Friday, February 09, 2018

The Month That Was - January 2018

I don't make New Year's resolutions. If it is important to do something, why wait until 1/1? Just start doing it. Waiting until some point in the future is just rationalizing procrastination. If it's a bad habit you are going to quit, I seriously doubt whether giving yourself a some cushion time to continue your bad habit before you go cold turkey on 1/1 is going help at all.

On the other hand, it's just a harmless little cultural touchpoint and I should stop being such a wet blanket.

I've pretty much distilled my plan for good living down to two principles:
  1. 1) Whenever possible, enhance the lives of the people I care about.
  2. 2) Fight sloth (the Deadly Sin, not the adorable forest creature).
If I do those things, most everything else falls into place. I've been fairly successful at #1, I think. Probably less so at #2. In any event, they will remain for now.

Like many people I spent the bulk of January sick. I only had a head cold of sorts -- no flu -- but it was a doozy and while a standard cold lasts four days with me, this one hung on for a full two weeks. Then, after a couple of days good health, I caught another cold which continues to this day (which is why this is so late). I can barely remember what it was like to breathe freely.

[TV] Forehead Sweat of the Flukeman
[Ann Arbor] Stupid Drunken Kids, Yesterday and Today
[Travel] Messin' With Texas

[TV] Forehead Sweat of the Flukeman

In a thousand years, when the bizarre cyber-humans look back at these times, they will sneer smugly at the pathetic ignorance of the last millenia, just like every generation of humans before them has, but not without pausing to observe: "But Darin Morgan sure was great, though."

Many years ago I wrote an appreciation of Darin Morgan's work on the original X files and it's short lived spin-off, Millenium, which has, remarkably, totally vanished from the Internet. I didn't think you could make something completely disappear from the internet if you tried, but I can't even find it in the Wayback Machine. I originally published it on blogcritics.com. (The happy, friendly old site, not the new slick one, from which it has been summarily removed along with apparently, virtually all articles from that time. Or at least all my articles. Somebody should open an X-file.)

The good news in that I get to write it again for you now, in honor of another brilliant effort from Morgan on the latest X-files, "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat". Before we get to the resurrected X-files, let's review what he wrote for for the original series and Millenium.

Humbug -- Set in an encampment of carnival freaks, Mulder and Scully investigate the Fiji Mermaid which turns out to be a parasitic twin. Extended ruminations on the nature and desirability of normalcy and abnormalcy. Also self-impalement and cannibalism, all in good humor.

Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose -- an Emmy winner. Clyde Bruckman can see your death when he touches you. So naturally, he's a life insurance salesman. The topic here is free will versus determinism. Also autoerotic asphyxiation is no way to die.

War of the Coprophages -- A lighter theme of how we react to perceptions rather than reality. Robot cockroaches cause mass hysteria, an entomologist named Bambi and a Stephen Hawking doppelganger mix it up with Mulder and Scully.

Jose Chung's From Outer Space -- Quite possibly the finest teleplay ever written. Seemingly about the way reality can be shaped by second-hand description, the episode is exceedingly technically adept. There are moments where you are three flashbacks deep, yet you never lose your place. The step-by-step plot of is almost too complicated to describe. Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek are Men in Black. Charles Nelson Reilly is Jose Chung. You will fear Lord Kinbote. Just an tremendous accomplishment all the way around.

Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense -- Jose Chung returns, this time to Millenium and in a battle with a Cult of Selfosophy (probably meant to parody Scientology) and its founder, failed writer Juggernaut Onan Goopta. Fun is made of all the trouble that comes from worrying about being "too dark," a criticism leveled at the series itself.

Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me -- Another from MIllenium. Four demons share coffee and recount their adventures that brought them into contact with Frank Black. The dark comedy of the stories only serves to reveal the pathos of the demons.

Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster -- From the first season of the reborn X-Files, this seems like a standard issue b-movie horror film from the 50s, but a twist at the end makes you wonder who the monster is. Also, Mulder is confounded by his iPhone. (Probably Darin's weakest work, but still head and shoulders above the rest of that abysmal season.)

The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat -- Which brings us to the latest and a brilliant return to form. A strange man appears and tries to convince Mulder and Scully that all their memories are fake, that he was their partner in the X-files over all those years and that there is one man out their, Dr. They, altering everybody's reality with impunity. This is Morgan's take on the "post-truth" world (and he does take a cheap shot or two at Trump, specifically). Whatever the reality, at least we know it's not parallel universes -- that's just crazy. This episode should have been the series finale, since it appears there will be no more episodes after this season.

In all of these scripts, Morgan uses self-referential parody to break the show's tone, opening up his own canvas. His characters then spin in a blender of existential moral and philosophical conundrums, which remain unsolved and broken, leaving them with only their humanity to hold on to. At the end of Jose Chung's From Outer Space, all the supernatural and conspiratorial machinations are for naught and we are left with the bewildered adolescent who started it all, sadly declaring his unrequited love. In Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me, when the demons are done cackling and bragging about all the chaos, sorrow, and pain they've sown, Frank Black looks at them and hits home with, "You must be so lonely." In The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat, once all the surreal upending of the truth has passed, Scully yearns to hold on to it saying, "I want to remember all of it. Exactly as it was." This is where Morgan suprasses the crowd. In the end, it all comes back to simple heartfelt emotions, often elegiac. In the face of the mad and the madcap, when all is said and done, what remains is humanity.

My words do not do justice to the supreme irony, humor, and structural elegance of these stories. You should binge them. You're welcome.

[Ann Arbor] Stupid Drunken Kids, Yesterday and Today

One of the first things I did when I left for college was get drunk a lot. The year was 1978 and the drinking age was 18. The following year it would be raised to 21, without a grandfather clause. Thus I was legal to drink for a year before the privilege was taken away. Like everyone my age, I was righteously indignant and saw myself as horrible repressed. The fact is, it was probably the right move for the State of Michigan, at least based on my performance during my year of legality.

The place to get drunk for me was an Ann Arbor bar called Dooley's. It was an absolute zoo. Surly, power-drunk bouncers mixed with pompous, trouble-seeking frat boys in the land of 2-for-1 pitchers of Budweiser. The place was two levels tall, reeked of mold and vomit, and was packed Thursday through Saturday nights. Many nights were spent there downing cheap and horrendous lagers with assorted groups of my dorm floor buddies. The epic drunken stagger back to the dorm could involve anything from lewd behavior to public urination to property damage. One thing it never involved was women. We skillfully avoided harassing women by being pretty much invisible to them. We also never got our asses kicked by equally drunken athletes, though we might have deserved to now and then.

I don't recount this in the spirit of laughing at the folly of youth as a warm memory. We were idiots; myself most prominently. Stupidity and waste are nothing to celebrate even in youth. It's tempting to say that I had to spend some time as a complete fool to learn how not to be one, but there are plenty of people who manage to be solid citizens without a long and glamorous stage of asshattery. Be that as it may, it is factually the path of my life. Hopefully I can laugh about it without taking pride in it.

All this comes to mind because after the drinking age was raised, Dooley's became the place you knew you could probably get a drink without getting carded. I do not know if this was intentional or not; whether the bartenders chose to ignore the law or if they were just as stupid as the patrons. Sited many times for violations of the years, Dooley's closed its doors and after an incarnation or two as an unsuccessful restaurant the building re-opened a few years ago under new, but like-minded management, as Scorekeepers. Turns out, some things don't change. Here are a smattering of Google review quotes:
  • What a terrible place for anyone over 20. I totally advise against even thinking about entering the premise. It's full of frat boys and college girls with little else to do than drink. Terrible.
  • Probably the filthiest place in all of downtown Ann Arbor. Just walking by it smells horrific.
  • Like the atmosphere but got kicked out after some kid was trying to start stuff for no reason
  • Smells like hot garbage and raw sewage every day walking past this place. The city ought to shut this place down.
  • Best college bar in existence. Debauchery, babes, cheap drinks.
  • Staff is very rude and banned me for something that makes no sense after being a loyal customer each week for years and causing no issues. Tap lines are never cleaned is why the draft beer tastes bad. They also pack the bar to over double the recommended capacity so many fights result.
Ah, yes. Those brought back memories. But under the heading of Deja Vu, it looks like the same story line from 40 years is replaying: The cops want to shut 'em down.

The business model of Have a Slimy Bar that No One in Their Right Mind Would Go To and Make Profit on the Underaged Who Can't Go Anywhere Else is a time honored one. So sure close 'em down. Another one will rise in short order, probably in the same building. Demand dictates supply and as long as the kids want to drink, some place will come along to fill the bill and make a quick few years of profits before getting shut down.

It's the circle of life in a college town.

[Travel] Messin' with Texas

I was in Texas. I've been to Texas before. It's a bit of an odd place to a Great Lakes boy.

Dallas is like any other big city, although the lack of zoning gives it an unusual flavor. Residential areas and commercial areas are deeply intermixed.

Austin is, of course, a one-off. It's really a displaced coastal town with a western theme.

I once drove Carlsbad NM to Las Cruces NM on I-62 which is a stretch of freeway that runs through West Texas and El Paso. I stopped for a hike in the Guadalupe Mountains (lovely, and sparsely visited). I was stopped at a border patrol station and quickly scanned for illegals. And I was stunned by the endless strings of used car lots along the border.

This time I was in Houston, about which there is little to say. It seems like a decent place. Folks there are proud of their reaction to the recent hurricane and their resilience, and rightly so. I remember how the hand wringing in New Orleans went on for years. There was no such reaction from Houstonians. For the fourth largest city in the nation, it's remarkably unremarkable (that's a compliment). And it's growing enormously. Houston is growing at a rate of 9-ish percent since 2010, but that is obscuring the fact that the surrounding cities such as Pearland and College Station and are growing at rates beyond 20%. The area in what is probably a four hour drive radius including San Antonio, Austin, and Houston is just exploding. One suspects it will overshadow L.A. and D.C. given time. The country will be the better for it.

