there isn't any sort of obvious arc to the narrative. It's an acutely observed sequence of mostly commonplace actions filtered through Frank's mind. The story moves seamlessly between direct observations and Frank's conscious judgments and evaluations as directed by his subconscious connections. The result is a story of the commonplace that holds your attention not as a grand illumination but through relatability. Frank is good-hearted, petty, sincere, cynical, detached, involved, intimate, remote, genuine, contrived -- he is a jumble of ambiguity and contradiction, just like all of us. You won't find too much out of the ordinary here, but you will likely see a bit of yourself, if not a good deal of yourself. The light is shined on you writ small and that can be very affecting.

Should you read Let Me Be Frank WIth You? If you have read the others, then yes, absolutely. Otherwise, if it sounds interesting you should start at the beginning rather than here at the end. Be advised, while these are very accessible books, if you are not of a mind to appreciate quiet and subtlety you'll almost certainly get bored by the lack of action. As for me, I found them wonderful exemplars and even in the face of my long time appreciation of John Updike, I would take this quadrilogy over the Rabbit any day.

[Rant] Looking Ahead

Each year I try to set some goals in three areas -- House, Fitness, Travel. There are goals in other areas too, but not for publication. So away we go...

House: Could this finally be the year I get the Master Bath redone? If so I need to get started now. It's not as if there won't be long waits to fit in builders schedules. Apart from that, there is leftover landscaping from 2016. I have the plans for that, so I may not go to the same place to get it done, if I can get a lowball bid. Apart from that there are minor repairs and painting. Perhaps even a full exterior painting. I predict I get one major thing done.

Fitness: A century ride (100 miles). In fact, more time on the bike in general. I may try to do another triathlon, but I'd be happy just doing the same open water swim I did last year. And as always, I should have at least one half marathon on the schedule to make sure I don't backslide. I don't think I'll do all three Mack races this year. The 8-Mile, yes, but the other only if I have friends who want to join me. Three times a year to the island is a lot of expense. I won't miss my staple races, Big House, Road Ends, Holiday Hustle. I'm usually a lot more specific in this area, but I'm inclined to think I'd like to dovetail a lot of fitness events with travel...

Travel: A Spring and a Winter trip to FL, I'd like to catch another Tigers spring training game, among other things. I'd like to get SCUBA certified, that might involve a nice trip to St. Somewhere. There is a total solar eclipse occurring right over Charleston SC, which might be a good reason to go for a visit. I have friends in North Carolina now so a jaunt to Asheville might be of interest. Sedona, AZ has re-emerged on my radar as I have been reading about the mountain bike trails. Each year I wonder if it's the right year for an epic trip, and each year I find reasons to take shorter trips, closer to home. The truth is, that grand adventure style trip doesn't interest me that much. I have never been to Europe; never even been out of North America. I don't know why, despite my urge to be in motion, I've never felt compelled enough to vanish to the far side of the world. It is a topic I should explore, and every year might be the year, but I am no longer optimistic that any sort of "grand tour' will happen -- and I'm OK with that.

[Rant] More Depression

Last month I discussed how the election got me down (not the way it did for most people) and bemoaned the dominance of irrationality and emotion in human decision making. Outlandish delusions become self-evident facts in the minds of people who, in other circumstances, are steady, intelligent folks. The more I thought about it the stranger a quality it seemed. From an evolutionary standpoint, what possible advantage could a human tendency for this confer. I would certainly think being able to see the world objectively would be a fitness advantage for Joe Caveman not the reverse. The broader question is How on Earth did we evolve to delude ourselves so easily and thoroughly?

The answer may be something called Coalitional Instinct, described at The Edge. As I read it, humans developed the instinct for building coalitions as a way to enhance our security and power -- united groups can better survive and overcome individual threats. Coalitions are cemented by shared qualities, including opinions, and the more fervently you hold those opinions, even to the point of delusion, the stronger your bond to your coalition and theoretically the better off you should be to live long and prosper. In return, your brain gives you a hit of dopamine for positive reinforcement. In other words, losing your mind over the presidential election is just you acting out an irresistible primal instinct for strengthen your place in your coalition. Your brain believes that idiotic meme you posted on facebook enhances your chances of surviving to procreate.

All this is, of course, suppositional. I don't know of any hard neuroscience behind it. But it would explain a lot of it's true in some fashion. It would be the reason that even though we now have almost all the information the human race has ever gathered is at our fingertips, we've only become more irrational and delusional -- because the facts will weaken our fervency and therefore our bonds with our coalition, we must weasel our way around them by being even crazier. It would explain why cognitive dissonance is so devastating and sends people into ever deeper spirals of desperate rationalizations -- because contrary evidence is a direct threat to the foundations of our coalition. It would explain why it's not just contradicting views but insufficient enthusiasm is see as a weakness and threat -- because coalitions are strongest with total commitment.

None of this is a particularly encouraging picture of humanity so I am no less depressed for having a possible explanation.

[Music, Tech] Solving Music

I have never been able to develop a sufficiently robust music strategy. I have managed to rid myself of hard media (CDs and such), but I still have mp3s from years ago and the streaming ecosphere is a confusing mess.

Nexus 5x is my main phone. It works well, or as well as any android phone (I still miss Windows Phone) and with the Google FI wireless service it's remarkably inexpensive. If I use little data (less than 1GB), my monthly bill comes in under $30, often grazing the mid $20s. A heavy data month will amount to about $33-$35. I get the strongest signal available of Sprint, T Mobile, or wi-fi for calls and texts. It's not without dead spots, but they are rare. Google FI is highly recommended.

However, I do not keep any music stored on it. It has no expandable storage so a great deal of it is used up with photos and apps. Generally, when I listen to music on mobile I have it on for an extended period -- long road trips in rental cars without Sirius/XM, or for running, or for times I am wandering around Vegas and I keep the music going as I walk the Strip.

So my music solution(s) is a haphazard mess at the moment. I keep my entire mp3 collection on my cheap little Samsung Tab E. The Tab is nice little device, which I use as a music player and alarm clock and as a very lite computer when I really don't think I need my laptop. It does the job, but it is underpowered for today's world and laggy in general -- unacceptably laggy when things get complicated. Also, it's too big for carrying around if you're on your feet.

So for running I have a bought a $30 4GB Sandisk player that's about the size of a matchbook. I have an armband for it, but it's got a little clip too. It is quite capable of holding my entire running playlist -- about 3 hours of music -- and a couple of podcasts. It is dead simple to operate and it requires so little in resources that it runs for hours and the battery is still nearly full. It is a very good running solution. Smart purchase for me.

That leaves the wandering around music sitch -- the rarest one and I am currently using my old Windows Phone as a dedicated music player for that.

The whole mess works, but it is inconvenient. I continue to search for a more holistic solution for which I keep trying to get my head wrapped around the Google Play music service. If I read it correctly, it will store all my mp3s in a locker in the cloud for streaming at anytime. If that was the case, I could get a main phone with the longest battery life possible and I could, theoretically use it for all my music listening while having nothing stored on the phone itself. A very tempting notion. The cost to me would be about $200 a year, I estimate, when you figure in the $10/month for a Google Play music subscription and another $8-ish dollars for the data overages. I'd still need to keep my Sandisk for the occasional run in places where I would have no service.

It seems to me there would be a market for a cheap dedicated music streaming device via subscription that included a data only cell connection and wi-fi. Say, $15.99 per month including device, cloud storage for owned music, streaming from a large library, bluetooth, cell data service, and wi-fi. Make it sweatproof and you've got something just about perfect for 90% of the time. Hmmm. I hereby patent this idea (can I do that?).

No don't get me started on video streaming. Maybe next time.

Addenda: And what's up with music subscription services, am I right? I need to pick one.
  • Pandora is an inexpensive option, but the library is very limited.
  • Spotify is the top dog but I had a bad time of it during the free trial. It kept stopping in the middle of playlists for no good reason other than to annoy me. Research suggested this happens on Android from time to time, but it was happening to me all the time. I cancelled before the trial ended.
  • Apple Music (formerly iTunes) only works well with the Apple ecosphere, or so the reviews would have me believe.
  • Groove Music (formerly XBox music, formerly Zune) is a possibility since I still have warm fuzzies for my old Zune player and I generally find Microsoft products have sweet interfaces, but it is new compared to other services and so playlists might be slim. It will store my mp3s in the cloud for me.
  • Amazon is now offering a pay service over and above it's standard Prime service. Standard prime is a blessing because it's free with your prime sub and it's about on par with Pandora for songs. The premium service promises to step it up on par with the big players. It has the advantage of allowing an annual purchase at a discount. This is currently my second choice.
  • There are other services -- Slacker, I Heart Radio, Sirius/XM has a service beyond their satellite broadcast. You could make a career of following these.
  • As I mentioned above, my current odds on favorite is Google Play Music. It will store my music on the cloud and it also includes a sub to YouTube Red, which would kill all the YouTube ads. There is also quite good music on YouTube.
Think I'll start up that free trial and see how it goes.

