Friday, October 05, 2018

The Month That Was - September 2018

Turning 58 (on the 13th) seems to be proof that I am not demonstratively bothered by my advanced age. At 58 you can no longer legitimately round down to "mid-fifties". You are now officially "pushing 60". And yet, I feel no particular crisis is upon me beyond that ongoing steady drop in enthusiasm for familiar activities that has been a persistent in my psyche for the last 10 years or so, and which I have written off as either the natural aging process or a growing sense of familiarity with, and therefore a certain contempt for, the ways of the world.

Accompanying this is also a growing resignation to myself and my limitations. My running pace, like my writing pace, seems to steadily dwindle. I like to take naps more than ever. I no longer delude myself that I can catch the eye of a young woman (it would be more easy to convince her I'm rich). But I am alert as ever and still fairly quick-witted. And healthy for the most part. I'm also good on the most important thing in life: maintaining a strong sense of absurdity, especially your own.

[TV] Toob Notes: Quick Takes
[Movies] Flick Check: Franchise Fodder
[Travel] Austin, Not So Weird
[Rant] Dave the Builder

[TV] Toob Notes: Quick Takes

Just some quick comments of what I've been watching.

Better Call Saul -- Remains the best show on television but this season has started a bit slow. The show lost quite a bit when the Chuck-Jimmy conflict ended. You can tell because perhaps the most striking dramatic moment of this season (so far) is when Jimmy realizes he's not getting reinstated because he couldn't bring himself to mention his brother's name. Things are coming to head, however, for Jimmy, Kim, and Mike. I expect a full on race to the finish starts now.

Lodge 49 -- Self-consciously bills itself as Lebowski for the small screen, and that's a good description, but I see a lot of John from Cincinatti in there too. Dysfunctional brother and sister make their way the weirdness of life and characters in Long Beach, CA. I don't know where it's going or what to make of it yet, and that may be the creators intent, but it is engaging and intriguing enough for me to come back every week. Strong cast, especially Sonya Cassidy. You need to be of a certain type of mind to appreciate it. I, evidently, am.

Rewind: Justified (2, 4, 6) -- Rewatched the even seasons, which were the best, but all are worth seeing if you missed it first run. So many great characters, so much wonderful dialog. Why can't all shows be written this well? I hope they never revive it, like...

...Magnum, P.I. Yes, they rebooted Magnum. It serves a purpose. It captures the good-natured, cheese-and-corn-on-a-tropical-island tone of the original and reminds us of how bad TV used to be (by comparison) and demonstrates that we watched it because there was nothing better. Also interesting are the casting decisions. Higgins is a hot chick and Magnum, well, I guess they figured there were no modern day Tom Sellecks so they went in the opposite direction and cast a small, pretty, hispanic boy. Oddly, they do pull it off to a certain extent. If you we're really hoping they'd bring more shows like Magnum P.I. back, well, wish granted. There are worse ways to spend an hour.

As for me I can't get over the contrast of a good '80s cop show (Magnum) with a good contemporary cop show (Justified). Night and day, my friends. Despite what you read, some things in this world get better.

[Movies] Flick Check: Franchise Fodder

A couple of recent entries in recently restarted blockbuster franchises became accessible on the small screen, so I checked them out. From the Star Wars universe we have...

Solo -- Overall, not bad, which puts it near the top for this franchise. A good origin story, if unoriginal. Ron Howard is nothing if not solid and reliable moviemaker. There were some minor struggles in tone with Han himself, wavering seemingly randomly between emotional seriousness and scruffy-looking swagger. Lando was a bit of a let down; Donald Glover is too chill for his own good sometimes. But other than that, a solid entry. It's interesting that the only good quality entries in this series since the original trilogy have been one-offs -- this and the very good Rogue One. The constraints of the core narrative seem to destroy any possibility of creative value in the main story.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom -- Overall, is pretty bad. All the infantile tropes are on display: the greedy and violent rich are despoiling the world for their own greedy and violent purposes; Jeff Goldblum lectures like a 14-year-old who thinks he's deep. It is just inane. The action is pretty good, if horrific. But that raises the question, Who is this movie for? For children? They might not notice the dumb storyline, but the scenes of dinosaurs eating people and menacing children in their beds is the kind of thing that would cause kids to demand to sleep with mommy and daddy. For adults? In that case, the plot and dialogue is just insulting. I don't know what to make of this other than to say it's just not a good movie. I think this franchise could be saved, but clearly not by the folks running it now.

Part of me is also ho hum about all this because Marvel has cast such a shadow of this genre that everything else seems like background music by comparison. These old school franchises have no idea how to catch up.

[Travel] Austin, Not So Weird

I spent three nights in Austin. It's not so weird. In fact, it is a quintessential college town writ large. If you have been following my travel posts from the past nearly two decades, you know anytime I get to a college town or hipster enclave (Ithaca, Ashville) I start to draw comparisons to Ann Arbor. Austin, while probably four times the size of Ann Arbor, still has the strong vibe of a college town, being the home of the nearly Michigan-sized University of Texas. Throw in its standing as a tech hub second only to Silicon Valley and you get upper middle class hipster paradise.

If Austin was once weird, it is no longer. Food trucks featuring outlandish combinations of flavors are no longer unusual. Dirty 6th street -- kind of like a slightly less psychotic version of Bourbon Street -- is fun and can be crazy, but it's not weird. Bird scooters? Don't make me laugh.

There is an interesting spot called Graffiti Park which is a series of walls that were set to be demolished for condos, but when people started filling them with graffiti it became an iconic landmark and the condos were forestalled. It is actually a pretty cool thing; some of the artists are quite talented, but nothing is sacred. A beautiful panel can be covered by any idiot with a spray can before it even gets seen, with no recourse except of course to repaint over it I suppose. Impressive that it doesn't descend into scatology and the lurid. There is a lot of cool artwork to see and it changes all the time. It qualifies as moderately weird but the weirdness is mitigated because money is money and the real estate is too valuable not to build on. So they are moving it to the outskirts of the city by the airport where it will be at least partially controlled and dedicated to "legitimate" graffiti artists, sanctioned by the government probably. Ah well. Like I said, the weird is gone and the gentry has a firm grip on everything.

Probably the last truly weird thing in Austin is the bats. The Congress Avenue bridge crosses the Colorado river in the heart of Austin. In 1980, it was rebuilt in such a way that there were crevices lining the underside of the bridge. Turns out, bats love crevices. Were you to walk under the bridge during the day, you would have no idea that above your head were in excess of a million bats. Just before dusk, the top of the bridge is covered with hundreds of humans who have gathered to watch the million or so bats emerge in a swarm from below. They flow out like a billowing cloud of smoke thats lasts for many minutes as they stream upriver in search of bugs to eat. Very cool thing to see. Recommended, but be advised, bats smell. Bad.

(Aside: I don't think I count the number of places I have seen the Colorado River. From as far north as Westwater, UT to Lake Havasu, AZ in the south. It would be an interesting project to retrace all my travels through the West and pick out all the stops I've made along the river.)

All this lack of weird doesn't mean Austin isn't a great place to visit. It is. There are tons of things to do and an incredibly energetic vibe anywhere you go. Even a trip to the capitol building is of interest, which would normally be the least interesting thing in the world.

And then, of course, there is the live music. All up and down 6th street and hundreds of other places. Most folks know of the Moody Theatre where Austin City Limits is held -- there is a statue of Willie Nelson out front -- but it's only one of many storied venues.

Endless options for food and drink and music are the core of Austin's particular brand of cool. Still, it is not without its downsides. It is not green, in the sense of verdant. Oh there are parks and greenways and such, but you will never doubt that you are in a major city in the throes of booming building and development. They joke that the official bird of Austin is the crane (Do I have to explain it?).

The bigger problem is the traffic, as you would expect. There are no major freeways that will get you directly to Austin, at some point in your approach you are going to get dumped off onto four lane roads. At that point you better hoped you timed things right or you might as well get comfortable. If there is a Longhorns game you might as well get a room at a motel outside town. Driving in the city itself is not much better and parking is a savage beatdown. If there is any place you want to Uber around, it's Austin. Maybe those Bird Scooters make sense after all.

I can understand why Austin is growing like it is. If I was a young tech exec or a student free riding on the 'rents, it would be at the top of my list. It would be a little too intense for me now, given my age and habits, but I do hope to visit again -- maybe catch the F1 race one year or a good Austin City Limits headliner or just snag some interesting food. The energy is infectious.

[Rant] Dave the Builder

I am decidedly not handy. This is quite clear to me. Oh I can get some basic stuff done -- replace a ceiling fan or light fixture, change the air filters in my car (you'd be surprised how much that saves you), paint a bedroom, etc. -- but if something goes awry all bets are off. You know how you can be following a youtube how-to video which tells you to remove a ramastat with an adjustable whichamacallit, except your whichamacallit doesn't fit and the ramastat is actually a thingamajig? At that point I'm toast. Improvised handiness is beyond me. (This is especially true of bike maintenance, it turns out.) So I was really quite proud of myself for building a catio. That's not a typo -- a catio.

My house abuts a huge swath of protected wetlands. This has its pluses and minuses. It affords me privacy and nice view out my back window. I also get an abundance of wildlife. Deer, sometimes in groups of eight or ten, traipse through my backyard (although less so now that I've learned to plant deer-resistant flowers), there is a troupe of wild turkeys that parade about, bunnies abound, squirrels and chipmunks in uncountable numbers, racoons, fox, and even coyotes -- it's like Wild Kingdom back there.

