Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Month That Was - October 2016

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

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

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

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

[Movies] Flick Check: Yet More Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[TV] Toob Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Rant, Baseball] Windy City Memories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 07, 2016

The Month That Was - September 2016

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

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

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

[Travel] Cycling Through Moab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Movies] Flick Check: Captain America: Civil War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Books] Book Look: Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Month That Was - August 2016

August was dominated by swimming. I did my first long-ish open water swim towards the end of the month and spent a good deal evenings after work flopping around in a local lake in preparation. I successfully completed the swim -- 1.2 miles, or the distance of the swim leg in a half-ironman triathlon -- but not without getting a bit of a beatdown courtesy of a pair of leaky goggles and the talon-like fingernails of another swimmer. In any event, it's always good to do something new for the first time and continue to push boundaries. I have adopted the philosophy that if I don't let up on my body by using my age as an excuse, I'll at least get the most out of it over the course of my life. The downside is I might kill myself sooner. Hmmm.

I also made some steady progress on the latest book. Nothing to to be terribly proud of except that it is in contrast to previous months where I have slacked totally.

Overall August has been pretty chilled out; bits of yard work and slothful evenings watching the Olympics. The sort of thing you daydream about yet don't notice when it happens.

[Books] Book Look: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
[Rant] Thing I Have Missed Out On
[Rant] The Olympics
[Good Links] Link Dump

[Books] Book Look: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

Were anyone to find themselves turned off by Murakami's penchant for the fantastic, this book provides an alternative. It is primarily a character study; there are no "big questions" in play, no ponderings of existential mysteries. It is a personal tale.

Tsukuru Tazaki is one of a circle of five very close friends in high school. They even remain close even as their lives begin to separate when they graduate. They share experiences of growing up and early adulthood and are in fact very deeply connected to each other in a way only young people can be. Then one day, without warning or explanation, Tazaki is ostracized. Tazaki's self-image is already one of being nothing special -- colorless -- so this rejection sends him into a depressive spiral that pushes him toward suicide. In time, he survives this episode, but remains firmly entrenched in his idea of himself as an afterthought in the world. He socializes little, attempts nothing exceptional, and is more or less resigned to a humbly solemn existence. Throughout it all, he remains haunted by the treatment he received from the friends who meant so much to him years ago.

He begins a relationship with a woman who encourages him to contact his former friends to resolve the question once and for all. One by one he reconnects with his old circle, eventually understanding the events that so traumatised him. In the course of this journey he is also surprised to find that his self-image is not the image of him others carry. In the end, he inches towards a more positive and hopeful view of life.

And that's it, in a nutshell. Should you read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage? Yes, probably. As I said this is a restrained, intimate story. Those looking for the high drama and magic realism Murakami is known for might find it uninteresting. I did not. A good, relatable character study is a rare thing -- especially one that doesn't get bogged down in symbolism or social meaning. In some ways it is more reminiscent of short stories than a novel in that it is about sudden upheavals to the status quo. It will not be Haruki Murakami's most renown work, but those who read it will be touched.

[Rant] Things I Have Missed Out On

Snapchat -- I still don't get it. As far as I can tell it does nothing that other services don't do - Instagram in particular - except everything is ephemeral, disappearing after a few seconds, or 24 hours in the case of "stories". Although it's not really ephemeral, it just appears to be. The NSA can still see what you are doing, but I suppose short of a court order and a threat to National Security, it is ephemeral. I don't see any commercial use for it other than as an advertising conduit. So my image of Snapchat is that it is used by a bunch of folks who want to communicate with each other but don't want to be held accountable for the content -- which means it's heavy on images of bad behavior of one sort or another -- and a bunch of companies chasing their eyeballs. What am I missing?
Board Games -- Board games are huge, and according to most reports, more creative and imaginative than ever. This has been going on quietly for quite some time. At work there is a pack of guys who have been playing board games over lunch every day for well over a decade. I thought it was just one of those nerdy, Magic-Trolls-and-Dice sorts of games, but evidently these games are remarkably nuanced and diverse. Not that I would get involved; somewhere in the course of my life I lost interest in games almost completely -- this from a guy who used to play D&D all night and have multi-hour sessions with Sid Meier's original Civilization. Not sure what happened to me. Some of Popular Mechanics top games for 2016 sound fascinating. Evidently, video games are not where all the action is. Who knew?
Music since the early 80s -- Oh I know lots of songs that have come out since then, but I haven't followed performers or music trends in any way. Music was a driving passion for me from my early teen years until I was in my mid twenties, then nothing. Of course judging from what I hear in the background, not many other people have been following new music intently either, although that could just be the world catering to my demographic because it's the only one that has any disposable income anymore.

It's disturbing to continually have the music that I found so vital drift further and further into history. For example, the first album I ever bought with my own money was "Band on the Run": A true work of brilliance that has stood up over the years -- proving I had good taste even at age thirteen. But it is profoundly old. You know those vicious idiots who come up with the comparable time between events to show how old something is just to freak you out? Well, 2016 is to "Band on the Run" like -- I don't know -- some piece of music in the 1930s was to me when I first bought "Band on the Run" but I don't know any music from the '30s, nor did I when I was thirteen. Did they have recorded music back then or did everybody just listen to Aunt Millie play hymns on the upright piano in the parlor? By the same token the interval I have not paid close attention to music is equivalent to the interval between Singin' in the Rain and This is Spinal Tap. Yet, oddly, I don't feel like I've missed much. And plenty of kids know Band on the Run, and Paul McCartney is still touring. I hate to be the guy who talks about how better it was back in the day, but maybe in the case of music, it was.

[Rant] The Olympics

Since 2016 is the undeniably the most obnoxious year in recorded history, it's not strange that the Olympics were outright weird. It started with the run up during which we got persistent descriptions of the post-apocalyptic horror that is Rio de Janeiro -- roving cops, both real and fake, greeting tourists at the airport with "Welcome to Hell" signs then robbing them on the street. Water so polluted that sailors and rowers were advised to keep their mouths closed and rinse with anti-bacterial mouthwash between events. And, of course, Zika virus fears loomed large.

The scandals were, for the most part highly comical. The pool water turning green played into the pollution fears, even thought it was just algae. Are these pools not chlorinated, or was it bleach-resistant Brazilian super-algae? There were a couple of moments in wrestling that were stunningly stupid. One wrestler bit another one. And the coaches for Mongolia proceeded to strip to their underwear and throw their clothes at the judges over a controversial ruling. (Is that a cultural thing in Mongolia?) Honestly, you would have expected Hulk Hogan to rush in and attack someone with a chair.