The world continues to get more complicated.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Month That Was - December 2016

And that's that. 2016, consensus choice for the most FUBAR year in living memory, evaporates into the history books.

I decided to recap my year below. It was a good year for me all in all, although it felt subpar as it was happening.

I am dug in for the winter, by which I mean the next couple of months. I will likely get a spring visit down to Florida, but until then it is cold and colder.

I am about halfway through the first draft of my next book. So all I have left is the first draft of the second half, followed by about 900 total revisions. Target release date Summer 2057.

Ah well, it's 2017, the world of the future. Even if my brain is wired not the feel it, I know my life is very good.  Probably better than that of 99.9999% of everyone who has ever lived.  If I am incapable of feeling fulfilled and lucky at least I can reason that I am.

[Rant] Annual Review
[Books] Book Look: The Last Samurai
[Rant] Dysfunction Far and Wide
[Books] Book Look: Black Hole Blues

[Rant] Annual Review

Looking back, here is my post from the start of the year about plans. So let's see how I did.

The House -- I said: "I want to re-landscape a section of the front yard. That should be readily do-able. I think the next renovation will be the master suite." The front yard got done as planned, a bit more expensive than anticipated. No progress on the Master Suite so that goal rolls over to 2017.

Travel -- I said: "I can count on a spring trip to FL and out west at Thanksgiving again, but beyond that who knows? I've had Alaska on my radar since forever. We'll see. But there is a plan floating around that might get me back to Hawaii, which I guess I could live with." Well, I did get to Florida again. I overachieved at going out west, first with a trip to Moab just after Labor Day and then extending my November Vegas trip to include a run up the Pacific Coast Highway to the Monterey peninsula. Also, I got in a very nice trip to Maine - Acadia National Park and all -- just before Memorial Day. So travel was a big success.

Fitness -- I said: "I want to do another triathlon. I'd like to do an Olympic distance (roughly twice as long as the Sprint distance I did last year). I'll probably do some of my tried and true foot races, being sure to get in a half-marathon somewhere along the way." I did not do another triathlon, never mind an Olympic, but I did do my longest open water swim (1.2 miles) and my longest bike ride (66 miles), and managed two half marathons so I'm going to call it a success, too.

Interestingly, while the year was progressing I always felt like I was slacking off. Only in retrospect do I see that I did OK. Next month, we'll look forward.

[Books] Book Look: The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt

This is a fascinating book. It is the story of a hyper-intellectual single mother raising a genius child, but I feel safe in saying that whatever narrative you have pre-conceived based on that description is wrong.

The mother, Sibylla, is a mess. She is in a constant battle against the world and its assorted hypocrisies, using logical argument as a bludgeon against any form of normalcy (she is given a brief biography nearly on to set up her personality). The story starts from her point of view and we have a certain sympathy. She has the same struggles all parents do, trying to provide the best for her son while his demands and neediness and out-right existence seem to conspire against her. She is relatively impoverished, wasting her intellect in drudgery to pay the bills all the while schooling her young genius, who has an incredible facility for languages among other prodigious skills. She sees a bit of potential relief when it comes time for the boy to finally go off to school -- imagine all she could accomplish with the five uninterrupted hours! But after a brief stint, it becomes clear that school will simply crush a beautiful outlier like her son, so she resorts to home schooling and trying not to go crazy.

As the boy ages our point of view changes. We start by getting regular and constant interruptions in the narrative as the boy, Ludo, pesters her questions. In time she suggests Ludo start a journal, from which we get occasional entries. From the journal we see she picks fights with strangers on the train who happen to passingly express more conventional views, or even just make small talk. More importantly, she is more brutally honest with the child than the child deserves (toying with him over the identity of his father), and she commits the grievous parental sin of making the child be the adult.

By midway through the book Ludo has reached his tween years and has taken over fully as narrator. He discovers who his father is -- a writer, held in artistic contempt by his mother -- and conspires to meet him. He turns out to be a very decent, rather normal man, but Ludo never reveals to him that he is his son. Either by his own mind or the influence of his mother or some combination thereof, Ludo feels he needs a father who does not feel the constraints of convention. So, influenced by his familiarity with the Kurosawa classic, The Seven Samurai (again, due to his mother's obsession), he hatches a plan to visit a series of outliers, both famous and infamous, and claim to be their child.

This sets up DeWitt to produce a wonderful series of character sketches. The potential "fathers" readily engage in biographic exposition for the precocious boy with the biting wit. This makes for some fun reading. When all's said and done though, the bigger-than-lifes either see through his ruse or are not worthy. But the point is made. Ludo is not going to be normal and no matter how much everyone thinks that he's being deprived of some vital experience for the lack of normalcy, he ends up with a vast amount of experience and ability that he would never have received had he been forced into a standard life-track. De-emphasized, but perhaps even more important is that he stumbles on a way to relieve his mother of the financial burden she struggles with.

DeWitt takes a lot of chances. She employs an unusual way of transcribing dialog, omitting quotes and simply prefacing standard text with "He saids" and "I said." It requires somewhat closer reading as she seems to have no strict method for when the "saids" appear, occasionally not even being in the same paragraph. It seems to work, at least for me, as it gave me a stronger sense of the dialog as emerging from memory, not intended as a transcription of real-time action. She also doesn't hesitate to spend some time indulging in descriptions of Ludo's lessons, which often take the form of extended lessons in the translation of ancient Greek or other languages, much only partially comprehensible to the average reader (such as me).

A clear theme to the book is the examination of the fate of those who are different, those who are dedicated to artistic or human endeavor that is beyond the paths most people take, and the reaction such people can expect from others. This is a treacherous trope -- the misunderstood genius -- but DeWitt brings to bear a great deal of sympathy to such people, and an appreciation of the courage it takes. A lesser talent would either turn the story into symbolic appeal for tolerance of the poor misunderstood geniuses, or a sentimental tale where normalcy is found to be not so bad after all. DeWitt sees the balance of the cost and rewards of such a life.

Should you read The Last Samurai? That's a tough one. I loved it. I found it beyond just affecting; it was truly stimulating, as you can tell from the length of this review. It is not, however, for the casual reader. Or at least the casual reader will not get out of it what a thoughtful, intellectually inquisitive reader would. But if you are one of the eternally shrinking pool of people who are dedicated to the written word, it's a gem at a minimum, perhaps one for the pantheon.

[Rant] Dysfunction Far and Wide

I mentioned last month that my Liberal friends (and that's most of them since I live near Ann Arbor) we're losing their minds over the election. It has only slightly abated; they are still convinced that Donald Trump is destined to destroy the world. It prompted me to give some thought to how many dysfunctional presidents there have been in my lifetime (that would be from Eisenhower forward). It turns out quite a few:
  • Eisenhower - Functional.
  • Kennedy - Dysfunctional. Behaved towards women in a way that would be called misogynist today. Also took so many drugs for various maladies he was regularly judgment-impaired (even during the Cuban Missile Crisis).
  • Johnson - Dysfunctional in the extreme. Sociopathic, and a sex pervert. Referred to his penis as Jumbo and would whip it out at inappropriate times while defying people to say they had ever seen a bigger one. On one occasion, urinated on the pant leg of one of his Secret Service bodyguards in a display of dominance.
  • Nixon - Dysfunctional. Paranoid, power mad, and deeply corrupt. Towards the end he was given to such troubling behavior that there was an informal agreement among his staff that if he ever ordered a nuclear strike they would get approval from Kissinger first.
  • Ford - Functional.
  • Carter - Functional.
  • Reagan - Functional, with the exception of the end when he began to exhibit signs of Alzheimers.
  • Bush 1 - Functional.
  • Clinton - Dysfunctional. Combined Nixon's affinity for corruption with JFKs attitude toward women.
  • Bush 2 - Functional.
  • Obama - Functional.
  • Trump - Well...
A couple of observation leap out. First, neither party has a monopoly on lunacy. Second, bad results don't automatically follow from mentally unbalanced presidents. From that list it seems there is no telling whether we are in for good times or bad times based on the mental stability of the president. That would point to the conclusion that the office of the President isn't as important as it is portrayed. My personal belief is that the country isn't run by the President or Congress or the Supreme Court, but by the Washington Bureaucracy. People are yelling at it from the right and from the left, but The Bureaucracy travels its own undiscoverable path, like the gods of Greek mythollogy arbitrarily bestowing reward and punishment on mortals. (Yes, my internal narratives are more fanciful than most.)