Currently I have a houseguest that is the owner of a siamese cat. Needless to say, the cat likes to go outside. I don't know why. Given the size of my house, she has run of an area that is likely not much smaller than the relative territory of a Bengal tiger. Still, one can't dump the cat out the back door because there is no way a siamese cat that will look a live mouse in the face walk away to get ear scratches would last more than five minutes out in the wilds behind my house.

The best option was to take the cat out on my deck (which is elevated to second story level) but the cat would make a beeline for certain death if not restrained. There was only one solution. I needed to build an enclosure so the cat could be left to wander the deck but not escape.

At this point you are no doubt smirking and saying "What could possibly go wrong?" Well, I'll tell you: Nothing. I bought some lumber and chicken wire, measured everything ten times before I cut. Bought a couple of better quality tools. Thought about everything -- sometimes for days -- before I took action, but I completed the catio. It is ugly, but can easily be disassembled and removed in 15-20 minutes. There are things I would have done differently, but still, I did it without losing any fingers or putting out an eye. To any skilled craftsman, I'm sure it would be a source of comedy. But it works, and I did it myself.

It was a good lesson to (re)learn. Trying something new, without fearing probable failure is always rewarding. If there is one thing I could change about myself it would be to not be so afraid to fail. It would be convenient to blame this on my childhood environment, where any mistakes opened you to shame and derision, but I'm 58 and my window for blaming things on my childhood closed decades ago. I have to keep doing things like this -- to make myself keep doing things like this. It's even more important as I age and get more and more comfortable with those limitations I discussed above. As they ask in Tough Mudder, "When was the last time you did something for the first time?"

For now, I'm just going to keep doing the little projects and maybe next summer, if my houseguest is still here, I'll build a bigger, better catio. Actually, my next goal should be taking on a bike upgrade over the winter without screwing it up so royally I have to call in a professional. When you see me on HGTV, you'll know I've arrived.

But first I have to go make sure my health insurance covers accidental dismemberment.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

The Month That Was - August 2018

I feel a change has manifested, but I can't put my finger on it. The grip of certain activities -- things that provided the motive force for my life -- are weakening in their grip. Writing has become a struggle (although some of that is just the place I am in the process in my current book). Travel doesn't provide the same sense of adventure. Participating in races is getting more and more difficult. I'm even running out of things to say on this site and have given thought to shutting it down, or at least taking a break. After all, I've been at this in one way or a another for nearly 20 years.

I don't know whether tis is temporary or if it is indicative of some sort of sea change. But it goes hand-in-hand with the sense that I am increasingly distanced from the affairs of the world. I hate to navel gaze, but I fear there may be more to come on this topic.

[[Movies] Infinite Blockbuster
[Movies] More Dead, More Pool
[Tech] Tech I Almost Like
[Rant] Anti-Anti-Social

[Movies] Infinite Blockbuster

Very much The Empire Strikes Back. A dark episode, marvelously handled. Nothing goes the Avengers way yet they still fight on, crack wise, and keep hope alive.

One of the biggest movies in history, but it is dependent on you having seen many earlier films to follow the details, not to mention know the characters. I would have thought such a thing could not be done. It shows how deeply ingrained this series already is in our culture.

RDJ/Ironman stands out here. His path and his interactions with the characters he crosses are the best, although the Thor/Starlord meeting is a gem. I don't have to recap what was good because it's the same good stuff you've seen in all the other films, only more so. This movie is unbelievably action dense, and I mean that in the sense that physical action is deeply intertwined with the dramatic action of moving the plot and characters forward. In most films you have action (bang, boom) then pauses to advance the setting (dramatic action) for the next bit of bang-boom action. Separating them opens you to the trap of pointless pyrotechnics or worse, extensive exposition. Not here. I would be willing to bet there are never more than 3 minutes of talk without activity and any explanations are given ether as a single line or in the course of battle.

Was there anything to dislike? Well, Peter Dinklage was poorly used. The Black Panther is still painfully sincere and haughty. I don't think Ruffalo or Johansen were at their best -- their lines didn't seem all that well delivered, and I still struggle with Cumberbatch's American accent. This is niggling.

I have argued before that blockbuster action films are this era's premier creative achievement -- like classic rock in the '60s, or auteur TV in the aughts. In the Blockbuster Action era, Infinity War, and Avengers 4 next year, could be the peak -- like Sgt. Pepper or Sopranos. When it's all over I may spiral into depression. I'm sure what will follow on will be watered down replacement heroes and race and gender stunt casting. With any luck I'll be gone by the time the reboots start.

I'm just delighted these stories from my adolescence have come alive so wonderfully at this point in my life. It's almost like a form of closure.

[Movies] More Dead, More Pool

Deadpool 2 is Infinity War's near-equal, but in a different, more R-rated way. In a Deadpool movie, nothing is respected. Nothing. The 4th wall does not exist. Characters are created, just for the sake of a couple of funny lines or a spot of endearing sympathy, then are given blackley comedic, horrendously violent deaths. There is not a rule that is left unbroken, cultural or cinematic. After the first one I questioned whether they could keep the self-referential, middle-finger gimmickry fresh. They did. If anything, the only parts that fall flat are when they don't just say WTF and instead try to have a human story.

Like I said, they have done the opposite of what makes a great movie and have made a great movie. I can't figure it out, but don't ever change.

[Tech] Tech I Almost Like

My car is now fully sorted at over 80k. It's finally living up to the promise of Acura -- steady, strong, reliable. Of course as a 2014 car from a model run that started in 2009, it is also hopelessly outdated. The nav and audio are looking decrepit, connecting my phone is an adventure is pointlessness. I fail to understand why your auto infotainment has to be stuck at the point you bought it. Why cannot this get upgraded like virtually all other electronics? Still, I'd like to get 2 or 3 more years of no car payments out of it.

My new phone (Moto G6) is hanging in there. It is roughly on par with my old phone functionally, though a bit faster and with what seems like nearly double the battery life. Android remains a usability dumpster fire, and until now I have successfully fought off Apple, but...

There is only one thing that would make me buy an Apple device and that is if the price was Free. Well, as a 25th anniversary gift from work, I received an Apple iPad. I am treating it as an experiment. The best outcome is that it replaces my laptop during travel. The worst is that it replaces my ancient Samsung tab which can barely play solitaire without lagging and whos primary use is as an alarm clock and kindle reader. More to come.

I have not cut the cord with cable and I am suspicious of how much it actually would save me. I suspect not much. If I switched to internet service only, the first thing Charter would do is jack up the price of it. Then, let's say there were 5 pay services I wanted to subscribe to at $10-12/month, I would probably not be saving all that much money. Does 5 seem like a lot? Remember virtually every broadcast and cable network is building their own service with a plan to no longer licence stuff to Netflix or Amazon. That's gonna get worse, too. I do wish Charter would come out with something to replace that god awful, 1980s-era cable box. I gotta figure everything it does could fit on a chip now. Of course, at the rate they're losing customers, they have bigger problems. No idea how all this is going to fall out.

In truth, virtually all my tech is need of upgrade. My laptop is multiple years old; the touchpad is balky and the power cord is flaky. My DSLR, a Canon EOS, is hanging in there, but honestly it has never taken the same quality photos as my old Nikon; probably due to a poorer, lens, yes, but I understand Fuji is doing some amazing stuff with their latest line of mirrorless cameras and lenses. Even my beautiful Panasonic 65" plasma -- last of the plasmas -- is long in the tooth and aching to be replaced by an 85" smart 4k OLED. Maybe a wholesale tech-life upgrade is in order. Not this year, though. I can only afford to piss away one small fortune at a time.

[Rant] Anti-Anti-Social

facebook popped up a reminder that I have been with them for eight years. And I was a latecomer I think. Unlike the negativity you read in op-eds, I find it a pretty constructive and convenient way to keep up with friends. I suspect for most people it works exactly that way. I have found that by liking certain pages or joining certain groups, I get a pretty relevant news feed, much more so that any haphazard consumer profiling algorithm (although I know they do that too -- and even those are pretty much on target).

My experience with facebook makes me one of the few people who have a positive view of being profiled by marketers. I get a lot of promotions for races and fitness stuff and travel, because that is my real life social circle. I click on them out of organic interest and that reinforces the behavior. Overall it's much better than the ads for over-40 dating and male enhancement pills that I used to get when all they knew about me was that I was an aging male.

I admit that it's a little freaky when I shop for something on Amazon and, within seconds, ads for similar products appear in facebook. Still I don't see the harm or what everyone is up in arms about. I am quite happy to have retailers battling for my eyeballs. I know there are fears of information about your habits freely floating around, but it's been quite remarkable how quickly the developed world has built in legal and technical safeguards to defend against this. Laws have been written such that any organization that gathers truly personal information would instantly become a criminal enterprise by using beyond it's explicitly intended purpose. The Europeans have GDPR now, and since everything is connected globally, it might as well be in place for the entire world. (That's why you suddenly got all those pop-ups asking you to accept security policies suddenly appear on your favorite sites recently).

Note: It's not the brave new technological world that puts your info at risk. Don't delude yourself that you ever had protection against criminals who wanted your info. It is vastly easier for me to steal your snail mail right out of your box, than to hack your bank's server.

Yes, I have some "friends" who reflexively share inane political memes, but they are easy to ignore and it's a small price. So, unlike most, I'm good with facebook. I especially love the local groups that serve the small community live in. They are peppered with people reporting lost and wandering dogs or farm animals, arguing about local road construction issues, engaging in nostalgia, or expressing joy at the fact that the local high school football team just won their first game in five years. I really think this may end up being facebook's highest purpose.