The there was Ryan Lochte and some of his cohorts behaving like Zoolander come to life. He has assured himself eternal fame as the guy whose picture is next to "dumbass" in the dictionary. Just a gold-medal display of idiocy. It makes me so grateful that there were no camera trained on me when I was his age. I can pretend to be above it. It's going to be interesting to see how all this plays out for him. He can pretty much kiss any endorsements good-bye and his presence on the US Swim team in the future is going to have to be downplayed for the same reason. His youth suggests he still has another Olympics in him -- what will his situation be in four years? His image rehab plan apparently includes Dancing with the Stars. On the other hand, they say there is no such thing as bad publicity.

The games themselves were fun. The marquee athletes, for the most part, are genetic freaks but their youthful joy and awe at just being there makes them relatable. NBCs coverage was as parochial and retrograde as possible. The U.S. swimmers and women's gymnasts were the focus naturally, then there was some push on the U.S./Jamaica rivalry in sprinting, which should be more equitable in the future now that Usain Bolt has retired. There was little time for anything else what with all the commercials they had to wedge in every five minutes or so. Viewership was down, especially among the Millennials which was portrayed as another of their character flaws, but Millennials simply are not conditioned to tolerate endless commercial breaks and tape delays like us older folks. NBC's coverage was a disaster. It's as if in their mind folks were going to sit in front of the TV every evening with Swanson TV dinner and call their friends on their rotary phones to discuss what was going on.

Those of us with thousands of cable channels had it a bit better -- there were a couple of other options where you could get a broader look at the games, but you know what? They weren't that interesting. I caught a bit of ping-pong, and a bit of water polo, and after the curiosity wore off I changed the channel. I did watch the cycling when it came on because I follow cycling, but that's about it.

I'm conflicted about the Olympics. On the one hand, I think it's terrific that once every four years these folks who mostly compete in obscurity get some recognition and glory. But even that is for the marquee names. For most of the medallists, glory consists of a photo and an article in your hometown paper and maybe a visit to the local elementary school to tell the kids to stay in school. I suspect most of the audience is like me: I admire their skills and appreciate all the work they put in, but I've developed nothing like passion or fandom for them. Meanwhile, every cloying cliche in popular culture is leveraged to the hilt in up-close-and-personal segments and shallow op-eds and in-depth "investigations", while the host country spends itself into near bankruptcy for the sake of the corrupt few contractors who will benefit. If there were a ballot initiative to bring the Olympics to Michigan, that is probably one thing that might make me get involved in something political just to oppose it. It's nice to look at from afar, but not in my backyard.

And yet, my first thought when the games were over was that it might be a nice trip to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. I've always wanted to visit Japan, and you can be assured everything will be precise, clean, and efficient unlike the Rio shit-show. I'll be staring 60 in the teeth at that point so it could be a bucket list thing. For better or worse, the Olympics mark the years as much as the Super Bowl or the Tour de France. No point in fighting it.

[Good Links] Link Dump

Spanning the Web to bring you the constant variety of links; the thrill of memes and tropes, the agony of clickbait.
  • The robot revolution continues. Driveless cars are here, and it looks like Uber will be a the forefront, although the State of Michigan is making a bid to keep the auto research leadership. For their part, Vox is just now catching on to something I wrote about months ago. All the sound and fury in the election season has brought us no closer dealing with a world where there is no work for unskilled labor whatsoever.
  • Years ago I wrote a book called Misspent Youth where one of the underlying themes was the adult expectations placed on youth in the face of childish behavior from adults. This article seems to hit the same notes.
  • This exposition on the evolution of certain dog breeds was rather disturbing. The source of the problems with these breeds is essentially the same reason shelters are full of chihuahuas and pitbulls: The human narcissism. Stupid bimbos buy chihuahuas to project an image of trashy glamour, then dump them at the pound when it turns out that without proper training they pee in the glittery purses their carried in. Low IQ dirtbags raise pitbulls to signal their own fearsomeness, then dump them at the pound when they need more maintenance than an Ed Hardy t-shirt. The breeds in the articles have suffered in a different way, but for the same underlying reason -- using dogs as a lifestyle accessory without regard to their well-being. It's ugly because it hurts the dogs, yes, but also because it highlights a truly dark impulse of humanity.
  • The Chicago Tribune has a less snarky spin than I had about Ann Arbor last month. They even used the word "bubble" and they agree that it's a good bubble to be in.

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Month That Was - July 2016

Savage heat, to the point that I regularly ran my air conditioner.  See, I have nice cool basement where I keep a big screen TV (last of the plasmas) and my office is off to the side.  It stays cool down there pretty much all the time so I keep my thermostat set at about 82 on the main floor during the day (which unfortunately makes it in the 90s upstairs), but I don't care because I can hang comfortably in the chill of my basement.  Then before I hit the sheets I drop it down to 74-ish if it's still hot out when I hit the sheets, but usually I can just open the windows and turn on the fans and be cooled down in no time.  But this month required the a/c, and DTE were ruthless in notifying me via helpful emails that my energy usage was on the increase.  I know, guys.  It's a heat wave.

Unfortunately the heat wave hit just when I got all my new landscaping in so, since the summer has been as dry as it has been hot, I've been struggling to keep the soil moist even with a sprinkler system.  Suburban problems.

My dear houseguests have fled south, so things are more or less back to normal.  I miss them.  I was fun having a another kid around the house.

Just a couple of long rants this month -- really ranty rants at that.  They probably don't make much sense.  I have no idea what got into me.

[Ann Arbor] Life in a Bubble
[Tech]State of Tech

[Ann Arbor] Life in a Bubble

Ann Arbor, where I have lived in-and-around for roughly 2/3s of my life, is the bubbliest of bubbles. Honestly, people in Ann Arbor will gladly pontificate on the issues of the day, almost exclusive from a progressive/left as is the case with most bubbles, when in truth, no Ann Arborites -- including Yours Truly -- should pass any judgment on any real world issues because we just don't know. Our lives are nothing like theirs. Thanks to the cheaply available student loan money which has deeply enriched the University over the past couple of decades, we haven't felt a spot of economic distress in ages. That's right kids: here's some pay-later money to give the University of Michigan to prop up our bubble economy. When you graduate and can't find a job you'll have to leave town and move back in with your parents and be in debt for the next decade or so, but you can be proud that because of you the freshmen living in South Quad have a made-to-order sushi bar. Be sure to keep up on your Alumni Association dues.

