Friday, October 09, 2015

The Month That Was - September 2015

That'll be 55. Birthdays really don't affect me anymore. I was never much of a crisis-on-a-milestone-birthday guy anyway. Still, I must admit that my time in my "mid-fifties" is passing me by and will soon give way to "pushing 60". On the other hand, I just did my first triathlon and my second Tough Mudder, so there's that.

Some personal housekeeping this month - house, car, phone, etc. I'll try to get out of my own life and into something more interesting for next month's posts.

[House and Home] Home, Bittersweet Home
[Cars] Wheels Go 'Round
[Tech] Microsoft, I Can't Hold On
[TV] Mr. Robot

[House and Home] Home, Bittersweet Home

I believe I have been in my house for just about 5 years now, and it's been an interesting journey. I decided to buy the house because I thought my credentials as a mainstream adult were weak. As a lifelong bachelor, there was never any urgent need to lay down roots or make a home and safety zone for family and a bulwark against the world. My abodes were always simple places that only contained a bed, wi-fi, and cable TV. I almost never cooked. My furniture was rudimentary -- no, not lawn chairs, but nothing you couldn't buy on clearance at Art Van. My life revolved around work, travel, endeavors in fitness, and keeping up with my friends. Opinions on such a life would vary. Some would focus on the absence of family and deem it empty. Some (including some with families) would envy the freedom.

Strangely, I think what made me buy the house was my contrarian nature. The story-book middle class life is often seen as a trap -- a delusion that lacks some form of authenticity. Many in the highly-opinionated classes dismiss the everyday activities of normal suburban life as shallow and soulless. The McMansions, the mowing of lawns and grilling of meat and painting of bedrooms, the raising of children -- these are often thought of, or at least fictionally portrayed as, distractions from deeper and more noble concerns and unacknowledged sources of oppression and disappointment for the inhibited, deluded people who engage in them. We, instead, worship the city-dwelling creative hipsters and the sorts who eschew the world in search for their own Walden Pond.


The contrarian in me does not see things like that. I don't think of normal suburban life as empty. My first assumption about it is that it must be about the best life possible because everybody seems to want to do it. Most people in world who struggle day-to-day would identify an upper middle class life in the exburbs as paradise; perhaps even more so than a rich-and-famous life. This leads me to inevitable assumption that those who see the common suburban world as peopled with mindless sheeple are probably just doing some sort of signalling about how edgy and unafraid they are. I also suspect that, when push comes to shove, they'll often end up driving minivans to soccer practice and concocting excuses why it doesn't really count as selling out. (This somewhat dovetails with a growing belief I have that most people in the developed world are happy, but they can't bring themselves to admit it.)

So the idea in my head was something like this: If everybody is doing it or wants to, maybe there's something to it. Even if I don't fit the demographic, maybe I should spend a few years finding out what the attraction is. It didn't hurt that this coincided with the bottom of the real estate melt down which helped me purchase a house that even five years before would have been out of the question.

My house is much bigger than I need it to be: 4 bedroom/3.5 bath/2.5 acres -- all for just me. It is in one of the very best and most beautiful neighborhoods in the area. All this was possible because of the drop in real estate prices. I have no doubt the previous owners took a beating. Whether that means it's going to be a good investment or not is another matter. The expenses of homeownership have been quite a cold shower. Within a year I had to spring for a new furnace. Despite it being the most efficient model possible, heating the house is astonishingly expensive, even though I have the entire upstairs closed off and vents covered.. I have a well, which saves on water bills, but salt for water conditioning is a steady expense and I just dropped a couple of grand for a iron removal system -- makes me miss city water. God knows what it'll cost me if the well pump fails. Keeping up the lawn and yard is another expense. I started mowing the grass myself, but a with yard that large and sloping it was pushing two hours to finish -- did that for a couple of years and now I have a service. In fact, all landscaping is costly, even when I do it myself which typically ends in failure and I have to re-do it. The lawn needs to be sprayed and the trees need attention, because in my fine neighborhood you just don't let your gardens go to weeds or your lawn be other than fresh and green. A couple of grand to replace some dying trees. New asphalt driveway and periodic sealing. New deck, fireplace, flooring. The latest: removal of a couple of red squirrels living in my walls and keeping me awake with their squirrelish scurrying about. The list goes on. It's serious scratch to own such a house above and beyond buying it, none of which will be recovered at resale time. And it's serious time to maintain. Just vacuuming the place takes all afternoon. I could outsource yet more tasks, and probably will, and the expense will just keep ratcheting higher.

