Saturday, February 08, 2014The Month That Was - January 2014: Man is it cold. I mean ludicrously cold. Sub zeros. Multiple feet of snow. This either proves or disproves global warming -- or perhaps both. You know what the worst part is? I got suckered into signing up for a half-marathon at the end of March, so I have to go out and train in this ice-covered deep freeze. Lesson for life: never sign up for a long race until after May. Unless it's in Florida.
Beyond the cold, it's been a rough start to 2014. I cracked a tooth and needed an emergency cap. A stomach ailment that I had last summer, and which the doctors couldn't identify before it disappeared on it's own seem to be back. I have regular old man aches and pains, including a bad one in my hip. When you pile up all the crap and top it with a polar vortex, it makes you want to stay in bed until it's all over. I'm beginning to appreciate my mammalian cousins who hibernate through this sort of thing.
A triple hit of TV reviews this month. I should probably save some for later when I can't think of anything to write about, but sometimes you gotta live life for the moment; reach for that star, and so forth. I'd be remiss if I didn't also point out that I am once again re-watching The Sopranos. It's probably my fourth time through. The quality still amazes me. And I'm not the only one.
I was about five keystrokes from publishing the new book, when I realized it still needed another revision, so I am in the midst of that. It's to the point where I really want to have it off my back, and that's the dangerous point where you start making compromises. I need to remind myself another month or two will make no difference. Much beyond that, though, and I will risk being indecisive and fearful, which is worse. I need to stay focused on pulling the trigger, because the next writing project is starting to take shape -- in my mind, at least.
[TV] Detectives, True
[TV] Nerd Defense League
[TV] The Game has Two Left Feet
[Cars] Search For a New Ride
[Detroit] Genuine Detroit
Labels: MonthlyDetectives, True: True Detectives is the latest darling of blowhard elitist TV watchers like myself, and it's certainly worth watching. It is, primarily, an actor's showcase. Dominated by Matthew McConaughey's drawl-slow intonation of nihilist soliloquies, they take some riveting deep dives into the mind of a character, probably predisposed towards depression, who gave up on existence when his daughter was killed in a car accident. He has since only tenuously come to terms with not committing suicide and devoting his time in the world to police work. It's intelligent, yet chilling, stuff. Less mind-blowing, but equally skillful is Woody Harrelson's portray of his partner, a man completely invested in his illusions of the moral principle, and his self-justifications for violating it.
It's cleverly structured dramatically. The action takes place in the late nineties (ish?) and it is to a large extent narrated by the leads in the current day, under the guise of recapping the case because the initial records were lost in Katrina (the setting is Louisiana). However, the inscrutably silent present day cops who are taking notes of the recap clearly have an agenda beyond that -- a more current murder that is similar. So interestingly, we know that the leads solved the case in the first two minutes of the series. We know, roughly where they ended up in their lives. There is some suspense related to the present day murders, but the bulk of the interest is the personal story of the two leads, their backstories, and what they went through in solving the original case that resulted in their current state. I love this. I recently lamented that the only shows ever produced anymore we're crime based, there is little that is truly personal. This turning of the police procedural into a deep rumination on the depths of individual characters by rendering the "mystery" inert is brilliant. And it works because the characters, and their portrayal, are up to the task.
So when I tell you that the mystery seems to be little more than formulaic serial murder construct, it really doesn't matter all that much. In fact, it may almost be the whole point. I guess we'll see as it develops. But if you haven't been watching I suggest you binge to catch up. I'm crossing my fingers in hopes that it ends as strong as it's started. Plus, if you're familiar with the show you'll get the humor in the True Detective Conversations tumbler.
Labels: TVNerd Defense League: I like Big Bang Theory. So does everyone else. It's only the most popular show in the known universe or something. The writing is not as crisp as it was in the early seasons, but the it has one of the strongest ensembles of comic actors you'll ever see. It's run into some resistance in the media as it has evolved over time, though.
First, a common complaint is that it is nerd blackface, that it's gone from laughing with nerds to laughing at them. There is some validity to this. Early on in the series when the nerds were picked on, although there may have been a laugh here and there, it was ultimately portrayed as sad. At least to be a nerd on this show was not to be ridiculed or shamed or have it be something you were supposed to get over. Now occasionally the nerd-slamming is the joke in itself, but that kind of fits with the age of the characters. They are all adults now, with adult problems, not being picked on by bullies, so they would likely laugh at nerdiness now because it's not such a symbol of pain anymore. (I say this as someone with painful memories of high school geekery.) At least it is still respectful of nerds, enough to get the facts and prevailing opinions straight.
The second complaint is that it has turned from a show about four nerds to a latter day version of Friends. Well, there's not much you can do about that. If the show is going to last more than a season or two, it's going to have to morph. Five years down the road, you don't want to find yourself in the writer's room trying to figure out a new spin on Leonard working up the courage to ask Penny out. For the sake of longevity, you get 3-4 years of nerd tropes, then 3-4 more of Friends knock offs, and then you have entered the sitcom run-length stratosphere along with Cheers and Frasier and Seinfeld and Friends, offering lucrative lead-ins and endless syndication to make millionaires out of everyone involved. If you're really, really good you relocate to the suburbs and start knocking off Modern Family or Everybody Loves Raymond for another four years. Then Men of a Certain Age. I am only being marginally absurd.
For now everyone should just chill out and appreciate that it is still smart and funny, usually, after all these years. It's a high quality three camera sitcom and has remained so. It's part of our shared culture now. One of the few shows that can say that since the 90s.
Labels: TVThe Game has Two Left Feet: Sherlock and Elementary: these Sherlock Holmes updatings, from opposite side of the Atlantic, are both deeply flawed.
The English version, Sherlock, is the better of the two, mostly because the Holmes/Watson duo is portrayed by the killer combo of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The show itself is perhaps the most uneven TV show I have ever seen. There are episodes that are heart-stoppingly brilliant, and others that are among the worst of TV, some that are both. Some of the scripts crackle with wit, others are little more than filler. Even the nasty episodes produce some joy in seeing the back and forth between Cumberbatch and Freeman. They can occasionally save bits of the more ham-fisted productions.
The U.S. version has Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu (as "Joan" Watson). Martin/Liu have good chemistry, but can't approach Cumberbatch/Freeman. Elementary degrades Holmes to some extent. It treats the show as if it is just another one of the endless mind-numbing police procedurals network TV has cranked out over the years. The show is no different from CSI or NCIS or any of those other alphabet soup cop shows. That Sherlock Holmes is the lead character is just a gimmick.
Now, that said. Sherlock generates about five hours of drama a year. Three episodes of roughly 90-100 minutes. This is typical of the Brits. I fail to understand why, given that schedule and the writing talent they can draw on, every episode is not a polished gem. On the other hand, Elementary is of the old school 24 hour-long episode season construction. Perhaps that explains why they just regurgitate the old police procedural formula week after week.
Another contrast is how fast and loose they play with the original Holmes and Watson. Both shows have had to make adjustments simply because Holmes, as formulated by Arthur Conan Doyle, is not conducive to a long television run where characters have to grow and develop and have an arc of some sort (unless you're the cast of Seinfeld). How do you do that with a self-confessed automaton like Sherlock Holmes? Sherlock pushes Holmes to the edge of emotional growth giving him a streak of sentimentality, but for the most part the Holmes is still the cold fish he is in myth, although with a much more biting wit and stronger penchant toward irony. Sadly, Holmes does not simply deduce -- he has something called a "mind palace" where he does his deductions. It's a misguided attempt to use special effects to show his thought process. This is presumed to be superior to a simple explanation, at least from an entertainment standpoint. It's not. It's kinda dumb. But not as dumb as turning Watson's wife Mary into a clandestine superspy. It's jarring to watch a show where the dialog and acting are brilliant while the plot twists is so abominable.
Elementary pretty much goes all the way to demolishing the known characters. The setting is New York City, not London. Holmes is a recovering drug addict with a tendency to fret. Watson is his former councilor, now turned partner, and one gathers she is now his equal in detection. Since this Watson is a woman, she can't be portrayed as mentally subordinate to any man, even Sherlock Holmes -- not acceptable in our world. Effectively this turns Holmes into just another smart private eye/police consultant. Holmes grows emotionally over stretches when he is blamed for a policeman's getting shot, or he becomes a sponsor for another addict, or he has to reconnect with his brother -- all the sort of weepy cliches TV drama has thrown at us endlessly over the years. The most appalling change is to convert his brother Mycroft, who in the books was the only man who could outthink Sherlock and was essential to the functioning of the British government, into a pointless dopey-ass restaurateur. Da hell?
I'd follow future seasons of Sherlock, if there are to be any, mostly because at five hours total output it's worth it in hopes of catching a killer episode. I'll probably watch out the string of this season of Elementary just out of habit, but with each episode it slowly recedes to background noise while I read my Kindle. Unless they do something spectacular by the end of the year, that's it for me. Although not for everyone else apparently. It's garnered high ratings.
Labels: TVSearch for a New Ride: The check engine light won't go off. I think it's an emissions thing which would bother me if I cared about the environment. I get a howling road noise between the speeds of 45-50 mph. Mechanic says a new set of tires will solve it. I'm not so sure, but I might try it in another 2000-3000 miles. But the real killer is that It's burning oil at a rate of about a quart every 1500 miles. No leaks, presumably just head gasket-y kind of stuff. It's got 185,000 miles (but, impressively, no rust). It might be the year to wedge a crowbar in my wallet and get a new car. Time to do some looking.