The only people we are qualified to pass judgment on are folks in places like Madison WI, or Portland OR, or Austin TX. In other words, other bubble people. Yet, judging from my Facebook news feed, all my beloved friends would disagree. They love to share glib and shallow political posts all day long, and of course, always from stage left. Because bubbles are almost always on the left. I love my friends, but sometimes I'm tempted to start linking up posts from the DPRK News Service just to see what the reaction would be.

Here's a perfect example of a bubble controversy. There is a plot of land in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor -- about one square block -- called the Library Lot (because it's across the street from the library). For years there has been debate as to what to do with it and, Ann Arbor being Ann Arbor, it's gotten all tangled up with questions of social responsibility.

First some background. Despite being a wealthy bubble, Ann Arbor has a problem with the homeless. In the interest of social responsibility, Ann Arbor has constructed a homeless shelter on the edge of the downtown area. Naturally, it isn't just some repurposed warehouse or something, it's a high end homeless shelter, because the homeless deserve their fair share of bubble advantages, don't they? So naturally it attracts homeless from all around. Over the years, this has caused various "issues". There were times I recall back in the 80s where shopkeepers -- many of whom were hand-on-your-heart social activists -- ended up asking people not to give to panhandlers on the street because they were getting out of control. The city council passed complex ordinances which are regularly updated to strongly control when and where panhandling can occur so as to limit it severely but not violate state law which says you can't forbid panhandling.

So in the end we have this sort of compromise where there is a low level tension throughout downtown with the homeless. We want to help them because we are good people, but we don't really want them interfering with our bubble lives.

We do something similar with low-income housing (also called "section 8"). We have a couple of complexes around the city that are intended for low-income tenants. This is by design and by acts of city council and so forth. The supposition is that poor people deserve to live here too, and the hope is that by allowing them to do so they will have better lives than they could otherwise afford since most likely they'd end up in slum-ish sorts of places. It's a nice thought. I have to expect there are at least a handful of folks who have found their way out of poverty because they had options outside of ghetto life.

Like everything else in life there is a cost. Re-locating the poverty stricken to inside the bubble doesn't instantly change their habits. Areas around low-income housing complexes have elevated rates of violent crime, of which there is admittedly little in Ann Arbor. (By far the most common crime in Ann Arbor is larceny, mostly due to students being fairly lax about securing their laptops and such.) Perhaps more telling is that low income housing has a higher rate of police calls -- usually noise complaints over people having loud public domestic disputes at all hours, or over teeth rattling bass every time a car pulls in or out of the parking lot. The cost is in disruption of your peaceful life and loss of property value, and so low-income housing has gotten built in places which were not quite up to the upper-middle class standard of wider Ann Arbor in general -- near lower-middle class, and often senior, residents who aren't organized to fight city council find them as their neighbors. (They sure as hell aren't next door to any of the U of M doctors or professors.)

So back to the Library Lot. For years a group of involved citizens has tried to get the city to build a park on the library lot. Some of of their arguments are a little iffy, for instance they are argue that many cities benefit from a centralized park, citing New York City. Well, the library lot is about one square block -- Central Park it ain't. Still, who can argue against a park in the middle of town?

Lots of people. There is already a smallish little park right near the Library Lot and it is filled with homeless whiling away their days and causing a nuisance before they head back to their nice shelter for the evening. The library itself is dominated by vagrants sleeping in the chairs and smelling the place up. Why on earth would you encourage further chaos by adding more comfort for them Furthermore, money spent to build the park would reduce the subsidy money for low income housing.

So on the one hand we have folks wanting to increase the green quotient of downtown (it could use it) and encourage a sense of community. On the other hand, we have people who want to assure financing and availability of low-income housing. The unspoken corollaries are we have a group of folks trying to take funding away from low-income to use for a city park where they can sip their lattes and tell themselves how much they love trees, and another group who is using the support of low income housing as a justification for killing something that is going to mostly end up encouraging more homeless to settle in Ann Arbor. Such is the labyrinthine nature of bubble politics -- of making sure we indulge our better instincts as long as other people have to sacrifice. I'm sure these things are discussed with great sincerity across the organic vegetable counters at Whole Foods.

That may be too cynical, but my detachment allows it. You see, I make no apologies for loving my bubble. Everybody loves bubbles, but they only become moral liabilities if they become too large. For most people, their bubbles begin and end at their homes. Your home as a bubble has become more normal over time. As a child I recall it being perfectly natural and expected for a friend or acquaintance to ring your doorbell or call you on the pre-voicemail phone unannounced. Now I screen phone calls and would be mildly put out of someone knocked on my door without warning. That's bubblization. Few people have a problem with that.

If you get some money your neighborhood can be your next bubble. Living in a gated community, for example, is usually sneered at by the righteous. Even if it's not gated, your homeowners association or condo board will enforce rules that are not in place in the wider world to maintain the microculture of your neighborhood appropriately. The next step up is the bubble city or county, which requires a certain amount of macroeconomic insulation. As your bubble grows beyond your home, you get painted as having a sort of character flaw -- a snob, a 1%er, probably even a hateful racist at heart. You don't want people to think this, so you devote some of your wealth to building your bubble into an image of a good progressive community, while being careful not to push it to the point where your bubble bursts and the uglier world intrudes.

I have no idea if taking the homeless or poverty-stricken and transplanting them into rich enclaves is productive. I suspect it is for a small minority of them and whether it is worth the cost, again I don't know. Neither do you, although if you're from Ann Arbor you are certain that you do. To me, it's the social phenomena itself that is interesting. It's a clean example of the contradictions and conflicts we create so we can both claim to be good people but still serve ourselves. Robin Hanson makes reference (slightly tongue-in-cheek) to Homo Hypocritus, arguing that such behavior is deeply ingrainied in our make-up and is perhaps an evolutionary design so that we can forward personal interests while still maintaining strong social cohesion.

All that is probably true, but it's not such a bad thing. I don't see any problem living our lives trying to balance moral righteousness with self interest. Just because we do it in the most haphazard, inefficient, and delusional way imaginable, doesn't make it wrong. Bubbles are nice. If you get the chance to spend much your life in a bubble, as I do, I highly recommend it. But understand, the elevated quality of life should make your less secure in your opinions, not more.

