Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Month That Was - January 2015

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

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

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

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

Summertime. Will summer ever come?

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

[Rant] To Do List: 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Tech] TechnoBedlam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does this have to be such bedlam?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Month That Was - December 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Movies] The Golden Age of Monsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Cars] Infuriating Excellence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Month That Was - November 2014

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


[Cars] Car Keyed
[Travel] Thanksgiving As Always

[Cars] Car Keyed

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Travel] Thanksgiving As Always

Another iteration of what is getting to be my standard Thanksgiving trip: A few days in Florida visiting family and exploring the Gulf coast, then over to Vegas for some football betting, including a day or two of a road trip somewhere out West.

Leg one this year was spent on Manasota Key which is about an hour south of Sarasota and an hour north of Fort Myers. It is certainly not one of the more renowned areas of the Gulf, but it may be an underrated gem. Gaining access involves passing through the suburb of Englewood, which is not an especially wealthy area -- not that it's bad, just not the high end stuff one usually finds in the area -- then crossing the bridge over the sound leaves you roughly in the middle of the Manasota Key. To the south are the smaller, older homes, and various motels and inns. To the north the homes reach up into the millions. I headed south.

My base of operations was Weston's WannaB Inn, a very Florida place if there ever was one. I pulled up to the office only to be greeted with a sign saying they would be back in fifteen minutes; people forget that away from the major tourist meccas, Florida is still the South.. Weston's maintains quite a number of buildings on both the beach and the sound side. Bright, solid colors are the theme throughout. Lounge chairs are peppered along the beach and around the pool. The rooms are clean, the folks are friendly. The wi-fi worked...intermittently. It's a real sweet out of the way place. The beach is absolutely perfect. I had a gulf-facing balcony which was pure pleasure to sit on and enjoy the breeze and make you forget about all the activities you were planning. Weston's goes on the list for future consideration.

Weston's is as far south as you can go on the key before you hit the entrance to Stump Pass Beach State Park, which extends about a mile and a half to the tip of teh key. The park features a walking trail through the swampy woods to the end of the key, along with openings where you can reach the sound to launch a canoe or fish. At the very end of the Key, across the channel is Don Pedro Island, an island of vacations homes only accessible by boat (it's on the list for the future). From the tip of the key you can walk the gulf beach all the way back to Weston's. Along the way are these strange denuded trees angling up in various direction like makeshift abstract sculptures. Of course, this being Florida, the wild world is never too far. The little geckos and crabs scurry away at your approach. The pelicans and the osprey dive for fish. A fellow fishing right off the beach in front of my room landed a little baby shark, probably three feet long. For all Florida's glitter, there is no mistaking that it is veneer over the wild swamp.

Speaking of wild...I did an obstacle race through the swamp. This would be my fourth obstacle race, and probably my worst result. It was a 10k through a the Tippecanoe Wilderness Park near Port Charlotte. Footing was muddy and terrible. The obstacles were tough -- I failed on the monkey bars which is unusual for me. From my first step I was never in the zone; each step was leaden, each obstacle a chore. Still, I finished and got second place in my age group, an outcome indicative of the number of people actually in my age group. Even as I look back I don't know what my problem was. It was a good race setup, if rather disorganized. There was a full meal and entertainment at the end, which was a step up from the usual lukewarm bottled water and stale muffins. Everyone was very friendly. I don't know what went wrong with me. The problem is that every time I have a bad race I worry that the degradation is permanent -- that it is indicative of my long slide into old age. So the start of my trip was a bit of a downer.

But who can stay down when you have the beach and Gulf and so much to explore. I visited Venice, which is lovely in an almost Savannah-GA-moss-covered-trees sort of way. It too has a lovely beach. My other point of exploration was Boca Grande on Gasparilla Island, a very high end place that cost six dollars a bridge toll just to access. It was even higher-end. Obviously very tightly controlled building with the north end filled with condo developments and the south end a State Park. Sandwiched in between is the town of Boca Grande, a quaint place of shops and restaurants. When i say it is very high end, I especially mean the Gasparilla Inn, which is the flagship resort on the island and known haunt of the rich and famous.

Gasparilla and Boca Grande are nice, but they are one of the few places I have been to on the Florida Gulf that I would call uninviting. Parking is difficult and/or expensive; restaurants further from town, where parking is especially sparse, have guards out front to chase people away. (I can't imagine a more soul crushing job that sitting on the asphalt in the baking Florida sun telling people they can't park in your lot.) The atmosphere is very controlled, many of the condo developments are not only gated, but fronted by concrete walls. It all just seems like they are saying, "Fine, you have a right to be on the island, but we're gonna make you pay."

That, of course, is all mere impression. I'm sure the great mass of people love Gasparilla unconditionally. And a lot of the heavy-handedness is probably due a mass influx of humanity into a confined area especially in the Spring for tarpon season (which is like deer season up north). Come to think of it, my beloved Sanibel and Captiva are little different. Not that it matters anyway because I could never afford to live there. Although I certainly would if the opportunity presented itself, and I would probably come to love it.

Exploring done, no decisions made, other than coming to the realization that a place on the gulf for me probably means a condo in a building as opposed to any kind of house. I would love something beachside -- that would be the dream. My room at Weston's was beachside and there was nothing like the steady gulf breeze to cool me and falling asleep to the sound of the surf. But beachside will mean compromises. I can only file it away for now.

The next step was a couple of night in Sarasota visiting with family. I have spoken of Sarasota many times before. It is a truly great little city. Terrific arts community and surrounded by fun and interesting things to do. Realistically, Siesta key or even Longboat Key would be ideal for me with beach side living but easy access to Sarasota, but expensive doesn't begin to describe it. I remain in discovery mode.