The first realization that comes from this is that new cars are really friggin' expensive. If I were to get a four-year loan for another Camry, a 2014, I'd be looking at a monthly payment between $550 and $600. Not to mention that my insurance might go up. Then there's the question of what to do with my current car. As a trade I would get nowhere near what it's worth. I could go through the hassle of putting it on Craigslist and finding a buyer that way, but who's going to pony up cash for a car with the Check Engine light on. And if I'm going to get it fixed up for sale, I might as well keep it, right? I could donate it to charity, but the tax write-off would likely be less than what I would get for trade-in. I'm so confused.
I really don't know what kind of car I would get. I no longer feel locked in to a Camry or any Toyota. Don't laugh, but my first thought is that I should get a minivan. Minivans ride and drive as well as most sedans, and when I look at that cavernous space in back -- well, it'd wonderful to be able to just throw a set of bikes in the back, or load up bags of mulch by the score, or take five people and their luggage on the 4 hour drive to Mackinac Island, all without breaking a sweat. But minivans are more expensive than Camrys. That's not entirely true; I could get a low-end Dodge Caravan for probably less than a Camry, but then I'd be driving a low-end Dodge and there are compromises in going low-end. For example, I would not get a full-sized spare tire -- a mini-spare is optional -- standard is a tire inflator kit. I think my minivan would have to be a mid-level Toyota Sienna or a Honda Odyssey, and that means moolah.
But let's face it: the overwhelming majority of the time, it's just me in the car. All that space would be empty. It would probably be cheaper, but a good deal less convenient, just to rent a van or pickup truck on an as needed basis. The practical answer would be to do that, then get something small and efficient. The new Honda Fit looks awfully cool. Another favorite if I went this route would be to go with a Prius V (the Prius station wagon model). The Prius V is roughly Camry-priced, but I would have to take it through a serious test drive to see how I liked hybrid driving. The Honda Fit might be even better. It can't match the hybrid for mileage, but it's no slouch, and I could slide in easily under 20 grand.
Then again, longevity is key, since I treat a cars as a durable good -- something that I will still be using 10 years from now if not longer. That makes me worry about mechanical and technical complications in cars like the Prius. Hybrids have been around for over a decade now, but is that long enough to be considered proven? And the Fit is renowned for its cutting-edge technology, which makes it suspect for the long haul.
Of course, if durability is the primary concern, the best choice is probably a full-size Lexus or Toyota -- especially a Toyota truck. That's an idea: a Toyota Tundra pickup, one with rear seats. It solves most of my issues, with the added bonus of allowing me to see over all the crossovers and SUVs and such. I could get the six-cylinder version since I won't be doing any major hauling. Two-wheel drive. Mileage still would probably be only around 17-ish on average.
So, let's recap. I've found reasons to both buy and not buy a new car, and if I buy, I've found reasons to select anything from a tiny compact car to a full sized truck. This is what it's like in my head. It's a wonder I ever make any decisions. If you were to bet, you'd do well wagering I was still driving my current ride by the end of the year.
Labels: CarsGenuine Detroit: Up until now I thought Detroit had nothing to offer. I thought the only positive attraction for outsiders was how easy it was to scam the authorities into providing tax breaks. That, and the ability to murder someone without getting caught. I was wrong, slightly. Detroit does have something that money cannot buy: Authenticity.
Authenticity is a rare and highly prized commodity. It is a common theme of the middle and upper-middle classes that they seek authenticity. In this context, you can loosely define authenticity as an image of counter-consumerism. Anything that can position itself as being sourced from an impulse unaffected by marketing, profit, or mass appeal can be authentic. Bear in mind, something may be mass produced and ubiquitous, but still be authentic. It's all about the purity of intent behind the object, or at least the perception of such.
- Orlando, FL is not authentic. Sanibel Island, FL is.
- The University of Arizona (the largest public university and a dedicated diploma mill) is not authentic. Notre Dame is.
- A Carnival cruise to Cozumel is not authentic. A river cruise along the Rhine is.
- Lou Malnati's is authentic. Papa John's is not.
- A vintage Saab 900 is authentic. A GM-made Saab SUV is not.
Mass produced and popular items can be authentic. Guinness Stout is ubiquitous and authentic. I would argue Las Vegas is probably one of the most authentic places on Earth. There can be no question of the purity of intent behind Vegas: using vice to make money. It may not be laudable, but it is pure. Nike is perhaps the most skillful company at keeping themselves positioned as authentically dedicated to their field (athletics) while keeping equal focus on the bottom line.
Apple and Google also work hard to maintain their authenticity, the image of purity in their purpose. Apple works hard to be the artist of technology, the people dedicated to visionary design above all else. Google puts a lot of effort into not losing their reputation as the techno-geek paradise, the place where high-IQ daydreams become reality. As long as they do that, they know they will be authentic. Their products are not better than Microsoft's, but they are authentic. Microsoft is not.
It turns out, Detroit is dripping with authenticity. It makes sense. Now that it's mired in bankruptcy and has been turned over to a State-appointed administrator, Detroit can no longer pretend to be in the middle of rebirth, a phoenix rising from the ashes. It is the ashes. It is the endgame of a crime and corruption death spiral that has been going on for over half a century. It no longer has any deluded defenders who claim it isn't bad, or that it's just a perception problem. And in the decades it took to reach that point it became something: honest. It started with all the Ruin Porn. Then bankruptcy captured the headlines. But however it came about, the image of Detroit synced up with reality. In perception Detroit became a place without pretense. Detroit can't afford to keep the lights on so it has to sell off it's art works. Detroit is now a hero of day-to-day survival; a no-frills place where nothing useful wasted. It's a place where gritty celebrities like Eminem and Bob Dylan buy Chryslers. It is what you would be if all the luxuries and consumption that are the stuff of Liberal guilt were stripped from you. A place where dreams and delusions are not worth your time. Tough and unsparing. Serious and desperate. More than a little dangerous. It is what it is. Authentically so.
A thoughtful person, one unmoved by the contemporary authenticity fetish, would be happy to keep such a place far, far away, but we are not a thoughtful people. Although it does the city little good, some folks are hitching a ride of Detroit's authenticity to enhance their own. There is a hotel/casino in Las Vegas (downtown on Fremont street) called The D. It is acknowledgedly Detroit-themed. I visited it last fall and the Detroit theming amounts to having a Detroit-staple American Coney Island Restaurant (the first outside Michigan) and being a gathering place for Lions fans during football season. But still, the association with something glitz-free like Detroit positions the hotel as a spot for people who want none of wanton bling of The Strip. If your self image is one of no nonsense and you'd prefer a place and audience that puts on no airs, The D will flip your switch.
Another clever business using Detroit to make it seem real is watch maker Shinola. Formed by a founder of Fossil, they proudly stamp "Detroit" all their watches, which all have a clean and simple design, implying a company and that is devoted to its product, no nonsense or pandering to shallow fashion. The final assembly of the watches is in Detroit and if you're going to set up shop in a place as unglamorous as Detroit, you must be serious, right? I'll let the auto blog The Truth About Cars tell it:
Shinola, a brand name revived from the former shoe polish company by Fossil watch founder Tom Kartsotis, was founded in part to take advantage of Detroit as a brand. All Shinola products are branded "Shinola Detroit" and Kartsotis leases a floor in the Taubman building of the College of Creative Studies in Detroit's midtown section, where they assemble watches from Swiss movements and Chinese components.…Detroit, the city, the culture and the image, are important parts of Shinola's overall branding as is sourcing as many American made supplies as is possible.This is not to say any of this is going to "save" Detroit, any more than urban farming or tax breaks for Hollywood or a new arena for the Red Wings will. There is no "saving" of Detroit to be had. It is just a curiosity; an odd, irrational signpost of our odd, irrational times. In our world, you can use failure and destitution to sell quality. It's in such a world that Detroits happen to begin with.
Thursday, January 09, 2014The Month That Was - December 2013: And we can kiss that year good-bye. Not sure how I feel about it. Had some very good times. Interestingly, at the outset of the year I lamented that I would probably not be travelling so much, and yet I did. A lot. An epic trip to the Canadian Rockies. Twice to Florida. Twice to Vegas. Twice to Mackinac. So, yeah, I got around. All the trips were good, even the latest one where I was coughing my lungs out.
I got a good deal accomplished on the house. Enough that I can sense the point where I think the place is just how I want it is in range. No disappointments there.
I'm not sure why I'm not overly sad to be rid of 2013. Perhaps it's my lingering illness. Perhaps it's my day job, that has gotten a good deal more stressful and uncertain over the past few months. Or perhaps it's the noticeable degradation in my running times other fitness markers that make me think I am on the downside of life.
Still, there is no point in pessimism at the outset of a new year. I remain hopeful that 2014 will demonstrate I have a way to go before tumbling down the mountain. But a better plan would be to live it as it comes, appreciate it for what it most certainly will be -- another year of good life.
The new book is ever so close. I find it's important to revise after you've seen the book in original form because the presentation (Kindle, in this case) can cause a change in how it's read inside your head. Still, it is absolutely in the home stretch. I'm at the point where I ache to be rid of it and move on to the next project.
The posts this month are well over to the ranty side of things. Sorry. Back to normal soon, I hope.