Aside:
A site called Wallet Hub (huh?) has named Ann Arbor the most educated city in the country. Meanwhile Travel+Leisure Magazine rates Ann Arbor the 10th rudest city in the country (even ruder than Detroit). I'll go out on limb and suggest these two findings may be related.

[Tech] State of Tech

When I heard Verizon was in going to buy Yahoo, my thoughts turned to Computer Shopper magazine. You're probably too young to remember Computer Shopper (it might still exist as an emaciated shadow of its former self), but it was an enormous computer oriented magazine -- and when I say enormous, I mean physically. Unlike most magazines which are roughly 8.5 x 11, it was 11x14. Apart from the glossy cover it was printed on pulp, and its 800-ish pages made it about two inches thick. Every single month. There were the requisite reviews and opinion pieces but the vast bulk of it was filled with ads for white-box PC compatibles (as desktop computers were then known) in various states of assembly, or parts for those who could roll their own. Back then, there were actual differences in the PC compatibles and which hardware/software combinations made the best machines was a matter of some debate among the nerdy set. Now there are maybe, what, 6 or 7 practical sources for PCs, almost exclusively of Chinese construction, and the only way to tell the differences is in measured testing and only obvious in edge cases.

Similarly, PC Magazine used to hold an annual Word Processor review. In their heydey, there were dozens of choices often with significant differences in features and performance and interface philosophy. Now there is MS Word and couple of minor others that do their best to copy MS Word on the cheap. But then, people don't generally produce "documents" such as they were. We complete forms and templates, write email or text messages, compose posts and tweets, and so forth. All these need a simple, specific interface, not the generalist tool of MS Word. The majority of my writing is done in Google Docs.

It has been a remarkable transformation in the technology market over the past quarter century from the wild west of garages and basements to the oligopoly we are settled into. The purchase of AOL and Yahoo is Verizon's attempt to stay relevant. I don't have much hope for them. Let's review the players.

Google has to be considered the top dog. Their fingers are in everything, and they seem to be pretty well positioned in most markets, although Facebook probably has the better social media presence -- Google has youtube; Google Plus seems dead in the water, but it's still valuable as platform waiting in the shadows for Facebook to screw up. Google has the best ad engine in history. They own search, which is now much more than search. In my discussion of snapchat in another post, I opened my browser and typed "what are the advantages of snapchat" and it guided me to a number of pages. That's a very powerful position to be in. Think of all the ways you used to try to find info on anything in the past -- now all you have to do is ask you browser and you'll get links and videos galore - the only price is an ad or two to look at and some stranger possibly tracking your preferences. That's not bad.

Google has a hardware brand without actually making the hardware. The Nexus line of phones and tablets, all of which are good enough, but nothing more. They own Android which I hate but, again, it works and it sells and is open for use in just about anything. They have an outside shot at an operating system/pc combo with chromebooks. As most everything moves to the cloud, a decent chromebook is probably all you need, right? We'll see. For content delivery they have Google Play (new, but promising) and the Chromecast stick device thing (meh).

Google also has an toe in pipes and tubes. They're rolling out Google Fiber at an agonizingly slow pace, but wherever it hits, it can put your cable company to shame for throughput. And now they have the Fi service to complete with cell providers, and frankly it's probably the overall best product in that space, unfortunately you need a Nexus device to use it. All in all, Google is in a terrifyingly good position.

Most people would say their biggest competitor is Apple, but I think it's Amazon. Amazon is the only store left standing in any non-niche sense. About the only thing you can't get from Amazon is products that are fairly specialized and can be purchased simply from the producer. Plane tickets comes to mind. Certain tech items you probably will buy direct from Microsoft or Apple or Dell. Amazon still doesn't do great with groceries, but nobody does. And of course eBay also counts as a competitor for sales. But generally if you have something to sell, you're better off setting up an Amazon storefront and taking advantage of all their tools rather than trying to roll your own. The power of Amazon's position is best illustrated by seeing what a weakling WalMart, one of the biggest retailers in history, looks like when they try to compete. The only potential competition they face is Chinese retailer Alibaba. It will be interesting to see how things progress forward as the two companies butt heads more and more. (A Jack Ma vs. Jeff Bezos throwdown would be epic.)

Although Amazon has eschewed tubes and pipes, they have yet another area where they are the 900 pound gorilla and that is cloud sourcing. Amazon Web Services is enormous and they have a huge leg up on anyone else when it comes to hosting cloud functions. This is really back-end/behind the scenes stuff, but one way to think about it is that cloud services are your personal computers when everything is on the cloud. That gives you a sense of how big this market is and Amazon already has a dominant position.

Another unique move for Amazon is in content, where they are leveraging their Prime service. Prime music can't compete with Spotify (yet) but it's improving and it has the advantage that it's already got a huge base of possible users. You still have to sign up for Spotify (and 30 million have) but there are more twice many Amazon Prime users. So let's say you are like me and you've had Amazon Prime for years mostly for the free shipping. Or let's say you're a Spotify user and you decide to get Amazon Prime for free shipping or for video content. In either case, as soon as Prime Music approaches Spotify in features and selection, I am either dropping or never considering Spotify -- it's superfluous. The same argument can be made for Prime Video vs. Netflix. Both Spotify and Netflix will be at a constant disadvantage because of how Amazon has brilliantly leveraged their retail strength.

Amazon has tried their hand at devices and it hasn't been encouraging. The standard Kindle line has been a great success, but the Fire tablets less so and the Fire phone was an outright flop. (Personal aside: I have a Fire phone a Fire tablet and a Fire stick. The phone has ceased to be able to charge. It doesn't even know it's plugged in. The tablet freaked out after the last OS update and now thinks it's ad supported when I paid for it to be ad-free. It was lousy tablet anyway. The Fire Stick is a solid streamer, but no more Fire things for me.) And then there's Alexa and those re-order buttons you can buy -- I suppose it's possible those will succeed, although I have heard nothing to suggest they will.

But that's a comparatively small concern. I don't see any lessening of Amazon's might in the upcoming years.