Also, it's worth pointing that we are still not certain about Trump. He behaves and speaks abysmally, but his actual actions since the election have been pretty normal. I know that people of my generation seem to value the office of president as culturally symbolic beyond just functional policy making and so have certain behavioral expectations, but maybe things have changed. Maybe people are so comfortable with a disconnect between words and deeds now that the president is free to act like a reality show star without consequence to policy. It's not 1965 anymore. It's not even 1995.

This is not to say the election didn't bother me. It did, but not for the same reason as most people. What disturbed me most was how thoroughly every aspect of it was dominated by emotion and irrationality. Now, I understand that human decisions are made irrationally, from a hot mess of pattern matching against memories and neurons firing in probabilistic variations around an innate behavioral tendency, and rationalized afterwards. But as the election season went along, everybody, including people I know and respect, built these astonishing narratives in their heads of the horrors that would certainly be visited upon us should the other side win. The basis of these narratives had virtually no relationship to objective reality, often running exactly counter to factual evidence. In all elections the parties work hard to demonize each other but in my memory the majority of people understand that this is just a marketing ploy, essentially a use of advertising tricks to sway opinion. Not this time around. This time it seemed not only that everyone was taking these portrayals as established truth, but actually building more outrageous stories from them. And the more outrageous the narratives got, the deeper people believed in them.

That's what's scary to me. Evil people coming to power doesn't scare me so much. The world is huge and complicated and, short of North Korea, the bad guys always have opposition. No, the really terrifying thing is righteousness. All the greatest horror in history stems not from people planning to do evil, but from people with absolute certainty in their righteousness. That's what I saw that disturbed me so much. People were so thoroughly convinced of their righteousness that I could picture them doing terrible things in support of it. And to pile on, they believed their pure righteousness was the only thing standing the way of the other side's pure righteousness. Lather, rinse, repeat until the end of civilization.

I always thought that humanity was characterized constant push pull of the rational and irrational, analysis and emotion, objectivity and sentiment. But now I see it is hardly an equal match. My view has changed and I see humanity as a chaotic stew of battling primal instincts, with only occasional flashes of reason bringing any growth or progress or hope. It's a sad belief to be forced to adopt, but at my age there is no excuse for naivete.

[Books] Book Look: Black Hole Blues, by Jenna Levin

I originally thought this book would in the pop science genre -- a layman-level description of the theory and concepts behind gravitational waves. It's not that, but a wonderfully sensitive and beautifully written piece of scientific history.

Gravitational waves are by products of the violent actions of objects of extraordinary mass; two black holes colliding and such. They are predicted by General Relativity and provide the only information we have about the universe that does not come through radiation. Levin analogizes this to sound; so far all we have had to understand the universe is sight -- radiation -- now we have sound -- gravitational waves -- which opens an entirely new possibilities for understanding.

That's about the extent of the science. The story here -- and it is a story, as compelling as a good novel -- is the five-plus decade search for these things, and more importantly, the lives devoted to that search. What follows are in-depth portraits of the scientists (many now quite renown) -- their quirks and dysfunctions, their conflicts and camaraderie, their victories and disappointments. Scientists are, perhaps, an odder group of people than most, their relationships often accurately characterized as an interaction of pathologies. Levin brings both the pain and exhilaration of their obsessions alive as this singular pursuit grows from makeshift garage-level do-it-yourself projects to a multi-million dollar, taxpayer-financed, congressionally overseen initiative.

The story is best summed up in Levin's closing passage. Sorry for the length, but if you like this quote, you'll like the book:
Initiated by a collision of black holes or neutron stars or an exploding stars, maybe more than a billion years ago, the waves in the shape of space have been on their way here ever since.

A vestige of the noise of the crash has been on the way to us since early multicelled organisms fossilized in supercontinents on a still dynamic Earth. When the sound moved through our Local Supercluster of galaxies, dinosaurs roamed the planet. As it passed the nearby Andromeda galaxy, the Ice Age began. As it entered the halo of our Milky Way, we were painting caves. As the wave approached a nearby star cluster, we were in the final furlong, the rapid years of industrialization. The steam engine was invented and Albert Einstein theorized on the existence of gravitational waves. When I started to write this book, the sound reached Alpha Centauri.

In the final miniscule fraction of that billion year journey, a team of hundreds of scientists will have built an observatory to record the first notes from space. As the sound moves through the interstellar space outside the solar system, the detectors will be operational.

As the wave nears the orbit of Neptune, we only have a few more hours. Past the Sun, we have eight more minutes. Someone will be on duty in the control room...after the passage of eight unexceptional minutes, she might barely hear something that sounds different...A sophisticated computer algorithm will parse the data stream in real time and send notification to the data analysts...and one will be the first to look over the specs...and think calmly, "This might be it."

As much as this book is a chronicle of gravitational waves...it is a tribute to a quixotic, epic, harrowing experimental endeavor, a tribute to a fool's ambition.
That's a better description than I could write; and prescient. It was written before the first successful observation of gravitational waves and is pretty close to what actually happened (which is covered in an epilogue). I found myself quite happy for all people who had devoted their lives to this "fool's ambition" to see their life's work finally succeed and find a major sense of closure to their lives. I can only hope have the same feeling someday.

Should you read Black Hole Blues? Even if you have the slightest interest in science you should. It is a truly great story.

Friday, December 09, 2016

The Month That Was - November 2016

Because I have spent most of my life in and around Ann Arbor most of my friends are Liberal. They are all going insane right now. It's very hard for someone who is generally apolitical to understand why they are at such an emotional extreme. Also, I am older than most of them and I don't see current events as anything so out of the ordinary or, frankly, anything that hasn't been done before. (Younger people think everything is happening for the first time.) I would suggest that in my lifetime we have had more sociopathic, dysfunctional presidents than sane, well-adjusted ones, so I suppose have a stronger sense of perspective. I do hope to get my friends back sometime soon.

Half this month was about travel. I took my longest trip in many years -- a full two weeks out west in Vegas and up the California Coast. Back home it was time to pack up the deck and bring the potted plants in for the winter to come. I am now going to work and coming home in darkness. In a month the days will start getting longer again, but warmth will not return for quite a while. I had better test-start the snowblower.

[Travel] Great Circles
[Books] Book Look: Skippy Dies

[Travel] Great Circles

Travel is always in a circle, even if a flat, there-and-back circle. There were a few circles in this trip for me. The first stop was to be Vegas (of course) where I would twice run in a circle. First in a 5K circle followed the next day by a half-marathon circle. After that, there would a huge week long circle through the State of California including a run up the Pacific Coast Highway.

The running was all under the guise of the Rock and Roll Marathon Series. This outfit blows into the bigger cities throughout the course of the year, setting up multi-day events of varying lengths with consumer expos and a big name headliner concert. It really becomes quite a spectacle. In the case of this event in Vegas, there was a four-day on-going expo at the convention center which is where you had to pick up your race credentials. There was a 5k on Saturday night up at the north end of the strip near the SLS Casino. The Half-Marathon was Sunday night starting at the far south end of the Strip down by the famous sign. (There was also a 10K and a Full Marathon on Sunday night in which I did not participate.)

So locations were spread all over, and if you know Vegas you know no matter how much you work to minimize walking, you'll still be doing a lot of walking. I tried to use the monorail and rideshare as much as possible but it helped little; partially because even using the monorail or ride share your final destinations are often a kilometer or two from where you are dropped, but primarily because I picked a central location so I ended up travelling everywhere -- even the closest monorail was about a half mile walk away. Dumb move for a vet like me.