[Movies] Where's the Action
[Rant] Not So Much Resolutions as Guidelines
[Rant] Tell Me All Your Thoughts on God
Labels: MonthlyWhere's the Action: Fast 6 - is exactly what it is supposed to be. It has tremendous action sequences. It makes no sense whatsoever. I wouldn't pay to see it, but I would watch it when it comes on HBO, and would likely find myself stopping after landing on it during a channel surf years later. I don't see the loss of Paul Walker (rest in peace) as key here. None of these characters short of Vin Diesel are really all that critical. Actually, The Rock may be critical now, which says something about the importance of acting to the series. I still see the Fast series as something of an action movie throwback. The last gasp of the style of action film that dominated for so many years -- centered around a macho action hero, often a lunkhead.
Hmm. There's a time wasting idea. Let's break down the action movie eras more systematically.
The Cowboy and Soldier era. The activities of the heroes in these movies were, relative to everything that came after, realistic. That may be due partially to the limited production technology at the time. For the most part the heroes in these movies did things that exceptionally skilled, but still normal, human beings could do. This was the only era for truly human heroes. Calling out when these eras ended is certainly open to debate, but I'm going to say this one ended with the release of Dr. No (1962).
The Bond era. Bond and his ilk were highly idealized. They weren't just skilled at one thing, they could do everything well. In fact, there was no situation for which they were not prepared physically, mentally, culturally, and technologically, to overcome. This hero is the ideal man. Something we should all aspire to be, but something that can't exist in reality. A big trope in this era is the villain believing he's got the hero subdued, but the hero -- always prepared, always capable, always superior -- satisfyingly turns the tables. Note: I put both Bruce Lee and Indiana Jones in this category. My instinct is to say this era ended with Rambo and Conan, both from 1982.
The Lunkhead era. Grunts and proles became the hero. Again, the humans are shown to have superior skills, but this time there is no pretense of intellectual or cultural superiority. In fact, there is often the suggestion that brains and manners are working against the villain. Nope, with these guys it all comes down to fists and firepower. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Segal, Bruce Willis, and a host of lesser knowns -- they cranked out action flicks the way studios crank out horror flicks today. Interestingly, the vast majority that came out during the glory years sucked beyond all reason. Only in the era's waning did some of these become quality films. No, not art, but they finally got proper pacing, acting, and production values. The end of the Lunkhead era came with The Matrix (1999).
The Superhuman era. This is the world we live in today and it needs little explanation. Lord of the Rings, the various Marvel movies. It's all about being beyond human. And to do that with economic efficiency you need high-end computer effects.
Note 1: It is certainly possible to get a good action flick that is out of it's era chronologically. The Mission Impossible series is Bond era. The Fast series and the self-referential Expendables are Lunkhead. We've seen soldiers out of their era, too -- think: Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan. But Hollywood is not for risk takers. The formula and the style for the bulk of the films will always conform to the era.
Note 2: I don't know what to do about Star Wars. Chronologically it's Bond, but it's definitely not Bond. Thematically it's Cowboy and Soldier, but there is an aspect of Superhuman to The Force. Not sure where it falls. I am only speaking of the first trilogy. The abominable second trilogy is clearly Superhuman.
Note 3: The pre-Abrams Star Trek films are merely extensions of the TV shows so don't qualify for this list. The Abrams Treks have the same issue as the first Star Wars trilogy, although given all the techno-Deus ex Machina they employ I would probably lump them into Superhuman also.
Note 4: The Daniel Craig Bond films are probably still Bond but they veer well over to Lunkhead.
Note 5: I need a life.
Labels: MoviesNot So Much Resolutions as Guidelines: I don't make resolutions. I make organic goals that will evolve going forward. It's a more holistic approach. Resolutions are so binding, don't cha think? Kind of Fascist in a way. Well, I stand against New Year's Nazis. In the words of the great philosopher Captain Jack Sparrow, "They're more like guidelines." For 2014 there are three categories:
Travel: Again, I suspect there will be no great foreign adventure. Mostly my hopes this year are of getting back to places I want to go again. (Like everything else, I wonder what this says about my state of life. I really need to get over that.) I would like to get back to Maine at some point -- maybe Spring, before the high season starts. I would like to get back to Sanibel Island and continue my explorations into a Gulf Coast vacation/retirement home. I would like to spend time in Utah; get back to Moab and/or Zion to hike The Narrows. I would like to get out to the OC to see Miss Anna. Hawaii, if I have a big expensive trip this year I think I would like it to be back to Maui and Kauai. Alaska has been on the list for so long I no longer even mention it.
Of course there will be Vegas Thanksgiving, Mackinac in September, a Chicago long weekend; all the usual suspects. But for the most part I think travel is going to be opportunistic; it's going to be a matter of what works once the requirements of the 2014 calendar begin to form. I suspect a lot of my travel will coincide with running, which brings me to…
Fitness: First the planned races. Ann Arbor Half Marathon is on 3/30 (this is new, not sure how I got roped into it). The Road Ends trail run in Pinckney is 4/27. The Gnaw Bone 10K in Indiana is 5/10. The Helluva Ride through Chelsea and Grass Lake is 7/12. The Mackinac 8-Miler is (probably) 9/6. The Holiday Hustle is (probably) 12/7.
I need to do more swimming. I was doing a mile pretty regularly in 2012 and I slipped in 2013. So I need to kick it back up with an eye towards doing a triathlon in the summer.
I need to do more yoga. I don't particularly enjoy yoga -- I get bored -- but I do need to keep up maintenance on my joints and flexibility, which I have been slacking on.
I would like to bike a metric century at some point (62 miles). I would like to do one of the big name obstacle runs, either Tough Mudder or Spartan.
I'm a little scared posting all this, since I am now obligated to follow up with results at the end of the year.
House: Big thing is to get the master bath redone. It's going to be a big job, and I honestly don't know if it's even possible to finish it before the year is out. First, I have to figure out specifically what I want to do, then I have to find a contractor, then the work can start. I really need to get on the stick of figuring this out.
Continue to work on the front gardens, the tulip experiment seems to have been a failure, thanks to bunnies and deer and whatever voracious creatures inhabit the surrounding area. I need to get things sorted and I need to mulch.
Paint the guest bedrooms and outfit them -- this I hope to coincide with a switch to DirectTV.
Overall, I'd guess I'll get about half this done.
And there are always, always more words to be written.
Labels: RantTell Me All Your Thoughts on God: I am not a particularly spiritual person. Be it formal religion or new agey, the force of motivation from some intangible entity has never really hit me. Many people I know and respect draw a lot strength from prayer or meditation. I just never have. This is probably my loss. I have come to think of spirituality as an congenital ability; you are born inclined to it or not, although I have no sort of objective reason for believing that other than my own experience (sample size=1).
On the other hand, many young people I know of are fairly solidly atheist. At least they think they are -- young people (late teens, early twenties) don't know what they don't know yet. They speak of believers in that snarky, groundlessly arrogant way the young people speak (I know I did). They sneer at Creationists who worship a Old White-Haired Man in The Sky and giggle equating God to a Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Anyway, all this has caused me to try to crystallize my own thoughts on the topic. So here we go.
The first question is always, What you mean by “God"? This is where the kiddies get confused. They don't differentiate between religion and God. That's because they are not actually trying to advance an argument but position their self and public images. For those of us seeking understanding, we have to get the basics down first. I would state it as follows. God is an a priori moral force. Religion is a codification of a method to reconcile with that force.
Let's start with Religion. You don't pick a religion, it picks you. Or so the saying goes. The belief in a certain religious creed is not generally the result of step by step logical analysis from a neutral starting point. What typically happens is that you are exposed to a certain dogma and you “see the truth in it". That is to say, it strikes you as self-evident. It is a matter of faith. A thing you know in your heart. This has never happened to me. No such creed has affected me that way. I do not discount the possibility or deny its validity. Too many people throughout history have experienced it, and too many people I know and respect are religious, for me to dismiss it. Also, how foolish would I have to be to think that because I haven't experienced something it cannot exist. Not only that, it may yet happen to me.
It's probably appropriate to talk about the special case of Christianity at this point. Beyond the resistance to religion in general, the kiddies often single out Christianity for special derision. One reason for that is that it's easy. Nobody gets punished for criticizing Christianity and no one issues a Fatwa or stages a riot. To the kiddies, one suspects, this is just another form of rebellion for the sake of image position. As post facto justification they often trumpet the idea that Christianity has caused little more than suffering throughout history. Well, all ideas have can cause suffering in the hands of mere humans. My response would be that politics probably caused more death and suffering the 20th century alone than Christianity has in a more than a millenium, yet they don't seem to be down on taking political stands. I would also point out the long, long history of Catholic scientific inquiry, the Puritan/Protestant work ethic whose economic effect underlies much of our prosperity, and the notions of forgiveness and redemption that pervade our culture.
So. I don't have religion, but I'm not a disbeliever (and I admire Christians and Christianity). What about God? Well one way to approach this question is to look at the landscape minus god. I can think of 3 possibilities approaches to morality absent God:
1) Nihilism. There is no morality. Good and bad are meaningless. This is a terrible thing to contemplate because it turns out that nothing matters. We live, suffer and exult as we might, then die, with no point to it. We are just minor blips of probability that popped up in the course of existence. Whether you lived well or poorly, selfishly or generously, long or short -- it didn't matter. You could even argue that in this case only the present moment matters so feel free to compound nihilism with narcissism. We have no hard evidence that this is not the case -- no scientific proof whatsoever. Apart from repulsion at these conclusions, to accept this as definitive is to again, say that until something is proven to exist, it doesn't. That strikes me as arrogant, for reasons that I will explain shortly. I see no reason to be confident that what I can't prove doesn't exist.