Florida covered, we move on to part two of my vacation with a flight to Vegas. But first a travel note. I have, perhaps surprisingly, not registered for TSA Pre. No reasons other than the inconvenience of being required to showing up in person at an office to do so, when the office nearest me is about a half hour drive, and since I'm usually upgraded to First Class nowadays the security lines are less daunting. But you can be assigned TSA Pre status even if you're not registered. And literally all three of my flight legs (to Florida, to Vegas, back home) I got the TSA Pre assignment. I don't know the formula by which they decide this. Perhaps they just assume that a 50-something guy who's never broken the law and has flown hundreds of similar legs on Delta is unlikely to have suddenly become an Islamic fanatic and just happens to want to blow up the same flight he would normally use to go on vacation. But whatever the case, TSA Pre is nice. No taking off your shoes and belt, no laptop removal. A small but pleasing little benefit.

So back to Vegas, about which I won't say much, this being my 13th (?) Thanksgiving in town. I stayed at the relatively new Delano for the first half. Delano took over one of my old favorites, THEhotel, and gave it a highly styled lobby and a room refresh. It's a terrific place, although it is about as far south on the Strip as possible, making Strip-trolling a bit more challenging. Although different from the stark modernism of THEhotel, I can't see that it is any better. The lobby is certainly more striking -- Delano excels in lobbies. The lobby of the Delano in Miami Beach is astounding, and a central social hub for the city. But the all white decor of the rooms is, non-objectively, less attractive that the more traditional decor of THEhotel. Still, if you're inclined don't hesitate. It's an all around excellent hotel. Oh, one other stand out -- the wi-fi was blazingly fast -- even faster than my home set up.

Part 2 was at the Trump International. I have always shied away from the Trump as it is technically "off-strip", but I came to see that it is really only technically. A three minute walk through the Fashion Show Mall or along the street next to it gets you to the north end of mid-strip, i.e. Wynn. The Donald's place is absolutely top notch. I was in a very basic room and it was fine a suite as I've ever had in Vegas. Huge bathroom, expansive sitting area, plenty of closet space, fridge and microwave. Two big things: (1) the bottled water on the counter, for which most places charge ridiculous prices if you open, was free and got replaced daily, (2) housekeeping did actual housekeeping -- straightening things and folding clothes that were left out, whereas most places it's just vacuum and make the bed. Great stuff, and given it's "off-strip" status, cheap too. I'm giving Trump my highest recommendation for Vegas, and that's saying something -- after all, I've been at this for 14 years. It is almost certainly as good a value proposition I've encountered.

Apart from the hotels I did little new in Vegas this visit. I stuck to my rails -- bourbon at the Mandarin Bar, a high end burger at Holsten's (the Rising Sun Burger, now my new favorite), I had delicious plate of lasagna bolognese at Sinatra, visited the new SLS casino (nice, but don't go out of your way) and blew some money in the sportsbook, which could be it's own essay (and maybe will be). Just a typical Vegas Thanksgiving, happily anonymous in the crowd and the flash.

Aside: I do need to do something about the football wagers. For years my system based on DVOA from Football Outsiders had served me well, but the last two years it let me down seriously. I needs re-thinking. Plus I need to get to Vegas early in the week to catch the lines before they completely rationalize. I also, need to bet at Westgate where they have more varied line, spread, and teaser options. Mostly, this is just a note to self.

The key adventure here was in between the Vegas parts when I blasted out of town and into the desert. My vehicle for this adventure was a black Ford Mustang. Since it was a rental, I'm sure it was only the six-cylinder version but that's still over 300 horsepower and it was a phenomenal car for barrelling along the desert highways. A bit noisy at low speeds, but it really came into it's own on the highway. Coming up on a string of RVs at 75 mph and needing to pass them on a two lane road, I just stuck my foot down and flew by them. I glanced at the speedo before ducking back into the right lane and I was touching 120, just like that. The ‘Stang was utterly composed, I had no idea; I would have guessed 90-95 tops. It's a bit of a throwback, manual headlights, simple instrumentation (which is nice), also a bit of a rattle here and there (which is not). I can see why folks love them so much. The GT models must be scary fast.

So like I said, I was barreling south through the desert -- the Mojave to be specific -- past the "town" of Cima (actually a closed general store and a trailer in the back), through miles and miles of joshua trees and scrub (last place you want to have a break down) to the railway stop of Kelso (a fine place to stop, with little museum) and on through numerous hardscrabble desert rat settlements. The first sizeable place you reach coming back to civilization is the town of Twenty-Nine Palms which seems to be trying too hard to be thought of as a desert oasis vacation destination. An hour-ish beyond that and you reach the string of real desert oasis vacation destinations starting with Palm Springs and extending through it's sisters, Palm Desert, Indio, and La Quinta, all along the Coachella Valley.

One the striking attributes of the desert is how humans have created completely out-of-character places seemingly out of nothing. So you travel miles and miles through desert scrub and ramshackle towns and suddenly you're in neon shine of Las Vegas among otherworldly resorts, then you're out in the scrub again for hundreds more miles, then suddenly you're in the green golf mecca of Palm Springs among pristine country clubs. The contrast is striking.

My crash joint was Homewood Suites in La Quinta, but all the towns along the valley are pretty much interchangeable. The streets are broad and flat and there are enormous gated golf communities peppered throughout. I was a bit jealous. I have never played golf, but there are an extraordinary number of people who make it the center of their lives -- they buy homes next to courses or join expensive clubs. They travel to any interesting course they can would like to play, kind of what I have done with running the past couple of years. I can't really blame them. Golf courses are inherently vernal, attractive places and the most beautiful ones will drop you in your tracks.

Even though I have never been moved to take up golf, when I see such enthusiasm by huge numbers of people I wonder if there is something I'm missing. Is it reasonable to take up golf at age 54? I would only be interested in getting good enough to not embarrass myself, and to understand the attraction of it. If I liked it, maybe that's an alternative retirement for me: buy a house in one of the golf clubs out here in the Coachella Valley. Like Florida, it gets way too hot in the summer (but it's a dry heat, right? yeah, right) but at least out here you can take a run up into the mountains for a break.