Texans have strong identity. It waxes and wanes in different parts of the state though. Houston and Dallas I saw little of it. I saw some in Austin, although there it is tinged by hipster irony. It is pretty prominent in San Antonio (notably, the seventh largest city in the U.S.), home of The Alamo, and the target of a side trip. The Alamo is a fine place to visit. It strikes a good balance of history and curiosity. It is one of the rare U.S. monuments that is clearly geared toward Red Staters; most such places hold the mainstream leftish-progressive line in their tone. It's just off the famous Riverwalk, which is also a fine place to visit and a unique social center. Luckily it was chilly and off-season, otherwise I it would have been packed to the gills, and rightly so. The bars and restaurants on the Riverwalk proper are not particularly outstanding, but it's the setting that counts. Well worth a visit.

Nowhere in Texas have I ever stayed long enough to get a real feel for the place. But, as is clear, it's not just one place. Visiting for a day or two here and there and then passing judgment on Texas is like visiting Hong Kong and Beijing and claiming you understand China. My guess is that it's just fine, and while I wouldn't go out of my way to live there, I would be disappointed if I found myself a resident. Judging from its population and economic growth, the market thinks it's one of the best places. That's a more valuable recommendation that my opinion.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Month That Was - December 2017

Wow is it cold. My latest heating bill was $333.00. The furnace is running pretty much non-stop these days, what with me having a house guest and all. We have had week long stretches on sub-zero lows, which terrifies me when I think of whether all the ridiculously expensive landscaping I have had done will survive.

Apart from the cold, everything is going fairly well. I need to start planning my 2018 adventures; they will be scaled back this year, since last year was pretty much spent spending, if you get my drift.

I have done no fresh writing but have worked on a revision of my existing partial manuscript in the hopes that it will kickstart me. The good news is I like what I've written so far, the bad news is I'm still stuck on how to proceed. This is not writer's block. I have plenty of possible paths to take it, but none of them cohere. Can only hope it will come eventually, as it always has in the past.

[Travel, Florida] Ave Anna Maria
[Rant, Tech] Homo Technologus
[Movies] Flick Check: Star Wars: The Last Jedi
[Books] Book mlook: Malice

[Travel, Florida] Ave Anna Maria

Every time I stay in a Florida Gulf beach town I think to myself, "Yeah, I could live here..." Anna Maria is no exception. But we start with an interesting AirBnB.

Normally, a trip to the Gulf means renting a room in a small beachside hotel. But as it turned out, for less than the price of a serviceable hotel room, I could get an entire house on AirBnB. Essentially I got a two bedroom/two bath home (part of a duplex), a five minute walk from the beach on the north end of Anna Maria, just around the corner from a string of shops and restaurants. Five star ratings from previous renters. All for about 70% of the price of a wee hotel room. I went for it.

This was not my first AirBnB. I rented one for my Idaho/Eclipse trip back in August, but that was managed by a rental house agency. This house was one of what I guess to be a set of three, owned by a guy and his two sisters. I think they list them all on AirBnB and just move around to stay whichever one isn't occupied for any given time. In any event, I met the fellow at his house -- nice, good natured guy -- he showed me around briefly and was about to be on his way when I asked, "What about keys?"

"Oh, I lost them a while back. Just leave the door unlocked. There's no crime here and the guy who lives downstairs is ex-Marine special ops."

Alrighty.

So I wasn't really sure what I was getting into here. A part of me felt like I was a character in an Elmore Leonard novel, about to find myself entangled with highly colorful kooks in some sort of shenanigans. But realistically, I had nothing all that valuable. Visits to Florida generally involve two pairs of cargo shorts, a couple of ratty old t-shirts, bathing suit, sandals, and sunglasses. My laptop wouldn't get me $50 on Craigslist, and its contents are backed-up. My phone is always with me, and I could lock the door from the inside so personal safety wasn't an issue. The former special ops Marine turned out to be a touch over 60 with a startup that was about to go Series A. So, yeah.

And it was fine. I never saw either the owner or the special ops guy again. I gave them 5 stars and they gave me five stars so my AirBnB cred is now perfect. And I gained a genuine affection for Anna Maria Island.

To get to Anna Maria Island from Sarasota you can do a lovely hour-plus drive at about 25 mph up through longboat key, or you can drive through the next city north, Bradenton, and save about half the time. Since I have driven the keys more times than I can count, I chose the short route.

Bradenton is downscale from Sarasota -- filed with weatherbeaten old strip malls and chain restaurants. It's not the best place to live in Florida but it may be one of the cheapest. There are a couple of areas in town that are coming along -- a historic downtown area that has some old, character-full buildings and commercial activity, like one those officially designated revitalization zones you see in struggling cities, and as you move west toward the water there a lot of nice looking gentrified gated communities for snowbirds and such. For the most part though, Bradenton is on the low end. They have a problem with opiates and crime/gangs associated with them, like every other working class city, although not so bad as to make it unliveable.

In my travels I have seen a large number of places like this. Cities that end up as the functional back rooms for primarily tourist enclaves. The people here constitute the underclass of the service industry. What, in less abiding times, we would have called menial labor. They wash dishes and bus tables, clean the grounds and the rooms, work the convenience store counters and souvenir shops, wash cars, haul trash. They have no job security and no growth opportunity but, as long as the tourists and retirees keep coming, they can generally stay employed with a couple of part-time jobs at a buck or two over minimum wage.

Cross the bridge from Bradenton to Anna Maria Island and things are different, of course. That said, Anna Maria isn't the tightly controlled environment of say a Sanibel or Boca Grande. It doesn't cost anything to get on the island and it's easily accessible to many Gulf-area cities so the tone of Anna Maria is somewhat different from the truly high end places. More commoners -- proles, if you will -- hit the island, so right at the point of crossing there is an ugly shopping center area right near the largest public beach, Holmes Beach, which like the whole island has that perfect baby powder sand that the Gulf is famous for. The beach is lovely, but on the the immediate area surrounding it is generically commercial and as such, an inexpensive area. That is to say, it fits the likely clientele.

Not surprisingly, as you move away from this area, either north or south on the key, things get more hoity-toity as the upstairs cushions itself from the downstairs. My AirBnB was in the farthest north neighborhood, entirely residential, just past a string of tastefully done shops and restaurants.

I know I sound awfully snooty as I write all this. I don't mean to. The proles who visit seem just as happy as the petty bourgeois in the upscale areas. I'm sure they are. But to pretend there are not clear class distinctions in some of these places is to ignore the obvious. Also to deny that I prefer luxury and exclusivity in my vacation locales is to ignore myself.

It startlingly easy to fall into an island rhythm. The house I was in was delightfully shaded, so it never got too hot and I didn't turn on the a/c, just had the windows open and breeze going 24 hours a day. Wake up mid-morning, slip on a pair of shorts, t-shirt, and sandals then walk down the street for something to eat. Or don my running shoes and go for a beach run. Come back, change into bathing suit for a swim in the Gulf. In the evening walk down to a restaurant on the pier on the sound side for the fresh catch, or a beach bar for some peel 'n' eats and a beer and watch the sunset.

I've been coming to this area for over 20 years and I've seen and done most everything touristy around the area, so the only significant excursion was to Mykella State Park, an interesting stretch of swampy wilderness -- plenty of wildlife and history (including gators, of course). A fine low-key day trip. But in truth, there is little new in these parts for me to see.

All Good Things... I returned north on Christmas day to record cold and had to get up the following day to run the snow-blower so I could get out of my garage. I love Michigan, I love the area where I live, but really need to be snow-bird. Bug out after Thanksgiving and not return until April. That would be perfect. Now I'm thinking of buying a place and just letting AirBnB rent it out when I'm up north. I'd make sure I had keys as special ops Marines are in short supply.

[Rant, Tech] Homo Technologus

Well, well, well. There are so many possible angles to take on this assessment of facebook, by one of it's own (formerly). He points out that facebook fosters an inane form of communication. He also highlights instances where social media has been instrumental in horrific deaths and even genocide. He slaps down a culture in thrall to the quick dopamine hit from a "like" or a "mention".

He's right about all that, of course. On the other hand, the same can be said of 30-second sound bites and they've been around since the dawn of mass media, not social media. As far as the dopamine hit, for that we can blame evolution for giving us something called the Coalitional Instinct.

At some point in our evolution some humans developed a mutation wherein our brains released dopamine (feel good juice) when we bonded with others into a group. Groups were better at hunting and gathering and providing and also better at protecting themselves from the terrors of the primitive world, so people with this mutation thrived relative to loners, and pairs, and simple family units. Groups became clans became tribes became nations and so forth.

That biochemistry is so powerful that we will readily engage in terrible behavior in the service of our group. It can range from simple hypocrisy and little white lies to outright atrocity. And we will use every trick in the book to delude ourselves that we are acting nobly no matter what. This behavior is hard wired into us. We probably engage in this charade multiple times every day. And when I say "we" I mean you, me, and everyone else. Everytime you link to some news article that demonstrates how your side is right about some issue or another, and you convince yourself that it amounts to some sort of clear, objective fact, you are engaging in this activity. When we are in thrall to this Coalitional Instinct, we literally do not see or hear information that would result in cognitive dissonance, our brains erase it from perception.

This is what the internet and social media have unleashed. All the information in the world is at our fingertips, yet rationality and thoughtfulness are swamped by that ancient, primal dopamine hit from demonstrating a righteous, loyal connection with our tribe. And for all it's complicity in this, facebook is a poor second to Twitter in this game. Have you ever been on Twitter? Yikes.
Anyway, this is the generalization of what the facebook exec in the article, Chamath Palihapitiya, is talking about, although he loses sight of the core problem and decides it's really just that people aren't sufficiently devoted to the progressive issues that he thinks are important.