(Besides, Nihilists are known to cavort with nine-toed women. But if you are a nihilist, here's your toothpaste.)
2) Secular humanism. This is the one I'm least clear on, but it seems there is a philosophical school that was able to generate some sort of moral impetus that emerged from within the human mind. Or something? I can't figure it. Naive people such as me often hear concepts like “the greatest good for the greatest number" or similar principle as descriptions of humanist morality, but we are still left with good and bad as arbitrary rules of humanity with no absolute basis. There may be more to this that I don't know about, but it seems like a flowery covering over a tautology: “What we say is good is good."
3) Evo-psych. This is comparatively newish, but it supposes that morality, instead of being a priori, is a product of evolution. For whatever reason, a moral instinct has given homo sapiens a comparative advantage for the survival of the species. At first glance this seems like a good one. And it accounts for the varying influence of morality across people, races, and cultures -- the way physical characteristics vary. “What helps the species to survive is good." This idea probably has legs and will be with us for the duration. But the implications are troubling. a) What about activities that have no bearing on the good of the species. Do they have no right or wrong associated with them? That is to say, this may work in aggregate but for any given individual, most actions will not be connect to survival of the species and thus, amoral. Pushed further, how do you know if your actions are pluses or minus for species survival. Even if the evo-psych concept is true (who knows), it is, for practical purposes, pretty much useless as a guide to behavior.
So what about an a priori God. Well, a priori itself is not a concept that sits well in the mind. You can always ask “What came before that?" on to infinity. I won't say God was born in the Big Bang because “What came before the Big Bang?" is a popular question to ask in theoretical physics these days. If something came before it, it is not a priori. To me a priori would mean God is simultaneous and interwoven with existence itself. So am I saying that a big white-haired man in the sky has been there forever and ever? (That's what the kiddies would ask.) If I believed in an a priori God my answer would be yes. Obviously not a big white-haired man, but I would be saying the nature of existence carries a moral force. I know. It sounds absurd.
But is it really absurd? Is it so difficult to imagine that the various fields and forces of existence are arranged in such a way that encourages certain forms of actions or behaviors. To me that is no less absurd than spooky action at a distance or dark energy or the Uncertainty Principle. So no I cannot dismiss that idea of God, a priori, even without film at eleven.
My current belief is that we cannot know. Not that we simply haven't discover proof or disproof, but we cannot discover it. It is beyond our ability to see. It is like Infinity itself, a concept we made up because our minds are insufficient to comprehend it. Presenting us with evidence of a moral force, or lack thereof, would be like an reading Hamlet to an ant. I think the exact term for such a belief is Mysterianism. Sounds cool. I'll take it. But again, no help on question of how to live.
But if we can't know the nature of God, how do you know how to live? I base my philosophy on a form of Pascal's Wager. If there really is no God -- if one of those three godless realities is the truth -- then it doesn't matter if I'm good or evil. I'll live whatever life and die pointlessly. Otherwise, in an existence with an a priori God, there is value to being Good. So probably indicates the smart way to live is to be Good. Now it's just a question of figuring out what is Good.
Answers to the question of what is Good, or what does God want, are the province of religion, of which I have none. So I have come up with something makeshift. The only thing I can think of that can possibly matter past your life is affecting the lives of others for the better. That is my working definition of Good. Determining what affects people for the better -- what is Good -- is not a simple task. It is probably the most complex task imaginable. It is not what is shallowly described by the simple cliches and sentimentality of day-to-day life. It would require an essay in itself to describe even the basic ideas behind it (maybe that's next). But as far as I can determine it is the only way to make your life have value.
So that's where I'm at with respect to God. You'll note that, unlike the atheist kiddies, I am not only uncertain in my conclusion, I am uncertain in my uncertainty. That's why nobody pays me for my opinions.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013The Month That Was - November 2013: Well here we are. Dug in for winter again. I have been busy with writing projects, one of which is agonizingly close to fruition. Details below. And, of course, with November comes Thanksgiving and with Thanksgiving comes Vegas. Details below also.
Around the house I made a minor run at textured painting, which was moderately successful. I've also started seriously drawing up plans to remodel the master bath, which I hope to get done in 2014, and I have a couple more painting projects that I hope to get done over the winter.
No book reviews this month. I've been catching up on Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford Mysteries for my distraction. I feel I bit of an affinity because they are set in and around the Florida Gulf islands, where I have spent a fair amount of enjoyable time. They're pretty well written with a solid formula and a nicely drawn lead and sidekick. White is a skilled outdoorsman with a scientific bent so he tends to fill the books with some interesting discursions on related topics. I had actually started reading this series from the beginning many years ago, but at one point they seemed to get gratuitously violent so I stopped. I have now picked up later in the series and the violence has taken a back seat. More about this when I catch up to the latest release.
In fact, short shrift on everything. Just a trip report and summary of my upcoming Kindle release. I have, since just before Thanksgiving, been at war with a terrible chest cold, which I am beginning to suspect must be some sort of mutant alien virus because it's been truly brutal and resistant to my common terrestrial immune system. It completely disrupted my vacation and is causing me to want nothing more than to crawl under the covers and disappear. More than usual.
[Books, Basho] Long Ago and Far Away and Here and Now
[Travel, Vegas] Spanning the Country, Being Thankful
Labels: MonthlyLong Ago and Far Away and Here and Now: As I've been hinting, what's coming next for me writing-wise is very esoteric. Back in 17th century Japan, a great poet named Matsuo Basho went on a journey north from Edo(Tokyo) and documented his travels and punctuated them with poems, what we would call Haiku. The book, entitled The Narrow Road to the Interior, became a huge sensation and has survived through the years as a seminal classic of Japanese literature.
Basho is almost certainly Japan's greatest poet. Most folks who read Narrow Road…, which in the U.S. is probably students and academics, tend to focus on it as a collection of poetry. The problem is that poetry loses nearly everything in translation. Even the shortest poems are deeply dependent on myriad subtleties of language, otherwise, they'd be prose. One could even argue that a working knowledge of Japanese would be insufficient, you would have to be near-native in your understanding of the language. So for me, with no knowledge of Japanese, reading the poetry is not particularly compelling. For exapmle: Basho is famous for writing what is considered one of the most perfect and exemplary Haiku (although this did not appear in Narrow Road...) about the sound a frog makes when jumping in a pond. To read the Haiku and see what I mean about translation look at this page. It contains 30 translations (thousands probably exist) and you can see how different they are, and how none of them truly capture anything that would considered an eternal work of art.
Basho was curmudgeonly character. An aging bachelor at the time he wrote Narrow Road..., in between the poetry he gives hints of uncertainty about the purpose of his journey and clearly has a growing concern with mortality -- remind you of anyone you know? As I read Narrow Road..., I read a travelogue of a man who was riddled with self-doubt, who was unsure of whether he felt compelled to travel to seek answers or escape questions. These are feelings I know intimately.
So in the popular spirit of re-writes of classics, I decided ol' Basho deserved one. The story becomes Basho's Inward Road and I focused on fleshing out Basho fears and emotional turmoil. I added doses of irony and humor, colored some characters, and colloquialized the language. The end result is, I think, something Basho would recognize -- one aging bachelor to another.
So now I am in the process of getting it setup for Kindle. It will be Kindle only unless I come to find there is a massive market for rewritten 17th century Japanese travelogues. It is short, barely novella length, so I'm thinking of a $1.99 price. I still need cover art. And I need to get the formatting right, which I don't remember being as hard as it's turning out to be. So it's not available just yet. If I can get everything sorted, I hope it will be by the end of the year.
Like I said, it's esoteric. But as esoteric as it is, I think it's worth reading. Obviously, it draws on my own feelings, but those cannot be unique, can they? So maybe, just maybe there is a small audience out there. That is the blessing of Kindle. If you are moved to write something, you can just write it and go. If nobody buys it, oh well. You live to fight and write another day. And something good could happen. From small things...
So with any luck, a link and maybe a quote next month. Spanning the Country, Being Thankful: I suppose I have just experienced a recurring nightmare of many travelers because the day before I left for Vegas I was struck with a devastating cold or flu or ebola or something. But flights were set and reservations past their cancel date so I was going to have to tough it out. At least I can confidently state that the beds at Cosmopolitan are very accomodating when you are alternately shivering and sweating through night. I had hoped to hit a couple of poker tourneys but given that I could only concentrate for a minute or two before needing a nap, it didn't seem like a good idea.
I did manage to spend a couple of hours on Fremont St. where I hadn't been since all the hubbub started a couple of years ago. Very impressed with all the new stuff, especially the Fremont East area. Very cool that they've found a way to improve without trying to morph into The Strip Lite. If anything it's starting to remind me of Bourbon Street and the French Quarter (or it will with a few more good restaurants) which is very cool. But even though it's all a lot of fun to visit for a night, I'm pretty sure when push comes to shove, I will still bed down on The Strip.
Even a sick boy has to eat. I tried Heritage Steak and was disappointed. On the suggestion of the server I ordered Kobe Skirt with a tabasco-pepper rub, and while the flavor wasn't bad, the rub completely overpowered the meat. On the other hand, the brussel sprouts with bacon and maple syrup were killer. I have now had less than amazing steaks at both Heritage and Gordon Ramsay. The best steak I have ever had in Vegas was the Chateaubriand at Botero.