So those are the Cons. Where does that leave me on the Pro side? Well, I have learned a lot. I can paint a room without taping the borders. I can install toilet and sink hardware. I can change the belt on a riding lawn mower. I can clear a driveway with a snow blower. I can have house guests without any sort of crowding or discomfort. And frankly, my house is just beautiful. It abuts an extended protected area and the view out the windows of my living room, bedroom, and sunroom (yes, there is a sunroom) is sweet. But the fact is I don't enjoy it as much as my visitors because when I look around I often just see so many projects. I am no longer the carefree, irresponsible lad, but a fellow who has certain roots and responsibilities (if not truly a full slate of them) on his shoulders. Oh, and I can converse intelligently, and from experience, with normal adults about homeownership. The fact that I list this as a pro gives me pause to wonder whether I actually took this path not to understand the experience but because I was concerned with my image to others. I hope not, but I can't deny that for certain because I am as capable of self-delusion as anyone.

Another discovery is that my sense of dissatisfaction runs very deep and is perhaps insurmountable. Like I said, when I look at the place I see projects, others look at it and think it's really quite lovely. They are right. It is. Yet I can't hang out at home and think, "This is great. I'm sure glad I did this." There is too much I would like to do in terms of renovations to get the place to point where it matches my vision of perfect. It's become something of a challenge to see if I can get the place to a point where I do feel I would be content just to hang out and enjoy my home. So my attachment to my house is heavily depended on my desire to rise to a challenge. Weird.

Maybe that is the core issue. Can I really be satisfied with my surroundings, or for that matter, can I be satisfied with anything? I strongly suspect the answer is no, but I plan to give it a few more years of effort.

My next house will certainly be different. The next one will have to be simpler and smaller as it will probably be the home that I reside in to senescence. It will also fit better with my lifestyle, but I will only know what fits me better because I will have been through this house. In fact, I will likely miss this house when it is gone. The good memories will last. Whatever the vagaries of my feelings now, I am confident I will appreciate it very much in retrospect. When it is no longer a challenge.

Said and done: I can see why people love this life. It is safe and clean and comfortable beyond imagination, and the concerns I listed above are all manufactured and personal, not existential or even external. In my first novel, one of the passing characters was a Korean immigrant who was convinced that his beautiful suburban home in Grosse Pointe was the ultimate state of being. I wrote that only half-sincerely, but it should have been absolutely sincere. The character was right. The upper-middle class ex-burbs are really the pinnacle -- short of pure Utopia, but probably as good as us poor flawed humans can get. We should appreciate it more.

[Cars] Wheels Go 'Round

After a year of ownership I have come to really like my car. If you've been following along, you know that my 2014 Acura TL is the first non-Toyota of my adult life. It seems like it would be a small change from the Camrys I drove previously -- yet another Japanese mid-sized sedan -- but since I had been driving Camrys for nearly 20 years it was a big change for me.

The biggest problem was the combination of keyless entry and my paranoia about losing my keys. For as long as I can remember I carried a spare car key in my wallet. With key fobs generally assuring that you have your key with you when you lock your car, I only think I ever used it once or twice in twenty years, but it was a real security blanket to me. The Acura, on the other hand, has no key start. There is a back up key to open the door, but not for the ignition. Furthermore, there is no On-Star like service with remote unlocking capability. In other words, you have the fob or your car is a brick. Obviously, there is no way to carry an extra big ass key fob in my wallet. Worse still, the only place to get a new key fob is at an Acura dealer, which aren't exactly on every corner. So my horrific fear was that I would be that I was somewhere hundreds of miles from the nearest dealer, lose my key fob, and end up paying god knows how much to have my car towed to the nearest dealer to have a replacement made.