None of this is new, but like everything else in the world it is faster and easier than ever before, and the genie is out of the bottle. We'll never go back, we had better learn to deal.

Personally, I'd be happy if facebook would just stop presenting me ads for "male-enhancement pills" and "50+ dating" sites, although I understand them thinking that is my tribe. There are are worse tribes.

[Movies] Flick Check: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

(Spoiler Alert - as if you don't already know everything) I came out of the theatre kind of neutral on it, but upon reflection really disliked it. (Yes, I saw it in a theatre. Seeing a movie in a theatre has become a tradition on my visits to my brother down south. Otherwise, never would I.) That tells me that it had some at least some things going for it for me to not hate it at the outset. Considering it was 2.5 hours long, the pacing must have been pretty solid: lulls in action were tolerable, plot was easy to follow. Also solid was the acting -- especially Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, and Mark Hamill. The Rey-Kylo Ren connection was holding my attention and offers a good core theme for the trilogy.

But dear God was the secondary story, with Finn and Rose, inane. Honestly, it was after-school special bad. Let me say it: It was Phantom Menace bad. How do adults, even if they are writing for kids, come up with something so unrelentingly stupid?

Nearly as stupid was the Carrie-Fisher-and-Laura-Dern-teach-Poe-not-to-be-such-a-cowboy tertiary plot. At least this served the purpose of "prepping" Poe for leadership of the Resistance, but, wow, was it a cut-and-paste job.

The Force has always had a bit of deus-ex-machina feel about it, but here it's taken to absurd levels with mind control across vast reaches of space, along with Yoda reappearing in a truly ham-fisted turn of events, and when Carrie Fisher uses the force to survive unprotected in empty space and fly back to her ship -- well, that is a nuke-the-fridge moment if there ever was one.

So now Han and Luke are dead and Princess Leia is dead in real life so maybe they can let go of the fan service. The core storyline of Rey vs. Ren is still intact and serviceable. I suppose there is a thread of hope. The best of this generation so far has been the one-off Rogue One so maybe the upcoming early Han Solo movie will work well. But, hope or no, this trilogy is likely to go down as only marginally better than the prequels.

[Books] Book Look: Malice, by Keigo Higashino

Police Procedurals are such a well worn genre at this point that finding something new and different is very gratifying. Malice takes a lot of chances with form. There is a rather abrupt POV change early on, only later do we discover that there was a very good reason for it. More interestingly, the motive is one that is dangerously undramatic. That is to say, it is almost a "just because" sort of explanation, but the in the context of the story it plays alright. Also, a good deal of the plot revolves around writers and writing, and a writer writing about being a writer is usually the touch of death, but again, Kiego-san, manages to keep in relevant, primarily by making the detective into a sort of anti-writer and the story ending up by focusing on bullying in school not writing. (As described, bullying in Japanese middle schools sounds horrific, if this is an accurate depiction. Worse than anything I experienced in Southfield, Michigan.)

Higashino has a steady, no-nonsense prose style. He wastes few words and doesn't bother with too much scene setting. That is very nice; an author who respects your time.

The mystery itself is well thought out. It starts out like it's going to be locked room murder, then goes off in one direction, does a complete reverse, and then angles off one last time, doing a good job of keeping you on your toes. There are bits and pieces of blatant manipulation along the way -- terminating dialogue just before the big reveal, hiding important details, etc., but nothing that is out of the ordinary for a police procedural.

Should you read Malice? Sure. It's a page turner of a mystery and a fresh take on an old genre. Higashino is the premier mystery writer in Japan and is highly regarded in Edgar Award circles. He deserves it.

Friday, December 08, 2017

The Month That Was - November 2017

November is a sigh of resignation. It appears I will survive yet another year. It appears I will have to endure another winter. I did have a fine break down to Vegas for Thanksgiving as usual. Also, my houseguest had her nieces (ages 6 and 11) over for a weekend and they are a good approximation of a hurricane. So the month was not without its action.

I seem to have lost a good deal of enthusiasm for the things that previously took my time. Working out has become a bit of a chore, travel doesn't really excite me, and I haven't written anything in awhile. Not sure if this is temporary or indicative of something else. I am also gaining weight. I am push 185 which is at 5-10 pounds too high. Something must be done about that.

Whatever the case, I continue to push on.

[Detroit, Rant] Detroit vs. Me
[Movies] Flick Check: Justice League
[Travel, Vegas] State of Vegas

[Detroit, Rant] Detroit vs. Me

Time was I used to regularly point and laugh at all the heartfelt stories of Detroit's rebirth and recovery, claiming that it was futile and Detroit was hopeless. Now that tangible evidence of that recovery is getting publicity everywhere you look, you'd think I'd be hiding my head in shame. Well, no. I'm still going to be the wet blanket on your happy feelies.

Two good things have happened. First, the State of Michigan took over management of Detroit when they went into bankruptcy. Until then, assorted powers on the city council along the mayor worked the city like the mafia bust out. The State taking over has at least allowed businesses to feel like they are not going to get shaken down and milked dry. That has led to the second good thing, which is some high profile businesses have opened up shop in the city. The cynic in me says these businesses are figuring out ways to use decaying Detroit as a benefit to branding, either to goose their Good Progressive Actor scores or elevate their authenticity status. (Authenticity is a holy grail for well-heeled, insecure hipsters and nothing makes you more real than being from Detroit. )

Along with these high profile businesses have come well-meaning white people who fancy themselves on the vanguard of culture and coolness. Getting a New York Times article about how cool you are gives them shivers of validation. I'd wager you get more cred these days for being from Detroit than you do being from Brooklyn; that's saying something.

This year, was the first election for mayor since the State has relinquished control back to local authorities. As of last August, four of the eight candidates for mayor were felons -- two of whom were charged with attempted murder. Now, the good news is that none of them were serious candidates, but old habits of die hard (just ask Marion Barry). Yet, remarkably, the new Mayor, Mike Duggan, is white -- which strongly suggests that one way or another the old power structure is on the ropes. I mean, he beat Coleman Young II, son of the long-time mayor Coleman Young who was the individual who did the most the destroy the city. His dad would never have lost to a white man, so something is going on.

So that's good. I'm happy for this. I really am. And I grudgingly have to say progress has been made. But what you have to understand is that all this positivity is confined to about one square mile around Hart Plaza. It's like a small window connecting the city to the functional world outside. The broader problems are far from over. Corruption is still deeply ingrained in the city's flesh. Check out this story on the cop implicated in a towing-auto theft scam. And there is still rampant incompetence, from the comic -- bands of undercover cops fighting each other -- to the tragic -- you may have read about to 600 neglected rape kits. Imagine being a rape victim and calling about the progress of your case only to dig your way through a litany of laconic functionaries to eventually discover they couldn't be bothered to to keep track of your rape kit. Detroit is still not a good place to live by any measure. It remains The Most Violent City in America.

But here we have, for the first time in my lifetime, a step in the right direction. The question is can the next step be taken. That's a harder step. The high profile businesses coming in can only go so far. To be of any real economic benefit they will need to house employees in the city -- and not just right-thinking white hipsters. We're talking middle-class families. We're talking good schools and secure streets. And for those you need two things: 1) public safety, which it is well documented that you don't have, and 2) a strong school system, which not only do you not have, but you have the educational bureaucracy actively working against you.

Beyond that, you need an ecosystem of small, unglamorous businesses - plumbers, convenience stores, child care centers, dull office-fillers, etc. -- because one of the benefits of having big name companies in your town is the further business growth needed to service both the companies and the employees that they can bring in. That's how functional cities grow. But in Detroit, the entrenched, hyperactive regulatory policies and enforcement institutions seem dedicated to stifling any business that isn't well funded enough to locate in Detroit on principle alone. Read this for a good description of the conditions. In short, businesses seeking profit as opposed to goodwill, will look elsewhere.

We're still a long way from a Detroit that is functional in any way beyond symbolism. Detroit has a problem with Rule of Law. It has too little is some circumstances and too much in others. There is a word: Anarcho-tyranny, which is a government that cannot control real criminals so it controls the innocent to demonstrate its authority. Detroit has flirted with that for the last 50 years and that hasn't changed.

But however tiny, there is an upswing, something I never expected. What comes next, in the absence of strong State oversight, will be interesting to see. I honestly hope the day comes when I have to eat crow. But I doubt it. My sneer remains intact.

[Movies] Flick Check: Justice League

Question: Can Joss Whedon save DC? Answer: Not really. After the dreadful Batman vs, Superman and Wonder Woman, Justice League isn't that bad. It succeeds because Whedon knows how to do good action sequences, he also knows how to do comedy (although his casting director doesn't), and he knew enough to basically make a cut rate Marvel film (reluctant heroes joining forces to beat a bad guy with cubes of power -- yeah, that's original) rather than hold to DC traditions. Also, Flash and Aquaman weren't totally lame. But really all you end up with is a film that would still be one of the worst Marvel movies ever made. Each successive DC release is another beat down. The best they could come up with is this luke-warm derivation and it had to go up against Ragnarok and the Infinity War trailer. Honestly, I'm at the point where I am embarrassed for them.

[Travel, Vegas] State of Vegas

I now have 16 or 17 years of regular visits to Las Vegas. Much has changed. If you ask most longtime Vegas visitors, these changes have been for the worse. I don't know. I try to be careful not to be an old man yelling at clouds when it comes to change. I'll just say it is definitely different. About 15 years ago, sports-writer Bill Simmons made the keen observation that there were three places in the U.S. where you felt like you were in a movie just by being there. One was Manhattan. Another was the French Quarter in New Orleans. And the third was the Vegas Strip. I agree with Simmons; back then it was true that those places made you feel special.