And, even though it wasn't more than mid-70s, that's what I did. In the mountains just outside Palm Desert is an escape town called Idyllwild. I believe the elevation is in town is on the order of 5500 feet, but the surrounding roads and hiking trails can cross 8000. It's about an hour's drive up one of those winding, edge defying mountain roads into town, where it looks more like a forest town in the U.P. than the California desert. The pine woods are thick and the air is thin and cool. Much of the core area is rustic, though obviously very well maintained. It's filled with shops and restaurants; no doubt it is overrun during the hot months. It was moderately busy on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, mimicking a cool early fall day in Michigan, but not so much that there were no parking spaces or seats at the bar.

Also in the area are a bewildering array of County, State, and National Parks, all with different rules and regulations. I had intended to do a hike and after some slapstick attempts to find the trailhead outside town, I discovered it was really inside town, more or less -- not that there was clear signage. As a result, I paid for parking at a place I didn't want to be. I eventually found the trailhead and started up these steep switchbacks on my way to Tahquiz Peak -- brilliant views all the way -- only to encounter a ranger about half way there, who told me I couldn't hike without a permit, and gave me an obviously rehearsed lecture about trail safety. Not wanting to be scolded, I smiled and apologized and turned myself around and headed back to town where I settled for a seriously tasty steak sandwich and beer at a local restaurant. Frustrating, but not so much to turn me off Idyllwild. (A cabin up there will play into to my Palm Springs retirement fantasy as a matter of policy.) I can see making it the middle of my Vegas sandwich in the future. It's the sort of place that warrants more exploration than a day trip. I suspect there is more the a day trip of stuff to find up there.

So that was another of my classic thanksgiving weekend Western swings. Not the best and not the worst. I racked up more new sights, visited more locales, generated more ideas, and lost more football bets (grrrr!). There are times I wonder why I come out here every year, and the answer is that I'll know why when I'm here. Or more properly, I'll know why when I'm about to go home, because I'm always glad I came.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Month That Was - October 2014

I spent the month doing a form of research on my new book, which I have finally started in earnest. Starting is hurdle one, now I have to conceptualize the whole story; that's hurdle two. I could be a while. I wonder if this one will get done by the time I'm 60.

Stuff fails and gets fixed or gets lived with. I had to replace the battery on my laptop, which I was able to do on my own with a little help from Youtube, but I admit I made a mistake in giving Dell a second chance. My new car is fully interwoven in my life, the only issue being a slow leak from nail in the tire; patched under warranty. Remaining unfixed is a toilet shut off valve -- that'll will go to a plumber, and garage door lights that don't go on and proximity lights that also don't go on (yes I have changed the bulbs) -- that will also need a pro. Goal for this winter is to finally get the upstairs painted as I have been threatening to do for two years now. Carpet stretching and some flooring work is needed. Master bath make-over is in its second year on the wish list. I still have loud duct work that is going on the fourth year, but that is such an enormous project I will have to expend a good deal of energy just to make to phone call for an estimate. I'm dreaming of renting again.

I should do a technology recap post next month (note to self). I should also start planning my race and travel schedule for next year. The wheel turns.

[Rant] State of the Blog
[Books] Book Look: Why Does the World Exist
[TV] Bye-Bye Boardwalk
[Movies] Marevl-ous Movies
[Travel, Health and Fitness] Ubranathlon

[Rant] State of the Blog

Under the heading of Tempus Fugit, I believe this is my 15th year blogging. When i started out it was on the page that used to learn HTML. There was no archiving. I moved posts around via copy and paste, completely reforming the page every time it got too big. It was hosted on my local internet provider, which still exists -- Provide.Net -- and still prominently dispalys its dial-up service. (Related: AOL still has over 2 million dial-up users.) Back then I tried to post a few interesting links and some brief comments everyday. Real base level blogging. It was what everyone was doing. We exchanged links and promoted each other's sites and posts. There was no Google; getting Yahoo's index was the big thing. I managed to get listed under Blogs section and alphabetically at the top of the list. That generated a good deal of traffic. I actually made connects with some prominent folks. But things changed quite rapidly. From a technical perspective everyone moved to hosted services. Blogger, pre-Google, was a big one, and is where I still am. Wordpress came along later and was more feature filled, which was important because as soon as everyone started blogging, everyone needed an edge or else you drifted into obscurity. Which is what I did.

There is very little amatuer blogging left. One or two prominent sites survived (Kottke). Other went corporate (Gawker being one service, albeit execrable). The well focused ones morphed into news sites (Ars Technica comes to mind). Most of the old blogs were whittled down to a small circle of readers and essentially functioned as a poorly designed versions of what would eventually be done better by contemporary social media.

So years ago I stopped blogging per se and just turned this site into a monthly diary. Though it's not really a diary in that I don't reveal my most intimate thoughts or anything that could be used against me or anybody else. I'm not the type to do that, which I count as a plus. I have very few regular readers. I get an occasional traffic blip if one of my posts gets linked up elsewhere, but for the most part this is just a document of my life and thoughts how I have spent my time. Is it of any value? To me it is. Sitting down at the end of every month to remember what I've done/read/watched/thought keeps me disciplined to write and I suspect it may provide some emotional comfort I my waning years. It gives me an outlet for my thoughts and opinions without having to worry about being shouted down or interrupted -- people tend to give the written word more thought than the spoken word -- at least the few people left who read do. But mostly, I've learned that if you are moved to do something and you have the opportunity, you shouldn't spend time questioning your motives. Often the experience itself reveals your motives in time.

So I continue.