Well, I finally developed a plan for dealing with this. I purchased an extra door key on a flat which I keep in my wallet as before which can get me in the car, then I store an extra key fob and battery in the car, battery removed from the fob so as not to trigger the keyless entry system. So now if I am hundreds of miles away from a dealer and lose my fob I just open the door with the key in my wallet and load up the battery into the spare fob and Bob's My Uncle.

Because of my weird psychology, that small accommodation has made it possible to fully enjoy my car. It literally made the car rise in my eyes from a 6 to a 9. Now I have come to appreciate some of the great qualities it has. It is rock solid in all circumstances. It handles flawlessly. The engine revs effortlessly. Its athletic abilities are evident even to someone like me who practically never pushes it beyond 70% of its ability. It is not as tomb-like as a Camry; some road feel and noise come through, but it is by no means harsh in any way. Acura's philosophy is somewhat different that Toyota's in that respect; the emphasis is not on isolation, but mellowing the edges of the intrusions.

I've also come to terms with some of the technology. The voice translation system for texts is great (although it seems to get confused now and then). The stereo doesn't exactly match up with my preferred behavior (wanting seamless access to about a dozen XM presets), but it works well enough. It still will not import my contacts from my phone, but you come to expect incompatibilities when you have a Windows Phone. The nav system has both saved me and betrayed me. However, I fail to understand how I drove for nearly 40 years without a backup camera and the service at the dealership has been top notch. As a result, I am now a big Acura fan. That will work out well for them if I happen to buy another car before I die, which is iffy.

[Tech] Microsoft, I Can't Hold On

I am still a Windows Phone guy. Hell, I am still a Zune guy, for that matter. But it's getting harder and harder to support Microsoft's excellent, yet apparently unappreciated and unsellable, handheld hardware.

Zune has been dead for years, of course, but I still have two. One is a 32 gig Zune HD which holds my entire music collection and has seen me through countless flights. The other is a little 8gb jobby that contains my running playlist which I use exclusively for running. Both continue to work flawlessly.

Still it's getting harder and harder to resist power of the Android/iOS axis. I recently bought an Amazon Fire Phone, not because I needed a new phone, and certainly not because I want another piece of Amazon hardware after my disappointing experience with a Fire HD tablet. I bought it because Amazon is bailing on the phone market and they were selling the things for $130 plus a year of Amazon Prime. Amazon Prime costs $100 and since Prime is about the best deal in history and I would buy it anyway, I am essentially getting a Fire Phone, which is a mutant version of Android, for about $30.

I'm not even going to put a sim chip in it. It's going to be wi-fi only. It can hold almost as much as my Zune HD holds, i.e. my nearly entire stored music collection. It can also run Pandora or Spotify and Amazon Prime music, of course. I hear there is a way to put Google Play on it which I might try. So boom, I have all my stored music, and all streaming music anywhere there is wi-fi.

Whether it can replace my little Zune for running remains to be seen, but I don't see why not. Could I have done all this with my Lumia? Sure, but I would risk running down battery life at inopportune times, and my Lumia is down to about 19 GB of storage thanks to all the photos and apps, and I don't want to risk frying my main phone with running sweat.

The ideal next step would be to find a cheap data-only plan for the Fire phone but I don't think such a thing exists. It should. The first one to do that will make a mint. For now, it's wi-fi and stored music only. We'll see how this little experiment pans out.