And that's where I draw the line at social media.
  • I don't understand what Instagram is that facebook isn't, other than photo oriented. I think if I understood it better I might join, but I would need a practical reason, not just for the sake of entertainment.
  • I have a Twitter account, although I have never tweeted. Have you ever seen Twitter. It is a cesspool. You know how a dog will pee on a fire hydrant, then another dog will come and pee on top of it, then another dog pees on top of that. That's Twitter.
  • I never understood Snapchat and I still don't. It strikes me as a platform for people to do lurid things then leave no trace. So, kind of like before there was social media. Hmmm, maybe that's it. Providing idiots the promise of the past world, where not every dumbass thing you did lived forever in some data center. Of course, it's a false promise with respect to Snapchat because people can screenshot anything.
The fears of the horrible effects of social media on the culture are, I think, very overblown. Yes, it is possible to fire up a witch hunt in short order, but it's also much easier to counter it with the truth. Yes, the attention span can shorten, but some of that is efficiency, is it not? If I spend less time on my interests it's not necessarily because I care less, I just get the info I need from glancing at my phone instead of rifling through documents.

Since I use it, it's no surprise that facebook has gained a reputation as a site for old folks. Young'uns like Instagram or Snapchat. (Actually most young people I know primarily use SMS more than social networks for communication which is also encouraging. It's not social it's personal.) But I strongly suspect all of these mediums will converge on a main feature set and become an oligopoly, maybe including WeChat from China. If social forces still keep them in check and we avoid giving the government too much power over them, at some point in the future we will end up with them so deeply interwoven into our culture that it will be hard to remember life without them.

Monday, August 06, 2018

The Month That Was - July 2018

It was a time of drought and scorched lawns. Biking was big -- I purchased a (used) mountain bike and began riding the trails and gravel roads in addition to my typical road cycling. I am shaky, but improving, on the trails. On the road, no century this year. Looks like the long ride will be 62 miles. Of course, I remain one of the five people in North america who follows the Tour de France every year -- see below.

But generally things are still good. My complaints, such as they are, aren't just First World complaints, they are upper middle class complaints. That's what I am; what sort of complaints were you expecting?

I notice that, not only haven't I been writing, I also haven't been reading. Over a month with no book going-on of any sort. That is worrisome.

Also, I find myself getting dizzy when I stand up. That is more worrisome.

Yes, everything is good.

[Tech] Phone Follies
[Travel] The Mitten Views The Fingers
[Sports] Tour de Familiar

[Tech] Phone Follies

My phone died. This statement ranks along with “I lost my wallet” and “My sump pump failed” for an indicator that you have a painful, and possibly expensive, few days ahead. So yes, just beyond warranty, my Google Fi sourced Nexus 5x failed. Unrecoverable even after chats with Google’s support team. That puts a man to a decision.

First did I want to continue with the Fi service? Answer: Not really. Fi has some good features, namely a low price that doesn’t really make you buy a set amount of data. You pay up front for a GB/month, then you are charged for over but also credited a certain amount if you don’t use it all. It also moves seamlessly from cell to wi-fi even for calls and texts. And, I am told, it has seamless transition across national boundaries so you don't have to worry about buy international minutes or extreme roaming charges.

But, for me, it’s use of either the Sprint or T-Mobile network based on signal strength was a problem. First, it didn't always switch between the two when it should. I bought a little app that could force it to switch and I often found that I would be sitting there with no bars and have to force a switch to the other service to get a signal. Worse, in a problem that is likely specific to me, I seem to spend my time in places with dicey signals on both those services. A road trip to Northern Michigan could leave me signaless for quite some time, interrupting streaming. And it turns out that at the building I work I would often arrive to no signal at all in the morning only to have it back up to four bars by the end of the work day. Not a big deal because I obviously had wifi there, but it was more evidence of flakiness.

The answer was to switch back to Verizon, it is really the only reliable signal in my circle of operation. The cool thing is you can go with their cheap virtual network Total Wireless. Virtuals use the same towers and have the same coverage as their parents so service is identical, unless the network gets overloaded and they need to de-prioritize signals, and you also lose your roaming agreements. That should be fine I reasoned and it looked like I could get 4 gig data pretty close to the price of Fi. That was when the comedy began.

My first plan is to buy an unlocked high-end Samsung Galaxy S -- mostly for the fabulous camera. I find the lowest price at Walmart and proceed to order one online to pick up after work. Once there I go to the pick-up kiosk, but they have no record of my order. I show them the print out -- they call the manager. Manager says sorry can’t find the order, I say fine, just cancel the online order and I’ll buy one from your current stock. “I can’t cancel that. You’ll have to do it on your phone.” “(deadpan) The phone I am trying to buy?” “Oh, then you’ll have to do it on the website.” Not willing to take the risk of getting double-charged for an expensive phone and having to sort that out, I leave phoneless, cancel the order on the website, and vow never to go back to Walmart.

Next day and I have changed my mind: I don’t need a high end phone, like I’m some kind of billionaire. I settle on a Moto G6 which is about a 1/4 of the price of the Samsung, but still miles ahead of my old Nexus 5x in capability. So now at Target, I pick up the phone and a $1 sim card (which even says “Verizon compatible” on it.) I am now ready to migrate my number to the new phone.

Bless Fi in that they make it very easy for anyone to leave them. You click a couple of buttons on a Google website and it passes you the information you need for your new carrier -- the key being an internal account number. That is, unless the carrier is Total Wireless. It turns out that whatever software Total Wireless uses doesn't know about Fi and doesn't recognize Fi account numbers. No amount of cajoling and sending documentation can convince them that the Fi account number was legitimate. They offer to activate the phone but under a new number. Unacceptable. Frustrated and angry I resign myself to signing up for some ridiculously expensive plan from Verizon proper.

This part actually works out well for me. Verizon is running a promotion where you get 6 GB of data for the price of 3. So for under $50/month I sign up for 6GB. That’s about $20 more than I was paying Fi, but in exchange I get a strong signal and I don’t have to worry about streaming or navigation pushing my data to an extra charge.

Feeling better, I work out all the details with the online rep. She lets me know I’ll be getting a sim in a couple of days. Cool, but could I speed up the process by just stopping by my local Verizon store and getting a sim on the way home? “Sure!” she says the way a salesman always says yes.

First I decide to try the Total Wireless sim I had from my previous attempt since it said “Verizon Compatible” on it. Narrator: It was not Verizon Compatible.

Second thing I do is go the Verizon store down the street and see if they’ll give me a sim. They cannot find a record of me despite the print out of the sales receipt I have from the online sale. They conclude that it’s because they are a franchisee or something, not an actual company store. So they give me directions to the nearest company store.

I drive to the company store where I talk to a confused rep who, with effort, understands what I am trying to accomplish but can’t fathom why I wouldn’t want to wait for the sim they sent. But he sells me sim for a $1 anyway, telling me he’s not confident it will work because of “where I am in the process”. At least he’s honest.

And he’s right, it doesn’t work. I have wasted a couple of days and experienced ongoing frustration by trying to do things as quickly as possible. I end up waiting for “the process” to complete.

In the end I got my sim a couple of days later and was able to get the phone set up. Google actually made that pretty easy. All the photos and contacts transferred transparently. It even tried to reinstall my apps, but for some reason it installed the apps that were on my beat up old tablet not my previous phone, so I had a little work to do there.

Still, the whole fiasco was instructive. It is very easy to see how Amazon is crushing retailers, even those as big as Walmart. The only reason to go brick-and-mortar is because you need a human to make an allowance for what you want. You need an exception that requires special judgement or knowledge. If you are content to follow a process, the human just becomes a button pusher and Amazon’s robots can push buttons a lot better and faster. Literally everyone I encountered in retails stores during this comedy couldn’t step outside the process. Walmart couldn’t cancel and order they lost and found themselves out of my phone purchase. Total Wireless reps had no ability to handle a new situation that their system didn’t support. Verizon can’t fathom that someone might want to stop at one of the multiple Verizon stores they pass on the way home to pick up a sim (and save them the shipping), rather than wait a couple of days for snail mail. If all your brick-and-mortar investment produces is a pack of button pushers, Amazon’s robots will destroy you. They are going to continue to eat your lunch, wear your clothes, and steal your girlfriend.

Naturally, a week later, during Prime Day, the next model up Moto phone was on sale for what I paid for mine. Amazon giveth and Amazon taketh away.

[Travel] The Mitten Views the Fingers

I kept referring to the Finger Lakes region as Upstate until I was told it was absolutely not Upstate. To me anything west of the Hudson was Upstate, but I gather Upstate proper is toward the Adirondacks, or at least something north from Albany. The Finger Lakes is the Finger Lakes.

My impression of the Finger Lakes region of New York is that it is very similar to what we in Michigan call Up North. It's as green as green can be. Two lane roads wind among the lakes taking you from small town to small town. Most recreation involves lake activities of some sort, if even just a picnic in a lakeside park. Roadside stands and farmers markets offer local edibles. Deer scurry about, giving drivers heart attacks. There are festivals every weekend for any excuse you can find. Bicyclists troll the highways and trails. Village cafes and antique shops are humming. Brewery and winery (and increasingly, distillery) tours are overbooked. It's all just a way to value our beautiful summers which always seem so fleeting. I guess you'd call it Lake Culture.

New York is, however, a good deal more hilly. Using Ithaca as a base of operations, this becomes clear. Wandering Ithaca will build up your quads. Many sidewalk stretches are a steep as a mountain trail out west.