It's probably still true of Manhattan. Although I haven't been in several years -- mostly due to it costing an arm and a leg to get a hotel room or even a cab from the airport -- it's hard to imagine it changing so thoroughly as to be any less exciting. The French Quarter is probably even better than it used to be since it is cleaner and perhaps a bit less scary since Katrina, without a corresponding drop in party madness.

Vegas, on the other hand, just doesn't give me that feeling any more. I will acknowledge up front that it could simply be familiarity that's causing that. But I remember on my first trip, around the turn of the century, I was standing in the sports book at Bellagio and a pretty waitress brought me a complimentary beer, just because I was standing in the sports book. I hadn't even placed a bet yet, I was just watching a game. There was nary a Resort Fee to be found. Anywhere I went I could park free, or valet if I was willing to tip -- which I always was. I'm no high roller, but little things like that made me feel special. It made me feel like the town was happy I was there and they just wanted me to have some good, maybe not-so-clean fun while not having to sweat the small stuff. It made me feel like the leading man in a movie.

You can still get free drinks in the sports book, but they do it by giving you drink tickets only if you wager enough money and even then, only if you are bold enough to ask. Resort fees, our old enemy, are everywhere and can almost double the cost of a mid-week room at times. Parking fees, our new enemy, are the most recent degradation -- almost all the major properties charge for parking now. Of course, you can get some nice perks by signing up for M-life or Total Rewards and such, because we all go to Vegas for that sweet Costco-type experience. Nobody ever handed Danny Ocean an M-life application.

And if I hadn't sworn off table games years ago, I probably would today over the state of blackjack.

None of this is monumental. I still have fun every trip and I still look forward to my visits, but that old feeling is gone. I used to feel like Vegas was there to have a great time and I needn't worry about the nickel-and-dime details -- park wherever you want, score a free drink now and then; it's cool, you're the leading man. Now I feel like Vegas is trying to see how much it can squeeze out of me to get that same great time. I have to be on guard or they will take me to the cleaners faster than a used car salesman.

I still visit Vegas regularly and will likely continue to do so until the day I die. It's a world class destination, not to be missed. But I certainly don't feel like I'm in a movie anymore. Maybe I should try Macau.

Anyway. Highlights:

Prestige level at Palazzo is pretty sweet. Free breakfast and free booze for happy hour in the exclusive lounge. Huge, opulent room. Worth the money, I think.

Dinner at Carson Kitchen. The menu, mostly small plates, is very creative. Which is to say it's hit or miss. Some of it is "meh" -- the veal meatballs, the watermelon & feta salad. The good stuff -- Devil's Eggs, Flatbreads -- is very, very good. And the signature dessert -- Glazed Donut Bread Pudding -- is without peer.

Fremont Street is the most fun area in Vegas. I'm still not sold on it for a multi-day stay because I prefer a at least a bit of luxury in my life and Golden Nugget doesn't count. But for an evening or two of revelry, it's the best.

The High Roller happy hour is a sweet deal. It looks to get crowded at night, but a good strategy is to try to catch sunset from on high. You may have the bar pod to yourself.

"O" is quite a spectacle and is immensely impressive from a technical standpoint, but the actual performances left me a bit cold. This is the second time I have seen it -- the first was nearly 15 years ago and it left the same impression then.

Peter, the barber at Palazzo spa, is an ace with the straight razor. I say this as someone who has occasionally been butchered by the random Sweeny Todds at Art of Shaving. That said, the Canyon Ranch spa doesn't measure up to Qua at Caesars, or the Encore spa.

I'm on the fence about Bouchon Bistro (possibly because I am on the fence about French food in general). The food is impeccable, of course, but I don't feel comfortable there for some reason and the noise level prevents quiet conversation, which seems a bit at odds with the reputation of the place. That's for dinner; maybe the famous breakfast would be different.

A weekend bug out to Red Rock Resort in Summerlin. It's a great place; it really does have everything and it's remarkably easy on the wallet by comparison to the Strip. Strong restaurant selection, above average rooms, good gambling facilities with reasonable blackjack, an active poker room, even bingo (I didn't check the VP payouts). If you're the type to just stay in one the property your whole trip it would be hard to imagine anything better. If you must bring kids, it would be good choice, unless you are keen on getting them the advanced education they would get from a walk on the Strip or Fremont.

Managed a couple of forays into State parks, including hikes at Valley of Fire and Mt. Charleston. Both are true gems and less than an hour's drive away. Highly recommended when you need a break from a VP beatdown and your Verbena buzz turns sour.

So like I said, despite my above gripes, it was a good time. It always is.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Month That Was - October 2017

The days grow short. I am driving home in the dark. Jacket is now required. I'm thinking of pulling the potted plants in and planning Thanksgiving in Vegas and a long weekend in Florida in December. They say we are in for a cold and snowy winter, and I believe them. We have had a couple of mild ones in a row.

Ah well, I suppose I will survive as always.

[TV] Toob Notes: Halt and Catch Fire
[Travel] Western Swing
[Movies] Flick Check: Spider Man: Homecoming
[Tech] [Rant] Amazon, You're (a little) Dead to Me

[TV] Toob Notes: Halt and Catch Fire

Very nicely done. I'm giving it Pantheon status. After a misguided first season the final three were just spot on beautiful. Part of its beauty is the way it stood out against literally every other show on television. It was one of only two character driven shows of it's time (along with Better Call Saul), and it was the only one that didn't lean on criminality as a milieu. It took the business of business seriously, one of only two fictional TV shows I know of ever to do that (along with Mad Men).

The thoughtfulness with which the characters were handled became plain in the arcs. All four main characters went through growth arcs, but in the end they were still themselves.

Joe -- always searching for the next big thing came to see the next big thing was only of importance in how it affected humanity. "The thing that gets us to the thing" is what he was all about and he came to realize both things are us.

Gordon -- the pure engineer. The non-logical nuances often escaped him but he would always come around. And if he was never quick at personality assessment, he came to accept that about himself and move cautiously in that arena. In one of the most perfect developments in all fiction, he got to spend his final day successfully fixing something.

Cameron -- never got over her need to rebel. Her hatred of depending on anyone else for anything was given a source in her family. Like Gordon she had to accept her limitations but in this case it was not a happy acceptance. She seems doomed to forever kill anything that would keep her connected. The horrible ironic twist for her is that her extreme independence means that in the end she will always be dependent on people like...

Donna -- the manager, the compromiser. The one who masters the rules. The one who perhaps sees others the most clearly. The one who reminds the others that their dreams only exist in the real world because of people like her which leads to the inevitable subtext of hostility that creates. And like everyone else, she never quit being who she is, she just realizes it and works with it to live better. Her key revelation is her regretful remembrance of Gordon: "He did so many thing wrong. And I told him about every one."

That is beautiful. That, my friends, is how you do fiction. I'm gonna miss this show and these characters.

We are left with Better Call Saul as the sole remaining quality drama on TV, although there are so many shows getting made these days, between Netflix and Amazon and YouTube etc., that I can't keep up. It's possible there is another gem out there that I don't know about. I like my silly comedies and action shows as much as the next guy, but I do fear for the continued existence of quality drama on TV. I guess we'll see.

BTW - the Pantheon consists of The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Halt and Catch Fire, and almost certainly Better Call Saul. I'm open to suggestions to anything else, new or old, but the bar is awfully high.

[Travel] Western Swing

Happily, as I am shopping for a new car, my rental car was a hybrid -- a Ford Fusion -- very nice, amazingly efficient, no drivability issues, but there were some alarming sounds from the brakes at a couple of points. Still I wouldn't hesitate to go hybrid; it left a good taste in my mouth. Maybe a RAV4 hybrid -- or a CMax. The rental spec Fusion left a lot to be desired in the infotainment department. It connected to my tablet but would only play songs on any given album in alphabetical order and then only after a solid five minutes of "indexing". It was XM capable but no one had bothered to activate it. I should have tried myself. Still I'm sure that was just the low end rental version. I suspect Ford's actual infotainment options are significantly better.

But I was travelling Out West, which is what this post is about. This time for a half marathon in and around the city of Page, AZ and Lake Powell. It was shaping up to be unpleasant; cold (about 40) and windy (wind is worse that cold) and dark start. I had to get there at 5:30 AM to pick up my packet and race didn't start until 6:30 AM. Sunrise was going to be after 7 AM. As a result, I was not in the best frame of mind waiting in my car to stay warm for the start. But the glow of sunrise had begun at gun time and the wind had died considerably and race adrenaline kicked in. After about 3 miles through the town of Page, the sun rose and we were treated to jaw dropping views of Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon dam and the majestic red rock mesas and surrounding mountains. And it wasn't just a brief glimpse, the views surrounded us the rest of the way the rest of the way. I have run quite of number of scenic races out west and this was easily the most beautiful of all.

The next day, in contrast, the temps were touching 80. I made a visit to Lee's ferry and a brief hike along the Colorado river. There is quite an interesting beach there, of all things, I'm confused why in the hot weather there wasn't anyone else there. It seems tailor-made for an afternoon dip in the cool water.

About Page: it's a small town -- not poor, but there are no luxuries to be found. You will find no meals beyond sports bar level and no lodgings superior to, say, a Hampton Inn. It has a dominant Navajo population and a preponderance of Christian churches of various denominations. There appears to be little industry besides tourism, which is steady, although there is a large factory of some sort just outside town. There also appear to be sections of upper middle class housing that I would guess are rental homes. Some of these homes would have views out their living room windows that would make an acrophobic blanche.