[Books] Book Look: Why Does The World Exist?, by Jim Holt

The title is a slightly vague. By "Why does the world exist?", you might think he was looking for an is-there-a-God? type answer. Nope: more basic. Holt attempts to find out why there is something rather than nothing. But even that question is ripe for misinterpretation. Most people when confronted with that would interpret it as Why is there stuff rather than an empty universe? or What came before the Big Bang? You have to go deeper still. The question is really why is there existence? Empty space is "something". What Holt is talking about is really nothing, not even empty space or time itself. Why is there existence at all?

This question is so far removed from our lives, so abstract, and so impossible to answer that it really is about as purely an intellectual exercise as can be conceived. The practical value is pretty close to zero. In fact I would argue the question cannot be answered by the human mind since every path leads to something-from-nothing philosophical gymnastics and unavoidable logical conflicts. To me this indicates that if there is an answer it is simply beyond the capabilities provided to our minds by the parochial path of our evolution. Interestingly, one of Holt's interviewees, none other than the late novelist John Updike, had reached precisely the same conclusion.

Still, those minds have been bestowed with a healthy dose of intellectual curiosity -- for some of us anyway -- so we indulge. Holt takes us on a journey from Paris to Oxford to Manhattan to Texas and back, where he interviews some of the high-end philosophers and cosmologists who have struggled with this question, along the way pointing out how similar approaches and conclusions have been reached by historical figures, going all the way back to Plato. If nothing else, this book will demonstrate that while our knowledge of the functional features of the universe has expanded astronomically (pun not intended), our answers to the ultimate questions still boil down to the same logical concepts as they have for thousands of years, and they still run into the same problems. The fundamental problem is that either there is a brute fact or infinity, neither of which our minds can comprehend.

A brute fact is, essentially, a thing that just is. It can take many forms: God, the Singularity, Logic, Goodness -- whatever it is called, it is the thing that started it all. It was not caused to exist by anything else, it is just there and that's that. Philosophers call this a contingency problem: a Brute Fact simply is, it is not contingent on anything else for it to happen. Our minds rebel at this because everything we see in the course of our lives, and everything anyone has ever observed, has a cause. It makes no sense to us not to ask, "How did this happen?"

The problem with that is that you then open the door to infinity. If everything was caused by something there is no starting point. Infinity is beyond our comprehension. Everything in our experience, however big or small, reaches a limit. We use the concept of infinity colloquially, but it never actually means infinity. We use it in mathematical equations conceptually, but when we try to apply it to the real world things get unreal straight away. If infinity shows up in your theory in physics, you're dead.

And yet, all this is tangential to the question at hand. We think that if we could figure out the source of existence we could explain why existence exists. There may be a good deal of distance between those answers. So we are pretty far removed from being pretty far removed.

That is not to imply this book is a pointless exercise. (Really, if you purchased a book actually expecting it to tell you the reason for everything, you need to rethink your existence on a more personal level.) But should you read Why Does the World Exist? I give it a qualified Yes. It's blast for anyone who is given to seriously musing about such topics. Holt writes clearly, especially considering the often intricate complexity of the topic, and with just enough irreverence to give the impression he's doing it all with a sly grin. Then he ups his game in the final chapters when it all comes back to a personal level. Still, I'm not sure how it would work out going in totally cold. I've been a reader of pop-sci books for years and tend to spend a lot of time in my own head, which is the only place this topic has much value. Without a least a passing, casual understanding of fundamental ideas like quantum mechanics and a penchant for abstract musing, some of this may sail right by. If you are a very practical person, you can safely pass. But have no doubt, this is a very rewarding read. As Updike says, we may not be able to figure it out, "but who doesn't love the universe."

[TV] Bye-Bye Boardwalk

We bid farewell to Boardwalk Empire, a show that was impeccable in craftsmanship, but never really did set passions aflame. I enjoyed watching it throughout it's run, but I never really saw anything more to it than an expertly crafted drama; it was more admirable than engrossing. But I must say the final, shortened season did raise it even higher in my esteem. That's saying something. Most shows go out with a mad rush to closure, and while B.E. did take some turns to that end, nothing was really out of place and the closure fit very well into the storylines.

Boardwalk was imbued with quality from the outset. Terence Winter, and his Sopranos pedigree, headed up the show. Scorsese was involved early on. The key actors were not there for their big names alone. Even in the smaller, transient roles, the casting (the most underrated aspect of TV production) was impeccable. Casting director Meredith Tucker, another Sopranos alum, should be dripping with Emmys for this. (I think she won one, but I can't imagine her not getting one for this final season.) In the last season she had to cast younger versions of many of the characters for flashbacks, include two younger versions of Nucky Thompson. The results ranged from spot-on to absolutely uncanny.

The cinematography also stood out, and I know this because it was noticeably skillful, and there are very few shows you can say that you noticed the exceptional camera work and composition. The first thing that stood out were the scenes with Al Capone and his lackeys. Designed to be almost cartoon-like in their exaggeration. It looked like something out of a stage play ensemble were movements and short comments are all choreographed to point to the lead character. Once you notice that, you start to notice how every shot is composed and lit specifically to enhance the scene. And I mean every. I don't think there's a throwaway camera angle to be found.

The first four seasons played out in pretty standard Sopranos-esque form. Ensembles mixed and ingled, there were no innocents - the heroes could do evil, the villains could seem sympathetic. There was a central conflict and some key character got whacked towards the end. There was a great deal of activity, wonderful acting, and a vitality that came from the exceptional characterizations. Also, it never acquired the Sneer-at-the-Cavemen Syndrome so many period dramas succumb to, where everyone is portrayed as a morally-stunted, unenlightened, boorish, bigoted cliche (see: Masters of Sex, or The Knick) by contemporary standards. On this last point, special kudos need to go to season 4, which featured a storyline involving the struggle of two ruthless black men for control of the "colored" business in Atlantic City. The facts of existence for blacks in that time were never ignored, but the two principals were not helpless victims, nor righteous crusaders. They were individuals in morally base power struggle, and their ultimate story was personal, not socio-political, and therefore much more powerful than it would have been in the hands of a more shallow-minded show-runner. This is what I mean by excellent dramatic craftsmanship.