It's even getting harder to keep my Lumia. Windows Phone gets all the major apps (except Instagram, apparently) but it lacks all the specialty apps, particularly the ones produced by individual organizations. At my day job, they will create apps to support upcoming conferences and events -- Android/iOS only. Things like electronic hotel keys or scanning check deposits to my bank or ordering from Chipotle -- never will you see these apps for Windows Phone. My Lumia is sweet and solid, but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone for practical reasons and that means I wouldn't recommend it to myself going forward. The only questions are will I go Android or Apple and what will be the final straw to push me.

[TV] Mr. Robot

I binged Mr. Robot, an odd, yet striking cyber-thriller on USA network. It is very skillfully constructed and produced, with a very unusual tone -- the closest thing I can think of as far as atmosphere is the old cult favorite The Prisoner. The basic story is of an clinically anti-social computer genius who gets sucked into a cyber-terror revolutionary cult with anarchistic aims.

There are two major threads running through the season, one is following the plans and schemes of the anarchists, known as "fsociety". This thread ham-fistedly advocates anti-corporate, anti-capitalist, occupy-style class warfare. The bad guys are a business conglomerate so vast that bringing them down will upend society. The company is called Evil Corp -- that's not a nickname, it is a corporation literally named Evil Corp -- and it is peopled with slick folks who speak like cartoon villains. In other words it's the sort of narrative that someone who got the bulk of their knowledge of the world from watching network TV and reading Buzzfeed would build. Here's how bad it is: In the end, when the anarchists pull off their coup and society disintegrates and chaos rules the streets there is complete unity of public opinion that it is a good thing. Consequences never occur. It's an adolescent revolutionary's wet dream.

It's so bad, and in such stark contrast to the obviously high level of thought and effort that went into the show, that it makes me wonder whether it's actually just a set up for something either more realistic or more fantastic.

The other thread is the personal story of the main hacker, who is clearly in the throes of mental illness and for much of the series cannot be certain that anything he does or remembers is real. This is a bit more human and affecting. It takes a number of twists and turns all hinging on what is or isn't just happening in the protagonist's mind. The most interesting story lines are when he uses his hacker superpowers to help the individuals he cares about; it's here that the idea of a cost to good intentions is actually broached and it makes these stories more fulfilling.

But any way you cut it, the storylines are really just kind of "meh". The star here the dramatization and production. It's one of the few shows around that does a good job of showing rather than telling. Complicated situations arise, but more often than not we are blissfully spared the standard expository dialogue. And the sets, the lighting, the camera angles and beautifully done and generate an individualistic style. I wouldn't argue with a cinematography Emmy here.

Despite that, I'm on the fence whether I'll pick it up again next season. And if I do, they'll need to elevate the plotlines if I am going to stay.

Friday, September 04, 2015

The Month That Was - August 2015

The heat of Florida was truly stifling. Yes, I know. It's Florida. In August. But come on, the temperature was 95 with a heat index of about 120. 90-90 days: over 90 temp with 90% humidity. Those are the days you really question that plan to retire to Florida. I have experienced those before but never a week of them in a row with no respite. It was unusual tropical weather, even for Florida.

Of course the bulk of my time was spent handling the arrangements and logistics and finances of my Mom's estate. Strangely (but, perhaps not) her funeral service was remarkably comforting. She had served in the Waves and as such received a military ceremony which was lovely and noble. Friends gather and shared fond memories and gratitude.

Short of being immortal, the best we can do is live long, die quickly, and be well remembered. And the best is what she deserved. I only hope I merit the same when my time is up.

And so I move inexorably back towards my ongoing life.

[Books] Book Look: Slouching Towards Kalamazoo
[TV] Halt and Catch Fire
[Cars] Deep Driverless

[Books] Book Look: Slouching Towards Kalamazoo

When I started writing I wanted to write book like Peter DeVries. DeVries is a satirical novelist from towards the end of the era when folks actually read mainstream fiction. He was active from the mid-40s through the mid-80s and wrote exquisite satires of suburban middle America. Now, I need to qualify that statement for the contemporary world.