I stayed at Elara - a Hilton timeshare club that is attached to the Miracle Mile Shops in Planet Hollywood. It is a terrific property, often overlooked because it is considered off-strip, yet is a closer to LV Blvd. than many On-Strip properties. You just get to and from it by walking through the Miracle Mile Mall attached to Planet Hollywood. I highly recommend it if you aren't getting comped somewhere special. It's usually inexpensive and the rooms, while not suites, a very comfortable and up to date. Nice pool, Starbucks and a bar in the lobby. Top notch service from the get go, and not once did I get hit up to take a timeshare pitch.

Like I said I was doing my best to save wear and tear on the feet. But I failed. Between meeting up with friends for dinner and standing in line at the expo my poor high-arched feet were toast. My strategy was to cruise the 5k on Saturday so I would be able to handle the Half on Sunday. I cruised the 5K alright, but by the time the race started on Sunday -- which in itself involved a good 75 minutes of standing around waiting and watching the feature entertainment, Snoop Dogg (astonishingly profane to my old fuddy-duddy ears), my feet and ankles were cooked. By mile five in the Half I was not really enjoying myself. I forced myself to walk for a few seconds at each water stations but that did no real good, in fact it probably made it worse. In the end I hobbled all the way through -- finishing but with an abysmal time.

There was much partying going on after the finish, but it was all I could do to stagger back to my room and take off my shoes and put my feet up. Still, I came away with three medals: One for each race and one for the bonus Remix Challenge medal for completing two races in the weekend. The following day, as you can guess, was involved a massage and a stretch in the cold plunge pool at Caesars.

But the very best news was my NFL bets. Yes, it's been years since I talked about football gambling but I still do it whenever I'm in Vegas. For the first few years I had some regular success use some advanced metrics to pick winners. There were about six straight years in row where I came up ahead. Then everything changed in 2011 or 2012. Suddenly I was losing each year regularly. It was the same for picks that were made by the website I use to get my stats. I think the last four straight years have been losers for me (and them). It was so consistent it was as if the world of gamblers suddenly decided to account for advance stats and adjusted the lines appropriately. But I am tough to deter. This year instead of betting all the games that my system suggested, I just doubled down on what I thought were the best bets and I went six for six. I laid out $600 and walked away with $1300. That, my friends, is how it's done. This topic probably deserves greater discussion but not now. I'll just say that I did no more gambling this trip because for once I wanted to come back home ahead.

Next began the road trip. In a rented Malibu I headed for the Cali coast with the plan to use the travel day to get as far as San Luis Obispo, then from there up the PCH to points north. The drive from Vegas to the coast north of LA is about as ugly as it gets. You head out of Vegas past Primm which is a strange place. From the middle of the dry scrub desert there is suddenly a gaudy commercial outpost with a couple of casino hotels, some outlet stores, gas station and fast food. Then as soon as it appears it is gone again and you are back to dusty, desert scrub. The point of Primm is that it is just across the border from CA into Nevada. So if you're a dedicated gambler in Southern California, Primm is the first place you can hit to get your fix. Places like this are fascinating -- these little dedicated commercial villages that spring up, become insanely profitable, then vigorously protect themselves and their quasi-monopolies from outsiders. (Another place like this is Breezewood, PA where they have found a way to successfully bottleneck a healthy portion of interstate traffic through their rest stops.)

Once into California it doesn't get prettier. Going north to south in California is a highway game, but east to west is far trickier. Vegas to LA directly is straightforward, but Vegas to anywhere north or south often involves lonely two-lane highways angling back and forth like a ship tacking into the wind. You pass through Barstow and Bakersfield often on two-lane roads. This is the ugly side of California. A native Californian I know called it the armpit. It's oil wells and agribusiness and grey, run-down little cities. As you cruise west you eventually hit wine country around Paso Robles, where there are a number of tasting rooms. At that point you can head directly to Cambria on the coast. In my case I took a brief southerly detour to spend the night in San Luis Obispo because I needed an extra stay in a HIlton hotel to keep my award status up. Like I said, it was a travel day.

The next morning I hopped on the PCH which really doesn't hit the coast like in the movies until Cambria. But from there all the way up to Monterey the PCH was my pathway and it is as least as beautiful as advertised. In this case the pictures in all the magazines don't lie. The highway winds all up and down the coast, etched into bluffs hundreds of feet above the water, you see what are some of the most dramatic shorelines you can imagine. The coastline integrated tightly with all my stops.

First stop was Hearst Castle the seat of the Hearst Communications empire of the early 20th century. William Randolph Hearst -- the inspiration for Citizen Kane -- has a legacy that can still generate a strong emotional response among many today. He had no peer in communications in his day and he seemingly had no sense of fiduciary responsibility to the truth (you can see echoes of this situation in the Facebook fake news debate) and so had many enemies. But those whom he didn't cross, or didn't cross him, seemed to be quite loyal to him. His employees stayed on for decades at a time. And the limeliters whom he invited to weekend in his Castle with him spoke glowingly. Even the current staff of the castle all seem to be dedicated to him, or at least a positive view of his memory.

The castle itself is one of those monuments the rich often build. Like the Ringling home in Sarasota (but larger) or possibly even something like Graceland. They serve double purpose as symbols of achievement and also attractions in themselves that allow benevolent rich fellows to share their hospitality with acquaintances while also being held in awe.

Inside, the castle simply an old school mansion writ large, though the lovely furnishings were somewhat despoiled by the somewhat jarring Christmas walmart-ugly decorations. The grounds are the real star and they are a remarkable place to wander. Gardens and opulent pools all around, views featuring the coastline in the distance. We were told there are even remnants of the private zoo Hearst used to keep in the form of Zebras that graze among the cattle on the pastures (it is a working ranch after all). I saw no Zebras, but I did see why Hearst chose the locale. The switchback road from the visitor's center to the Castle is cleverly designed to highlight a different view of the structure at every turn. It's a remarkable place filled with fascinating stories. Well worth a visit.

Just a few miles further up the coast is the elephant seal rookery. It's a pull off with a lengthy wooden boardwalk overlooking the rocky beach. I expected at best to get a glimpse or two of an elephant seal wallowing in the ocean, but I was wrong. It is covered in elephant seals. Hundreds, if not thousands, of them. About ninety-five percent of them are just lying on the beach side by side like sardines -- two-ton sardines. I don't know how the ocean has enough fish to support them all. Like many protected species the population is booming -- to the point of potential problems. It's remarkable sight, though, to see that teeming mass of life on the beach.

From there, my stop for the next two days was Big Sur. Near Big Sur the PCH turns inland enough to get you out of range of the ocean. Instead you wander through a heavily wooded State Park (or two, I could never figure out where the parks start and end), in the midst of which are the little pockets of inns and general stores which constitute Big Sur. It was hard for me to get a clear grip on Big Sur. It seems to be a rustic outpost, but with selective attractions for the bourgeois. For example, you can't get a cell phone connection if your life depended on it, and my hotel had no TVs. But they did have wi-fi, up-to-the-minute quasi-modernist styling, and a broad selection of wines available on the honor system. My suspicion is Big Sur is attempting to be the vision of the untethered life the Northern California upper-middle class has in it's head. None of the gauche cell phones and TVs and fast food, but all the more tasteful comforts in a deep woods setting. Sort of the ultimate Portlandia get away.

That was snarky. I do not mean to suggest Big Sur is not worth seeing. It is. Purposefully positioned or not, the beauty is undeniable. I stayed at Glen Oaks Inn (recommended), where there is a stunningly beautiful, if short, wooded trail pretty much right outside the door. There is remarkable hiking in the area -- for example, there an iconic hike that takes you along the beach to a waterfall the seems to emerge from nowhere out of a cliff and empties into the ocean -- but sadly my options were limited. Since Spring there have been apocalyptic wildfires in the Big Sur area. The main State Park (Pfeiffer) has been closed for the bulk of the season. I suppose in some sense this worked out for me as it kept occupancy low and rates within reason, but I would have preferred to bag a well known trail or two.

Instead I ventured to the next State Park north (Andrew Molera) where I was able to take a breathtaking 9-ish mile route high into the bluffs, overlooking the ocean from on high. It was a very cool hike, featuring a brief wade across an ice cold stream, a plunge into a ravine to a very remote and unknown beach requiring a short dash through a fog of sand fleas, and a look into an oak forest grove so thick it was dark as night at Noon. When I pulled into the park the "ranger" (in quotes because, though he had a ranger hat, he was clearly a gnarly surfer dude) told me it was pretty flat the whole way. It was not. Not remotely. It went from sea level to well over 1000 ft, twice. Gnarly Surfer Dude must have been having a flashback.