In fact, by almost any measure of TV quality it was a cut above. But, still, there was no sense of anything larger going on. I never really got emotionally invested in any of these characters. Their successes or failures or whackings simply weren't that moving because I saw no greater purpose. Then season 5 came and pulled it all together. As I said, closure was a big goal, but closure can be done well or done poorly (The Wire, for example). As expected Boardwalk's closure was done well; so well that it elevated the series as a whole. In fact, just to increase the difficulty factor, the closure leaned on lengthy flashbacks which, for most drama, is begging for trouble.

Leaving aside the supporting characters, for whom no closure was a throwaway, the big reconciliation was for Nucky Thompson. Thinking back to the pilot, I remember having serious reservations about Steve Buscemi. A perpetual second banana (often an essential one), I was concerned he could carry the lead role in such a series. I was wrong to worry, he was excellent through and through, and in fact, there were occasional points where things crawled a bit when he wasn't the focus.

Part of the success of Nucky's closure through flashbacks, in addition to the casting I mentioned above, was the absolutely astounding work done by the actors of the younger versions to affect the mannerisms and speech habits of their older counterparts that we were thoroughly familiar with. The flashbacks gave us the childhood seed of Nucky's obsessive greed (or simple ruthless ambition, I suppose), how that led the young adult original sin of his introducing Gillian to the execrable Commodore, and how that act destroyed lives and killed people, including himself two generations on. It turned the whole series into a nicely structured Greek tragedy. An inspired ending to say the least.

A sprawling Greek tragedy is a good way to view Boardwalk Empire, virtually everyone gets the comeuppance they merit, as determined by their personal flaws. I don't think Boardwalk measures up to the big 4 (Deadwood, Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men). But it is one of only two in the next tier down (along with Breaking Bad). Once Mad Men is gone next year, nothing current will come close to it.

[Movies] Marvel-ous Movies

I have been on a bit of a jag about how TV quality has declined from it's pinnacle of a decade ago. I should soften that view because it is still light-years better than it was three decades ago. The same can't be said for movies. Movies have encountered a truly fundamental problem with their very existence. Whatever the film, going to the movies can now be described as streaming video, except in an uncomfortable room with a bunch of strangers, bad food, and no pause or rewind. Why would anyone do that?

Real movies come to theatres first -- big screen before small screen. Remove the theatre from going to the movies and the difference between a movie and TVs is that you might have to pay a little extra to watch it on your flat screen before everyone else. To differentiate the product -- to make it something different from TV -- movies have to be seen in theatres.

So we can define a real movie as one that you so desperately want to see right away that you are willing to pay to have it streamed in an uncomfortable room with strangers and no potty breaks for 2-3 hours. I don't think I'm going out on a limb to suggest this is not a growth product.

What are the qualities of such a movie? Well, it would have to have characters you are invested in -- that is to say, a sequel or a tie in to a TV show or book series. But that alone is not enough. You would still be able to wait for TV. What you need beyond that is an audience that is impatiently passionate enough about these characters to need to know RIGHT AWAY what is happening to them -- you just can't wait a couple of months or be happy with the spoilers on the web, it's gotta be NOW. Who gets like that over fictional characters? Kids and Nerds. Mostly nerds. That's actually a sizable demographic. Most adults, even 54-year-old me, has some nerd inside. And it doesn't hurt to have visual spectacle of the sort that benefits from a huge screen or IMAX.

So it becomes plainly obvious that the foreseeable future of movies belongs to Marvel Comics (including Marvel, Sony, and Fox productions) and J.J. Abrams reboots (Star Wars/Star Trek), with DC Comics and Hunger Games as ginger step kids. With that in mind here is the announced release roadmap going through 2020(!):

2015
May 1 - "Avengers: Age of Ultron" - (Marvel)
June 19 - "Fantastic Four" - (Fox)
July 17 - "Ant-Man" - (Marvel)
December 18 - "Star Wars: Episode VII - (Disney)
2016
March 25 - "Superman Vs. Batman" - (Warner)
May 6 - "Captain America: Civil War" - (Marvel)
May 27 - "X-Men: Age of Apocalypse" (Fox)
Summer - Untitled Star Wars Entry - (Disney)
August 8 - "Suicide Squad" (DC Supervillain Epic) - (Warner)
November 4 - "Doctor Strange" (Marvel)
November 11 - "Sinister Six" (Spider-Man supervillain epic) - (Sony)
2017
March 3 - Wolverine movie - (Fox)
May 5 - "Guardians of the Galaxy 2" - (Marvel)
Summer - "Star Wars: Episode VIII - (Disney)
June 23 - "Wonder Woman" - (Warners)
July 14 - "Fantastic Four 2" - (Fox)
July 28 - "Thor III" - (Marvel)
November 3 - "Black Panther" - (Marvel)
November 17 - "Justice League: Part One" - (Warners)
No date yet - Spider-Man Venom movie - (Sony)
No date yet - Female-driven Spider-Man movie - (Sony)
2018
March 23 - "The Flash" - (Warners)
May 4 - "Avengers: Infinity War part One - (Marvel)
May 4 - "The Amazing Spider-Man 3 - (Sony)
Summer - Star Wars Han Solo Movie - (Disney)
July 6 - "Captain Marvel" (Marvel)
July 13 - Unknown Fox movie - (Fox)
July 27 - "Aquaman" - (Warners)
November 2 - "Inhumans" - (Marvel)
2019
April 5 - "Shazam" - (Warners)
May 3 - "Avengers: Infinity War Part Two - (Marvel)
Summer - "Star Wars: Episode IX" - (Disney)
June 14 - "Justice League: Part Two - (Warners)
2020
April 3 - "Cyborg" (Warners)
Summer - Red Five Star Wars Movie - (Disney)
June 19 - "Green Lantern" - (Warners)

I will, of course, see none of these in a theatre. I value my inner nerd, but he is fully domesticated at this point. That means when I finally get around to seeing that final planned Star Wars film, I'll be 60 years old. Considering the probable size of my prostate at that point, I'll really need that pause button.