You see kiddies, satire is something more than Jon Stewart making a mean joke about the latest target of social media shaming. That, in fact, is barely satire at all. Satire of any quality involves depth of vision, subtlety, and an appreciation of both the positive and negative of something. Otherwise it's just flippant snarkery.

For example, suppose I wanted to make fun of some strident aspects of Christianity as portrayed in The Scarlet Letter. Contemporary "humorists" would portray a caricatured Bible-thumping televangelist who's a secret pedophile. Wouldn't it be more interesting (and funnier) if I parodied the The Scarlet Letter by having the "A" become a line of successful t-shirts? What if I wanted to parody Yeats' Second Coming as a symbol of the coming apocalypse? Contemporary "humorists" wouldn't touch this because a) they think Yeats' Second Coming is a rap album and b) you probably couldn't do it in 140 characters. Wouldn't it be interesting to hint at the possibility that the rough beast is a precocious middle-class adolescent? You see how those parodies have layers? They seem to cut one way, but upon further review they really cut both. It's a little more complicated than slapping a Flying Spaghetti Monster magnet to your car.

That was some rant, eh? Can't you just picture my eyes rolling around and my arms flailing about and the froth at the corners of my mouth? The topic hits some hot buttons, to say the least. I love that DeVries understands satire and subtlety, and that I hate that most famous names don't, but think they do. I also love that DeVries has little interest in the fringes of society. He doesn't have the shallow arrogance that causes writers to look down from on detached high and use the disaffected in every form like a bludgeon to assault the supposed emptiness of normalcy. The characters of his books aren't sociopathic purveyors of hostility and sorrow. If you are a broadly well-socialized individual of middle-class stock, he's looking at you. You may be surprised to find there is dramatic conflict in your life, when pop culture has made it clear to you that it's hollow and pointless and you'll die unfulfilled.

DeVries reward for his grace and insight? He was fairly popular in his day, including successful stage adaptations, but slipped out of print in the 90s and his work is just now trickling back on to Amazon. Sic transit even a little bit of gloria.

I have to find my way out of this rant, don't I? OK, let's talk about Slouching Towards Kalamazoo specifically. The story is of one Tony Thrasher, son of a Pastor, who at the age of fifteen impregnates his high school literature teacher. There begins a tale that takes us through essential questions of responsibility, not the least of which is the difference between taking responsibility and feeling responsible. What follows includes the teacher compelling the teenager to somehow acquire a drug from the local pharmacy, without implicating her, that will induce miscarriage; the various attempts fail. The Pastor's wife finds herself attracted to a local dermatologist, an outspoken atheist, which results in a public debate that turns Pastor into atheist and Dermatologist into evangelist. The teenager's parents invite the teacher to stay with them after she is kicked out of her rooms when she begins "showing", ignorant that their son is the father. An off hand comment from the teenager sets the Scarlet "A" t-shirt plot into motion and sends the teacher off to live with her grandfather in Kalamazoo. The teenager follows (in a slouch), gaining summer employment from the teacher's grandfather -- a real character who spends his days recounting his romantic adventures -- where, though dedicated to helping with "his child", he falls for another girl.

And so on. Each scene is set up for laughs and gets them. The characters are all flawed humans who try to be as strong as needed. None are set above the others. All sides get their hypocrisy exposed and their egos punctured. Always laughed with, never laughed at. And that is how you do satire.

There are a couple of shortcomings. The teenager is failing in school because he spends his time reading the classics of philosophy and poetry rather than learning the dry facts taught in school. I know of no such teenagers, short of the ones in Wes Anderson films. And the ending is a bit of a let down. But the wit and the word play and the elegant prose never lose steam.

Should you read Slouching Towards Kalamazoo? Yes, but you won't. It won't hold your attention. There is no violence to counter, no oppression to overcome, no victorious righteousness. It's just a laugh at the oddness of life, a thing that is easier to dismiss than to appreciate. Your loss.