Apple has to be one of the most overrated companies. As near as I can tell they have one asset: the iOS ecosystem. That's huge, but beyond that I don't see anything. Apple Music (iTunes) is sizable but no longer the leader and were it not for it's deep integration with iOS, it would be an afterthought. Apple TV has made no inroads. Macs, like all personal computers, are flatlining at best. What is Apple's strategy for the future? They have no play in Pipes and Tubes. They have no play in Content. They have no play in the Cloud. iOS is, quite frankly, better than Android, but as we have seen, better is no guarantee of growth. Profits are still huge, as is market cap, but as I see it Apple is no longer an innovator and a tech leader. Their latest big product release was a essentially a copy of the Microsoft Surface. They are milking a cash cow now. Steve Jobs is spinning like a blender.

Microsoft is really the most interesting one of the bunch. Like Apple, they are milking a cash cow, but theirs is a little more broadly based: Office/Windows. They also have solid software positions in various development tool/back end markets. They have the IE/Edge browsers, the only value of which that I can see is that it can have Bing as the default search and hope you won't bother to change it to Google.

On the hardware side they have Xbox, which is a worthwhile thing to have as a potential platform unifying games and streaming entertainment. The Surface line of tablets and laptops has had some success, but to what end in the cloud future? Windows Phone/Mobile has cement boots, which is sad because it was the best phone interface ever made and the hardware was as good a iPhone. Microsoft has suffered this fate before with Zune, which was also quite wonderful and actually set software design standards for much of the current clean and flat styling you see in apps. Note: I was using my Fire Phone as a dedicated music player and when it died, I fired up my old Zune and it didn't miss a beat.

They bought Skype which conceivably would have put them in position to create a Google Fi type carrier service that switches between wi-fi and cell networks for calls and texts, but Google, not surprisingly, were the ones who made it a product.

Groove Music, their music service is another instance of Microsoft keeping its fingers in things with a market afterthought, like Bing and Windows Mobile. It's almost as if they are intending to keep these products around in the hopes of having technology ready if a unifying vision ever occurs to someone.

Right now that vision seems to be a focus away from the consumer to the business market which their purchase of LinkedIn seems to align with. They have a solid cloud strategy, called Azure, leveraging their Office products into a software-as-a-service offering and presumably offering very hardware/networking combinations with Surface as a managed point of entry and various remote services including Skype. Their vision messaging on this sucks but I could see businesses, and not just big corps, becoming "Microsoft shops" again, as many were back in the early 2000s.

On the other hand, Microsoft has a remarkable propensity for developing great products only to have them fail for one reason or another, so who knows. Like I said. The most interesting player right now.

The only other name that comes up in a Tech oligarchy discussion is Facebook, but Facebook is a one trick pony. You have to admire the eyeball count, but they are pure social media. They'll make tons of money, and what with the Instagram and Whatsapp purchases they will battle Google for the consumer profiling dollars. But as a prime influencer in tech, I don't see much.

So that's what makes Verizon look so lame. A solid old school carrier and couple of beatdown consumer profilers (AOL, Yahoo) do not relevancy make.

The long term oligopoly is shaping up with Google and Amazon as GM and Ford and the rest as a handful of smaller orbiters. The good news is that perhaps that means stability of some sort is coming and we won't have interfaces to re-learn and incompatibilities to struggle with. At least until the next revolution.

Friday, July 08, 2016

The Month That Was - July 2016

This month started with delightful race up on Mackinac Island. I'm not going to write it up since I've been there so many times you're probably thinking "Again? Go somewhere new for a change ya loser." And it was pretty much exactly the same as it has been for the -- oh, fifteen-ish years I've been going. I find that's part of the attraction. Because I'm old now I find myself appreciating stability.

I also had house guests all month. A dear friend of mine and her seven-year-old son were relocating to North Carolina and needed a place to stay so the boy could finish first grade without upheaval. They were a delight to have around. Childhood is simultaneously identical and completely different than I remember. That I may write about, but not this month.

[Movies] Flick Check - Round-Up
[TV] Toob Notes - Season End Round-Up
[Rant] The Death and Reanimation of Barnes and Noble

[Movies] Flick Check - Round-Up

Deadpool - Probably dethrones Guardians of the Galaxy as the outright funniest superhero movie, and it becomes only really good movie that is related to the X-Men. Now I'm going to reminisce about my tween-age comic book days.

I was always a fan of supergroups; Avengers, Defenders, Fantastic Four etc. The interesting aspect to them was that they all had a different source of why they were together. FF was a family, literally for the most part. They did what they did because the Dad (Reed) was guiding them and while they occasionally defied and bickered there was the sense they were together because they were blood. The Defenders, who we have yet to see on the big or small screen (but are coming to Netflix) were a group of independent iconoclasts with their own personal motivations who came together when they had a shared interest. The Avengers were together to keep the world safe. They chose to be together and take on that responsibility, which was nice of them. The X-Men were together because, well they were born that way and they shared oppression by the wider world. I never really liked them. It was hard for me to imagine why such powerful beings would want to identify themselves as victims, but Marvel was always on the bleeding edge of progressive sentiment. Also, they lacked terribly interesting individual characteristics -- besides the shared oppression.

Back then, the Avengers were the kings. I would say FF was a close second and though I followed them, I didn't have great enthusiasm for them. The Defenders were my favorites and X-Men held no interest for me -- both were decidedly niche. But relevant to today, I would say in the comics themselves the relationship between The Avengers and X-Men was about the same as it is between the two movie franchises. The Avengers was the absolute pinnacle whereas the X-men were kind of "Meh".

A few years after I lost interest in comics I happened to check back in and I was surprised at what I found. The Defenders had drifted into oblivion. The Avengers and FF were still cruising along, but the X-Men were suddenly kings of the hill. The cool kids were all over Wolverine and heralding the X-Men as the supergroup of a new generation (a generation that is only slightly less old than me now). I wasn't interested enough to find out if the accolades were merited or not, but it does explain why the X-Men was the first of the Marvel supergroups franchise to make it to film.

The X-Men movies have varied in quality; none of them have been anything more than solid action films of the sort that were are churned out by the dozens every year in this Epoch of Blockbuster Action Films. They seem to have the same shortcomings as the old comic series. There is little definition to the characters and they all seem to live in pretty much the same two-dimensional personality space. The scripts lack the Feige/Whedon crackling wit, and even when they attempt to be lighthearted the timing is stiff. For all their obvious talent, guys like Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman just don't do droll repartee terribly well.