I stayed a bit longer in Page because the following day I made a mad dash in the morning to Kanab Utah, about an hour away. You see there is a hiking destination called the Wave that is a dream hike for many. The undulating layered red rock is iconic, but there is a catch. Only about 20 people a day are given permits to hike there. You can get in a lottery for one of ten permits months in advance -- I tried and was not selected, or you can show up the day before and get in a lottery for one of another ten permits the next day. That's why I headed to Kanab -- that's where the lottery is held. For next-day permits, the process is to show up by 9. You are led into a room with everyone else and you fill in an application and given a number (1 per group). Then, like bingo, the ranger draws numbers and if your number comes up your group can go provided there are enough permits left to cover your group. If chosen you have to hike the next day or not at all. If not chosen, you go home muttering about the unfairness of it all. There were about 35 groups vying for 10 permits. I ended up going home muttering. Some people had been showing up multiple days in row and had been rebuffed multiple days in a row. On the one hand, it is really annoying and inconvenient, and the randomness makes trip planning a real crap shoot, he muttered. On the other hand, it makes for a story and raises the status of having hiked to the Wave and make you an object of envy if you get there. I'm sure I'll try again some day.

In any event, I consoled myself with a visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The snooty, outdoorsy types will tell you the the North Rim is preferable to the South as it is less crowded and less touristy. True. There is a single lodge, a spare couple of retail outlets, and a herd of Bison. It's also a solid hour to anything remotely considered a town. It also, I think, contains more visual drama in an accessible dose. The South Rim is so sprawling that it's really hard to grasp in a single view. That said, if I was travelling with a family, I would take the fun, amusement park style South Rim with all of it's commercial ventures.

Page is a great base of operations for exploring Northern Arizona. It is central and reasonably priced and with great infrastructure. I could easily see settling in there for two or three weeks and just racking up the explorations and experiences. But I didn't have two or three weeks so I moved on, leaving much undone.

Next came relocation to Sedona. Whether approaching heading south or leaving heading north I highly recommend taking route 179 rather than the more indirect but faster freeway route. It winds and climbs through something approaching a thick alpine forest -- just a stunningly beautiful drive. I'm not sure if it is technically alpine forest or not, but it is as richly and thickly wooded as any place you would call the north woods. Coming in from the north you climb through the woods and then descend into a more traditional red rock area, but you are still at a much higher elevation than Page or the low desert around Phoenix, so the red rock vistas infused by patches of evergreen forest.

Sedona itself is remarkably wealthy. Enormous mesas and mountains loom in every direction as a backdrop to the town, and many people have built modernist mansions in the foothills. You can see them peppered about looking precisely positioned to maximize their views.

Sedona is also the global leader in new-age-ism. They speak of vortexes where the world energy is focused and there are numerous psychics in town and they must do a decent business because I have seen them in business for many years now, often in posh diggings that cannot be cheap to rent.

Hippies aside, judging from the crowd the big demographic, tourist and otherwise, is retirees. There's a lot of gray wandering about the red rocks. And good for them. When I'm in my seventies (which is sooner than I like to admit) I hope to still be plowing through the red rock trails. It beats the hell out of mall walking or shuffleboard.

Unexpectedly for such a high end town, dining options aren't that great. There is a lot of Southwest cuisine, plenty of American Bistros (often cowboy themed), but surprisingly little that stands out as high quality and interesting. About the best place in town is called The Hudson which is on the chic side, but with a friendly happy hour and an emphasis on the fresh and creative. Apart from that, the best food I had was actually at my hotel, The Hilton Sedona at Bell Rock. I think it goes back the retirees again. They might be more inclined toward standard and reliably good, as opposed to the creative and, let's face it, probably overpriced.

Snooty griping about luxuries aside, Sedona is a top notch outdoor destination. You can, and I have, easily fall into a rhythm of a hike in the morning and afternoon drinks by the pool. My first full day included a hike of Brin's Mesa, in which I only got lost once so...victory, followed by some work on my tan.

The next and final day my thought was to rent a mountain bike and hit the trails, but I am not a young man anymore and frankly, after a week of solid activity I decided to chill. I took some time in the morning to wander around the Chapel of the Holy Cross, an iconic landmark just south of town. Architecturally fascinating, it appears to emerge directly from the red rock perch on which is sits. It is a Roman Catholic chapel, though not a church as there are no regular services -- though there appears to be a weekly prayer group led by a local priest. It would serve well as a quiet place for meditation and prayer -- very appropriate for Sedona -- although it seems more used as a stop for tourists to get some photos of the startling views. I certainly took my share of photos.

After that I headed into town for a quick lunch and to remind myself of what a beautiful little spot Sedona is, pretentiousness aside. It's as if the town in the possession of, or perhaps under the protection of, the surrounding imposing mountains. It's easy to see how the hippies came to believe this spot had a special connection to the world. For my part I took a walk along Oak Creek -- a river that runs behind the row of shops and high end resorts on the east side of town. A day tripper would never know of it's existence, but a crooked, patchwork walkway can be followed a for half a mile or so. It's just a lovely peaceful stroll from the north end of town ending at roughly the ultra high-end L'auberge de Sedona resort.

It was a terrific way to spend my final day. That evening I gave in to the call of reality and began packing my clothes and checking email and generally prepping for life back home. Throughout this trip I was getting the urge to stay longer -- that is to say, I have never been away from home for more than two weeks in my life. I'm beginning to wonder if it would be a good experience to try to arrange something longer -- a full month, say. Not on the move the whole time, but actually settle in somewhere for a month and see how it feels and what new experiences I would have. Somewhere in the southwest might be a likely spot for that -- given my familiarity. Worth contemplating.

For now, I'm just glad I completed a half-marathon and therefore haven't aged beyond the ability to do that. I've also confirmed my impressions of northern Arizona as pretty much road trip heaven. I doubt I have seen the last of it.

Apropos - My previous trip to this area.

[Movies] Flick Check: Spider Man: Homecoming

Spider Man: Homecoming was the perfect superhero antidote for the dreary Wonder Woman. One of the most impressive aspects of it is how many very good production decisions were made.
  • No origin story. Really is there anyone alive that does not know that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. We don't need to see that again.
  • Peter as a real kid in high school. A wee little adolescent, not a young adult - an actual kid. This dovetails well with...
  • Tony Stark as his mentor (and father figure), apart from giving us more Robert Downey Jr., opens up so much opportunity character arcs and interactions beyond standard Spidey trying to live a secret life and the problems it causes. Also...
  • It means Spidey is in a world where he is vulnerable to more than just the villain threatening his friends and family. There are bigger conflicts.
As a result of all this we got all the good stuff from previous Spidey films -- the problems of youth and secret identities, but we also got so much more.

Of course none of that would matter if the execution failed and it did not. The writing was typically quick-witted, although it did seem forced at a few points, but even when it did the actors saved it. If there is one thing the DC/XMen movie makers haven't figured out, and Kevin Feige has, it's how to find actors who can deliver on comedy. This is Marvel's secret weapon.

Spider Man: Homecoming may actually be the best acted Marvel film yet. For the bulk of the movie it's light-hearted irony punctuated with sharp action. But there is a moment about two thirds of the way through when the tone changes, and things get serious, and it's perfect -- thanks mostly to the spot performance by Michael Keaton as the Vulture. A subtle and convincing villain elevates any superhero flick and Keaton really comes through here pushing things to another level.

You may know I was a huge fan of the original Spider Man film with Tobey Maguire. I think it was the film that showed how good the stories of my comic book adolescence could work as movies. But it is no longer the best Spider Man movie, Homecoming is. It slides into the upper echelon of Marvel films quite easily, and therefore one of the best action films ever made.

I should revise my list of top ten action films. Pretty sure it would be 7/10 Marvel at this point.

[Tech] [Rant] Amazon, You're (a little) Dead To Me

Just a brief note to advise you never to buy Amazon hardware. Ever. I love Amazon. They publish all my books and I spend the bulk of my disposable income on their site. But I have been burned too many times by their hardware to ever buy another piece of Amazon brand electronics again.

I have owned a Fire Phone, a Fire HD tablet, and a Fire Stick and all have been outright crap. The Fire phone couldn’t keep a spotify playlist running and eventually the charger input jack ceased to function so I could never charge the phone. The Fire tablet so totally freaked out after a system upgrade that I had to get Amazon to do something magical to reset it, and after that it kept serving me ads when I paid for the ad free version.

Both the phone and the tablet made sideloading proper android apps from the Google play store a pain in the ass in an effort to limit you to purchasing apps from the Amazon app store only, which would have been fine if they would have at least kept semi current on the apps.

Now the Fire stick has developed a habit of resetting if I try to restart a streaming video after pausing it. What utter crap. Never again. I plan to replace the Fire stick with a Roku stick (my Roku has always been dead reliable).

Alexa is preemptively banned from my home.

Of course, I’ll probably buy the Roku Stick from Amazon.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Month That Was - September 2017

I've decide to use hexadecimal for my birthday which makes me 39 years old as of 9/13. What that means in the more common, crude decimal system I'll leave as an exercise for the reader (or the reader's access to Google). That would make me 3A next year, which look weird on internet forms and such.

Lots of reading this month, and I began the revision process of the first half of my next novel. I'm hoping that revising the first half will make the second half come into focus in my head.

Unlike last month I have no sense of the month as "lost", but it was personally and professionally frustrating, and I haven't been sleeping, and I am exhausted.

[Movies] Flick Check: Bad Heroes
[Tech] Technology Check Up
[Books] Book Look: Sputnik Sweetheart and Men Without Women

[Movies] Flick Check: Bad Heroes

Wonder Woman captured a lot of girl-power fancies, but it's simply not very good. This is of course not the fault of the girls in power; it's a DC film and so contains extended sequences of dull exposition, punctuated by plodding, ham-fisted action pieces. Honestly, it's a wonder they keep trying when even the weakest Marvel offerings clean their clocks.