[Travel, Health and Fitness] Urbanathlon

After last month's Tough Mudder you'd think I'd lay off the damn obstacle races for awhile. Nope. The Urbanathlon was up next. Actually, I had targeted this race for a few years but this was the never managed to get it together enough to pull the trigger until this year, mostly because friends announced they were doing it and once I committed I couldn't back out. Plus, the race was in Chicago, giving me a chance to visit my home city.

Yes, that's right. I called Chicago my home city. I was born in Detroit, raised in the Detroit suburbs, and have lived in and around Ann Arbor for the 35 years since, yet I am officially adopting Chicago, or rather I am forcing the city to adopt me. It only makes sense. In the past fifteen years I have been to Detroit exactly twice, maybe three more times into the suburbs. As a general rule for life, I don't like to go east of U.S. 23 (except to get to the airport). On the other hand I have probably been to Chicago at least ten times, despite the 4 hour trip. So that's that. Chicago is my Big City.

Although one of the downsides to going to Chicago for a race is that there is usually a good deal of walking involved beforehand. When I ran the Chicago 10K last year I estimate I probably walked five miles between hoofing it around to pick up my race packet the day before then walking to the race the next morning. For the urbanathlon there was a bit less walking involve but still a disruptive amount. For whatever reason, I am constructed such that walking and standing take a greater toll on my legs for a comparable distance. Aerobically running is much harder of course, but I can come in after a five mile hike and my feet and joints feel like they have really taken a beating as if I ran twice as far.

The race itself is about ten miles long with obstacles peppered throughout the course, getting more frequent towards the end. Most are pretty standard over/under sequences. It's run right along the lakeshore path from the Museum Campus to Navy field and back, roughly. There is no mud, no fire, no electricity. There was a cold and wind and rain. And the signature "obstacle" was Soldier Field. At about mile 6 you enter Soldier Field and run the steps. Not all the steps of course but I would estimate the sequence required consists of a good 750. Now, I had done step running prior to the race, but I had not done step running after running 6 miles. Very different. Step running devolved to step walking rather quickly.

Anyway, it was a good and challenging race. I finished in a touch over 2 hours, of course the folks I was with were much more hardcore than me and finished about 15 minutes ahead of me, but that's fine. Overall I would do the race again, hopefully with better weather. It could stand to be a little more conveniently organized, but the minor hassles fade from memory quickly and good experience lingers.

Part of that good experience is just being in Chicago -- the restaurants, the parks, the museums. It's just about the perfect place for a long weekend. I used to take the train there, but I'm thinking now that driving is better. Partly because I appreciate the luxury of setting my own timetable, but also because it seems the whole pain-in-the-ass parking problem has been solved. Spot Hero to the rescue. You enter your destination, your check-in and check-out time, and it spits out "reservation" options at nearby parking garages. The prices are good. For example: Embassy Suites was going to charge me $60/night for four nights to park, Spot Hero kicked out a quote for a parking garage a half block away at $96 total, a savings of $144. Now, there are caveats: 1) You can't check-in to your parking space early or check out late. In fact, you should give yourself a good cushion on your in and out times. If you enter or leave outside the specified time, your reservation is killed and you will end up paying full price at the garage. I foolish did not give myself enough lead time to account for the time change and had to kill an hour before parking the car. (Luckily, there's a casino in between here and Chicago.) 2) No in and out privileges. In other words this is only for folks who are going to stay parked, which is fine with me. The net result of this is that it brings driving in to the same financial range as the train. Much goodness, this Spot Hero.

Given that it was cold and wet, I didn't do the extensive trolling about that I usually do in Chicago. I hit the main tourist centers -- Navy Pier, Millenium Park, The Art Institute -- and had numerous good meals. Eataly is now open since last I was there. Joe's Stone Crab made me a terrific filet after the race. I snagged one of the world famous, dry-aged burgers at David Burke's Primehouse but was unimpressed. But Chicago is really better in warm weather, when you can bike up the lakeshore to the Lincoln Park Zoo and Wrigleyville, and the fireworks are going off on Navy Pier and the face monoliths at Millenium Park are spitting fountains of water for the kids.

So the first warm weather of 2015 will see me in Chi-town for a three day weekend. Mark it down. But maybe no race this time.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Month That Was - September 2014

Happy birthday to me. 54 laps around the sun. Whoop de do. And, for some reason, every year my birthday roughly coincides with the end of summer. I had plans at the outset back in May, and I managed to get some stuff done, but overall, I think I let this summer slip away more than most. I barely fired-up my grill or crashed on the deck more than two or three times, and I did not get the deck stained. I got a good deal of gardening done, but to no purpose, about 30% of what I planted died or never came up or got eaten by various rodents or, once it did come up, did not have the visual effect that I wanted. So, yeah...not the best of summers for outdoor work.

It was a cool summer, which was kind of nice, and a wet summer which was less nice as it brought weeds and mosquitos and generally gave a soggy, moldy feel to the world. Worse, the coolness and wetness have generated fear: Fear that we will be in for another brutally cold and snowy winter like last year. If that turns out to be the case I may finally move South.

[Music] Quadrophenia
[Movies] Two For the Action
[Health and Fitness] One Tough Mudder
[Books] Book Look: Where Nobody Knows Your Name
[TV, Rant] Do We Not Bleed

[Music] Quadrophenia

Let's take a trip back in time, to the era of classic rock. In the fall of 1973, The Who released their sixth album, Quadrophenia. It was quite a success commercially -- it reached #2 in both the US and UK -- but more importantly it is probably the only rock album conceived as a whole that has appreciated in artistic merit over the years.