But, surprise, Ryan Reynolds absolutely does. This movie was a minefield of potential disaster; the nudity, the dark humor, the in-jokes, the breaking of the 4th wall. A little misstep with these devices and you find yourself in the midst of unintentional parody. Well that didn't happen here. They balanced it pretty much perfectly, enlisted actors with real comic chops, and just went for it. Success. Personally, I could have done with a little less potty humor. And the plot, such as it was, was pretty bland. Still, it must have been so joyfully imagined to have that sort of enthusiasm come through. It was everything the X-Men movies aren't. Where they go next I don't know. (I should point out I have not seen X-Men Apocalypse yet.) It's still a minefield if they don't get a good script and director for a sequel.

Deadpool arrived in print after my comic book phase, so if this is the sort of thing that made X-Men comics king of the hill, I now understand.

Mr.Holmes - An affecting rumination on facts and objectivity versus lying for the sake of human dignity . Ian Mckellen plays a very old Holmes who is facing the inevitable degradation of his mental capacity and memory. He is hoping some sort of homeopathic snake-oil will keep himself sharp -- royal jelly made with prickly ash -- but it's not working. In his senescence Holmes tends his bees, while he is in turn tended to by a good, but uneducated, woman and her tween aged son. The son has a bit of hero worship going for Holmes and his dedication to pure objectivity, which his mother finds threatening.

For his part, Holmes is facing his degradation with the same pure objectivity that he brought to his cases earlier in life. He is haunted, however, by a number of things: the account of his final case by Dr. Watson in which truth (but not in Watson's portrayal) led to tragedy; a recent encounter with man in Japan who believes his father had vanished from his life on the advice of Holmes; the cruel treatment of the son towards his uneducated mother.

In time a tragedy occurs and Holmes gets to exercise his skill for deduction one last time and in the course, begins to understand the need for artifice and kind delusions in preserving human dignity. Although everything ends OK, I wouldn't call it happy, just resigned. The tone of the movie is elegiac, as is existence for those whose lives are winding down. It would have served as a wonderful denouement for Ian McKellan (kind of like The Shootist was for John Wayne) if he wasn't still going strong. It was also nice to see a movie that eschewed bombast and great social themes and sought only to do a deeply personal character study. The sort of thing you usually can only find on TV.

[TV] Toob Notes - Season End Round-Up

Penny Dreadful - You probably didn't watch this show but you should have. It's gothic horror set in Victorian England populated by famous literary characters: Dr. Frankenstein and his "monster" and his "bride", Dracula, Dorian Gray, assorted werewolves and demons and such. By its description it should be utter tripe, but it exceptionally well done. It just does so many things right. The cinematography really aspires to the "every frame a painting" ideal. The dialogue has a florid beauty, especially that of Frankenstein's monster who spouts the poetry of John Clare -- you can tell the writing staff understands how to use the English language. Even more impressive is the acting. Eva Green is the centerpiece and gave a tour de force, but all the actors -- including Timothy Dalton, Billie Piper, and Rory Kinnear -- were uniformly magnificent from top to bottom. No scenery was left unchewed. The entire series of three seasons (and done) was a triumph of talent over a mundane and hackneyed premise. I predict Penny Dreadful builds a following post mortem, slow and steady via binge streaming over the next few years.

Game of Thrones -- Poor Hodor. For Game of Thrones this was the year it became conventional. Gone is the show that defied the primal dramatic need for comeuppance. The show where anyone could be killed, even the most beloved characters; where evil was just as likely to triumph as good, and without consequence. This year the characters of our sympathies got wins. Even the ones we didn't really like -- Cersei -- got wins over ones we hated even more -- the High Sparrow. The annoying Tommen, the pointless Margery, the guilty Red Woman, and the execrable Ramsay Bolton, other minor villains, were all dealt with satisfyingly. The only price we paid for this jamboree of righteous closure was the loss of a big, friendly dude with a severely limited vocabulary. My main fear is that now the forces coming to bear on Westros will be dealt with in a plot driven manner; that the characters will be puppeteered around to produce certain events that will give the audience the warm fuzzies. Perhaps it's better that way. It will keep ratings up and make everyone feel satisfied about the ending (notice I didn't say happy). As Ian McShane said, "It's just tits and dragons."

I, however, will miss the daring, almost nihilistic show that violated dramatic norms (and I am not speaking of the standard HBO lurid sexual displays for shock value). Perhaps they'll pull something off -- something truly outlandish or at least inconclusive. There is fodder for it. There is no telling what Cersei's state of mind is. The theme of how Arya and Sansa have survived and adapted since their father was beheaded in front them has promise. There are a couple of eunuchs scurrying about that may have some dramatic play. There is hope. And there's no point in griping about good entertainment. I think we can count on that in any case, especially the inevitable Dragons vs. the Zombies episodes.

Silicon Valley -- certain one of the best satires (as opposed to sitcoms) in history, it's a real pleasure to watch. Especially poignant for those of us working in technology as much of the satire is dead on accurate. The plot arcs move from between success and defeat and recovery and failure. Fates are reversed over and over again, as often at the capricious whim of fate versus personal effort and insight. That too rings true. Witheringly funny moments, mostly courtesy of T.J. Miller as Erlich Bachman, combine with deep irony and, sadly, a fair share of potty humor. Not the funniest show on TV -- that remains Archer even though it is not what it once was -- but the most sharply observed, a quality common to most comedy from Mike Judge (Idiocracy, Office Space, King of the Hill). If you're not up on Silicon Valley -- time to binge.

[Rant] The Death and Reanimation of Barnes and Noble

Good ol' Barnes and Noble. There is one left here in Ann Arbor (ironically, Border's home town). Back in the old days, they had these big comfy chairs you could lounge around in (they have since removed them in favor of hard wooden dining chairs) and I would suspect a solid percentage of my second and third books were written while slouched in one of them. B and N, having pretty much smothered the small independent bookstores is now shivering in the cold shower of reality that is Amazon. They have managed to outlast Border's but every attempt they have made to compete directly with Amazon has failed miserably -- their website, Nook, and so forth.