In the course of the hike it became fairly clear that the California State Park system is in a bit of disrepair. Apart from hiring gnarly surfer dudes as rangers, they charge you extra (beyond the $10 admission) for park maps -- Gnarly Surfer Dude suggested I just take a photo of the map on the kiosk at the trailhead, but the Park system was once step ahead of him and put the map behind a grate and under dull glass so it was barely readable. Joke's on me, I guess. The ice cold stream annoyed quite a number of other hikers I passed. "Why don't they just arrange a rock path through it?" was the main question. Good question. And the markers out on the trail are unreadable in the unusual instances when they aren't mangled on the ground. CA State Parks needs an intervention.

I enjoyed Big Sur. It seems the bourgeois, untethered-lite lifestyle suits me. There were a couple of good spots to grab a craft beer and a burger. Big Sur Taphouse served me one of the best burgers I have ever had. I think two nights was good. If better hiking was available, I'd have probably wanted three. But after that I would be seeking out a tether. Not so for the next destination: Carmel-by-the-Sea.

I have a few friends who swear by Carmel as heaven on earth (to most people it is primarily famous for once having Clint Eastwood as mayor) so it has been on my list for a while. It lives up to the hype. Carmel's downtown consists of about eight square blocks of shops and restaurants all very high style. There are lots of little places like this peppered throughout the country. From Kennebunk to Palm Beach to La Jolla. Carmel comes in for a lot of attention because it is the closest one to the billionaires of Silicon Valley. It also has a couple of distinguishing features. First, it's a beautiful walk about 8 blocks to the beach. The beach itself is the closest thing I have found to a Florida beach in California. It is broad with minimal rock outcrops. The sand is far too coarse to be Gulf sand and the temperature is far too cold to be the Sunshine State, but the sunsets are a match. Second, they are big into wine (as you might expect from a Northern California region). I believe there are over a dozen tasting rooms just in that small downtown area. My wine aficionado days ended years ago, but it would be nirvana or serious vinophiles, or great for anyone who just wants an excuse to get hammered in the most classy way possible.

The thing that stood out to me most about Carmel, though, was the food. Every dish I ate was mouthwatering. Fresh ingredients, perfectly prepared. I've eaten at an awful lot of good restaurants around the country, but I have never had such consistently high quality meals. I could be snarky again about the motivation of the high-end tech-rich gourmands that Carmel caters to, but if it results in food this good, I'll just keep quiet and be grateful.

Carmel is one of a handful of cities on the Monterey Peninsula, Monterey proper being the largest. There are two ways to get to Monterey from Carmel. The direct route up the highway which will take you about 20 minutes tops, or the wallow along the coast route called 17 Mile Drive. I of course took 17 Mile Drive. It costs $10 to enter 17 Mile Drive from Carmel, although it seems to me that you could probably enter from just about anywhere else for free. A weirdness I don't understand, but what did I know? 17 Mile Drive skates along the coast, striking a path between the water and some high-tone golf courses for the bulk of its length, including a run right through the heart of Pebble Beach. It is certainly lovely, but by this time I was completely jaded by the PCH, against which it was no match. The views are a good deal less dramatic.

Monterey is a nice, upper middle class suburb of the type you will find just about everywhere. The commercial centers are Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row, both intentional developed as shopping/social centers along the water and connected by a walking path. Very nice, but not really memorable.

I had one more stop before I left California, but I was coming to some conclusions. I have never felt comfortable in California. I have had good times and seen beautiful things, but to me there is always a sense of intensity to it. I have never sensed the famed free and easy California lifestyle that is supposedly prevalent. Not in northern or southern CA. From San Diego to Napa Valley to Palm Springs to Lake Tahoe, while I have had wonderful times, I have never felt completely at ease the way I do when I hit the Florida Gulf, or Vegas, for that matter. I can't figure it out and have no explanation, but there it is.

Probably the most comfortable place I have been in CA is Death Valley, but that doesn't really count. It's more of a single attraction. It was to be my stop over point before returning to Vegas and this time I sequestered a room at the luxurious Furnace Creek Inn. But let me step back. This was the longest driving leg of the trip, about 8 hours all said and done. It was another tack-into-the-wind style route designed by Google, but it worked. Took me through some very interesting little towns along the way -- ramshackle towns left over from mining booms with two or three figure populations who eek out a living in a lightly visited convenience store or hope some new mining concern will come along and generate some work.

Death Valley itself, as you can surmise, is in a desert -- the Mojave to be exact. At each of the three or four oasis within the park boundaries there are settlement/tourist areas. The largest of these is Furnace Creek. In Furnace Creek there is a large, motel-level complex called the Furnace Creek Ranch. Attached is a bar, a couple of restaurants, a family style pool, and a golf course (of all things). I have stayed there before and it is serviceable and convenient, especially good for families.

At the other end of the oasis is Furnace Creek Inn, which is as fine a luxury property as I have stayed in, and that's saying something, what with my fetish for expensive hotels. The rooms are smallish and not particularly up to date, but better than many a "classic" hotel I have experienced. The grounds are astonishing. Fifty yards away is some of the harshest and most unforgiving landscape this side of Mars, but cross to the hotel grounds and you are amidst palm trees and a lush flowering garden with falling water. There is a fine restaurant and lounge with comfortable sunset views. Service is top notch. But the big attraction for me is the pool. Spring fed water at 84 degrees year round. It is tiled and was built during a time before lawyers limited the depths to 4 feet and required stairs and handhold and kiddie areas and so forth. It is a joy. Big enough to swim laps, deep enough to dive freely (when no one is looking). I have become convinced that the best way to vacation is to hike or be otherwise active in the morning, then hang by the pool all afternoon. I was able to do that to perfection at Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley.

After two short nights, I completed the circle back to Vegas. I was now 12 days into my trip and to be perfectly honest I was ready to head home, but there is nothing bad with a couple of nights at The Cromwell for less than $100 per night. I dropped the car and took Lyft wherever I needed. I favor Lyft over Uber because the app has the option to tip built into it. If you want to tip your Uber driver, it is a cash affair, which sort of defeats the purpose of the process for me.

I was very tempted to hop into a couple of poker tournaments, but I refrained. I had not touched my six for six football winnings and was still determined to come home up for once. Instead I took a Lyft downtown. Fremont street is becoming more appealing with each passing year -- I may have to send a couple of nights there next time through. I ate at Carson Kitchen which was pure hipster small plate attitude. Food was good, but nothing like what I had back in Carmel.

And that was that. I closed the final great circle back home after two full weeks. Not much more to say (haven't I said enough?). I was another set of memories I have to lean on and another stretch of staying in motion which, after all, is proof of life. I'm still here, still engaged with the world, still running in circles.

[Books] Book Look: Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

In this sharply funny, yet ultimately tragic novel, the title character dies in the first chapter. I don't know if it makes structural sense. The rest of the book is conventionally chronological. The first half is prelude to the death and the second half post-mortem. Thus you are set up reading the first half, having Skippy's character built into a sympathetic, somewhat fey adolescent, following his interactions with his rogue's gallery of boarding school chums, watching his episodes of joy and despair, all the while knowing he is going to buy the farm in a donut shop near his school.

There may be good structural reasons for this. It may generate a certain emotional effect that that the author thought important, although for me, I can't see where I would have been struck differently if Skippy's death had been a surprise. No, I choose to think the reason the author did this was because he is Irish and therefore this novel had to be about the past and the dead from the very start.

The setting is one of the premier boys public schools in Ireland, and to a lesser extent its girl's corollary next door. (By "public school" I mean private school for those of us from the U.S.) We are given a full slate of adults and adolescents and follow their journey over the course of the year. The cast is really too large to catalog, but they are wonderfully fleshed out. Murray has quite a talent for drawing a fully functional character in short order. In this task, Murray is brutally honest. The young boys run the gamut from nerdy teacher's pets to sociopathic criminals. The girls next door have well developed instincts for manipulation to guard their ultimate desperation. The adults all have the best of intentions yet they are all insufficient or ineffectual in some way.

What makes this depressive stuff palatable is that Murray never loses his senses of humor and absurdity. In the first half this builds a great sense of identification with the characters and their foibles have an endearing comedic feel to them. Then things go dark after Skippy dies. But even then it's not so dire as to make it unpalatable. There is enormous frustration, anger, and sorrow but never hopelessness. That's a tricky line to toe and, again, Murray is up to the task.