Ithaca is a college town, so as a veteran of Ann Arbor life it was very familiar to me. Surrounding the university -- or universities in this case: Cornell and Ithaca College -- there is the standard region of run down houses that have been converted into multi-unit rentals. Step further out and you get the upper middle class housing of the admins and professors and such. If you're at the real high-end you are on a lake or a river. More than one resident said the typical story is that someone comes to Cornell for school and just stays in town -- I know that story well.

Another thing Ithaca and Ann Arbor have in common is parks and general greenery. I think folks from standard big city suburbs would be surprised at how thickly treed and lushly verdant these places are. And then there is the predominance of parks -- city park, county parks, state parks -- usually situated around rivers of lakes. Maybe Park Culture would be a better euphemism.

But whereas Ann Arbor's geography provides nothing more than rolling hills, Ithaca is borderline mountainous with lovely deep gorges for scenery -- hence their tagline: Ithaca is Gorges. The result is that you get all the recreational capabilities of my home base, but also waterfalls. Ithaca Falls, right in town, is postcard perfect. The lakes are peppered with state parks, several of them have waterfalls (overview), a couple of them even swimmable -- not the falls themselves but the pools at the bottom. The main swimmable one is at Robert Treman State Park. On a hot Saturday it is as crowded as any public beach, but a good deal more scenic. The water is cold but refreshing. Congrats to the NY State Park system for rolling with the desire to swim, rather than ban any activity in the service of preserving nature. They even have a diving board set up. This is actually a big plus over my home, which I don't really have a counter for.

Although most of the falls are situated in close proximity to parking, there are also hikes you can take through the parks -- mostly short, a mile or so, but very steep and usually offering good views. The paths are paved or at least hard packed -- I was able to do them in sandals.

There are also wineries nearby. Dozens of them. This is a big grape growing region and wine tours are the order of the day. Again comparing: we have a number of wineries in Michigan, mostly Up North, but I don't think they quite have the reputation of the NYS wines. (Michigan is stronger in breweries.) Michigan wineries occasionally have B&Bs attached to them so you can actually stay at the winery, whereas I saw no such thing in NY. The wineries range from quite lovely with great views to a dark room with plastic tables. If you are so inclined I highly recommend doing this as part of packaged tour rather than trolling them on your own. You'll get better service and more swag, but more importantly, you won't have to drive. Honestly, after tastings at three wineries and you're a DUI waiting to happen. And a sloshed tour group can be good entertainment in itself.

Ithaca and Watkins Glen are the key towns in the area, situated at the bottom tip of lakes Cayuga and Seneca, respectively. Ithaca is a little more cosmopolitan because of the universities -- more dining options and so forth -- Watkins Glen a little more homey. Another, smaller town that has gained a bit of notoriety is Skaneateles -- which in the tongue of the locals comes out sounding like "Skinny-Atlas." It is situated at the top end of Lake Skaneateles and is famous because that is where the Clintons settled when Hillary decided she was going to make New York her home state for her senate run.

It's not surprising. Skaneateles is the Kennebunkport or Martha's Vineyard of New York. Unmistakably wealthy, yet conspicuously understated and self-consciously folksy. The short main street is loaded with homespun boutiques and antique shops. There are a couple of nice restaurants where you no doubt can get a carefully prepared entree (possibly deconstructed comfort food, or something with avocado) and a glass of wine from a fashionable winery. Then there is a Doug's Fish Fry which serves as the stylishly kitsch, street-food eatery that "everybody goes to."

I'm being snide towards the hipster elite vibe of Skaneateles, but I would live there. It's lovely, and well taken care of. There are lake activities, including little cruise boats that run tours. I bet the infrastructure is second to none. Like I said, it's essentially a high-end New England preppy town transplanted to mid-NY, which is a very nice thing. It's crowded, though. On the weekends everyone in the area comes into town to stroll and shop. Who can blame them?

Lastly, I have to offer a strong recommendation for Inn on Columbia in Ithaca. A non-traditional B&B, there are a couple of separate residences filled with interesting design and decor. The owners collect old cars and motorcycles which are sprinkled about the property. But the real plus is breakfast. Everything fresh made. Some of the best egg dishes I have ever had. It is in (hilly) walking distance to everything of interest in Ithaca. Couple all that with the most genial hosts imaginable and it's a real winner.

Needless to say I like the Finger Lakes region. It is best done with a car and a skeleton plan for exploration, then let the chips fall. It is supports a lifestyle familiar to me, but with enough variation to make it interesting. If it was half of the nine hour drive to get there I'd probably spend a lot of time in the Finger Lakes. As it stands for me, Up North is closer and the lakes are Greater. If you aren't from a similar area, it's a good place to experience Lake Culture or Park Culture or a place where summers are a gift that doesn't last. You may become a regular.

[Sports] Tour de Familiar

Poor Chris Froome. Nobody likes him. A four time champ and the chief guy on the strongest team, he was the overdog to begin with. He was brushed by scandal, and I do mean brushed. He tested high for an asthma medication which he has been prescribed (he does have asthma), so it's not like he was mainlining EPO. But still, in an age when riders target the TdF by skipping the major races earlier in the season so as not to wear themselves out, with his eligibility uncertain he took on the big early-season race, the Giro d'Italia (the Italian tour), and won it, wearing himself out in the process. Only then he was cleared of the charges and lined up with his team for the TdF, amidst the sancitmonious boos of the crowd. His fatigue showed. Although he was in the hunt most of the way, and finished third, a couple of deadly mountain stages made it clear he was not where he needed to be. Much speculation was that he was mentally exhausted from his fight against the ban, but in reality it was more likely physical. I have once in my life ridden 100 miles at half the pace these guys do, and it took me a few days to recover. These guys do it at twice my pace day after day. Granted they are about half my weight and less than half my age but, with all due respect to ultra-marathoners, channel swimmers, ironman triathletes, and such, the 21-days-with-only-two-rest-days aspect of this race makes these guys the most amazing endurance athletes on the planet.

Of course, in what is a clear commentary on one of the problems with the Tour, with Froome not able to win, his team, Team Sky, simply trotted out the next guy in line and won handily with him instead -- that would be Geraint Thomas. Team Sky has all the money. Their stable of riders is so deep that -- in one of the worst cases of bad timing -- last year's second banana Mikel Landa left rather than be second banana again so Team Sky just went to the next guy in line and never lost a step leaving Landa and his new team in the dust. In fact, the Team Sky's second banana from two years ago, Richie Porte, also left to be a first banana on a new team and was a favorite until he crashed out.

Predictability in sports is a problem. If you can predict the outcome with high probability it lessens the fan experience and discourages viewing. Sponsors don't like that. It's unclear how to resolve this problem other than to hope one year, one of these second bananas that strikes out on his own, comes through.

Another thing is the PED scandals still loom large over this sport. Froome got booed despite being cleared. Then, there is the highest of the high profile culprits, Lance Armstrong, still floating around the periphery. He's now doing a podcast where he often discusses cycling. He is working really had to rehabilitate his persona. To his credit, he doesn't dodge blame anymore. He seems to have accepted his guilt and that it will follow him forever. I don't know if it's good or bad that he's still around the sport, whether he is helping put the scandals in context or he is just reminding everyone of sad situation. I do know that watching Geraint Thomas win handily, with enough juice at the end to handily crush any challenge from other riders, the first thought that went through my head was, "Are there Vegas odds on him getting busted for EPO?"

The TV coverage needs a lot of work. The announcers are OK -- a couple of them get confused about things or say silly stuff, but they have enough personality to keep things lively. But you often get haphazard camera work, since it's all done from vehicles trying to maneuver through the crowd of cyclists without interfering with the race. An enlightened coverage package would plant forward and rear facing cameras on all the bikes with live streaming -- this is not remotely beyond the technical expertise of a production crew. If they were really smart, they'd have drone coverage too.

Still, the Tour is beautiful. The French countryside is amazing. And even if the big prize is foreordained, there are the other competitions, the sprints, the mountains, the stage victories, to keep things interesting. Also, for me, the attraction is that I can relate to everything that happens. I can see who making what choice as to heavy or light gear. I know how much easier it is to draft. I know what it's like to climb past the point of pain. And I know what it's like to crack. In my own small way, of course. I suppose that's part of the attraction for me -- I can go out and do a 40 mile ride on a Saturday, them catch up with the prime time replay in the evening, feeling a distant kinship.

A distant kinship to a 23-year-old, 135-lb Belgian in spandex. Very distant.

Monday, July 09, 2018

The Month That Was - June 2018

Stupid. I do stupid thoughtless things all the time but this month was wall-to-wall screw ups. Honestly, from simple things like forgetting appointments and meetings, to screwing up bike maintenance through thoughtlessness, to buying things I already have, I really feel like I took a big step toward senescence. I guess we'll see whether it's an anomalous stretch of time or the the new normal.

And, as is often the case, I don't know where the month went or how I what I did during it. But that's a pretty typical state of affairs for me.

[TV] Toob Notes
[Travel] Galveston, Oh Galveston
[Rant] Not a Good Fit

[TV] Toob Notes

Luke Cage, the second season of the bulletproof brutha from Marvel's TVs universe dropped as a full season on Netflix. Like everyone else who watched it, I thought it was half-again too long and full of too much talky exposition. (It would seem like both problems have the same solution.) Dramatically it lacked cohesiveness and the tone was haphazard. Early on it was all about hostile, destructive, and greedy people pursuing power and justifying their actions by referencing past grievances or difficult childhoods or both. And racism. Yawn. Worse, the action sequences were sporadic and weren't particularly well done. So why don't I think Luke Cage sucks?