For burgers, however, I'm down with Gordon Ramsay. I stopped by BurGR for lunch and the Euroburger was as good as it gets. Perfectly cooked. Tasted better than the steak he made me last year.
So, before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend madness I decided to decamp and drag my phlegm infested head to Laughlin, because….well, I'd never been there, and why not? Most people who are used to Vegas will think Laughlin is a dump. It is. But in a different light, it is totally surreal.
First, if you think you have seen folks playing slots in Vegas, you have no idea. The people here don't just play the slots, the drive the machines with a relentless ferocity. There is almost a hostile intensity to the background din of the machines. For these people, slots are not a fling at gaming, they are a calling, an eternal battle. They have grown old, fat, and toothless waging this war and, still, there is no let up. Their only allies are cigarettes and cheap beer. It's a remarkable thing to see. This being the holiday season, the casino had planted carollers on the gambling floor, singing beautiful harmonies to celebrate the birth of Our Lord and Savior, but you couldn't hear them over the din and even if you could I guarantee none of the slot zombie warriors would have broken discipline and looked up. Talk about a thankless job. Surreal.
I stayed at the Aquarius, a building whose infrastructure is a good 70% cigarette smoke. Absolutely everything smells like smoke. I suppose my non-smoking room technically didn't but the phlegm in my head was imbued with it as soon as I checked in -- there was no escape. One thing Laughlin has going for it is the Riverwalk, which backs up to all the riverside casinos. It's not a particularly attractive riverwalk, you get to see the service entrances to many of the casinos and in at least one case you walk by doors that open directly on to people's rooms, but the Riverwalk has air -- relatively fresh air -- and you need that as often as possible.
Now, along the riverwalk there are apparently a number of stray cats. And people will occasionally leave food out for them. That's nice, but the cats have to scarf down as much as possible as quickly as possible because the skunks come out soon after and chase them off. It was a very disconcerting feeling to be walking along the riverwalk in the dark of night and suddenly realize that you are surrounded by skunks. Several less than 10 yards away. During the day families happily recreate all up and down the river, but the night time belongs to the skunks. Fear them. Respect them. Actually, even more disconcerting is realizing that other people are gingerly approaching the skunks trying to get good close ups of the for their phone. Surreal.
Meanwhile across the street at a severely downscale shopping mall there is a Bikini's Sports Bar, where, as you can guess, all the servers are bikini-clad girls. This is as close as it gets to a gentlemen's club in Laughlin, which is not very close. The bikini girls here were not the ones you might see at Treasures. They are not even the ones you might see out in Pahrump. They are the ones you would see in WalMart, if WalMart had that sort of section. That is to say, they were in dire need of a professional overhaul of their fitness routines. Yikes. Surreal.
I honestly can't think of a good reason to visit Laughlin. I'm guessing the payouts must be pretty good or the slot zombie warriors would find another battlefront. A quick survey of the JoB machines around town suggests they generally run 8/5 with a few 9/5s, but my search was not comprehensive. There is no fine dining. There are no must see sights, in fact there are virtually no sites at all. Correction: I can think of one legitimate reason to visit and that would be to see Don Laughlin's classic auto collection. It's free and it's got serious collector cars. If you are into classic autos it's probably worth a visit, but just as a day trip from Vegas. I think place is best left to chain-smoking slot zombies.
Headed back towards Vegas, but keeping with my theme of being on the outskirts, I settled in for a couple of nights at the Hilton in Lake Las Vegas. Now I am sure this is the slowest time of year for the area -- the week after Thanksgiving -- but talk about a post-apocalypse landscape. It's like they built this lovely, manicured, country club setting and it's all a show piece; no one actually uses it. The one casino is shut down. The “village" had a few shops open and a couple of restaurants. Obviously, it picks up during warm weather season for water sports, but I understand why hoteliers are wanting to bug out. There are no customers.
The Hilton is as refined and beautiful a hotel as you can imagine, certainly a match for anything on the Strip except in gaudiness. It used to be called the Ravella, and before that it was a Ritz-Carlton so, yeah, it's high end. In most cities this would be the flagship resort. It's easy to get to, easy to park, easy to walk to whatever activities (if you can find any). Free shuttle to The Strip (MGM). I fail to understand why there isn't more activity out here. If you ever had the notion of staying off-strip and just driving in for the action at night, this strikes me as the place to stay. If you have to bring your kids to Vegas, this is probably the healthiest place for them to stay. It's not that expensive. Certainly not more expensive than, say, Cosmo. And I bet it is rarely booked such that there are spikes in price. For my part, the first night of my stay (Sunday after Thanksgiving) I strongly suspected I was the only one in the hotel. I felt like the Omega Man.
I really hope they make something of Lake Las Vegas. I love the area, and I'm hoping to re-visit in the warm weather to see what's up. As you pull in from Lake Mead Pwky. and look to your left you have a great view of the entire Strip, from Mandalay to Downtown, which is worth it for the photos at sunset.
Oh and it's a short drive to Hoover Dam. I've been coming to Vegas since 2001 and this was my first visit to Hoover Dam. If you don't feel the need to actually walk on the Dam itself, just pull over at the Tillman Plaza and walk along the Memorial Bridge to get your photos. No cost to hit the bridge. A ten-spot to park near at the Dam site. Another tenner if you want to see the visitor's center. Probably about an hour door to door, traffic pending. You needn't give it high priority, but any Vegas regular should probably get there eventually.
Certainly not my best Vegas trip. But not my last either.
Next came part two, starting with a cross country flight to Florida. In Sarasota, a catch up visit with my Mom and younger brother. Sarasota is a great spot, but very hectic in season. As I inch closer to getting a place in Florida, I occasionally waffle to locating there as opposed to points further south -- the Ft. Myers area being my first choice. This whole notion of getting a place is still an embryo. I don't have the exact purpose down -- have ready access to my Mom as she ages, set myself up for retirement, vacation home for the winter, rental property in the mean time -- details have yet to solidify and so I can't really zero in a locale. The ultimate would be Sanibel Island, but that is and will likely forever be out of my price range.
Anyway, by the time the weekend rolled around it was time to decamp again, this time barrelling across the state via Alligator Alley to Ft. Lauderdale to meet Miss Kate. Ft. Lauderdale is not my preferred destination in Florida. In fact, I will take just about anywhere on the Gulf over the Atlantic side. I won't go through the series of reversals of fortune that caused us to end up in Ft. L, but on our only full day we hopped in the car and made a beeline for the Keys.
Then one of the oddest and most infuriating things happened. Heading south on the Florida Turnpike, a toll road, right out of the blue the police shut down the entire freeway. Just made everyone stop dead. Big frustration #1 was that had we been five minutes sooner we would have missed it completely. Frustration #2 came when we realized the stopped traffic dead on the high speed freeway to let a group of what must have been a couple of hundred motorcyclists use the road unimpeded. Near as I could tell these were not public officials or anything of the kind, there were just a huge group of motorcyclists who somehow got the police to reserve a road exclusively for them despite everyone on it having paid for it. I searched the news for references to this event but found nothing. In all it was probably only a twenty minute or so delay but it was truly annoying when we really only had the one day free and, I can't emphasize this enough, we were paying to use that road. And if you thought we were upset, you should have heard the asshat in the BMW SUV next to us laying on his horn, to no good purpose other than to raise the hostility level of everyone around him.
All in all, it took us probably close to two and a half hours to get to Key Largo, when it should have only taken an hour and half-ish. I had hoped for us to do a kayak trip, but the place I wanted to go to could not be found. I located it on the map, used the GPS in my phone, and drove right past exactly where it should have been a couple of times and saw nothing. Grrrr. By this time is was noon so we stopped at the Hilton Key Largo Resort to grab some lunch. And it was so beautiful we decided to just stay there the whole afternoon.
It didn't hurt that Caribbean Watersports was on site, so we got to spend a half hour on a jet ski, before Kate ran it out of gas with her badass hoonage. That was followed up with a parasail along Florida bay, both activities punctuated with Margaritas. The weather was that incredible South Florida winter weather, 80 degrees and a fresh breeze coming off the water. Yeah, this is why folks retire down here.
A nice evening's dinner along Las Olas Blvd. A final morning by the pool. And that was it. It was time to haul myself and my congestion back home, where I was greeted with a leak in the basement and a beeping smoke alarm. Luckily I have perspective. I know that even when things aren't the best, they are still worthwhile. So I won't say it was a bad trip. Too many good things happened. I will say that I can do it better, and I'm sure I will.
Thursday, November 07, 2013The Month That Was - October 2013: The deck furniture is put away. The grill is covered. The sprinklers have been winterized. I'm wearing long pants and long sleeves for running. And the Dairy Queen has closed for the season. That'll do it for another summer.
This month brought a three-day weekend down in Washington DC. I was doing the 10K associated with the Marine Corps Marathon -- the MCM10K. It was not a pleasant experience. It was an hour wait in line to get my bib number. And another hour to get my shirt. As I lay in bed the night before the race my calves were already in spasm. The race itself was fine, lots of support from Marines along the route, which ran from The Mall to the Marine Corps Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. But there are so many people that at the end of the race, it's an easy quarter mile before you get to the post-race activities. Even after the finish line they just keep shoveling everyone forward to get them out of the way. There was no hope of finding anyone if you had scheduled a ride. I had to hop the metro back to my hotel, as did everyone else -- there was another 20 minute wait. Never again. I believe there were as many as 25,000 people racing in all the races. I will avoid big races from now on.