As I pointed out, bubbling under all this is the past -- personal past, institutional past, national past -- it all weighs heavily on the characters and their motivations. Then, naturally, when Skippy dies it dominates the last half the book and essentially doubles down on the pure Irishness of everything. To some extent however, most of the characters manage to escape the past at least in some sense by the end, so perhaps the ending is not so Irish after all.

Murray is a fine stylist, able to build complex characters while using straightforward common English. There is nothing highfalutin' in the prose, although he does occasionally indulge in a bit or over-flowery description. He also dances with tropes -- pedophilia, eating disorders, drugged up kids, detached adults -- but generally he feels true to reality.

Should you read Skippy Dies? Almost certainly yes. It is one of those rare novels that is entertaining and insightful while being eminently approachable. I delighted in it as I think most people would.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Month That Was - October 2016

I got up to Mackinac for the last time this year. Half Marathon. Pretty good time. On a sunny autumn day Mackinac Island is as beautiful as anywhere in the world. Back down south I still have a lot of clean-up to do before winter -- my deck, my garage...ugh.

I have a minor injury I need to work through. I apparently tore something or other in my left forearm. It was a terrifying occurrence; I was lifting weights and I heard three distinct pops in my left arm, as if bands were snapping under the skin. The pain was bad. Of course the first thing I did was start doing internet research on what I might have done to myself. Stupid idea, since I ended up convinced that I was going to need surgery and be in a cast for six months. Subsequent visits to a PT and my doctor calmed me down. The word is that the only thing I need is two or three weeks of R & R (rest and rehab) and I & I (ibuprofen and ice). Still it will keep me out of the gym. I will try to use that time for writing instead.

And the comic event of the month was me accidentally ordering a $300 pair of headphones from Amazon. I had no idea I did it until I got an alert on my phone that my "headphones had shipped". What headphones? I didn't order any headphones! Quick check of my Amazon account tells me I one-clicked them. It seems when I was on my little Samsung tablet I was clicking around Amazon shopping for a pair of earbuds. Now, my tablet doesn't have the best response time and I am the most impatient browser in the world so I was probably rapid-fire punching my right index finger to try to make it go faster and in the course of that I evidently one-clicked a $300 pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones. Luckily it was Amazon so I could just ship them back for a refund. I have disabled one-click on all my devices now.

[Movies] Flick Check: Yet More Action
[TV] Toob Notes
[Rant, Baseball] Windy City Memories

[Movies] Flick Check: Yet More Action

It's astonishing how bad the X-Men movie series has been. With the possible exception of Days of Future Past, which managed eek a single toe beyond the line into mediocrity, the rest have ranged from simply lame to completely unwatchable. No they aren't Fantastic Four level disasters, but just because you didn't get food poisoning from that gas station breakfast burrito doesn't mean it was worth eating.

There is nothing whatsoever to recommend them. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are just mailing it in so they have a good excuse to hang out together. Michael Fassbinder and James McAvoy must feel like they lost a bet. Hugh Jackman's acting has all the nuance of an episode of roid rage. The rest of the characters are pretty much indistinguishable. That is, of course, the source of the problem; there's no there there with this scripts or characters. The villains' motivations are nonsensical. The storylines, of which there are exactly one per movie, are without any sort of purpose. They are all formula and no inspiration. When they try to be witty, they only end up more insipid.

There are probably not more than 10 minutes of action in the entirety of X-Men: Apocalypse and pretty much none until we are nearly an hour into this snooze-fest. What does come is staged in the least compelling and creative way possible. They mostly talk at each other and set the table for something that never comes. They have exchanges like: "I'm not afraid of him!" "You should be!" (Whither, Deadpool?)

What's clear from all this is the no one cared enough about the project to devote any talent to it. Everyone is going through the motions; painting by numbers. It's just a job and a paycheck and hope the marketing team can generate enough profit to keep the train running.

I guess whether it's out of hope, habit, or hunger, enough people are still gonna buy those dicey-looking breakfast burritos.

Also lame is Star Trek: Beyond. Although more spritely that X-Men, it still misses the mark. Oh it's a good quality production, the hallmark of JJ Abrams. The CGI here is definitely a cut above. And Simon Pegg does reasonably well at keeping things moving along (although he is no Joss Whedon). But the whole exercise seems kind of pointless. We get some contrived character development as both Kirk and Spock have doubts about continuing in Star Fleet, sadly this is conveyed via exposition, and the performances of Quinto and Pine are so lackluster that I really didn't care what they decided. The villain was a confused mess of tropes. Fortunately there were nicely delivered bits and pieces of humor to break up the monotony, although it occasionally descended into camp. Shrug.

Side note: I'm pretty sure if they eliminated this exchange...
A: Go do this very specific action!
B: Why?
A: JUST DO IT!
...we'd reduce running time of most action films by a third.

I think it's time to put Star Trek to bed, or at least turn it inside out. The Abrams movies are descending in quality. The new series that was a supposed reboot is smelling like a disaster, what with delays and personnel problems, and when you hear that their big new idea is to have gay crew members you begin to sense that it will be based in formulation rather than inspiration. Maybe it's time to let the franchise die.

You know what I find I miss? Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. That show had some real drama about it. It was, at least in the later years, the brainchild of Ron Moore who was involved in many renown tv project including the late, lamented, Carnivale. DS9 would actually be a perfect reboot for a 12-episode-a-year auteur TV series. It is the only one of the old shows I will check out if I stumble on a rerun. The rest are thoroughly unwatchable.

Bonus: I rewatched Star Wars: The Force Awakens when it came on free premium cable (so to speak). It's better than I gave it credit for. Yes, it is a pastiche of the six prequels, but at least it isn't the lowest common denominator. It manages to equal the suckitude of the worst of the prequels but it also manages to hit some very high points as well. I still think it would have been lost without Harrison Ford's mighty performance; it really only sizzled when he was on screen. But it wasn't a total loss (even if Plinkett thinks so).

I keep harping on action movies because, as I've stated before, I believe them to be the premier art form of the 21st century so far. Although technically I am not sure they are "art" so much as "craft". However categorized, they exist now at such an elevated level that even half-hearted fare such as the movies above are lightyears ahead of where they were thirty years ago. Drop any one of these lukewarm films in the 1990 market and it will be legendary.

That, for what it is worth, is a grown-ass man's justification for following nerdy kid stuff.

[TV] Toob Notes

While we are on the Superhero topic, this month saw the release of Luke Cage to Netflix, the third of four Netflix series that will lead to a short-lived, apparently, Defenders series (they've announced only 8 episodes). After reading some early reviews I almost passed on watching Cage since reviewers had me convinced that the whole point of it was its "blackness" and I have no interest in being subjected to a 12-hour diatribe on racial injustice. Fortunately that was just the reviewers personal biases coming into play. What it was was a typical entry in the Netflix Marvel universe -- flashes of brilliance but deeply flawed.

Much of the quality of these stories is dependent on the quality of the villain. The villain in the first half of this series was quite good. Cottonmouth -- the Harlem gangster who has to deftly keep on top of a dirty cop and his dirty politician cousin and his dirty overlord was a good one. Then for some reason the writers decided to shift the emphasis to his dirty overlord, Diamondback, who instead of being shaded, was cartoonishly all-powerful and had a contrived personal vendetta against Cage, leading one to pine for Kingpin and Vincent D'onofrio.

To continue the contrast, the action scenes were sad. Like straight-out-of-the-seventies sad. After the groundbreaking work in Daredevil I expected more. Though the dialogue was superior to Daredevil, that's not saying much; they still drifted into their fair share of exposition. There were a couple of fine supporting characters -- Misty and Shades were a cut above -- again better than DD. But the best thing about it was the astonishingly great soundtrack, acts which I will describe perhaps inaccurately as neo-soul. Great music. A playlist is available on Spotify.

While both DD and Luke Cage are seriously flawed (I have not seen Jessica Jones, but I assume from reviews that it suffers from similar flaws), they are the best the TV realm has to offer for this genre. A step up from the DC characters on the CW. Just don't be expecting a Kevin Feige-esque vision and you won't be disappointed.

As to more adult fare, the best show nobody watches just wrapped up season 3. Halt and Catch Fire is one of only two shows I can think of that is truly character driven (the other being Better Call Saul). A summary would be an injustice, especially since you need to understand and see the full development of the characters over the course of three seasons. I should really do a review and summary of the entire series, if I can ever find the time.