Well, as with the first season, the soundtrack is exceptional. There were many points where I wanted to hit the web and search for artists. Second, it was somewhat redeemed by the acting. The inane and irrational dialogue was often redeemed by a good reading (the late Reg Cathey in particular). Third, although the action was too rare and too lame, some of the cinematography and set design in the quieter moments was fascinating. Lastly, and most interestingly, the final episode setup a situation where a real, complicated, and philosophical theme could be explored. When the criminal boss of Harlem was eliminated things didn't get better, in the vacuum they got worse and more violent. Cage is now set up as the guy who, operating outside the law, will keep the peace -- the benevolent dictator. He's convinced he can handle his new power without becoming falling into corruption himself. This is stuff of potentially Greek-level human tragedy. The Godfather theme is intentional and unmistakable. Will the writers nail it the third season? Will they shirk the histrionic melodrama and crank out a story for the ages? I have seen no evidence they are up to the task, but I hope so.

Brockmire, also has axes to grind, but his are more personal. The comedic moments are ace as functional alcoholic Brockmire self-destructs over and over again in assorted absurd ways. Hank Azaria is wonderful and his devotion to Brockmire as his pride and joy shines through. This season, his sidekick Charles (Tyrel WIlliams) shines especially bright. But the sparkle of the first season is gone. Brockmire's professional prospects are whipsawed back and forth as way to send him into a spiral. His connections with others are used as props to emphasize his dysfunction rather than as fully realized relationships. It feels more manufactured.

Still, there are plenty of guffaws to see it through. And in the final episode they have taken a huge chance of getting Brockmire clean and sober. Not sure how it affects their prospects going forward, but I suppose we'll find out.

[Travel] Galveston, Oh Galveston

From what I gather, at the tail end of the 19th century Galveston was primed to become one of the great beachside communities in the country, filled with straw hat resorts and high-end real estate. It has a nice broad beach and all the sun you could ask for. There were some high sand dunes but at no small expense they managed to remove them for even easier beach access. It was, after all, one of the wealthiest places in the nation, so why not. Of course, this backfired when the hurricane arrived in 1900.

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was the greatest natural disaster in American history. The storm surge submerged the entire island under 6 feet of water. Wikipedia:
The dead bodies were so numerous that burying all of them was impossible. The dead were initially weighted down on barges and dumped at sea, but when the gulf currents washed many of the bodies back onto the beach, a new solution was needed. Funeral pyres were set up on the beaches, or wherever dead bodies were found, and burned day and night for several weeks after the storm.
Galveston never really recovered. Development in the area shifted inland to a little town called Houston. In fact, by the 1920s a channel was dredged thirty miles inland for ocean going ships to bypass Galveston and dock right outside Houston. That was that for Galveston as a big time economic center.

Over the last century Galveston has clawed its way back to viability. They built a big old seawall that offers them some protection against all but the worst hurricanes. Unfortunately, Harvey in 2017 was just that -- one of the worst. Once again Galveston was pretty much submerged, but this time, less than a year later, everything is pretty much back to normal. Hurricanes loom large in the Galvestonian culture. You see "high water marks" on many of the buildings and most new houses are built on stilts.

Galveston today is effectively the Jersey Shore for all of the explosively growing Houston/Austin corridor. It is bigger than a beach town, but not really a full-on coastal city in that its only real industry is visitors. It is an intriguing mix of hipster resorts, prole-ish amusements, history, and to some extent, natural beauty.

There is a main tourist area which harbors all the hotels, everything from high-end resorts to dive motels. I can recommend the Hotel Galvez -- it has likely the only place on the island that approaches fine dining, including an astonishing Sunday brunch, and it has a lovely salt water pool. Most of the properties in this area are across the street, or within a block, from the seawall. On the other side of the seawall is, of course, the beach. The seawall walk is active, lots of pedestrians and cyclists. The beach itself is very broad and the sand, while not the powder fine variety you get across the gulf, is decent. The water is swimmable, but quite brown; it is after all effectively the runoff from the Mississippi river before the Gulf Stream have a chance to filter it.

The centerpiece of the Seawall is Pleasure Pier -- an amusement park full of rides, that sits on a pier well out over the water. It's a striking, Coney Island-ish image, especially when lit up at night. There are of course restaurants and bars peppered all along the way, mostly the sort where certain types of people go to power drink and behave obnoxiously well into the night.

Inland, there are also some points of interest. Moody Gardens is park of sorts with an aquarium, botanical gardens, Imax, and a sort of extreme playground with zip lines and rope courses. There is a major waterpark nearby. In the older section of town there are historic houses you can tour. And then there is a downtown area called The Strand, which is a Key West-like wander-and-drink destination.

All things considered, Galveston should probably have a more prominent reputation than it does. I suspect what's holding it back is a lack of popular mythology -- say, a prominence in film or literature. It's also kind of trying to be everything to everybody, from a genteel resort and spa destination, to a family friendly fun spot, to a redneck Asbury Park.

More surprising to me is the slow pace of development. There seems to be an enormous amount of space just waiting for vacation homes or retail centers to be built. And the existing buildings all seem...vintage 1962. In contrast I think of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where there seems to be nary a square foot without a recently-built, multi-bedroom vacation rental.

I'd like to spend more time in Galveston and get to know it better (I only had a short weekend). That said, for me the flight to Houston and the flight to Florida are roughly equivalent and, other things equal, I'll take the Florida Gulf every time. Still, if the opportunity presents itself, I'd look forward to another visit. Galveston brings a solid beach town game.

[Rant] Not a Good Fit

I am a contrary SOB. Not impolitiely so, but I instinctively adopt, or at least consider, a contrary position in most situations.  I do not know whether this is learned or innate behavior, but it is strong in me.  Few things are more gratifying to me than pulling against the crowd only to be found later to be correct.  I am reminded of Bill James, the founder of baseball sabermetrics.  When his statistical based theories finally went mainstream after decades of ridicule, he said (paraphrasing), "It's a great feeling being proven right when everyone said you were wrong.  I hope to have that feeling again someday."

Although being right when the world is wrong is a great pleasure, there is a lesser but very real sense of gratification in being an outsider in and of itself.  But, as addressed in this insgihtful essay by Steve Lagerfeld, there are more shades of gray here. He observes that outgroups from MAGAs to Resisters, from Deniers to Greens, from Deadheads to Goths, all cherish there countercultural status.  I would add that even the most dominant cultural force of our era, progressivism (small p), still positions itself as an outside force struggling against some mainstream strawman.  Yet:
There is not much that is truly contrarian in any of this. Real contrarians don't run in crowds....A contrarian is by definition someone with a singular idea who stands against the crowd. He or she takes a risk....For the most part in the West today, their risk is social: They risk the disapproval of the crowd-of their friends, family, colleagues, community, and society. They might simply face unspoken disapproval, or they might be shunned and ostracized or burned at the stake of Twitter. Some face criticism and censure or social or professional excommunication. They risk their status and prestige. Some risk losing their jobs.
Risk is the metric by which contrarians are measured. The greater the risk, the more contrarian they are. Another way of saying this is that it takes courage to be a contrarian. They are a rare but widely dispersed breed. There are intellectual contrarians, such as Christopher Hitchens and Camille Paglia, as well as artistic, scientific, and political ones. Entrepreneurs, from Elon Musk to the most obscure startup boss, are contrarians because they pursue singular ideas, as are some investors, although the risks they face are less social than financial. Whistleblowers are contrarians, as are countless unknown others who fight against the odds in bureaucracies and other settings.
I find this interesting both intellectually and personally. 

I have written before about coalitional instinct -- the urge to form groups for power and protection. This is a primal drive in humans and we get a nice hit of dopamine when we join, form, or even just show support for our coalitions.  One of the best ways to demonstrate support for your coalition is to show allegiance even when there is a cost.  Costly support is a strong signal of loyalty so the dopamine flows.  For a group that is positioned as outside or in opposition to the mainstream there is the risk of social sanction against its members thus a high cost of showing support.  This explains why almost every group with an agenda positions itself as outsiders fighting the mainstream, it makes for more powerful shows of loyalty and more cleanly differentiates those who can be trusted from those who are less committed. There is no such thing as a non-conformist coalition. 

But what of the true contrarians?  This passage could come directly from my biography:
The contrarian's great temptation is moral vanity, and what a sweet one it is. I am contrarian by birth and temperament and not a joiner.... For some of us, there is nothing like the joy of being a pariah. There is no better place to be than on the wrong side, scorned, hated, and despised by people about whom you have exactly the same feelings. I'm right and they're wrong. Their scorn is an intoxicating indicator of my own rightness and moral superiority. The sensation is physical, like what I imagine people get from extreme sports. But it's a pleasure I strive mightily to deny myself. Over the years, I've learned that its costs are high, and that I'm not as smart as I think I am. Even when I'm right, my impulses can lead to bad things. I've gone from thinking of my instinctive desire to be a minority of one as a distinguishing trait to thinking of it as something more like Asperger's syndrome-a disability that can in rare circumstances be an advantage.
This could pretty much describe my personal development over the past 20 years.  What is mechanism that creates this urge in me?  Absent coalitional instinct, what is evolutionary source of my own Dopamine hit for being a true contrarian?  I'm sure it exists.  It is probably tied in with introversion in some respect.  I just don't have an idea of what it is.  Or is it a disability as he suggests; a negative trait that is only survivable thanks to the tolerance of civilization. Is it one of those traits that has a value to the species, provided it surfaces only in a small minority?