When I say conceived as a whole, I mean the entirely of the album is designed for a certain effect or around a certain theme -- conceptual theme, not just commonalities in song titles or genre. The first prominent example of this that I can think of in rock is the Moody Blues Days of Future Passed from 1967. (I know, Sgt. Pepper was from ‘67 but it was never intended to be conceptual. For that matter neither was Abbey Road. The Beatles never did a concept album.)

The Who really glommed on to the idea of such thematics. Their third album, The Who Sell Out, a contemporary of the Moody Blues' Days… was structured as a pirate radio broadcast with jingles and fake commercials in between the songs making it a concept album in a more gimmicky sense, but also contained a short song that was identified as a mini-rock opera. A rock opera was where The Who went next with Tommy three years later.

A rock opera is really just a concept album with a narrative. Tommy was not the first rock opera; there had been a couple released in the late sixties to little acclaim or commercial success. Tommy, in contrast, was an astounding success. I recall "studying" it in Junior High School English class, for some reason. (Probably because all the public school teachers fancied themselves cool rebels who knew what was hip. Now I decry it as dumbing down, but back then I would have had zero interest in, say, Samuel Johnson. Also, get off my lawn.)

Enormous success aside, I don't think Tommy has fared all that well over time. The songs are still good quality pop songs and the hits get plenty of classic rock airplay, but it just doesn't hit home as a piece of art. The theme of the rise and fall of a false god is a little strained. Anyway, gods don't rise anymore, they just fall. The movie featured some interesting covers of the songs, and Ann Margret, but it really just a curiosity more than anything else.

The Who moved on, changing tone entirely to the monumental Who's Next, which is so loaded with enduring classics that it's probably the album you hand to someone from Mars who never heard classic rock. Also it marked a shift to more personal songs. The Who always had anger in their songs, but with Who's Next, the anger became more pointed and personal.

So in that sense, Quadrophenia was sort f the culmination of the development of The Who: An angry, desperate, deeply personal rock opera. The story is somewhat autobiographical: a mod named Jimmy is a standard rebellious working class kid in early 60s England. He is generally a wastrel, hangs out with his wastrel friends, doing wastrel things and such as popping pills and getting in gang fights. Just another disaffected youth. In fact, just the sort of person the The Who played for in their early years as a mod-hero band, and to some extent just the sort of person they were. In fact, Jimmy was described as a young man with for personalities -- Quadrophenia -- each corresponding to a different member of The Who.

The four personalities thing is pretty much unnecessary. Jimmy is a confused adolescent swimming in a sea of hormones and chemicals. Rare is the human male who won't identify. This is a key difference from Tommy. It's not detached allegory, it's something very relatable and genuine.

But the thing that really elevated Quadrophenia was that the story was clarified by the non-musical ephemera that came with it. On the cover was a narrative, written in the voice of Jimmy, in perfect colloquial mod voice -- it was quite lovely. You can read it here. It's a few paragraphs that put you deeper in Jimmy's head and voice for very nice effect. Also in the package was a large photo book, filled with black & whites depicting Jimmy at various points in his journey, that really captured the look and feel of working class England in the early 60s. This youtube vid walks you through the photos. They are really quite astounding.

If this makes it all sound more like a multi-media exercise than a record album, it is; but that's not to say the music is insufficient on its own. The music is a remarkable blend of the standard Who agro-power with what is probably the most melodic and sensitive arrangements they ever achieved and interwoven with moody natural sound effects. It's the sort work you can hear a hundred times and pick up something new every time.

All this is in my head at the moment because I recently saw a documentary about the making of Quadrophenia on Palladia, one the nine million eight hundred and thirty-two channels I get on Charter. (It's actually a couple of years old. I think it aired in 2012 on the BBC.) It was jam packed with interesting details on the state of the Who at that time. To summarize, Keith was so messed up on drugs that he actually collapsed on stage and they brought in someone from the audience who could play a bit of drums to finish the set. Their producer was so messed up on drugs that Pete fired him and took on the entire workload. The workload was so huge because, and this was something I didn't know, Pete's process to create a record was to write the songs and record all the parts on tape at home, the present the entirely to the rest of the band who would interpret it. So basically he was doing everything.

The rest of the band however, did not appreciate that and often bristled, feeling like they were being treated as nothing more than session musicians. It is not the case at all that they were glorified session musicians, of course.There is no way the Who would be what they were without the other personalities and talents -- you don't hire session musicians that can bring such distinction and style as John and Keith had. Roger asserted himself by forbidding Pete to be in the studio when he recorded his vocals. In fact the animus between the two was so great that Pete threw punches at Roger and Roger uppercutted him to floor. More interestingly, Pete was not a fan of Keith's drumming. He wished there were times when he would just keep the beat instead of being a madman. This was bad thinking. When Keith died he was replaced with exactly such a drummer to no good end musically.

And, like the standard rock and roll cliche, out of all this bedlam came a tremendous pile of music. In the words of Pete, "Quadrophenia was the last great album we did."

And great it was. I hope I'm not coloring it with my nostalgia, but I really think when all is said and done and we look back at the second half of the 20th century it will be one of the pieces that stands out as a top ten musical work. So, recommendations: Listen to the album, try to find the ephemera, watch the movie, see the documentary. All worth your time.

[Movies] Two For the Action

It seems the only movies I watch anymore and big budget actioners. Every other genre is done better on TV. So this month I caught Captain America: Winter Soldier and Godzilla (starring Heisenberg). Both of these have astoundingly high production values and follow effective plot formulas. If there is anything the early part of the 21st century might be known for it is the final mastery of the gaudy, big-tent action film. I know a lot of folks think the 80s was the prime time for action movies, but that's wrong. The ‘80s were about adventure movies, a subtly different thing that is less production-, more script-intensive. The salad days for action movies are now. The actual action movies in the ‘80s were abysmal by comparison.