In the interest of finding something good to say, I would point out the quasi-buddy-cop combo of Chris Pine and Gal Godot had its moments. Chris Pine is that rare thing in a DC film: an actor who can deliver comedy if needed. And Gal Godot is easy on the eyes, for sure. But there's little beyond that that isn't pure formula -- blockbuster by committee. Yawn.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 is also disappointing, but it's disappointing for a Marvel film which means it's still a cut above most other action movies. Lost was the organic storyline of the first film with the misfits coming together into the Guardians. The arc here is more forced, and therefore less fun. The Guardians are already the Guardians -- wisecracking, anti-hero buddies -- so efforts are made to mix them up into different combinations, but no special chemistry forms. Starlord gets his origin story via Kurt Russell as his father, but it is clearly contrived to forward the overall Marvel Universe narrative. All in all, it feels much more like a product, than a work of inspiration. The music selection is worse than the original, the writing dropped off, the snappy dialogue falls flat for the most part, and there is a certain clash of tone. Still it never descends into the level of suckitude of the DC films. The troop are still a strong comic ensemble and their sharp readings and personal charisma come through despite the poor script, although the only one I laughed out loud at this time was Dave Bautista.

The next superhero flick for me will be Spiderman: Homecoming, which I have high hopes for, then Thor: Ragnarok, then more Avengers will follow. It really is a treat getting to relive all these characters and stories from the comic books of my adolescence. Now that I am barrelling down on 60 these stories have officially lasted a lifetime. I don't know if it means adults today are more immature or adolescent nerds back then were sharper than we were given credit for, and I don't much care really, just glad I lived long enough to see an unfashionable devotion of my early teen years bubble up to the cultural top.

[Tech] Technology Check Up

Technology manages to simultaneously improve everything while pissing me off more and more.

Google Fi is a mixed bag. Despite the fact that I should have access to the strongest signal of T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular, the coverage does not match Verizon. Also, the algorithm for choosing which signal is strongest may be wacked. I seem to always end up on Sprint when I could get more bars from T-Mobile. (For $1.99 I have bought an app that allows me to switch on my own, at least temporarily.) But there are holes in coverage. Driving through the northern Lower Peninsula there are tons of dead spots even along I-75. And in the little park just a couple miles from my house (say 10 miles outside Ann Arbor) connection is unreliable, making steaming music while running a problem. Still I rarely get a monthly bill over $30. Verizon unlimited is $75 before fees and taxes, a 2GB plan is $35 before fees and taxes. A "data-boost" on the fly to 3GB would be an extra $15 -- so all in let's say $50/month to go back to Verizon. When I am ready to upgrade my phone, the question will be if the $20 extra a month is worth it for solid coverage. I think it will be. But as with all my other expenses I think the phone will have to wait until next year. After all, I lived well over a half a century without streaming audio at my fingertips. I can hold out another few months.

I'm down on Google anyway having read this: A Serf on Google's Farm. Also, Android is still a usability dumpster fire.

Oddly enough, being a Drone in Amazon's Supply Chain doesn't bother me. (Believe it or not, I still get a trickle of royalties from my kindle books on Amazon.) I've been on Prime since forever, but I bought both a Fire Phone and a Fire Tablet -- both were utter failures, so it might seem strange that when I pick a music streaming service I selected Amazon Unlimited. Well, it was a couple bucks a month cheaper than Google Play Music or Spotify. Also, I'm down on Google, remember, and I used up my free trial on Spotify only to discover issues with their streaming -- playlists would just stop for no reason. Near as I can tell, they all have roughly the same size song library. Amazon Unlimited lacks the extensive playlists and radio stations of Spotify, but they are growing slowly. If I outgrow Amazon, I may try Spotify again, but for now it'll do.

The last annoyance is my car, the 2014 Acura TL. It still has the problem with vibrating at highway speeds that no one can seem to figure out. And the bluetooth has failed. Interestingly, apart from that it is a remarkable car -- as well constructed as any I have owned and I owned XV10 Camry (1992 to be exact), the high water mark for automotive quality to this day. The butter smooth V6 is an impressive combination of economy and power. Still, I came close to trading it in. It is not practical for an Exurbanite who needs to haul bicycles and bags of mulch on occasion. And since my commute went from 5 to 40 minutes last year I could handle something a even more economical -- like a hybrid.

Sadly, everything is going to have to do until after the first of the year. I've poured way too much money in the house this year to make any more big purchases -- especially with a couple of trips still ahead. Unless my laptop finally fails (and it seems to be holding up OK) I think I'm status quo for a while.

[Books] Book Look: Sputnik Sweetheart and Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami

I seem to have serious inconsistencies in my taste. That's OK. I contain multitudes. Last month I expressed how dissatisfied I felt about David Lynch's Twin Peaks work. I found it vague and opaque to the point of inscrutability. I ended up being impressed by the atmospherics but rarely able to figure out the ultimate point. Haruki Murakami''s writing does the same thing to me, yet I love it. (I have previously pondered my uncharacteristic appreciation for Haruki-san.)

This month I happened to read a couple of his works. Sputnik Sweetheart was one of his mid-career novels, I believe it came just after his opus and the book that would make his reputation, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The second was Men Without Women, his latest book of short stories. Though separated by nearly 20 years, both books are about men dealing with the loss of loved women. In fact, I would find it very plausible if you told me that the stories in Men Without Women were unchosen plots from a Sputnik Sweetheart brainstorming session.

For the most part, the characters described are either misfits or loners -- to some extent they are all alienated -- and the love of a certain woman is the most powerful force in their lives. It takes many forms -- requited or unrequited, conventional or illicit -- but the love they feel is not really joyful, it's more of a haunting; a connection that, though deeply desired and needed, releases the fear and desperation in their souls. Although there is hope at the end of Sputnik..., Men... is darker and sadder. These are no Jay Gatsbys; their fates are emptiness, irresolution, and confusion and they accept it.

Haruki-san is wonderful as portraying withdrawn and lonely people without making them pitiful. So good that one suspects he is drawing on his own innate personality for archetypal feelings. Others, have suggested that he is trying to portray the overly conformist society of Japan, but that doesn't ring true to me. This feels very personal, not cultural. Naturally, since men and women are the principals there is the topic of sex to deal with. The sexual moments are told with a frankness that robs them of eros. There are some very erotic moments in these books, but they are not the directly sexual moments. Mostly, we are tracking the actions of people who in some sense are adrift, then they arrive at some sort of self-discovery, for better or worse. Occasionally they will be prompted to positive and direct action, but mostly they stroll through life, in a fog of self-misunderstanding, if not in outright fear.

Should you read Sputnik Sweetheart or Men Without Women? Yes. Although there are still mystical aspects (parallel worlds, dreams intruding on reality) they are not dominatingly front-and-center like they can be with Haruki-san. These stories are thoroughly relatable. Unless you require action and clear resolutions you'll find a lot material to stick with you. I would suggest starting with Sputnik Sweetheart as it has a fuller narrative, then follow up with Men Without Women if you want more.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Month That Was - August 2017

There was the eclipse, there was a triathlon, and the house finally got painted. The house took pretty much all summer. There was a delay to get approval on the colors from the homeowners association, there were intermittent rain delays throughout, there were two instances of stoppages over yellowjacket infestations, there was a delay to replace a bad window, then more delays to replace some rotting siding. It started in June and ended on Labor Day weekend. Whew. I still have a couple of windows to replace.

My car continues to needle me. There is the vibration problem that nobody can seem to fix. Now the bluetooth has died.

Piss and moan, piss and moan. It was a wonderful summer. If all my summers turn out like this one, I'll be a happy dude.

[Travel] My Own Public Idaho
[TV] Toob Notes

[Travel] My Own Public Idaho

I made a total hash of the trip planning, which is not like me at all. I pride myself on my trip planning -- finding the right balance of scheduled and impromptu time; knowing what is worth the extra money and what isn't. This time I mangled it such that not only was the travel more inconvenient than it needed to be, it cost me a small fortune.

I started out smart. This being ellipse travel, I secured my assets early -- an AirBnb in Ketchum, Idaho, and a flight to Bozeman, Montana, where I would rent a car and drive in. That was actually just fine, but, for some reason, months after making the arrangements I revisited them I could not remember why I booked into Bozeman, a 6 hour drive to Ketchum, when I could have booked into Boise, a 2 hour drive to Ketchum. I did a quick check on flights and there were open seats to Boise so to save me 4 hours on the road each way, I dropped some cash and switched my flight. (I could go on a mad rant about airlines charging fees to switch flights, but that would be futility incarnate.)

Then I go to switch my rental car to Boise and what do I discover but there are no cars available in Boise, except from a 1-star rated company that I would have to take a cab to from the airport and were charging in excess of $150 dollars per day. Evidently my head start had dissipated and the other eclipse travellers had snapped up all the rentals in Boise. F*ck me. Now I was hosed. I had no choice to but to switch my plane flight again to a bigger airport.

So I start looking at flights again and I realize that I can switch my flight to the much larger Salt Lake City airport and my drive time would be 4 hours each way so I'd still be shaving a couple of hours off my original plan. I bit the bullet and dropped more cash to change my flight again. Not having learned my lesson, I go to rent a car in Salt Lake City only to find there are none. F*ck me two times.

Yes, it was stupid not to check to see if cars were available first, but in I my own defense, let me point out that SLC is a huge airport and a Delta hub. I never contemplated the fact that such a place could have no cars available. Are the rental agencies incapable of moving cars around to satisfy demand? Last I checked cars were movable.

Dumbfounded and in disbelief, I had to drop even more cash for a another flight modification. This time, back to Bozeman where I originally started and was able to reserve a car. So I spent a few days hemorrhaging cash to end up exactly where I started. Worse in fact, because my new flights included a three-legged red-eye back home. I was too stunned by the turn of events to smash my head against the desk. I cannot emphasize how unlike me this is. In most cases, anyone who is privy to my travel planning will be summarily impressed, but this time I couldn't have mangled things any worse if I had been sniffing glue.