When we celebrate rebels we are not really celebrating rebels.  We are celebrating groups that we admire and positioning them as rebels to make our celebrations more valuable.  We rarely celebrate real contrarians, nor should we.  If we did we would rob them of their contrarianism.  True contrarianism is not something to aspire to.  I can verify that even if you are not in the public eye and you can hide your instincts well enough (I'm really good at it), it is not worth it unless you have an honest compulsion towards pariah-hood.  You will end up missing out on some very key experiences of humanity if you can't keep your contrary instincts in check.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

The Month That Was - May 2018

It requires a small army of people to keep up the maintenance on my house, and my yard in particular. Lawn mowing, lawn spraying, tree spraying, gardening, bug spraying; all are needed constantly. Driveway recoating and septic pumping are needed every few years. Then there are the one-time items -- house painting, window replacements, well replacement. Ugh. Home ownership has been quite an adventure. A friend of mine once told me that owning a home is when you first start thinking of expenses in terms of thousands. At least. A fair amount of home drama this month; my adventure in mowing is described below.

Regular readers know I take every opportunity I can to run races on Mackinac Island. They used to have three every year up there, but they just added a fourth so naturally I travelled up there for the inaugural running. Also, below.

I had a minor breakthrough in writing, well, not writing so much as outlining, but I did get core plot finally sorted out on my current project. That is to say, I know where I want to go and how to get there. Now it's just work. Maybe I'll actually finish this before I'm dead.

[Books, Rant] Tom Wolfe, RIP
[Books] Tigers, Burning Bright
[Dexter, House and Home] Home Sweet Home
[Travel, Health and Fitness] Running the Island

[Books, Rant] Tom Wolfe, RIP

I once spent a summer reading everything he wrote (this was prior to his turn to fiction). He was not just one the most astute observers of the 20th century, he was also a great explainer and dramatic license was his tool of choice. Like many young adults, I was inundated in the binary -- the tribal conflicts of the moment -- Tom Wolfe showed me they were merely symptoms of something deeper in human nature, simultaneously less important but more troubling. If you've been following any of the commentary upon his death, you can see I am not alone in being greatly influenced by him.

He worked both a lesser and greater theme. The lesser one was subcultures. His early work marked the "discovery" of subcultures, from cars to hippies to the Manhattan art world. What followed from that was the larger theme: status. With ideas from sociologist Max Weber he saw human interaction as, after life-or-death necessities, a striving for status. Looking at his subcultures he saw how the people within jockeyed to impress others and increase their perceived value through their words and deeds. It jibed not only with his reading of Weber, but also his personal experience in academia.

From this realization, casting his eye about the world he found endless fodder. Everywhere he looked he saw straight through the elevated and the pompous to see their narcissistic motives. Moreover, he described it all in lacerating prose that, to my ear, cut as sharply as Waugh or Trollope. Needless to say, this did not endear him to those he skewered. (Interestingly, one of the things he never got around to skewering was politicians. As a result folks in political circles often commented highly on him since he was always pointing and laughing at other people.)

We now have something that we haphazardly refer to as the Rationalist Community or the Intellectual Dark Web. You can get a taste for it by visiting sites such as Slate Star Codex and Overcoming Bias
, where a good deal of time is devoted to understanding the source of our behavior beyond the surface explanations. Robin Hanson, of Overcoming Bias, recently co-authored a book entitled Elephant in the Brain, devoted to understanding the "real" motivations behind our behavior (it's on my reading list). I can see a pretty straight line from Wolfe to Hanson and many others of the same stripe, suggesting to me that as much has he has been acknowledged as an influence, he is probably still underrated.
His fiction sold well, and is quite infamous, but I would start with his earlier work. General consensus is that The Right Stuff is the pinnacle, but Wolfe himself said his favorite was Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. He said wouldn't change a word of it, so I would start there. In it, Wolfe made savage fun of the smug, oh-so-elite guests at Leonard Bernstein's party who, safe and wealthy on the Upper West Side, had adopted the loathsome Black Panthers as a cause du jour to demonstrate to the world their noble and progressive minds. Wolfe used them to turn his eye on how cultural elites were now using political extremists and screeching protesters, often violent, as status symbols. Hyperventilation ensued among the chattering classes. As cutting and foresightful as Wolfe was, it seems satire is not the deadly weapon it is made out to be. If you don't see the relevance to today's world you may be a lost cause. Now, you'll find the a lite version of the same behavior everywhere, from the boardrooms of multinationals to the PTO at your elementary school they find ways to link with fashionable sanctimony and victimhood through noble statements and activities. In some venues you will be punished for not displaying it such solidarity.

It tempting to say we need a new Tom Wolfe but like all phenomena, he was of his times. We no longer have time for satire and longer than a tweet or a snippet of newsertainment snark, or worse, a meme. Like Twain and Mencken before him, he used his gimlet eye to cast a light on humanity, and in his way, aided us in holding this cynical, subtextual world to some sort of standard of rationality. We were better for having him.

[Books] Tigers, Burning Bright

Suddenly I found myself reading about man-eating tigers. In my wanderings on the web I will occasionally encounter a conversation where multiple people chime in on the excellence of a certain book, often one I have never heard of. I will then immediately hit Amazon and read up on it. If it looks promising I usually add it to my wish list. When in need or reading, I'll revisit that list for ideas. (I should publish the list. It is remarkably eclectic.) Sometimes these finds don't pan out; I will forever be stunned at how many bad or pointless books get rave reviews. That was not the case at all with The Tiger, by John Valliant.

I did not realize there were any such things as Siberian Tigers left in the world. In fact, if you had told me they had not existed since the days of cavemen, I would not have doubted you. But there are. While not flourishing, they are not uncommon in the remote areas of Siberia, near the Manchurian border, and a reality of daily life in the hand-to-mouth villages that exist in their midst.

Valliant documents the story of one which had taken to not just opportunistically eating the local denizens, but seemingly stalking specific individuals out of malice and vengeance. A much-liked local, who often tested the poaching laws seems to have had an encounter with a tiger which appears to have angered the tiger to the point of stalking and killing him while passing up easier human prey. Of course, opinions vary as to whether the man brought on his own destruction or not, but in any case it is up to the local enforcers of environmental policy to deal with the situation. There is another kill, again with questions about cause and effect. In a dramatic finale, the environmental cops track and kill the tiger, but not without the tiger getting in a good lick or two.

It is within that skeleton of an outline that the magic happens. Valliant scores with this narrative on multiple levels. He nails the local flavor, highlighting the hard life of the people in this remote wilderness, who live and die with the land and for whom hunting is a matter of life and death. He nails the cultural conflicts of the desire of conservationist and the wildlife protection laws versus the poverty stricken who can make year's worth of income by poaching one tiger and selling it to the Chinese. He nails the politics and how perestroika effectively killed the mining in this region and the dismissiveness and contempt of the people towards a corrupt government half a world away. He nails the history with compelling profile of the early explorers and the sorts of circumstances that would cause people to settle in such a remote and terrible (though beautiful) land. He nails the psychology of man versus tiger by not just describing the terror of living amidst and man-eater, but also getting deep inside the tiger's head and it motivations. (It's worth noting that, although man, should he choose to, could easily wipe out tigers now, over the epochs back into prehistory, tigers have an insurmountable lead in the kill count.) He nails the tension of the hunt, the palpable fear of knowing the man-eater amy be lurking behind any bush or in any shadow and the incredible speed of their attack; less than five seconds can determine life or death. Lastly, he nails the aftermath, often tragic, of the people touched by the man-eater.

Should you read The Tiger? Yes, absolutely. It is riveting start to finish.

But that put me on a man-eating tiger kick, and it seems the classic of the genre is Man-eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett. Corbett was a legendary hunter operating in India betweens the wars. (Does it make sense to say "between the wars" anymore? For you young'ns, that's between WWI and WWII, or the 1920s and 1930s.) At this time in the remote areas of India, tigers were responsible for hundreds, if not thousands of human kills every year. Corbett was often called in to deal with beasts that had killed dozens of people.

Corbett himself, was one of those old school, understated, fearless subjects of the Crown that now exist only in stories found in used book stores. As a point of honor, he considered himself a sportsman and apparently an amatuer, taking pains to differentiate himself from a "reward hunter," saying he would prefer to be shot rather than hunt for reward. He wonders whether sitting up in wait for a tiger to return to a partially eaten kill is "cricket", i.e. unfair to the tiger. He regularly marches in to the jungle alone, effectively making himself bait. He sleeps in trees to the point of mastering the art -- in fact, killed a man-eater who attacked him after he had been sitting in a tree for over 15 hours waiting (I have trouble sitting still if a meeting runs longer than an hour). He lead a party to pursue a wounded bear, and after running out of ammo, killed it with rocks and an axe.

As riveting and compelling as Valliant's story was of the man-eating tiger in Siberia, such an escapade would have merited only a shrug and a footnote from Corbett. Dude was on another level. So much so that often his tales beggar belief. He writes of how he has developed instinct and intuition and occasionally "just knows" a tiger is lurking behind a certain rock. It sounds like witchcraft but the sincerity and authenticity of his voice makes you believe it. One assumes this intuition is nothing but reaction to stimulus such as scent or sound that is perceived subconsciously, thus it is perfectly possible. I mean, if anyone had hunting skills that transcend to objective and observable it would be Corbett. His understanding and application of tracking and hunting methods is masterly.