Coming soon: a new book. If all goes well I will post about it next month.
[Travel] Rocky Mountain High, High in Alberta
[Science] If the Plane Flies, You're and Idiot
[Rant] For Better or Worse
[Good Links] Too Stupid not to Laugh
Labels: MonthlyRocky Mountain High, High in Alberta: [[photos on smugmug]] Here's the solution: When the U.S. Government shuts down and all the National Parks close and hikers risk trespassing arrest, go North my son. Canada has some astounding parks, very well maintained and supported. I had a terrific experience at Gros Morne when visiting Newfoundland a few years ago. This time it was the other side of the country -- Alberta. In Alberta there are two huge National Parks that sit adjacent to one another: Jasper and Banff.
You start by flying into Calgary, a relatively decent mid-sized airport with folks in red cowboy hats to guide you around. Then you get out of Calgary. Nothing against Calgary, it just isn't all that photogenic or remarkable. It is on the very western edge of the Canadian plains. A fairly non-descript city immediate surrounded by cattle ranches and farming. But by the time you get an hour or so northwest -- hold on to yer hats.
The human mind can get used to anything. I suppose if you live among the Rockies, you don't even notice the postcard-perfect snow-capped peaks in the backdrop of every scene -- almost like someone a painted the background everywhere you look. As for me, over the course of a week I never got jaded looking up from the street and seeing the mountains towering over everything. Clearing customs, we picked up our rental and made our way 6 hours up the Icefields Highway into Jasper.
Here's a big difference between Canadian and U.S. National Parks. In the U.S. you can typically expect to drop $20 or $30/per car for an entrance fee and get anywhere from three nights to a full week access. In Canadian parks expect to spend that much for a single day per person. In fact, for a week long stay, it made more sense to buy an annual pass at round about $150. Yeesh!
There are two paradigmatic views you can see all over in Western Alberta. One is the Alpine lake view. The lakes are all glacier fed which means, apart from being wicked cold, they are shimmering turquoise blue; an explosive color, as if you took and average lake and Photoshopped the color saturation to 11. The water itself is very still; there are no currents and the glorious mountains surrounding them block most of the wind. Until now, the only alpine lake I had ever seen was Tahoe, which is quite beautiful especially in Emerald Bay. But in Banff and Jasper there is a comparable scene around every corner. We pulled off the highway for a quick pit stop and happened upon a view that astounded us, but it was only the smallest taste of what was to come. Yes, the rest stops along the Icefields Highway are comparable to Lake Tahoe.
Jasper is what I would call quaintly-sized. It is a granola-crunchers dream for the most part; outdoorsy, rustic to an extent, vegan choices on all the menus. The dirty secret to towns like this is that while they present themselves as organic havens for genuine trekkers, they are in fact designed to make upper middle class tourists feel like genuine trekkers. That's fine with me. I am certainly upper middle class, although I don't really give a rip about appearing genuine -- I'm a tourist and proud. The point of all that being that while looking like a haven for organic I-don't value-material-wealth types, it is in fact, friggin' expensive. Not Manhattan expensive, but as expensive as any major city in the U.S.
But that's not a big deal, just a bit of a surprise for a quaintly-sized town. Get a hotel near town and you can walk in, enjoying the crisp fall evening and the astoundingly fresh air. There are decent restaurants and shops and, occasionally, enormous elk grazing alongside the road. The high-end resort here is the Fairmont, and while I'm sure it is lovely, it is located across the river so you'll be driving into town. Although parking doesn't appear to be too bad, the convenience and pleasure of walking into town with enormous snowcapped peaks in every direction makes it worth staying close.
You could probably spend a month exploring all the trails and activities in and around Jasper. We confined ourselves to these which, in retrospect, I would highly recommend as an itinerary for a brief stay.
1) Maligne Canyon - A well maintained, partially paved, heavily trodden trail through a rocky canyon and past a handful of waterfalls. This is actually very reminiscent of the canyons around Ithaca, New York. There are a number of bridges along the trail which snake you back and forth across the river, about twenty or thirty feet above the water in most parts. The first waterfall is the most dramatic and also the most crowded. It appears as though the tour busses stop and let folks out just long enough to reach the first bridge or two, if you hike beyond that it gets less crowded. This is a great starter hike in Jasper, just to get the feel of things.
2) Jasper Tramway - I'm tempted to say if there is one activity to do in Jasper it is this one, but that's going too far. You should never go to Jasper as a day trip so the need to pick out "one thing" is out of line. But this is as awesome as it gets. You board a twenty-person tram and ride up the side of Whistler's Mountain to an elevation of about 7500 feet. I'm sure in summer it is much cooler at the top; in fall it's downright cold. In fact they had just had several inches of snowfall the day before. At the top there is a sizeable viewing area, a gift shop, and a diner-level restaurant in the tram station. You are still not at the very top of the mountain, that's a winding 45 minute hike further up, and a bit treacherous in the snow. The view, as you can guess, seems endless. You look down on the entire town of Jasper like a patchwork quilt with a river running through it. You can look down on the clouds, in fact, as you traverse the mountainside behind the station, clouds and fog roll in and out and the station can appear to be perched precariously at the edge of the world surround by nothing but infinite white.
3) Maligne Lake - Have I mentioned that the lakes around this area are glacier-fed. That is to say, they are pooled directly from melting glaciers or from glacier-fed rivers -- not underground springs or other emergences of the water table from below. The glacier water contains extra oxygen (or something) that create lakes that are a brilliant aquamarine color. It's really quite remarkable. A boat tour takes you through the long, but almost canyon-narrow lake, past three active glaciers, to a remote dock with a view of Spirit Island which is claimed to be one of the most photographed places in the world. It begs the question of whether you take the picture because it looks so photographic, or it looks so photographic because you've seen the picture. Either way, it's a hell of a view.
4) Pyramid Lake - You can, if you choose, take a hiking trail directly from Jasper to Pyramid Lake. I don't think it's more than 3 kilometers of so. Pyramid Lake is an easy jaunt. Nothing too dramatic. It's lovely and easily accessible. I suspect it's the center for summer water activities as there is a fine looking resort that reminds me of many of the lake resorts here in Michigan; lots of boat and kayak rentals. It's not really wild or remote; great for a picnic, or a low key visit to finish off your time in Jasper.
On the way back from Pyramid Lake we passed a Chinese man with his young son walking along the road frantically trying to wave us down. Assuming he had a broken down car or other urgency we stopped, only to find that he was just trying to hitch a ride. This was odd since we were really only a mile or so out of town, but he was keen on demonstrating to his son an act which could not happen in China, according to him there was no hitchhiking in the Middle Kingdom. In fact he was travelling across Canada doing whatever he could to demonstrate how different the culture was to the one at home. He had apparently rented a Harley at one point, which was another thing he couldn't do at home. Anyway, a very laudable goal. (Although the panicky waving was not the right protocol for hitching a ride. More of a bait and switch.)
This duo stood in contrast to how one typically encounters folks from the Far East out here. They were on their own, exploring, but tour busses full of Asians are ubiquitous. This is a phenomenon that I have noted before in the western U.S. If anything there was more of it in the Canadian Rockies. I have already mentioned that the place is on the high end expense-wise.
I suppose it is the most economical way to visit and see many things. No car rental. No arrangements to make. Everything gets rolled into one package and you avoid the anxiety of being alone in a strange land. And if fact, it's probably not that different from my travel experiences except that I plan and schedule on my own. (I can drive people crazy by having things planned, at least casually, long ahead of time.) Still, I would miss the occasional unexpected discoveries. Like the Chinese guy waving down a ride. Or the painted version of the infamous and disturbing Mark Messier-Gary Coleman photo hanging over the fireplace at the Jasper Brewpub (yes, it really is). But I wouldn't say no. It's kind of like a cruise on land I suppose. I'm sure there are busloads of Yanks and Canucks rolling around Beijing on any given day.
Jasper had one last treat for us. As we walked back from town in the evening there were two elk grazing on the grass by the side of the road, oblivious to people walking past just a few feet away. No fear. And why not? It's a national park so it's not like they've been hunted by people. In fact, they probably feel safe from the bears if people are around. And no, we never saw bears. Despite the constant admonishments of the locals to make noise on the trails and to steer clear of the larger forms on wildlife, which are "everywhere", we saw nothing except these two lazy elk. Wolves and bear were supposed to abound. One wonders how common encounters are or whether a lot of the drama is just to benefit the tourists.
The next step was a backtrack to Banff. About a three hour drive, but a little over two hours in you can stop at Lake Louise. Lake Louise is interesting. I could go on about how beautiful it is, but you're probably sick of that by now. Still of all the beautiful mountain-framed, glacier-blue lakes in the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise is going to be at the top of just about everyone's list.
There are a couple of good trails here, including one that ends at a mountain top tea room (!), but we were really just here for lunch. When you pull off the road for Lake Louise you find yourself in Lake Louise Village which is essentially a nice little shopping mall with a visitor's center. From there, to see Lake Louise you have to go the the Fairmont Lake Louise Resort. OK, maybe not have to. I'm sure you can get to edge of Lake Louise other ways, but nobody does that as far as I could tell. The resort and The Lake are a mated pair. If someone ever said I'm going to Lake Louise, you could rightfully assume they were going to the resort. From Lake Louise Village you can either drive on to the resort, or you can hike there along a very pretty, but uphill, path that winds along a picturesque creek. From the trail you emerge at a castle, which turns out to be the resort.