[TV] Halt and Catch Fire

This is a fine show you should probably watch, but you don't for the same reason you don't read DeVries (above), because it's not outlandish enough. It's not about the edges of society, it's about the edges of individuals. It is set against the backdrop of the earlier days computer revolution -- let's hear it for punk rock and Commodore 64! -- in Austin, but despite the period-piece positioning, it's the drama within that counts.

The single best thing about Halt and Catch Fire is that it is personal. As I pointed out above we are not looking at a dark mirror into society's ills. We are not looking back twenty-five years and sneering at the backwards fools who were so insufficiently progressive. In less talented hands this turns into a lurid soap opera of cartoon corporate evil or another incessant lecture on the moral horrors of previous decades ala The Knick or Masters of Sex. The settings and events of Halt and Catch Fire are in the service of the characters, not the reverse. That alone puts it in the top 1%.

There are four main characters in Halt and Catch Fire all have the common trait of a capacity and passion for technological achievement. The difference comes in how that influences their personalities. There is Joe, a Steve Jobs-ian salesman with an almost sociopathic obsession with changing the world. Cameron, an over-the-top brilliant programmer who has no interest in doing anything if it is not in defiance of someone else. Gordon, a hardware genius, carries a low burning dissatisfaction in that he has never put together a grand and glorious romantic vision and fears that he remains an underappreciated nerd, though it is mostly his own self-image. Donna, the most complex character, is a synthesizer and personalizer, she alone sees the real human effect of technology and, as such, is the one really ahead of her time, but that ability also causes her to have the clearest perspective on the costs of the other's obsessions and with her own compromises to deal with them.

The first season carried a few good episodes and finished strong. This second season really stepped up the game as all the characters tried to break out of their modes, but with only partial success and whatever gains they made had enormous costs. Although it may not be at the level of a Mad Men, Halt and Catch Fire is a quality drama of humanity, so naturally its renewal for a third season is dubious. Given the state of TV it would be a big loss. But let's face it, the best way to get a loyal following is to target a demographic and use your drama to make them feel just and righteous in their beliefs (see Aaron Sorkin).

The first season could get bogged down early, but this second season has kept things clipping along. Vibrant scenes at a showstring '80s gaming startup are a delight. The plotting of how the four characters are kept interacting is quite clever and involves early attempts at tech concepts like time-sharing and viruses and social apps. Humor is peppered in at appropriate times and in appropriate quantity. Just flat out good quality drama.

I made the comparison to Mad Men and suggested you can think of Halt and Catch Fire as a lesser version of that. That raises the question of why I think it is lesser, and I'm not sure I can pinpoint it. Honestly, it could be Lee Pace as Joe. I've never really warmed to his brand of intensity and his sales pitches seem too slimy to me, versus the chilling sauve of a Don Draper. Beyond that I don't know. It's possible that the characters are not quite as complex or fleshed out, but I can't really say why I think that other than that I don't feel as connected to them as the Sterling Cooper crowd.. It could also be the sense that all these folks are going to sort themselves out and have happy endings eventually, which was not the case with Mad Men, lends it a more prosaic sense, but again I don't know why I think that. All this leaves the door open to the possibility that you won't find it lesser at all.

Do the world a favor and binge it. Maybe we can get a third season out of AMC that way. You'll be entertained and I'll be grateful.

[Cars] Deep Driverless

It's interesting how people are thinking ever more deeply about the meaning and consequences of driverless cars. Here is a trio of the more in-depth articles if you want to dig in: Ways to Think About Cars and Roadmap for a World Without Drivers and Driverless Cars Too Safe.

The issues being raised are pointed. First there is a question of what a driverless car needs to be. The glib question is, Does a driverless car need windshield wipers? For that matter does it need windows? Maybe all that's required is a comfy chair and wi-fi.