Godzilla is, of course, preposterous. Honestly, I don't think there is a single scene that makes any sense whatsoever. But the action is slam-bang and the monsters all are cool looking. Really, it's good for ages 4-10. Does not deserve a sequel but will almost certainly get one. Maybe Godzilla versus the Transformers. That's about the right speed.

Marvel is really doing a terrific job of recreating the feel and atmosphere of the late sixties, early seventies comic books. Admission: Yes, I was addicted to Marvel comics as a tween. And while not great works of middle-brow art that some hyper-fans claim them to be, the wisecracking, irony-drenched dialogue and storylines deftly structured for the well-timed heroics that filled those 25 cent rags you bought off a spinning wire carousel have had a tremendous influence on Hollywood, stated or otherwise, on the development of action movies over the years, as my generation has come into prominence. Joss Whedon is the king of this and does it better than anyone else. (Anyone my age who watched Buffy couldn't help but notice the Marvel comic tone of the series.) And that's what Winter Soldier is missing -- Whedon's light touch and whip-smart timing.

Don't get me wrong, Winter Soldier is excellent, and a key entry in Marvel movie mythology as they try to reproduce the comics universe on film. I happen to to think Chris Evans pulls off this role just astoundingly well -- if Captain America lives on well into the future, his portrayal will be definitive. But it lacks the joy, energy, and uplift of the best of the genre -- that would be The Avengers, with Thor:Dark World, and a pastiche of Iron Mans close behind. No one has yet matched Joss Whedon at this game.

Winter Soldier is very worth seeing. Godzilla not so much. But stand in awe of the great accomplishment of my generation -- Action Film Mastery. Hey, at least it's somethin'.

[Health and Fitness] One Tough Mudder

After a particularly strenuous workout, it is typically two days before the pain hits me. It's a thing I can't explain, but the debilitating soreness that comes arrives the day after the day after. The day after Tough Mudder I was feeling OK. The day after the day after I felt like I had been hit by a truck. Just rising from bed in the morning required a re-evaluation of my entire existence to see if it was worth continuing.

Tough Mudder is one brand, maybe the premier, of obstacle course/race that have been growing in popularity in the fitness industry for quite some time now. They range from things like mud runs -- which are exactly what they sound like, runs through the mud for fun -- to races with a few playground style obstacles, to full on military style challenge courses like Tough Mudder or it's comparable, Spartan Race.

Tough Mudder is team oriented. You can do it yourself, but there are obstacles that you would have to be super-human to complete on your own. Still, it's OK to go alone, because part of the attraction of Tough Mudder is teamwork and a culture of assisting others. In fact, at the outset of the race you recite a vow to assist others, so even if you were to go alone, you wouldn't be alone. I was with a team.

From the outset it should be noted that these are serious obstacles, patterned after those used by British Special Forces. This is not a coast through the playground. Crawling through the mud doesn't mean trying not to fall as you run through. It means crawling through the mud, under barbed wire. A water obstacle is not wading through a lake, it's jumping fifteen feet off a platform or dunking yourself in an ice bath. And let's not forget the electrocution: the last challenge is a dash through a mesh of wire that deliver electric shocks of varying degrees of pain. They range from a quick and painful snap to an out right stun that will drop you on your face. In the mud.

All these are spread across a 13 mile course, so you essentially cover the distance of a half-marathon.

Why would anybody do that to themselves? It's a good question. The pat answer is for the challenge -- just to see if you can. During the course of the race you feel like you were really quite stupid to pay money to do this to yourself. I came out of it scratched and bruised and I got slammed with a head cold in the next few days which could easily have come from god-knows-what germs in the mud. And yet, as soon as it was over, I vowed to do it again.

There is no clock in Tough Mudder. And you can skip any obstacles you'd like, but I didn't see a lot of skipping going on. The idea is to get everyone to finish, strangers assisting strangers: build a human pyramid, get dragged over the wall, then pay it forward. It all sounds very gosh-oh-golly touchy-feely but it's absolutely brutal. Assisting and/or being assisted isn't an act of charity, it's a necessity. The end result is that no matter what happens during the race, by the end it's a positive experience full of genuine camaraderie. I'm quite proud that no member on my team skipped an obstacle and we ran between all of them. I'm anxious to repeat the performance next year.

But I'll schedule days off for after.

[Books] Book Look: Where Nobody Knows Your Name, by John Feinstein

It's probably natural that as it becomes less and less likely that I will achieve anything the world would consider some sort of greatness, I become attracted to stories of unsung perseverance. Unsung perseverance is the definition of minor league baseball.

Where Nobody Knows Your Name is simply an overview of lives in the minors. You can think of it as a nonfiction companion to Bull Durham if that helps. The premise is simple. Feinstein tells the stories of numerous minor leaguers over the course of one season, covering their backgrounds and their hopes. He covers players, managers, and even an umpire; youngsters on the way up, oldsters on the way down, lifers who see no alternatives, guys trying to have no regrets. The entire spectrum is on display.

Feinstein is a drop dead professional sports journalist and it comes through in his writing which is clear as a bell and effortless to follow. He knows who he's writing for and does not talk up or down to them. The craft of a working writer is in evidence by it's invisibility. If there is a criticism it's the the individual stories can get repetitive, but that's life in the minors: nobody wants to be there, everyone is keeping the faith -- everything else is nuance. This is life happening to those making other plans.

Should you read Where Nobody Knows Your Name? If you like baseball, then yes. Whether these stories would resonate to someone without the proper context is more of a crap shoot. Being on the far side of your lifespan might give you some empathy, after all a lot of these guys are on the far side of their baseball lives and coming to terms with the knowledge that time is up for those childhood dreams, and options for the future are thinning. Hard to imagine anyone over 50 not relating to that.