Over at New Republic there's a somewhat confused article lamenting B and N's potential inevitable demise for what appears to be two reasons.
  1. There are people who feel the need to see a book before they buy it as part of the discovery process. Out of kindness, we don't accuse them of buying it based on the cover. Without Barnes and Noble, these people will have no choice but to buy at Target or Walmart where the selection is stiflingly small. Well, I'd suggest that the market of people who require a tactile experience to "discover" any book beyond those on the bestseller lists is vanishingly small and which and Walmart and Target and various airports is good enough for them.
  2. B and N is responsible for making large orders of books which provide a financial cushion for publishers which they use to support taking risks on unknown authors or risky books. Restated, that's a lament for the current revenue model. Which is a disaster for unknown authors. It supposes the people pulling the strings are the ones who know the audience and what they value, but if they did, the industry would be getting its clock cleaned by Amazon. Furthermore, I cannot comprehend an argument that choice for readers will be minimized in anyway when Amazon pretty much takes the cost of publishing to near zero. The publishing industry is a broken mess with none of it having to do with losing big orders from B and N. The problem with the publishing industry is that nobody knows how to sell books in the new world.
For their part, B and N aren't braying about how unfair the worlds is being to their noble cause of hawking books old school style. They are evidently going to begin testing an entirely new experience for shoppers, involving access to digital content, restaurant style food service, and alcoholic beverages. I like it. The whole slouched-in-a-big-comfy-chair-with-a-yellow-legal-pad aesthetic is even more appealing to me if I do it with a glass of bourbon over ice. But bear in mind, the extent of that market might not go past my own skin. Look at it this way, digital access aside, if you have a profitable restaurant combined with an unprofitable bookstore, you really just have a restaurant with an added expense. That is to say, unless the bookstore/restaurant combo creates some sort of synergy where the bookstore gives the restaurant enough added business to cover its own losses, you're better off burning the books and opening a Chili's. On the other hand, the fact that Amazon is dipping its gargantuan toe into brick and mortar suggests there might be a model that works, but it's important to remember Amazon is a tech conglomerate, not just a bookstore, and they have many more potentially profitable tributaries to exploit.

Which is why I am skeptical. It seems to me, a bookstore almost has to be a mom and pop shop to survive. It will never be big time profitable. It has to be a labor of love that makes enough money enough to keep mom and pop solvent. We have a couple of those in Ann Arbor; the owner/operators work their butts off out of love and pride and they just get by. B and N can't do that. They have shareholders who don't much value the image of the noble booksellers over, say, quarterly earnings. Best to leave the bookstores to mom and pop.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Month That Was - May 2016

I wrote no fiction this month and that bothers me immensely. I have to find a way to get myself in gear on this but I haven't yet. The month was dominated by preparations for my house guests and my trip to Bar Harbor. I continue to be at war with my phone. I got the bike out of storage and managed a couple of decent rides. Blah, blah, blah; yada-yada-yada. But another month of nothing but my pleasant life is something to celebrate. Except for the whole fiction thing. That's disturbing.

[Travel] Down East
[Tech] I Hate My Phone, Continued
[Cars, Rant] Sin Diesel
[Good Links] Hit the Links

[Travel] Down East

I wanted to get back to Maine. I had only been once before, a brief visit to Kennebunkport on a 4th of July. This may get me in a bit of trouble, but for the most part, the storybook Maine coastal towns are very similar. They all have the style of old New England seafaring communities: cozy attractiveness, no-nonsense, homey architecture, a harbor, a series of bars and restaurants, craft stores where you can buy Maine merchandise both authentic and inauthentic, and little inns and B&Bs. It's all very nice, if a bit boring. You can only see so many stark, rocky shorelines and eat so many lobster rolls before they lose their luster.

Bar Harbor (pronounced Bah Habah), the most northern of well-known Maine coastal towns, has an advantage. It is the gateway to Acadia National Park.

One key aspect of this trip was that it was pre-Memorial Day. This was a genius move, since one overwhelming impression I got everywhere I went was that, in season, this place must be swamped. To access Bar Harbor you typically fly into Bangor and take an hour-long, non-freeway drive to the coast. Judging from the roadside attractions and advertisements along the way, I gotta figure it's bumper to bumper in season and there's not that much parking in Bar Harbor, which has to be a nightmare if you're commuting in for a day-trip or your hotel is outside walking distance.

That said, Bar Harbor is as top notch resort town. The presence of the park gives it an added draw and it's response is to be overly full of restaurants and craps shops compared to other places on the Maine coast, but it's not distastefully done. It's still obviously Maine, not Ocean City or Myrtle Beach. Besides I'm not some bearded hipster searching for some sort of faux authenticity -- I'm a tourist, and proud of it.

Hanging in a Maine coastal town is something everyone should do. They are as genteel as they look, begging to be strolled through in khakis and boat shoes having genial conversations about how lovely everything is. I know I sound flip, but I'm sincere. But unless you're a dedicated souvenir shopper or are otherwise happy to center your day around drinking and eating, you need more. Often there are fine water excursions available -- anything from lobster fishing to sunset sails aboard old schooners. This being before season there was little of that in Bar Harbor. But Acadia National Park is alive and kicking.

Acadia, in the midst of it's 100th anniversary, was a delight. It's highest peak, Cadillac Mountain is an easy drive to the summit. The iconic thing to do is get up early to catch the 4:30 AM sunrise from the peak, as it is considered to be one of the first places you can see the morning sun from the U.S. I passed on dragging my ass out of bed at 4 AM -- I was on vacation after all -- but I did make the drive on a one of the sunny days (I had two sunny days, one just before leaving) and managed to take some excellent photos.

My time in Bar Harbor consisted primarily doing something active in the AM the hitting town for a late lunch followed by some wandering and/or drinkin about the town or coastline. This is about a perfect way to spend your entire life and if you can afford it I highly recommend it. There a number of fine hikes in Acadia. You can haul your ass by foot up to the top of Cadillac Mountain if you choose. I chose not. Most interestingly, there are what are referred to as "iron wrung" routes which take to up steep and treacherous mountain paths via the use of iron handholds or ladders (not for the faint of heart). I did none of these.

My first night I headed on foot towards town and took a turn off to walk to Bar Island. You can only walk to Bar Island at low tide, the land path will be underwater at high tide. True, it's something of a novelty to do this. It isn't strenuous and you are in no danger of the tide instantly washing you back in. It's really just a sort of pleasant promenade a short way across the bay to the island. Some people actually drove it, which I found marginally obnoxious. There also appeared to be a meeting of a local vintage moped society, which I found marginally endearing. Mostly it's a mix of folks -- tourists like me, locals walking their dogs, kids running and screaming. Once on to Bar Island there is a path to the top of the island (easy, about a mile round trip) from which you can look onto the Bar Harbor waterfront. It's not quite as nice as many in Maine, but it's still photoworthy.