The resort is a stunner. It is the jewel of the Fairmont Properties (a worldwide high-end hotel corporation), and a destination in itself. Banff is about 45 minutes away so you can stay here and make the run in for various activities, but I suspect the bulk of the folks here are happy just to hang in the resort and arrange to join a tour or two. The centerpiece of the resort is the spacious courtyard that abuts the lake. Packed with flowered gardens, and cafe seating (in summer), it has the view of the lake and surrounding mountains. One suspects weddings are almost daily occurrences in spring.
There are four or five restaurants in the Fairmont, but only one was open and there was a wait for a table at about 2pm. Makes no sense, but so little in life does. The food was decent, the view was fabulous, of course. I would consider a stay here if I only had two or three nights, but you are still rather distant from the center of all the activity options. All in all, as attractive as Lake Louise is, I think it works best as a day trip.
Banff was next. Banff is, as everyone told us, a good deal more commercial than Jasper. There are chain restaurants and fine dining options, an arts community, and, presumably, traffic problems and crowds in season -- either summer or ski. There is one lovely main street in town, containing all sorts of shops and restaurants and outfitters, it could be a main street in any similar tourist town, except of course that looking tight down the center draws your eye up to the surrounding mountains. Turning out of town and driving about a mile up a steep road brings you to The RimRock Resort, where we were staying. RimRock is definitely a quality spot. Spa on site, a very good restaurant, and a comfortable pub. Recommended.
One nice thing about RimRock is that it was walking distance to the hot springs and the aerial gondola. While the hot springs looks appealing -- no need to bring anything you can rent suits and towels and a locker on-site, it really does seem like little more than a naturally heated pool. Nice, and inexpensive, but not really a must do. The gondola on the other hand is killer. (By the way, I'm not entirely clear on the difference between a gondola and a tramway. The Gondola was private -- one per party, the tram in Jasper was a public group. Is that the difference?)
You ride the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain where you have 360 degree birds-eye views over the town of Banff and all the surrounding area. Tremendous photo ops. Unlike Whistler's Mountain in Jasper where you reach the top and you can wander freely along the trails, here there is an extensive wooden planked pathway that winds around to various viewpoints. Very cool, zero stress activity, but again I would caution you that if you come in season or go much later than when it opens in the morning you will be waiting in line. This is a big tour bus spot. They will dump multiple loads at once and you'll be lined up out the door.
There are terrific hikes around Banff, some only a short ride outside the city. A very popular one is Johnston Canyon -- another glacier-fed river-carved a canyon, with picturesque waterfalls and precarious cliffs. The path is paved and heavily peopled. This one has the advantage of a nice little diner at the trailhead for a quick lunch. Close in town is the Bow River trail, which hugs the eastern side of town and looks out over the river valley and features a view of a couple of minor hoodoos -- odd sights this far north. A brief trip northeast of town gets you to Lake Minnewanka which I gather is the central area for outdoor activities. There are campgrounds and picnic sites and it is nearly as lovely as Lake Maligne up in Jasper. A trail follows the lake around and across the river into a deeply wooded area. Here we encountered a group of hikers who had lost one of their party. They didn't seem overly concerned. Though clearly senior citizens, they had the healthy red-cheeked appearance of veteran hikers, but we backtracked a ways up the mountain then along the river and saw no sign of anyone.
I suspect if you have read this far, you are now bored with the whole 1) hike, 2) marvel, 3) repeat, aspect of this trip. I'll spare you the details of the one last hike, up to the peak of Tunnel Mountain, another one accessed directly from town. The views are...well, you know. This one was a real lung buster though. After that, it was souvenir shopping and a beer at the Banff Brewpub, then off to fight my way through Customs and the Air Travel industry to get home.
The Canadian Rockies can put things in certain perspective. The deep woods in upper Michigan, the mountains of Zion National Park, such experiences can be overwhelming and leave you thinking nothing can compare, but there's always something that can. What will compare to the Canadian Rockies? I don't know, but I'm guessing I'll have to step it up to Alaska to find out.
Labels: TravelIf the Plane Flies, You're an Idiot: Once again, the nonsense about a plane taking off from a treadmill has popped up around the web. Very few things can rustle my jimmies more than this. Let's go over it one last time.
For a plane to take off it needs a massive rush of wind from the front, a headwind. A plane's wings are designed so the wind from the front will push harder on the bottom of the wings than the top. This is what causes the plane to leave the ground. (Technically, it is coriolis force creating lift.) That's why they build those long, expensive runways for a plane to go barreling down at insane speeds before taking off. It's not just because it's cool. You need to create enough headwind pressure to lift the plane off the ground.
Now, some clown comes along and glibly asks "If you put a plane on a treadmill, would it take off?" The answer is obviously no. On a treadmill, like the ones you see at the gym, you exert energy to move your legs but you do not move forward relative to the air around you. In other words, you never generate a headwind on a treadmill. So, by extension, if you put a plane on such a treadmill, it would not move forward, no headwind would be generated, and it would not take off. Ipso facto.
But then clown smugly "proves" you wrong. He says, yes it could because there is no treadmill a plane couldn't overpower and you couldn't build such a treadmill and Mythbusters proved it...blah, blah, blah.
So when you said "plane on a treadmill," we weren't supposed to imagine a treadmill like we are all familiar with, the kind we use in the gym. Apparently, we were supposed to imagine a treadmill that wasn't strong and efficient enough to hold a plane steady. We were supposed to imagine a treadmill that a plane would just blast right over. We were supposed to picture a 747 placed on top of a $500 treadmill you can buy at Sears.
Well, then I suppose you're right. If the question has become, "If you put a plane on a treadmill that is not capable of stopping it from taking off, could it take off?" then the answer is yes. Yes, it could.
Also, you're an idiot.
Labels: ScienceFor Better or Worse: I find myself wondering whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the future of civilization. Pessimism is my frequent reaction, but I know that is mostly the result of frustrations and disappointments that have little to do with anything systemic. I also know that the accuracy of every memory I carry is suspect just by nature of my humanity, and so when trying to determine trends over the course of my life, I'm really not even sure what the starting point was like, never mind whether the direction is forward or back.
If I try to strictly adhere to rationality, I can say only with certainty the science and technology -- especially as it relates to health and information, which affect us very directly -- has undeniably made our lives better. And although it seems that technology may be encountering some diminishing returns, health and biological sciences feel like they are just getting warmed up. To this day, well past fifteen years since I had lasik, I am astounded at having my vision restored so simply and easily. Twenty years ago my gall bladder decided to pack it in. Had I been born one lifetime earlier I would have died. Had I been born a mere decade earlier I would have had my gut sliced open and been laid up for six weeks in recovery. As it was, I had outpatient surgery and was back to work in a couple of days. I expect this sort of thing to continue and be a source of betterment going well past my lifetime, until a new dark age hits.
But there's also the other side of the question. Is there actually social progress? Of this I am much less sure. One can point to all sorts of successful, progressive social movements, but the more I see the more I wonder whether much of this isn't just a change in form and appearance, while that the underlying state has changed little. I have a number of reasons for thinking this. One is that I now see how earlier times, times of my childhood or youth, are portrayed and I see the unfounded derision with which they are treated by popular culture. This leads to the natural extension: if popular culture can misrepresent times that I know to have been different, isn't it probable that it has misrepresented other times as well, including the ones that I have always believed were less socially advanced than my own? Another thing that gives me pause is are the mind-blowing ideas presented at Overcoming Bias, among other places, that show how deep and ubiquitous -- perhaps even primal -- is the human need for hypocrisy and self-delusion. As a result, anything I encounter that is a source of pride causes me immediate suspicion, and modern culture at large is certainly proud of what it sees as social progress. More and more, what is referred to as social progress look like trade-offs and changes in fashion that are passed off as objective advances. What was bad becomes good and we applaud ourselves for our right-mindedness when quite probably, a) it may have been the way it was for a reason and/or b) the change was superficial -- we adopted the form of a new idea but the underlying situation is still there. In either case, we get to delude ourselves that we are awesome.
Certainly, there has been a reduction is crime (in the U.S. anyway) by very broad based measures, although for some reason we feel less safe than ever. Nuclear annihilation is becoming (perhaps wrongly) an afterthought -- I have friends who were very seriously bothered by this as children, to the point of lying awake in fear -- but now we have Muslim terrorists. Still, on the whole, I certainly can't see security as a minus -- let's call it a tentative, cautious plus. This opens the door to whether there is too much security, and my head starts to ache.
The other potential plus is in the sense of empathy. Every once in a while you'll read something about how people seem to be gaining a stronger sense of empathy toward others. It manifests itself in much more considerate decision making -- less my-way-or-the-highway authoritarianism in social interaction. This jibes with my experience -- my potentially biased and deluded experience. Still, as careful as I am trying to be about being rationally accurate, this sticks out to me as something real. I'll give this a plus too.