A more interesting question is will we own them? If Uber is pointing the way, maybe not. We'll just order one up as needed. I'm sure that will work in cities, where there are high concentrations of people and it make economic sense to maintain a fleet large enough to promptly service everyone who orders one. Not so much in rural areas, and not so much for impulsive folks, who may decide on a whim to run an errand. I would bet in any situation where you had to wait more than five minutes for a car you there would be a certain drive for personal ownership.

Perhaps the most interesting question is the one about cars being too safe. This highlights one aspect of driving that is often overlooked. Though it seems like a mechanical activity, it is actually highly social and quite subtle. It generally requires you to know what laws it's OK to push beyond and by how much and in what circumstances. There are challenges of courtesy and cooperation. If I am running late and I need to push beyond the law to make my flight, I am required to evaluate the risks and costs of various levels of speeding, and have a sense for how far I can impose my needs on other drivers without inciting road rage. It will be very interesting to see how we do when we aren't allowed to cheat, or perhaps more scary, when we mix drivers and driverless so only some can cheat. This is the sort of circumstance that is going to feed snarky internet commentary into the next century.

All these questions will be overcome eventually, but perhaps not for long time and not without some false starts and a good deal of conflict. Delivery vehicles, including 18 wheelers, on the other hand, should be about ready to go. None of these issues applies to them. With people out of the picture things become simple. There is no one to look out the windows. They can be perfectly scheduled so there is no one to order one up on a whim and no one to be impatient to arrive. I expect to see this in my lifetime. The only thing that can stop it is the Teamsters.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Month That Was - July 2015

On July 25th at 8:45 my Mom, Ellen Mazzotta, died. At that moment I was on a Delta jet en route to Florida in response to an emergency call I received earlier that afternoon. So the last couple of weeks have been a bit too busy for me keep up on my usual wry observations that you read here.

I once wrote a brief few paragraphs of appreciative autobiography of my Mother for a "writers and their mothers" gimmick book my dirtbag then-publisher was shamelessly trying to hawk as a Mother's Day event many years ago. I spent some time searching for the a copy of the text to republish here -- copyright issues be damned -- but it is long gone from any hard drive and the book itself isn't even available used on Amazon.

It did what I needed it to, though. I gave me a chance to express my gratitude to my Mom, and perhaps redeem myself for years of slights of the sort children thoughtlessly inflict on their parents. One thing that gives me comfort is that my Mom lived long enough for me to come to appreciate her and for me to express that. Our last words over the phone were "I love you" but she already knew that to be true.

My Mom's narrative, whether in an out-of-print book or inside my head, is one of endurance. She endured a childhood of deprivation during the Great Depression. She endured the rumbling fear and casualty lists of World War II. She endured the tyrannies of my father and what might be called a disappointing family life (although she would never describe it so). Never once did my mother ever allude to sadness, depression, or the unfairness of life. She never allowed herself to lose faith and always believed tomorrow would be better.

So she endured, and she overcame. One of the most telling moments of my mother’s life was when the kids got a little older and she began to feel the need for some independence from my father. She didn't complain about her lack of skills or how the world was oppressing her. She didn't go out in search of pie-in-the-sky self-fulfillment. She went up the street to McDonald's and got a job. And when she needed more than that, she went up the street in the other direction and became a bank teller.

And sure enough, though it took many years, tomorrow was better. After I had left for college, she packed up my younger brother along with anything else she could carry in a 1978 Ford Pinto and made a daring journey from a low-end Detroit suburb to Florida without a final destination in mind. Then, driving down US-41 a revelation came in shape of Sarasota Bay. It was love at first sight. She never saw any place so beautiful. She settled there and managed to gain degree of separation from half a century of negative influences. And Sarasota would be where she spent the rest of her life. It wasn't a straight line, to be sure, there were still struggles, but at that point her life-trend was set for the better and was never to be reversed.