Arriving in Ketchum, I checked in to my Airbnb (a first for me) and took a stroll around town. Ketchum is famous for being the place that Ernest Hemingway blew his own brains out. What it is now is an up and coming hipster town. I heard it described as "like Aspen twenty years ago". I gather they get a fair amount of celebrity visitors for ski season; the renowned Sun Valley Resort is a mile or two away. The town itself is so-so. Not really very beautiful, but clean and walkable. Usually in such places you get outstanding restaurants but there was only one I found that had food that was particularly good, that was the Sawtooth Brewery and Public House. Everywhere else the food was mediocre. The most famous place in town is the Pioneer, an old school, north woods bar and steakhouse. Of course, the place is packed with people trying to have "the experience" of being there. I couldn't get a seat at the bar at any time during my stay.

Ketchum was in the path of totality for about one minute, but an hour north was the tiny town of Stanley, which was set to get a full two minutes of total eclipse. When you're photographing an event like this, a hundred things can go sideways so that extra minute of totality was worth pursuing. It was Friday; the eclipse was Sunday. That gave me two days to strategize my location or photos. You see, the big topic of discussion was the impending cosmic traffic jam. The warnings were dire and the evidence supported it what with airports being out of rental cars. The supposed likelihood was that over the weekend more and more people would pour into the path of totality and a huge swath of the West would be gridlocked. With that in mind, I began general reconnoitering and developing contingencies.

The road north to Stanley is a lovely drive. It starts with a long picturesque run towards Galena Peak. It looks like one of those inspirational memes people post on facebook with some caption about the journey being more important than the destination. It runs roughly along the Salmon River -- lots of fishermen -- with rustic scenery and distant mountains on either side. As you approach Galena Peak the road transforms into one of those winding mountain roads that would bother someone afraid of heights. Along the way there are a number of turn-outs, including one that is manned by park rangers at least part time, to get views of the Sawtooth Wilderness region from on high. You then descend off the peak and back to flat road this time with mostly ranchland on either side. Eventually you pull into Stanley, but before I get to that, let me point out that Idaho was well prepared for eclipse visitors. There were alerts posted everywhere, cautioning drivers that traffic could be very heavy. Along the way between Ketchum and Stanley there were numerous designated eclipse viewing areas -- large open spaces with room for campers and parking and plenty of port-a-potties. I found that very impressive. These folks didn't decry the crowds or accept that they were in for a day or two of chaos -- they took active and constructive action to makes things easier on people at their own cost. That's pretty rare in government at any level.

In Stanley proper, pop. 68, they were bracing for a mad rush also. Make-shift signs were everywhere, food carts were out slinging BBQ and beer. I parked and took the lay of the land. Stanley looks to be a very seasonal place -- dedicated to outdoor activities in the surrounding area. Whitewater rafting seems big, as does fishing and mountain biking. There look to be quite a few choices for lodging from basic hotel/motel to rustic cabins with firewood for heat. There are also a couple of cool places to eat beyond just the standard bar food -- Redd's is a tiny converted red house with some truly delicious sandwiches for lunch. If you want a wilderness experience where each days ends with a tasty meal, Stanley might be your place. Likely best avoided in winter, though.

There is plenty of camping in the surrounding area, as you might guess, and the gem location is just south of Stanley proper at Redfish Lake. I don't know if it is technically an alpine lake but it certainly carries all the characteristics -- cold clear water, pine forest all around -- the stand out feature is the multiple beaches begging to be lounged upon. Redfish Lake and it's associated lodge would be a top choice for a vacation in the area. It might actually be my pick next time around.

So having taken in the landscape, I formulated a plan. The morning of the eclipse I would pack my camera gear in the car and head north. I would go as far as the traffic would let me. Ideally I would get all the way to Stanley. If not there, maybe one of the designated viewing areas, or one to the overlooks on Galena Peak. Even if things were so bottled up I couldn't get out of Ketchum, I still noted a couple of interesting places I could set up right in town and cross my fingers nothing when wrong in photography.

Sunday came and went and around town the conversations turned to how quiet everything was and how maybe this wouldn't turn out to be anything more "cosmic" than a typical holiday weekend. I took the opportunity to do some photography and a drive up to Redfish Lake for a late afternoon swim. The lake bed is mostly rounded off rocks, no sharp edges but careful stepping is required. It was no small matter getting used to the cold water, but it was as refreshing as possible. There is something to be said for a nice lengthy soak in cold water and its effect on weary muscles. Surrounded by forests and mountains; paddleboarders and kayakers gliding out on the lake with sun sinking. It was a like a scene from a travel magazine. I was getting to like Idaho. Back in Ketchum the talk around town was that all the media hyperbole may have scared everyone away so the feared traffic apocalypse might not be so bad.

Monday came, the big day, and I was up early ready to implement whatever contingency was required. None was. I hit the road and was free and clear. I barrelled north to Stanley with only the slightest noticeable increase in traffic. There were crowds at the overlooks on Galena Peak, but the designated viewing areas were barely touched. In Stanley, the parking areas and banks of port-o-potties were barely touched. Well, well, well. So much for the traffic jam of cosmic proportions. Sad for the businesses that laid in extra supplies and scheduled extra workers, but good for me.

I setup my camera and tripod at pretty much the center of town, near some people who had much more sophisticated equipment that I did. I had bought the cheapest telephoto lens I could find and some disposable solar filters. Others had multiple full frame cameras with live connections to the internet and laptop displays. Someone else had a telescope of some sort from which he was projecting the eclipse image onto a screen. My el cheapo setup wasn't working out too well. The camera and lens combination (650mm) were proving so heavy that the tripod was not strong enough to stabilize it. I could locate the sun but could not lock it in because there was so much play in the connection between the lens and the tripod. As a result, every time I wanted to shoot, I ended up having to re-locate the sun. I got pretty good at it, but it was worrisome considering when totality hit I would have only two minutes.

Folks were milling about, settling in getting coffee and bagels from the vendors and such. Others were wandering around passing out free eclipse glasses to anyone who didn't already have them. Then someone said "It's starting!" For roughly an hour and a half, the moon moved steadily across the sun towards totality. I began taking shots. Every ten to fifteen minutes I would go to my camera, re-locate the sun, steady it as best I could, and knock off 10 or 12 photos. In between I would look using my glasses or chat with the other folks hanging around or just sit on a conveniently placed rock.

Observation: all the way through to totality, or at least up to 99%, you have to use glasses. Through my camera I could see, and shoot, the crescent sun at various phases, but even the slimmest sliver of the sun uncovered is enough to blind you or light the world. At the point of full totality is when things really change. As the moon moves across the sun the skies get perceptibly darker, but it is not a big difference. It's about the same effect as cloud cover moving over the sun. Once totality comes you are plunged into darkness as if night fell in an instant. The temperature plunges. You remove your eclipse glasses and look directly at the sun; those pictures you've seen of the coronal ring are pretty much exactly what it looks like. As a final treat, the horizon glows like sunset, all 360 degrees of it. I confess I was semi-braced for disappointment as such events that are hyped like this often fall short, but not this one. I was awestruck. Better yet, I was able to lock in on the black hole in the sky and get a number of great shots.

I can see how such an event would have been terrifying to primitive people. Without solar filters you don't know the moon is moving across the sky to the sun, you can't see it at all. For you the day would be going on normally, maybe you notice the sky darken a bit but you probably wouldn't even look up, thinking it was just an errant cloud. Then suddenly night would fall. You'd look to the sun but only see a great black hole where it was supposed to be. You'd feel the cold in your bones. The human brain's remarkable ability to generalize trends would cause you to think the world was going to end. If you were lucky the terror would only last a couple of minutes, but in the right circumstances, a total eclipse can run over seven minutes -- that's enough time to sacrifice a virgin or something. Luckily there was no such drastic activity in Stanley, Idaho. There were audible oohs and ahhs, though.

The calculated time passed and the moon begins to slide off. The eclipse glasses and solar filters go back on. It would be another hour and a half to complete the passing. I took some more shots but the sun rose far enough that I couldn't get my tripod angled high enough to lock in anymore, so I called it complete. I packed up my gear and threw it in the trunk then wandered about Stanley a bit.

The more time I spent there the more I liked it. They appear to be in the early stages of growth and I can't imagine them failing for better or worse. As a summer recreation destination, it would be most amazing. If I had more on the ball, I'd buy up some property there.

And that was that. The only traffic I ran into was about a ten minutes delay getting back into Ketchum. The next morning it was up and off on my six hour drive back to Bozeman and my triple-legged red-eye back home. I am so glad I did this trip. Despite the enormous expense and monumental screw ups in planning, it ended being a great one. The eclipse experience and the discovery of Stanley were so very worth it. I need more Stanley and more eclipses in my life.

[TV] Toob Notes

Game of Thrones has become an exercise in fan service. It was good fun, but not great TV. The nihilistic, amoral, unjust show of the first five seasons is gone. Going forward, we can feel safe that in the end, the good guys will win, the bad guys will get their comeuppance, and Westros will become a beacon of Democracy and Civil Rights. Ah well, I suppose it was inevitable. In the immortal words of Ian McShane, "It's just tits and dragons, baby." Still feels like a missed opportunity to me. Won't stop me from watching.

Twin Peaks: The Return is beyond me. I chose that word "beyond" carefully. I'm tempted to say there is no point, or it doesn't make any sense, but some people seem to see a lot of substance and artistic value, including some people I know to be thoughtful and reasonable.

In a way, it reminds me of the free jazz of Ornette Coleman or the atonal classical music of Philip Glass. I hear little snippets that seem like something coherent but the general effect is random noises. Again, I have no doubt this is a shortcoming in me. The people who do see artistry in this sort of thing are not posers. They are often studied and skilled in music, they just hear something that I cannot.