Should you read Man-eaters of Kuamong? If you ever want an example of totally unaffected prose, Corbett is your man. He puts on no airs and, apart from the understatement one expects from old, British adventurers, everything is face value. Stories are related in a straightforward way, without ornamentation or high-minded digressions. Corbett is truly authentic. That said, contemporary audiences will probably be looking for more bombast or for something to relate to great social themes or virtue signalling. You will find none of that. To me, that's a blessing.

Later in life, Corbett, who even in the course of his hunting years was often accused of preferring to photograph wildlife rather than shoot it, became a strong advocate of the preservation and protection of tigers. Valliant, for his part, after examining the terror a man-eater can inflict, took time to write an epilogue that is a strident plea for tiger conservation and the man tasked with killing the man-eater in his book expressed similar sentiments. I would guess that is probably the case more often than not: Surviving a deadly encounter with such a predator inclines one to want to preserve it. The psychology and science of that reaction are worth an essay in itself. Homo Sapiens has been relating stores of man-eaters for all of our existence. It seems even though we could end that, we don't really want to.

[Dexter, House and Home] Home Sweet Home

The latest drama was when my lawn mowing service (really just one guy) just decided to quit. No warning. No return of calls. He just ghosted me for some reason. After a week of this I finally realized the guy was not just behind schedule, he was not going to show. I thought about trying to fire up the old mower and do it myself like the old days, but my mower hadn't been started in three or four years and it was 50-50 whether it would start at all, and if it did it was 50-50 whether the engine would explode.

It has been a wet spring and the grass was growing half-and-inch a day. Many parts of the yard had reached 6 to 8 inches and I was expecting a harshly worded letter from the Homeowners Association any day. I posted a desperate plea to the local facebook group and managed to find a fellow who was trying to kickstart a lawn service in tandem with his 13-year-old son who was willing to come out on short notice, that very evening in fact. Of course, before he got there the rains hit hard, so it was put off a couple more days, but at least I'm not living in a jungle anymore.

It's interesting to note that previously I had contracted some work with a local firm that was run by a particularly entrepreneurial high school student who had built up one of the top local landscaping firms while he was still in high school. Apparently this kid intends to be the next in line.

Dexter is an excellent place for this sort of thing. There are plenty of big old exurban lots that need yard work and it's fairly wealthy these days so you can set a decent price and expect to get paid, which is a big concern when you are shoe-stringing a business. (You might be surprised at how often folks will arrange to have a small business do work and then simply not pay them, knowing that in a practical sense there is little recourse.) Dexter is also really focused on the local kids. The public schools are among the elite. Not only are they well funded, but there is a foundation that solicits donations to supplement their funding with private grant money (lately focussed on robotics, it seems). So there are quite a number of folks who will pick the local kid over a professional service on principle.

Really, if you were to picture a perfect example of the good, affluent, suburban life, you would probably picture Dexter. To read the police blotter is almost comical: a tool was stolen from an unlocked shed, a mailbox got knocked down, a bike was stolen. The worst things are DUIs, usually by barbarians from Ann Arbor, or an occasional domestic violence incident from one of the few remaining tiny pockets of lower income.

The various local social media (Facebook, NextDoor, etc.) are delightful, filled with announcements of local events and people reminiscing, "Why yes, I remember so and so, I used to live two doors down from them...", missing dogs found, chickens or cows that have gotten loose. On the latter, Dexter still has a sizeable rural component to it.

The intertwined issues of traffic and growth are the biggest complaints. Gentrification continues although sentiment to put the clamps on growth is waxing. A couple of new condo developments right in the heart of the village were controversial, but there is no arguing with their desirability; planned to sell at 400K they have been offer in excess of 600K before they are even built. As a homeowner, I am deeply prejudiced towards my property value increasing like that, thus my incentive is to fight these insurgent savages and their evil developments and keep housing supply limited.

The list of benefits is long -- outdoor activities abound on the trails and lakes nearby. Ann Arbor is 15 minutes away, itself often rated one of the best places to live in the nation. One hopes Dexter can stay just like it is forever, but nothing does. Disruption might come from hard times. It might come from a complete loss of rural hospitality and turn into one of those places where you can't live without a net worth of $10 million and everyone sues each other and all the kids are on oxy. Trouble, as they say, always comes around.

For now I'm just going to be happy to live in a place where if I'm in a tough situation, some 13-year-old kid and his dad will step up. Kudos to the is kid for getting (as Nassim Taleb would put it) skin in the game early in life. And kudos to those who created the environment where the kid can do it.

[Travel, Health and Fitness] Running the Island

I have previously gone into detail about how much I like Mackinac Island, so I won't go on about it at length. It is a delightful combination of family-friendliness, romance, history, and bars. If you're new here, just google it for the details. What is also has is some very cool races. (If you're not a runner, you can skip the rest of this post.) There are four races a year, all worth running. The official site to visit is Run Mackinac, but let me give you my overview. The races are always on a Saturday and they ascend in distance (and attendance) over the season starting with:
  • Fort-to-Fort 5-Mile Challenge -- The inaugural race occurred just this year. I think it's planned for the second Saturday in May, which is roughly when the island opens its season. The race starts inside Fort Mackinac, one of the island top attractions and winds through the interior of the island circling a second, smaller fort, Fort Holmes, then back to the start. You start from inside the fort to a musket salute (or maybe a cannon) then the route runs along beautiful wooded paved streets. It is very hilly. Not much flat at all, you are either climbing or descending pretty much the whole time.

    This is a good time to be on the island. All the shops and restaurants are just opening for the season and it is relatively uncrowded. Key word: relatively. But be advised, it is not summer, just barely spring, and you are in the north woods. You could be facing quite cold temps. Check the weather ahead of time and bring the right gear. Early in the season also means probably it's your best shot at a reasonably priced room on the Island.
  • The Lilac 10k -- This is scheduled shortly after Memorial Day during the Lilac festival. (There are lots of Lilac bushes on the Island.) This race starts at the west end of "town" and heads east on a flat stretch on the main road then turns inland climbing a very steep road to the highest point on the island. The steepness should not be understated. The first quarter mile after you make the turn has most people walking. It continues to be uphill, though less steep for another mile or so. When you reach the water station you know you are at the top. Your reward for making it up is a long lovely downhill stretch, bisecting the island N/S such that you come out to the shores of Lake Huron almost directly across the island from where you started, you are now about half way. From there it's a flat half-circumnavigation counterclockwise on the shore road to the finish, about 500 yards from starting line.

    The race itself is most notable for the uphill struggle and downhill reward. Barring strange weather patterns, this is usually in the heart of spring and the Island will be at its most lovely. The flowers on Mackinac Island are legendary. Weather should be good, but note: tourist season is in full swing at this point. Rooms will be dear, especially if you don't plan ahead.
  • The Eight Mile Run -- This race is always the Saturday after Labor Day. It is an eight-mile circumnavigation of the Island along the shore road. You will run the entire length of M-185, clockwise, with Lake Huron on your left the whole time. You start at Mission Point, the big resort just east of town and run the circle from there. Simple. You'll pass through town, have terrific views of the Mackinac Bridge as you turn to run up the west side. Best of all, it is blissfully flat for the entire distance (well, there may be a brief undulation here or there but nothing to concern yourself with).

    I love this race and I run it every year. I think this upcoming one may be my 10th. To me, it is about the perfect distance. Once you are comfortable with a 10k (6.2 miles) your next step up in distance is a Half Marathon (13.1 miles). I have never gotten to the point where a Half is not a struggle, and I've done quite a number of them. Usually around mile 9 or 10 I'm thinking, "this race is too long", and it becomes a question of pain endurance rather than fitness. This eight-miler is just about the perfect distance for me. I can really put everything I have into it without it become a question of survival.

    Anyway, your weather issue here is potential heat. Rare, but it does happen. Usually if it doesn't rain, it's perfect. However, despite the fact that it's after Labor Day, rooms are still going to be dear -- plan ahead. If you like college football this is a good one, because after the race, everybody congregates in the bars to watch the games.
  • The Great Turtle Half Marathon and 5.7 Miler -- This is the last race of the season, always the Saturday before Halloween. It's also the only one with a shorter option. The Half starts at Mission Point and runs a couple of miles counterclockwise on the shore road before turning up a trail towards the interior of the island. Much of this race is on dirt -- either trails or dirt roads (there is a web of hiking/biking trails that criss-crosses the Island). The interior is hilly but I don't recall it being as hilly as the route of the Fort to Fort; that may be poor memory though. This being fall, the leaves are turning and the woods are bug free. Just a great trail run, if nothing else. The route provides you with stunning views from high above the town and harbor.

    I have never done the 5.7 but it looks like you go from Mission Point straight up into the interior and barrel along a trail the runs along the east bluff, then plunge back down to the shore road for the last couple of miles.

    This late in the season, as you would expect, the risk is cold weather, although that is somewhat mitigated by the mid-day starting time. You might think this late it would be easy to get a room, but Mackinac is a minor destination for Halloween parties also, so rooms will be high this weekend. That said, feel free to bring your costume and join the other dressed-up revelers is you have any energy left in the evening.

    This is literally the last weekend the island is "open". The next day shops are closing up (you can find some good sales) and seasonal help is bugging out. Winter is coming.
My only other piece of advice is, if at all possible, try to stay on the island. There are inexpensive hotels by the ferry docks on the mainland and they make it easy to get a ferry ride over in plenty of time for the start of the races, but after the race you are a sweaty mess and you need to clean up and change clothes so you can enjoy the Island. You can bring a change of clothes and clean up as best you can, but then you are hauling your dirty gear around with you and depending on your success at cleaning up, possibly offending those around you. You can ferry back to your hotel, clean up and ferry back over but that is pricey and inconvenient. I have not found a good way to stay off-island and do the race while still enjoying the rest of the day on the Island. But yes, such convenience is pricey.