I don't use the phrase character driven lightly. The qualities of the four main characters are finely drawn so that it is not just the events that bring about transformations in story, it's the personalities that keep moving these four people in and out of each other's orbits and altering the relationships and initiating dramatic conflicts among them. If anything, it has a more difficult path than Better Call Saul because there is not the underlying criminal activity to titillate the senses. These folks are interacting at a crazy point in a crazy industry, but it's still about business -- making it spiritual kin to Mad Men. This season we saw the horrible damage that can be wrought by blatant self-serving ego, but also the lesser damage of the ego of good intentions. I loved every minute of it.

God bless AMC for giving them another year to wrap things up despite the horrendous ratings. I am no fan of the Walking Dead, but if it finances quality shows like this, I hope it never ends. If you decide to binge Halt and Catch Fire let me warn you that season 1 is of lesser quality, and a little overwrought. Season 2 is terrific and season 3 steps it up from there. Don't give up in the early going, is what I'm saying.

Lastly, let me give a thumbs up to a new comedy, The Good Place. Essentially the story of woman who finds herself in Heaven by mistake, it is one of those smartly written comedies which somehow keep the gag volume high without sacrificing quality. If you were ever sitting around wondering if it was possible to turn ethical philosophy into a quality sitcom, the answer is yes. It also features Kristen Bell, who has about the best comic timing of any actress today. It's been awhile since I glommed onto a sitcom, but I think this one's a keeper.

[Rant, Baseball] Windy City Memories

I have spent more time in Chicago (4 hours away) than Detroit (1 hour away) in the last 15 years. I think in that whole time I have been to Detroit once and that was just to pass through to Grosse Pointe. I have never seen the Tigers at Comerica Park, although I have seen them at spring training in Lakeland. On the other hand I have twice seen the Cubbies at Wrigley, have taken a historic tour of Wrigley, and spent a number of summer afternoons in Wrigleyville watching the games in the bars just outside the stadium.

In fact, one of the most delightful summer activities I can think of is renting a bike at Millennium Park or Navy Pier and riding up the Lakeshore trail along the Lake Michigan beaches past the Lincoln Park Zoo to Addison and then dashing a few blocks inland to Wrigleyville. You can probably scalp a ticket if you want, but I'd suggest just settling in at one many restaurant bars within a two block radius and watching the game on the big screen in comfort. Honestly, I'm sad I didn't get a chance to do it this year.

I was especially envious when I saw the World Series victory celebrations. I should have been there. I read that it was the 7th largest gathering of people in history. 5 million people. If they had decided to form their own State they would have been the 23rd largest. Remarkably, and somewhat surprisingly, there was no rioting, no looting, in a city that is known for an outrageous murder rate. Chicago from The Loop north, and for maybe 6-8 blocks west of the lake is really a remarkably safe city. Angry people accuse the city of herding the bad element into their bad neighborhoods, generally abusing them and ruthlessly and unconstitutionally punishing them if they bring their evil activities into the business and tourist centers. It wouldn't surprise me if that was true. It also wouldn't surprise me if the forces that express such outrage at the practice are the prime beneficiaries and are glad to be the beneficiaries even if they can't admit it publicly or even privately. For better or worse, when you see the population of an average sized State crushed into the area of Grant Park without it turning violent, you have to think something has been achieved, for better or worse.

I can't claim the Cubs as my team, despite my love for their city and their neighborhood and their ballpark. Even if I don't go to Detroit to see them, the Tigers will always be my baseball team since I was 8 years old and the '68 took the World Series in wonderfully dramatic fashion. That started my lifelong interest in baseball which admittedly has waxed and waned over the years. My second awakening of baseball fandom came when I was around 1980 when Bill James' Baseball Abstract came to my attention and rekindled something in me which had previously made me fascinated with the stats on the backs of baseball cards. It was a vision of rationality -- of a minor corner of the universe that made sense, even if the rest of the world wallowed in ignorance. It would be another couple of decades before Billy Beane proved those principles correct (and even longer than that until Moneyball made it common knowledge). Since the Red Sox couldn't convince Beane to come work for them, they went looking for a another stat guy to run things and found Theo Epstein who used those principles to end the Red Sox curse, then moved to Chicago where he managed to lift and even longer curse. You can read about that angle here.

It was an interesting ongoing lesson for me in the resistance of humanity to the rational. Something that the data showed so clearly and definitively, yet the world was quite content to just not believe it. Something that has grown more clear to me everyday I live -- people are not rational, they are emotional, even when they think they are rational they aren't. That includes me, although I hope I am not just making myself feel good when I say I am more aware of it and therefore guard against it more than most people. Even now, evidently, I can't just be glad for the Cubs. I have to look for the sharp angle. Sad.

But not sad. Happy for the Cubs, happy for Chicago, happy for a victory for rationality that is celebrated by 5 million people. Maybe there is hope after all. I must never to let another summer pass without an afternoon in Wrigleyville.

Friday, October 07, 2016

The Month That Was - September 2016

This month marks the 28th rendition of my 29th birthday (do the math, if you must). I can no longer legitimately round down to a half century, and there is the constant, sobering knowledge that there are more years behind than ahead. Still, I'm hanging in there health-wise so no complaints allowed.

Apart from that, outside my trip to Moab, the month was pretty normal. I got a few more page written and did a good bit of training for another half marathon up on Mackinac. There was some upheaval at work, but that's over. Just my life, stumbling along.

[Travel] Cycling Through Moab
[Movies] Flick Check: Captain America: Civil War
[Books] Book Look: The Sleepwalkers

[Travel] Cycling Through Moab

This was my second trip to Moab, UT. The first was quite a few years ago, but the good memories of that trip remain clear in my mind, so it was a logical place to revisit. Moab is in the middle of nowhere. The closest major airport is Salt Lake City, a four-hour drive away. The next closest airport is Denver -- 6+ hours away. So yeah, the middle of nowhere. But. In this middle of nowhere, there are two remarkably beautiful national parks, one excellent state park, mountain biking trails beyond the wildest imagination of anyone back East, the Colorado River and associated rafting/kayaking, four-wheeler trails into some of the most remote areas of the country, rock climbing, and on and on. You will not find a gym in Moab; their gym is the outdoors.

The town of Moab itself is a bit of a bubble. Supported by the ongoing tourism of the parks and its reputation as the ultimate outdoor playground. While the towns that surround it are much more hardscrabble desert outposts, Moab has a good amount of services, food outlets, motels, etc., all on the lower end of things. There is nothing approaching fine dining or luxury accommodations -- nor should there be. People come here to be active, not hang out in their hotel rooms or lounge by the pool.

The last time I was here I availed myself of the National Parks. This time was dedicated to mountain biking. Now, I am not a terribly good mountain biker. I have been mountain biking a total of 4 times and these have been exploratory adventures, mostly to see if I wanted to take up mountain biking more seriously, as in drop something shy of a couple of grand on a mountain bike. (There are good trails in my area, and they are generally easier than ones around Moab.)

Moab is the center of the mountain biking universe. Biking on the rocky outcrops, called slickrock, is very different from the groomed trails and grassy fields back home. Climbs can be extreme and require a good bit of jumping. Paths can narrow between sharp boulders or skirt the edge of deadly dropoffs. And that's just the easy trails. The great thing about these trails is that they are exceptionally well marked. These aren't just trails out in the middle of nowhere that are roughly located on a map, there is clearly a professional organization in charge of keeping everything well sorted. And there are a ton of them. Check out this site for the lowdown: Discover Moab. My plan was to spend three days on the trails. Since it was still hot in the desert -- upper 80s -- I'd hit the trails early each day to be done by 2:30-3:00.

Day one: I headed to Dead Horse State Park and rode a long winding trail up to an overlook with remarkable views of the winding Colorado River. There were a few of dicey sections where I had to walk my bike over obstacles -- some of which I could see how to surmount if I was more skilled, some seemed impossible. At the top I made the acquaintance of a woman who drove to Moab from Indiana just to mountain bike but had to leave that day because she got the word that her cat was suffering separation anxiety and had stopped eating, and a young couple from Spain, the male portion of which had just bought a super expensive mountain bike of a type he couldn't get back in Spain. He seemed to be keen on having his picture taken with the bike, his wife just rolling her eyes. From the outlook you got a seriously fast and fun downhill back to the start. I was digging it.