Twin Peaks makes me feel the same. I see some cool stuff. The astonishing, haunting images; the otherworldly soundscape; the archetype characters (and wonderful casting). It can be an arresting experience at certain moments. But I couldn't follow the plot or even tell you what it was about. Characters appear as deus ex machina, some seem to start character arcs only to be abandoned, some seem to have no relevance to anything going on. If there is meaning in the odd special effects and strange forms that appear to be embodied beings I couldn't figure it out. Some of it was maddening. The camera could linger on the expressionless faces of the actors long after a scene was over. There were extended repetitive shots of the mundane -- a forest clearing or a passing road. Those stretches would have me turning to my laptop to check facebook.

But enough of what I read about it -- from solid, unpretentious sources -- seems to indicate that there is a substance, just in a form that doesn't touch me. Fair enough, but, in my own defense, my taste is not entirely prosaic. I am one of the 5 people in the world who understood and appreciated John from Cincinnati.

FWIW, This is the Water and This is the Well is perhaps the creepiest thing I have ever seen in any medium, yet I have no idea of its dramatic purpose.

Halt and Catch Fire is back and it has started at pantheon level quality. In its last season, it is the best show on television, not to be challenged until Better Call Saul comes back. If you haven't seen it, binge it from the start and be patient -- the first season is only sort of good, then it takes off like a rocket.

The Defenders benefitted from having the correct expectations set. It was going to be an entertaining binge-able, with many cool moments but enough glaring thuds in plot and dialogue to fall short of being anything special. It was an exercise in puppeteering characters around so they could get in cool fights and say cool things to each other. That's fine. We knew it would be little else. But the fights themselves were flat, uninspired, and borderline incoherent at times. The cool things they said were, really just sort of dull, although the actors usually nailed the timing. In the end it left me wondering why, if the bad guys were going to destroy New York City, why didn't someone just call the Avengers and be done with it.

Episodes, a Showtime comedy, just started it's fifth season. You've probably never heard of it. It has no buzz. There is no stylish concept. It is fictional story of a couple of fish-out-of-water British screenwriters who get intertwined with a fictional Matt LeBlanc, played as a total asshole by real Matt LeBanc. The series has its ups and downs but it never fails to crack me up at least once an episode. The scripts approach absurdity, but the comic acting is absolutely first rate. Not worthy of legend, but worthy of much more than it gets.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Month That Was - July 2017

As usual, I'm not sure where a summer month disappeared to. The big story for me was completing my first century -- a hundred mile bike ride. This was done in the course of participating in One Helluva Ride (it goes through Hell, Michigan, natch). It was enough to exhaust me for several days afterword.

I also made a too-brief trip down to Hilton Head, with requisite sidebars to Charleston and Savannah. I hadn't been to this area in many years and it is as lovely as I remember -- also as hot and sticky as I remember. Had an apartment in the Sea Pines Resort -- which is a sprawling, heavily wooded country club-ish resort with thousands of homes/condos/hotels rooms in various forms of ownership. The services were great and setting was wonderful. To the point I would consider it for retirement. Alternatively, as a place for a couple of months in the winter. It's not warm in the winter, but it's not Michigan cold either, averaging around 60 for a high. I should summarize my latest thoughts on retirement in a subsequent month.

[Ann Arbor, Dexter] Going Local
[Books] Book Look: The Three Body Problem
[Sports] Bore de France




[Ann Arbor, Dexter] Going Local

Our emotions just come to us, unbidden. It makes no sense to ever tell someone they "shouldn't feel that way." They have no choice. Feelings are not selected, they just appear, presumably based on some inscrutable calculus from the haphazard wiring in our brains. It follows that you should never beat yourself up over having certain feelings, however ugly they may be, because you really don't have much choice. How you respond to the feelings defines how you live or die.

So in those times when you are depressed or in despair, if you understand that these feelings may not be sourced from objective reality but may be the result of quasi-random chemical processes in your head, you have a way to fight them. In my case, I reflect on what I would miss from my life if it was gone. If I suddenly found myself in a locked cell with no hope of escape, what are the things I would wish I was doing instead. Or put another way, having lived long enough to look back at different periods of my life and think of the good times I had, I pause to think about what I do today that will be the source of good memories in the future. In the words of your grandma: "Count your blessing and be grateful!"

That was a very long-winded and weird intro. What I really want to tell you is that one of the things I am truly grateful for is where I live. I have spent almost the entirety of my adult life living in and around Ann Arbor, MI.

Ann Arbor is the bubbliest of bubbles. It's also the collegiest of college towns. The enormous University of Michigan insulates us from all kinds of economic woes, by providing an influx of 30,000 students or student-like creatures for 8 months out of the year. It ensures that our population will be among the best educated in the country. The immense transfer of wealth via government grants, the student loan firehose, and college sports, to the University and the trickle down to the local economy is the ultimate Golden Goose. There are other thriving industries in the city and surrounding areas -- health care is huge and auto suppliers are plentiful -- but every knows who the 900 pound gorilla is.

Beyond the financial featherbed, Ann Arbor itself has many charms. It refers to itself as "Tree Town, USA" and it's a fitting moniker. For a city of its size it is remarkably and self-consciously verdant. There are parks on almost every corner. Walking pathways abound and in fact have
been a particular source of attention of late, the City spending a large sum to build up an elaborate, connected web pathways through scenic areas and extending miles into the adjacent counties.

In fact, Ann Arbor could be a good example of how success can feed upon itself, spiraling into even greater success. The University attracts talented, creative people who then become so attached to the city they stay and either follow their dreams (open a brewery, start a yoga studio, whatever) or they feed the adjacent industries with STEM talent. Once settled, these folks demand quality -- good schools and public services -- and they are willing to pay for it, which ends up pricing out people who can't along with people who won't, but being even more attractive to those who can. Thus the bubble feeds and grows.

Crime is very low. There is the occasional late night robbery or assault, almost always perpetrated by someone from the rougher towns to the east on the I-94 corridor. Non-violent crimes are often committed by the homeless, but even they are under control. Ann Arbor has built itself such a glorious homeless shelter that the homeless are mostly careful to mind their Ps and Qs or get run out of town to one of the filthy shelters in other, less-abiding cities.

The attitude towards the homeless in Ann Arbor is very telling. When I first moved to Ann Arbor back in Nineteen and Seventy-eight, the homeless were more prominent and aggressive. They reached a point where they were becoming a detriment to business downtown. Committees were committed and initiatives were initiated and eventually the City of Ann Arbor voted in fairly severe restrictions on homeless activities in an attempt to chase them away. They put signs in their windows asking pedestrians to not give money. Basically we were treated to the spectacle of the proud scions of social justice and the live-simply hippies being as uncharitable as possible to the local downtrodden.

Politically, Ann Arbor is about as lefty as it gets. I offer no judgement on the value of that, I merely state it as fact. I also note that virtually all bubbles are filled with lefties -- it is an open question as to whether Liberals create bubbles or bubbles create Liberals. I have a couple of friends who I believe to be Conservatives of some stripe but they wisely never engage in political discussions or otherwise make it known that they disagree with the mass of those around them so I can't be sure. They would be stigmatized at a minimum and possibly even lose friends. This is an activity the local Liberal majority would state is wrong in principle and that they would never engage in such behavior, but I have seen it in action. It is enlightening though, to see how those in power wantonly indulge in behavior they would make a principled stand against were the other side doing it and how, when confronted with this, cognitive dissonance sets in and word meanings are massaged and facts deflected to allow them to keep their noble self image.

This has little affect on me, having long ago given up on political dogma or even carrying political opinions. And though I see it in the Left, I know that is because I am surrounded by the Left. Were I surrounded by the Right, I would see it in them. Could you be happy in Ann Arbor if you were an ardent and vocal supporter of Donald Trump? Not unless you liked conflict -- which as an ardent and vocal supporter of Donald Trump, you probably do -- or you avoided such conversations, which really isn't that high a cost. I avoid them out of personal taste and it causes me no grief.

Despite the monolithic political composition, Ann Arbor hasn't completely gone off the deep end like say, San Francisco or some such place. I note that the at the de riguer city council meeting on the problem of gentrification, nobody suggested rent control or other forms of destructive utopianism. One councilman seemed to wish we had it but even he saw it was unrealistic. Most of the quoted seem to have a solid understanding of supply and demand. Many saw the upside of Ann Arbor gentrification for the surrounding communities to get some trickle-down prosperity. That's actually pretty cool.

Aside: Does anyone remember the scourge of "urban blight"? That was a big deal 20 or 30 years ago. It was destroying our cities. Now its polar opposite, "gentrification", is destroying our cities. It seems whichever direction we go our cities will be destroyed.

I actually no longer live in Ann Arbor proper. I live in one of those adjacent communities that so benefits from the trickle-out prosperity, the little town of Dexter; the first city to the immediate west. As a rule communities to the East are low end (Ypsilanti, parts of Pittsfield and Superior Townships), communities to the West are higher end (Dexter, Chelsea). North or South is a bit of a mix. But, yes, the councilman was correct. They all benefit from the Ann Arbor spill over.

When I first moved to Dexter it still had one foot in its rural past, and to be sure, there are still flashes of country life, if in odd places. You might see a post in the local facebook group about a cow that got free or chickens on the loose or, sadly, a barn fire. That's rare, though; Dexter is filled with Upper Middle Class and the associated good schools, strong real estate, traffic woes, severe development controls, craft breweries, and the full slate of bubbly culture. Frankly, I'm delighted. I wouldn't want to live any other way. We build our bubbles to enhance our well-being and my being is quite well. If I have any sorrow or struggle in my life it is almost certainly internal at this point, which is about the best we can do.

This post was a looooong route to explaining why I am grateful to live where I do. It is a blessing that I count. I don't know how long it will last. A good financial hit or health problem could push me out of the bubble. But for now I'll enjoy it and be grateful.