Of course, there is some truth to the common reasons given for why the world is going to hell. I do believe there is a stronger sense of entitlement than in the past, although, again the change is smaller than your standard journalistic bombast would have you believe. My armchair speculation is that this is by-product of the world becoming less personal and more political. My sense is that in the past we were much more inclined to sort things out interpersonally or within a community. Now we immediately look for a legal and regulatory solution to any disagreement. But again, this is my prejudice speaking. Can I say for certain that this is a "downside" or is it just different?
Another typical reason for complaints about societal degradation is is the increasing crudity of popular culture -- music, drama, style, and manners in general have coarsened severely over the years. This has been going on for decades and is tough to deny. But still, though ugly, is it really a measurable degradation of life or just a change is fashion.
If I had to answer the question, "Have things gotten better or worse in my lifetime?" I would answer: mildly yes. But for every bit of advance much has been lost. So much, that I wouldn't take pride in any progress or be certain of its continuance.
Labels: RantHarukiism: One of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, is poised to have a new work hit the stands, by which I mean be downloadable for kindle, in the near future. Colorless Tazaki Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage has been out in Japan for a year or so and the translation should be available sometime next year. This review is glowing.
Haruki-san is one the few, if not the last, mainstream novelist whose books are a cultural event in any sense. They sell millions right out of the blocks. I'll be snagging it from Amazon the first day it is released.
In the mean time, here's a little short work that recently appeared in the New Yorker. Probably only good if you are familiar with Kafka's Metamorphosis.
Here are my quick reviews of 1Q84, Kafka on the Shore, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and The Elephant Vanishes, and a very old review of Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance that I wrote for Slashdot oh so long ago. And I've read more than that.
Labels: BooksToo Stupid not to Laugh: Increasingly I find myself amused by things that would amuse an eight-year-old. An unexpected pratfall, for instance. Well here's something that absolutely slayed me: a twitter-bot designed to ruthlessly troll. @StealthMountain is a twitter bot that seeks out the phrase "sneak peak" on twitter and replies I think you mean "sneak peek". Most people would probably shake it off, but the most illiterate of the bunch reply with a stream of misspelled and vicious profanities. The best of them are here. The barely literate are sure defensive about it. There are pages and pages of it. It's the stupidest thing in the world and it completely cracks me up.
Labels: Good Links
Thursday, October 10, 2013The Month That Was - September 2013: That makes 53 times around the Sun. Yes, it can get a bit tedious now and then, but it's still preferable to any alternative that I know of.
Honestly I find myself more annoyed than anything else. The petty annoyances of life have really begun to bother me. Perhaps that is how my mid-life crisis is manifesting. Example, my Camry (180,000+) has developed a sort of howling noise that comes on between 40 and 50 mph. Faster or slower and it's fine. My first thought was wheel bearing but the mechanic said the wheel bearings are fine and I need to get new tires because of uneven wear (the tires can't have much over 10,000 miles). That didn't sound right to me so I figured I would test it by rotating the spare on to different wheels. If I noticed a difference then that would verify it was the tires. I noticed no difference. So now I am trying to figure out what to do.
The overall solution is to buy a new car, which isn't an extravagance when your car is pushing 200K. But there are very few repairs that aren't a good deal cheaper than buying a new car, or even a lightly used one. And buying a car is such a bloody hassle. So I would happily spend a healthy amount of repairs if ANYONE COULD FIGURE OUT WHAT'S WRONG.
I have a couple of similar hassles going now and for whatever reason they are annoying me much more than they should be, much more than usual. Maybe I just feel like after all these years I should get a break on this stuff. I mean, can nothing ever run smoothly?
That would amount to little more than whining, though. How pathetic to have a mid-life crisis that amounts to nothing more than going off on a whinge. Why not expensive cars and cheap women like everyone else? Lame. Oh well, to quote Big Bang Theory, "Maybe this is just the kick in the pants I need to start taking Zoloft."
But then who needs Zoloft? As I write this I am in the Canadian Rockies, a trip you'll hear about next month. It's also why I'm so late and thin on content this month.
[Books] Book Look: Life
[Books] Book Look: Freaky Deaky
[TV] Bad Guys Lose, or Not
Labels: MonthlyBook Look: Life, By Keith Richards: Keith Richards wrote a book (the mind reels!) of his life, about which he claims to remember it all (whoa, dude, seriously!). Although it is not as surprising as you might think. Time flies. It's been well over thirty years since Keefer was on smack. Imagine that: There are young couples raising children in suburbia who have never known a world in which Keith Richards was a junky in the headlines.
Keith has always had a way with words. He wrote most of The Stones iconic songs, after all. Life, to his credit, and that of his co-writer, reads exactly like Keith talking: a sort of awkwardly elegant ramble that makes you smile even at its most annoying. If you've never seen an interview with Keith, just read it in your head as Johnny Depp's voice from the Pirates movies.
If there is an overriding concept in Life it's how deeply it reflects Keith's version of the facts and the world in general. There is no hiding it and no pretense of objectivity, no self-questioning. In that sense it is an extraordinarily honest look into Keith's brain. Case in point is the introduction.
Dressed like a queen, in a flashy car that is packed with with an entire pharmacy's worth of drugs, hammered out of his mind no doubt, he and a couple of his friends are driving through the South on their way to a gig sometime in the 1970s. After some restroom drug shenanigans, they find themselves pulled over and arrested. We discover, however, that this is not the result of some bad decisions on their part. It is the fault of Richard Nixon and Southern redneck cops. There are some tense moments before they get out of it using expensive lawyers and their own fame.
Really, it's a remarkable vignette. Placing it in the introduction is brilliant because it tells you upfront what you are dealing with: The World According to Keef. It is, after all, an autobiography. But it is wonderfully clear that Keith's take on things is so deeply non-objective. Keith is the master of don't-judge-me-I-am-what-I-am excuses. When contemplating the notion of a jury of his peers, he claims to have no peers, except possibly Jimmy Page. He is unique, truly special. Late three hours for a show? Well, you'll just be happy that he gets there. It's not his fault anyway, it's rock and roll. Disagree with him in the recording studio? Well, you deserve to have a knife pulled on you. You don't mess with the Keefer.
Keith lived (lives) his life like a true rebel, a dangerous man on the edge. A pirate in the world. A self-destructive bluesman who answered to no one but his rock and roll ways. He's a man who holds grit and devilry close to his heart. Even when he's not being naughty, a lot of bad stuff just sort of "happens" to Keith, such as his penchant for finding buildings to inhabit that subsequently burn down through "faulty wiring." At least he doesn't blame Nixon for that.
Of course, the dirty secret is that he never had to pay for it. Any average person who lived his life would have be locked up for long stretch, first having destroyed and/or impoverished all the people he loved. Keith, in contrast, ends up with a loving family, an entourage of handlers, a compound in Connecticut and a regular vacations at exclusive Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos where his celebrity neighbors drop by for tea. How hard is it to be a rogue badass when there no consequences except being on the outs with Mick Jagger? (Read this brilliant, imagined response from Jagger to Life, by journalist -- not bassist --Bill Wyman.)
So should you read Life, this monument to self-delusion and aggrandizement? Absolutely. It's entertaining as hell in a gossipy sort of way. And Keith is not without his good side. His passion and understanding of music stands out, as does his ability to reciprocate loyalty. Despite all the infantile nonsense and skull-ring posing he does, it would still be pretty cool to be buds with the guy and his mad cronies. Just don't get sucked into thinking you could behave like him. You're not rich or famous enough, and he might just give you knife for your presumption.
Labels: BooksBook Look: Freaky Deaky, by Elmore Leonard: There is probably nothing left original to say about the late Elmore Leonard. Actually that's not true. If you say he sucked, then you would be completely original.
A bit surprisingly, this was my first Leonard book ever. Still, I knew exactly what to expect, from the locomotive pace to the somewhat cliched characters, all of whom are on the make and never at a loss for sharp words.
I chose Freaky Deaky because it is set in and around Southeast Michigan. The bulk of it happens in Detroit, but there are references to locales out in the suburbs and as far as Ann Arbor. But I suspect I could have chosen any Elmore Leonard and gotten pretty much the same thing.
The case involves a bombing as part of a blackmail scheme hatched by a pair of former '60s rebels. Their chosen victim is the guy who ratted on them long ago and got them locked up, so it's about revenge. Except the victim is now enormously wealthy and it's really the money they are after. In fact, the veneer of justified revenge is so thin, they can't help but admit they clearly zeroed in on the easy money. They even joke about how their noble protests of years ago weren't really about anything but making trouble for trouble's sake. The problem is that their target is protected by a former Black Panther, who also doubles as chauffeur and nursemaid, who has crossed paths with them before and has his own designs on the target's fortune. Into this mix comes a burned out cop who gets involved in the situation and gets suspended for it so his last chance is to catch the crooks to save his career.
Crosses and double-crosses ensue. Truths and half-truths, omissions and lies, keep all the characters spinning. And of course the brilliance of Leonard the finish, where everything resolves and this flawless gordian knot untangles.
I think for a while, Leonard will be my go-to for escapist stories. A position previously held by by a long line of mystery writers from Qiu Xiaolong (Chief Inspector Chen) back to John MacDonald (Travis McGee). Although still a genre writer, Leonard seems to be a cut above the rest. He gets pantheon-level marks for tone and atmosphere. Should you read Freaky Deaky? Unqualified Yup. To quote George Will: "Here's what you do, read the first chapter of Freaky Deaky. It won't take long, about ten minutes. Don't worry, the store owner won't mind, because you will then buy the book." Again, Yup.