Day two: I headed to some trails in an area called Klonzo, which I would have avoided had I known how far down a four wheel drive road they were. I was driving a rented Equinox, which handled it fine, but that document you sign when you rent a car says you promise not to take it off road. I should have parked a shorter way in and just rode the bike in, but I didn't think of that. Once I did get to the trails they were a blast. I started out on a very thin single track that circled through some hills; a bit scary because the soft dirt seemed like it was ready to give way and have me slide sideways down the slopes. Once through that section I found my way into a web a flat fast trails that were so much fun I barrelled through them twice. Because to the remoteness of these trails, I never saw another soul. I could have crashed and cracked my skull and no one would have found me for days. Comforting thought. From there I stopped on the way back to ride the Brand Trails. This set of trails is closest to town and it's always full of folks. The terrain is varied from rocky to well groomed singletrack. I could have spent to whole day exploring these. At one point I got way out on the far western end of the trials. Out there there is a path that leads you along the edge of a sheer drop of hundreds of feet and certain death. That's a remarkable experience -- knowing if you lose your balance you are dead. I could be happy never having that feeling again. I also reached a spot where I couldn't figure out how the trail looped around back to the start. I spent a few frustrating minutes trying to find the right directions but in the end I had to backtrack. When you are already exhausted, facing a backtrack is truly demoralizing, but then I stumbled on a shortcut back to the parking lot that was a series of short rolling hills that could get one airborne. Nice.

Day three: This was really the only fail of the trip. I tried to ride the Hurrah Pass, which is not so much a trail as a long dirt road along Kane Creek, a tributary of the Colorado River. The problem was that it starts with an impossibly long climb (miles). Now, on a road bike I could have managed it but a mountain bike is simply not an efficient thing, I was fatigued from the previous day's escapades, and we were up at elevation and my sea level lungs were not happy. I struggled up to nearly the top, within view of the tantalizing downhill on the other side, then realized that were I to barrel down I would eventually have to climb back up on the return trip. I paused to admire the view, headed back to my car, and returned the bike.

It was quite an adventure all the way around. I really like Moab. Definitely a top five place for me. The commercial area of town is walkable. There are plenty of quirky places for food and a beer. The busiest place is the Moab Brewery, because everywhere needs a brewpub. There is also a character-bar called Eddie McStiff's. Years ago when I visited Eddie's there were bizarre liquor laws in place such that they were only able to serve as a private club. When you sat down at the bar an existing member had to vouch for you to join before you could drink, so the bartender would turn to another patron who had previously been vouched for and ask if he would vouch for you. The answer was always yes and you were granted membership and your drink order was completed. You were likely to be asked to vouch for the next patron to come in. It was comically delightful. Those days are gone so presumably they now have a public liquor license. Took some of the fun out of it, but the food was good and the beer was cold.

So that's kind of the icing on the cake. You rise early and play hard in Moab, and your reward is a comfortable and enjoyable evening. Then you come home exhausted. What else could you ask for? I hope it won't be so many years until I can return again.

[Movies] Flick Check: Captain America: Civil War

Not really a Captain America movie as much as the close of an Avengers trilogy, Captain America: Civil War was great fun. My only question is whether the premise is more flawed than permissible. All action films have flawed premises that anchor the plot, but we accept them if they are plausible and fit in well with the characters. Civil War begins with the idea that The Avengers need oversight.

OK, I can see that. For all your good intentions and the scary powers of the bad guys, should there be some actual consideration given to whether the course of action you've (The Avengers) have chosen is the wisest? Look at it in the context of the previous films.

In 1, Loki has alien warriors primed to wreak havoc over the globe, the people in charge make the excruciating decision to nuke them out of existence and accept the casualties. But for some reason, Iron Man gets the final say. Just because a decision works out doesn't make it right. Why was that Tony Stark's call?

In 2, Cap is going to risk Sokovia being dropped from on high and possible destroy the human race rather than make the decision to accept casualties. Stupid. Who is he to make that call? His super soldier serum does not convey unearthly wisdom as far as I know. He justifies tis because he values the spirit of togetherness or something, but the human race may have held a different opinion.

Now, in Civil War, it comes back to bite them when the Scarlet Witch accidentally kills people in the line of duty, so General Ross and the whole world demand accountability. This makes a good deal of sense given the history, but Cap will have none of it. He can't accept control and goes rogue. This is the part I have trouble with. Steve Rogers is a soldier and has always put his country first, now suddenly he will not accept the due process his country wants to impose. Really? Wouldn't Tony Stark be the one more likely to self-justify going rogue. Rogers says they are still the best ones to make those decisions. I'm not sure I buy this sudden attraction to Platonic Utopianism. The only source of this I could see would be if the Shield fiasco tainted him for life. Nope, it strains the edge of plausibility given the characters involved.

That, for me, hovered over the whole movie and took a bit the the immersive joy out of it. But apart from that it was the usual Avengers movie, that is to say it was a blast. And, encouragingly, Spider Man stole the show, to the point that I am looking forward to his first proper Marvel movie. (If we could fold Deadpool into this we might achieve trigger the singularity.) Robert Downey Jr. also excelled too, he was given the meatiest storyline and made the most of it.

With this series it's easy to get jaded. You expect a top five action film every time out and so when you get it, you take it for granted. Like the previous films, this one is state of the art -- one of the best. In a world where sequels are factory-driven cash grabs, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a stunning achievement.

[Books] Book Look: Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark

I'm a closet World War 1 geek. Somewhere in my life I became fascinated not so much with the actual fighting and strategy as with the run up to the war. WW1 is considered by many as the seed of our contemporary world and investigating the cause is one of the most enduring occupations for historians. (Normal people have vanishingly little interest in this which is why I describe myself as a geek. That is to say, you may want to move on now unless you have insomnia.)

There are two common tropes about WW1 that constitute the common knowledge as it is taught to schoolboys (if it is still taught to schoolboys, or if schoolboys are still a thing). First, that while the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the trigger, if it wasn't that, it would have been something else; war was inevitable because of nature of the politics and the biases of the people in power. Second, that the bulk of the culpability falls to Germany. Clark does an excellent job of busting through these shallow narratives.

With respect to the first, he brings the focus right back on the bubbling cauldron of mayhem that were the Balkans (and perhaps still are). One cannot read his description of the times without finding the Balkans to be a group of countries peopled by sociopaths in the service of ghosts. It really is astonishing to have the nearly cartoonish levels of insanity described so well. We see that the well worn narrative that the act of a terrorist without Serbian ties triggered and unacceptable ultimatum to an innocent people is well nigh bollocks. Serbia did back the assassination and the ultimatum wasn't that terrible. But we also see that crises in the Balkans were not a new thing to the major powers and when push came to shove previously wars were kept contained. That's pretty much the state of the world at any time -- yet for some reason when we look at with hindsight we see inevitability. There was no such thing.

With respect to the second, Clark demonstrates how the forces that triggered violent reactions among the great powers did not emanate exclusively from Germany. In fact, many of the policies of Germany were in direct reaction to the actions of the Franco-Russian Entente. Russia, with their delusions of pan-Slav leadership, made it clear they would back Serbia if Austria-Hungary attacked, emboldening the sociopaths. France made it clear they would support Russia out of their fear that they could not match Germany in a war without a second front. It is true that there were forces in the German High Command that argued they should initiate a war urgently, while it still could be won, but that attitude in itself was sourced from the Franco-Russian alliance. When it was all said and done, the narrative putting Germany at fault was a foregone conclusion, and we all know how well that worked out.

For the sake of full disclosure, I should point out that Clark comes pretty close to my own bias, which is that the responsibility falls on the the loathsome cretin Apis and his Serbian Black Hand, and more specifically on ignorant tool Princip and the Young Bosnians. My biases may cause me to overlook some of the shortcomings of the book. Clark can give a vivid account of events, but for the bulk of the book he hops around quite a bit, organizing things conceptually but the level of detail and causal events would have benefited with a some clearer context of the relative points in time of the events into which he deep dives. It's hard to get a full picture in your head of any particular moment. Also, there is an sore-thumb passage where Clark decries that the problem is that the leaders were all men and if women were around things would be different. Very out of place in an otherwise serious work of history.

Should you read The Sleepwalkers? Probably not, unless you are WW1 geek like me. If you are, it is indispensable and you'd be missing out on a key perspective were you to skip it.