The next day I hiked the length of Jordan Pond on suggestion of a ranger who said that if the water is still, you can get those perfect reflection nature photos that garner attention now and then. The water was not flat that day, but the hike itself was a fine walk in the woods along the shoreline of the pond (actually a small lake). At the south end of the pond stands Jordan Pond House which is a bit a destination given it's a sizeable restaurant with excellent views of the pond and its surroundings. I suspect your average day tripper comes into the park, drives to the top of Cadillac Mountain then comes here for lunch. I chose to find my meals in town.

Dinner highlight that night was Scotch Eggs at Leary's Pub which bills itself as the Easternmost Irish Pub in America. Probably true. It's a tiny little place tucked down a short alleyway. I only found because the folks on Yelp seem to think highly of it. It has a solid pubby vibe, friendly bartenders, I could do without the Irish music, but that's just me. Were I resident and not out to explore, I wouldn't hesitate to make it a usual stop.

I had an interesting conversation with the bartender there. I had noticed just about every shop in town had Help Wanted signs up. She explained that much of town hires in seasonal help from Jamaica. This is not unusual -- they do this on Mackinac Island also. Summer is off season in Jamaica. However, this year there had been some snafu with visas so here everybody was a couple of days from the Memorial Day slam and the Jamaicans were missing. Everyone was understaffed and undertrained. Glad I wasn't going to be around for the holiday. I don't know if they ever sorted out the visa issues but if you're a young adult looking for summer work, you could do a lot worse than slinging drinks in Bar Harbor for a few months.

The next morning I rented a bike. Acadia's main road is called the Park Road Loop and it is exactly what it sounds like -- a long scenic drive through the park; 27 miles to be exact. I chose to bike it, although I did shortcut about seven miles off toward the end. The Park Loop will bring you in shooting distance of most of the park's main attractions, with a challenge of riding up to the top of Cadillac Mountain. I paused at a few overlooks along the way, but my main stop was at a place called Sandy Beach -- can you guess what is there? The bulk of the Maine coast is rocky, but there are packets of sand peppered throughout. On a sunny day in the height of summer, you could delude yourself that you've found a hidden cove in Florida or California. That delusion would last until you sank a toe into the frigid water. Still even pre-Memorial day there were optimistic people in bathing suits plunked down in the sand like they were going to work on their tans and sip a hurricane. Sorry, it was a lovely beach for what it was, but I've spent too many days on the Florida Gulf not to be a beach snob.

That said, the rocky coast is quite dramatic, with the perpetually crashing waves and the always threatening weather. Gothic is how I would describe the typical Maine vista. (You remember that old TV show Dark Shadows? It looks like the opening of that show.) And gothic is what I got the next day: on-and-off chilly drizzle without a ray of sun. It was a good day to be in the car, so that's what I did -- trolled the coast south.

My target was Camden, which has the tagline of Maine's hidden jewel, but the real hidden jewel was Ft. Knox Observatory. About half-way to Camden you stumble upon a suspension bridge over the Penobscot River that looks as though it came out of The Jetsons. Even better, one of the bridge towers contains an observatory; you ride an exceedingly fast elevator up to the top and are greeted with views of the surrounding miles, typical Maine coast picture-postcard views but dramatically expanded by your elevation. The coastal town here is Bucksport, an eensy little place with a nice harborfront that unfortunately ends in a large factory of some sort. But you get a lengthwise look at the broad Penobscot as it winds past green islands and shorelines to the Atlantic. Back on the ground you are free to wander Ft. Knox proper with its eerie stone catacombs and spiral stairways. All in all just very cool place. I'm sure there are guidebooks that suggest it, but I just happened on it by accident. One of those lucky rolls of the dice that can make a vacation.

I did make Camden, and it's as nice as any Maine coastal town. Not of the scope of Bar Harbor but of the same flavor. I snagged lunch on the waterfront and did a quick loop of the village, but there was nothing new or interesting. Just outside town there is a peak, Mt. Battie, that I drove up to try to get some shots of Camden from above, but by the time I got up there a dense cloud was covering the peak and all that could be seen was a uniform, end-of-world gray in all directions.

On the way back I made another stop, Southwest Harbor, which is yet another picturesque harbor and shops and restaurant town. The thing about Southwest Harbor is that it seems a little snootier than the other towns. The houses were definitely a step up, and there were a couple of restaurants that could be accurately described as high-end dining. I entered one took a seat at the bar and was completely ignored for a solid five or six minutes. So I left and tried to grab a sandwich at a deli but it was so crowded I couldn't get anyone's attention. So I abandoned ship and got dinner back in Bar Harbor.

My last day I decided to go for a run. Near my hotel, but in the park, there is a trail called the Witch Hole Pond route. It was identified by Runner's World magazine as one of the 10 can't miss running adventures. The loop is a bit over three miles and it was about a mile-and-a-half from my hotel so my plan was to run there, run the loop, then run back. 6-ish miles, easy peasy. First, the park is enormously hilly, so not easy. Second, as long-time readers will expect, I got lost on my way there. It took me two or three wrong turns and a couple of conversations with people who were smart enough to have park maps with them to find Witch Hole Pond. It also took me an extra three miles out of my way, so we were up to a 9-miler total. I did find the route eventually and it is a lovely run, enough that I had to stop a couple of times just to appreciate (not to catch breath, mind you).

So that was Bah Habah. As I look this post over, the tone seems a little unenthusiastic. That's real, but it's not the fault of Maine. Maine was exactly as promised and if you have an image of a coastal Maine vacation, Bar Harbor is the place you want to go. In fact, if the opportunity presented itself to go in season where I could partake of some of the water activities I might just do it. But I have traveled much and seen more. The Down East vibe of Maine, while a delight, can't hold a candle to Newfoundland. There is no place more Down East than Newfoundland. Literally. Hiking through mountainous regions -- well I 've spent my share of time in the Rockies and the various ranges in the Southwest. And as for waterside resort towns, all along the west coast of my state are the beach towns of your dreams. In fact, even one of the ten great running adventures, the loop around Witch Hole Pond, while beautiful, was no more beautiful than the runs on the Potowatami Trail a few miles from my house. And let's face it, these days you can fresh lobster in North Dakota.

So yes, Bar Harbor was a fine trip. I'm glad I did it and enjoyed myself. I can understand couples and families making an annual summer pilgrimage, especially families -- it would be a perfect week long summer vacation for a troop of kids. But set your expectations properly and reconsider if you're looking to step out of the box or for something that can't be had elsewhere.