If you're a runner should certainly try one of these races. They offer something for everyone and you get to be on Mackinac Island for a while which is the best reason.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

The Month That Was - April 2018

A couple of trips this month, so travel, travel, travel below. It was, in a way, nice to get on the road again. That and house prep are about the sum of my activities for April. Winter has passed and I'm quite happy about that. It wasn't the coldest or the most snowy, but it did manage to rear its head at the most inopportune times.

I am still struggling health-wise. I brought some sort of desert bug back from Moab that I am fighting. I believe I have been battling congestion on and off for about most of this year, and even when I'm not I don't feel at full strength. I'm having a terrible time getting my endurance back up. And I've taken to feeling dizzy when I stand up. I strongly suspect I have some sort of mild virus that's draining me and my immune system can't seem to rid me of it. Time will tell. (And don't tell me to go to the doctor. I have. The doctor can see nothing, but all that means is that I don't have a commonly observable ailment. The doctor isn't going to do anything for me except give me a preventative round of antibiotics -- useless against a virus -- and treat the symptoms. I can do that myself.)

With any luck. I will get back to writing in May. I did get through a revision of my latest manuscript so I haven't totally wasted April.

[Travel,Rant] Vacation Life
[Travel] Marco and the 'Glades
[Travel] Again to Moab

[Travel, Rant] Vacation Life

There is always a certain stress to travel. There are so many systems to keep track of: the system that gets you to the airport, the system that allows you to park your car, the system that gets you through security, the system that gets you on the plane, the system that gets your luggage loaded, the system that gets your biological needs attended to in the air, and then all that in reverse at your destination. Then comes the system that gets you lodging, the system that gets you transportation (car rental for newbies, ugh), the system that keeps you fed and entertained while you're gone. For the most part these can be mastered through experience, but I would hate to have to try to master them all from scratch. There is so much to know (much more than when I was young) and only so much that signs, warnings, and instructions can clue you in on. A young, pliable mind of average intelligence can probably handle it, but to an old or substandard intellect, less prone to quick and accurate observation and inference, it must be horrifying, especially when so much of the process is filled with strident commands from punitive authorities and dire warnings about the failures to comply quickly. And let's not forget the ever present impatience of the skilled travellers you might be holding up. I have friends who are knocking on the door of 60 and never travelled significantly. I cringe at the struggle they are facing when they decide to finally take that dream trip. Even if they manage to adapt to all the norms, the rush-and-wait rhythm is exhausting until you are used to it. Inexperience both in the planning and performing of vacationing will almost certainly swamp that dream with disappointment.

But even if you have all this down pat, like Yours Truly, there are unknowns. In part or whole, all these systems involve humans in some capacity and that introduces random variables. As a result, these systems can change subtly and without warning -- one plane leg might be enforcing the carry-on limit and another may not; one security line might tell you to remove your watch, and another may not; one hotel might let you check in early, another may not or try to milk you for money to do so; one tour guide may be brilliant, another full of shit.

Even more uncontrollable is your personal situation. Are you travelling in a pair, or a group? If so, then every decision on what to do is a negotiation. There are people who are very happy ordering room service and watching pay-per-view movies in their room in paradise. There are people who will fly thousands of miles and then go to a mall and eat at Red Lobster. There are people who will pick fights with everyone in the service industry and believe they are being cheated at every turn. There are people who will happily sit on the beach for twelve hours a day. There are people who will plan everything down to the minute. There are people who madly rush to see everything they possibly can for 30 seconds, as if they are bagging sites like coins in a video game. There are people who wander aimlessly and settle for the entertainment comes to them. There are people who are prompt on the dot, and people who linger and wallow in minutiae until you are late for everything. (In my experience nothing is more dangerous to enjoying a trip than an incompatible group of personalities.)

Maybe you should travel on your own, you say? It does have its benefits, not the least of which is doing what you want when you want without explaining yourself. That said, are you prepared to join, say, a catamaran snorkeling tour with nothing but families and couples and you on your own? How about asking for a table for one? You must realize that often, when you travel alone, the people you encounter regard you with a mild form of pity -- will that bother you? More importantly, can you live inside your own head, with your own thoughts, for extended periods if you need to? To many, this challenge is insurmountable.

What I'm saying is that vacationing, like life, is a complex activity, and needs practice to get right. Bad trips are learning experiences, both about the external forces and yourself. In time, it can become a great pleasure; your vacations can form some of your most treasured memories and can mark the phases of your life, but if you push it off and wait until you are older to take that one dream trip -- your sense of optimism will be tested, even on something as innocuous as a Caribbean cruise.

[Travel] Marco and the 'Glades

I have been to Florida more times than I can count. There is little new there for me. I used to wander all around, but now I pretty much stick to the southwest Gulf Coast, anywhere from Anna Maria Island all the way down to Key West. I used to like Miami Beach, but I'm too old and too straight for that scene. Going north from there are some wonderful places but there is a preponderance of glitz that I am not comfortable with. Most of north Florida, from say Orlando north is fine, and there are some especially nice places in the panhandle, but a lot of it seems to be trying too hard to be something special. The southern Gulf coast is special, they don't really have to try. Or maybe it's just that I feel so comfortable there that everywhere else doesn't quite measure up. Who knows?

This trip started with a couple of days in Sarasota visiting my brother. Then a couple hour drive down I-75 targeting Marco Island. On the way I took a short detour through Bonita Beach and up through Estero. Once again, I found a new and lovely beach area I had never known about. It has the same beach town vibe as the rest of the area, with a large state park and a huge expanse of beaches. The sight of the beaches and boats and blue water surrounding the gulf islands was heady. There appear to be plenty of rental properties and beach bars; I need to do a little more exploring here in the future.

Marco Island is about the final point on south on the Gulf coast before you have to turn east and swing across to the State to catch A1A to the Keys.The island itself is almost entirely covered in buildings -- homes, shops, condo towers, there are canal like estuaries where folks can have their boats docked at the back of their homes, but there are no open or wilderness areas per say, except the protected areas by the beach.

It sounds like ugly sprawl, but it's not. It's really quite nice. The homes are in tasteful neighborhoods, there is no obnoxious signage, and one of the benefits is that you are much more self-sufficient on the island rather than having to cross back to mainland for a grocery store or other conveniences like you do on other Gulfside keys. If it sounds like I am scouting for retirement properties, I am. I have been for years. Marco moves high on the list. It appears to have a strong combination of infrastructure and beachy goodness. It is, however, like all these other towns, not cheap for real estate.

The beach itself is exceptional. It has the standard powder soft gulf coast sand and extends up and down the southwest coast. The killer Gulf sunsets come along for the ride. But Marco's beach seems much broader than many of the others I have explored. That gives it a sense of being less populated (even though it probably is just as busy others).

Marco's positioning gives it a couple of advantages. First, there is no fee to access the island, like there is on Sanibel/Captiva or Boca Grande. Being as far south as it is can insulate it from the occasional cold snap that occurs every few years in the middle and north of the State. I know that sounds lame, but if it happens to coincide with your long-planned beach vacation it becomes a sign that God is angry with you. There is a shuttle ferry from Marco to Key West. That means anyone living here has easy access to a quick getaway down to the Conch Republic. Also, the heart of the Everglades is a couple hours down US-41.

I have been to great number of national parks, and when comes to viewing wildlife, Everglades takes the prize. The Shark Valley entrance is in the heart of the swamp off US-41 in the untamed land between Marco and Miami. Here they have installed a paved 15-mile loop that runs deep into the 'Glades, the midpoint harbouring a large modernist spiral observation tower. There are a couple of ways to travel the loop. One is to take one of their tour trams where a guide will give you the low down on the Everglades and everything in it. The other is to rent one of the beat-to-hell bikes they have available. (I suppose a third would be to hike the whole thing.) Any way you do it, you are going to get up close with gators. Some really big 10-12 footers. They will have pulled themselves up out of the water, and occasionally right on the path, to bask in the sun. You will be within 10 yards of some seriously toothy wild animals. You might wonder, given that this is not Disney, if anyone has been eaten. The answer is no. There is only one record of an attack, and that was when some kid apparently ran his bike directly into one some number of years ago. It is remarkable that no one has been eaten, but then I am reminded the most creatures will flee from humans, and the gators will too if you approach them. Most gators will bolt at the first sign of people. The ones in Everglades NP have never associated man with food so they really have no attraction to people, on the other hand, they have never been disturbed by people so they really have no great fear either. Humans are just random objects to them. It's only when you seem to be getting too friendly that they take off into the swamp.

In the course of biking the loop, I bet I saw 30 gators of varying size, many within a few yards of me, ignoring me as I rolled by. You become so acclimated to them that it's easy to forget this is not a zoo. You are in their domain. And even though they don't eat you, they could.

Beyond the gators you will also get close up with turtles of various species, huge fish in the deeper wetlands, and more cranes than you will see in the rest of your life. If you want to view wildlife, the Everglades is the place.

Back to Marco. As I mentioned it is almost fully developed but a walk on the beach will remind you how close nature is. I came across a poor puffer fish, dehydrated and sitting serenely at the high tide line. Gulls dived. Geckos dodged. Clams ducked. Even in a place as developed as Marco you must realize that Florida is a veneer of civilization over the primal swamp. I just hope the veneer holds up well enough for me to retire there.