Her career progressed and she became branch manager of a bank on Longboat Key, a very wealthy Gulf island, where she was responsible for approving massive loans and managing both the staff and the spoiled rich customers. After many years of that, she retired from the bank, but for her, retirement meant getting a part time job working at the Sarasota County tax office -- where she was, of course, indispensable -- and sitting on her condo board, where she helped guide her neighbors through the worst of the great recession of the early 2000s. Through all this time she built friendships and admirers, had an active social life, and continued to appreciate the happiness she had found in the second half of her life.

For me, this was a great blessing as it gave me the time to not only truly appreciate how much she had done for me in my life, but also how much strength I drew from her example. Even better, it gave me time to make sure she knew it. I only hope it meant as much to her to know it as it meant to me to tell her.

They say that, short of immortality, the best you can do is live long and die quickly. She lived for ninety years and her end came swiftly and without pain. For a woman who never lost hope and always focused on the positive, it was the ultimate justice and the ultimate validation of her generous soul. Rest in peace, Mom, and rest in satisfaction that you lived a beautiful and worthy life.

Next month, back to the usual trivialities.

Monday, July 06, 2015

The Month That Was - June 2015

So here we are with half the year gone. I find myself thinking that any year that has no disasters is a good year, and thus the year has been good so far. The summer has been wonderfully mild and I'm happy to report I've been making the best of it in the sense of spending a good chunk of time outdoors.

The most interesting aspect of this summer to me -- and I report this as a matter of reference -- has been the incredible lessening of flying insects around my house. Usually the rafters are full of paper wasps, I get at least one hornet's nest, a carpenter bee or two dive bombing me, Japanese beetles assaulting my trees, and a proliferation of bumble bees in my gardens. This year I have seen none. Even the mosquitoes are down from previous years (although they still chase you inside after dusk). I have no explanation for this as I have done nothing different, other than to have a fair amount of mulch in Spring. Now that I think of it, even the deer/bunnies have been laying off my hostas. It could be random or some kind of natural cycle. It could be they found easier pickings elsewhere. Either way, I am glad for the lower stress enjoyment of my yard.

Writing has slowed again. To the point where I fear for ever finishing my latest project and have begun to question myself and my abilities. This is a natural, normal thing I have to fight through. So I've started reading Peter DeVries' Slouching Towards Kalamazoo. DeVries was a huge inspiration when I started writing and so I'm going back to him in the hopes of extracting a little more mojo.

I find myself with about four weeks of use-it-or-lose-it paid vacation time, which is the result of my scaled back travelling, of course. A good problem to have. I really wish I could travel more. I do miss that about the previous decade. Perhaps I can kickstart that again in the second half of the year because there is no way I am going to lose it.

[Travel] Return to the Mack
[Rant] Snapped Cable
[TV] Lords of the X-Files
[Movies] More Action

[Travel] Return to the Mack

I've been to Mackinac Island countless times. There is an 8-mile run in the fall, the first Saturday after Labor Day, that I have done probably going on six or seven years now. The last couple of years I have taken to also going up for a spring race, which is usually the weekend after Memorial Day. So what I'm saying is, the 4 hour drive and the ferry ride and pretty much the whole Island experience is old hat to me. I know the hotels, I know the restaurants, I know the trails. That's part of the attraction, honestly. It is a very low stress weekend for me because I know what's what.

But despite my familiarity, there are always little events that keep things interesting. For instance, this time I managed to drive all the way up to the ferry departure, ride the ferry over, and get to my hotel before I realized I did not have my wallet. The gut punch feeling of that was awful. I think I literally doubled over briefly. Needless to say, going back home and retrieving my wallet was out of the question.

So I really had two questions. 1) How was I going to survive the weekend? and 2) How in the hell did I get so far without having my wallet on me?

In reverse order: How did I get that far? That's easy. I filled up the gas tank the night before and had a big breakfast and a late-morning start, so didn't really stop on the way except at a rest stop. (Plus, I didn't get pulled over for any reason - limiting myself to ten over helped.) I bought my ferry ticket online a week before. Therefore I travelled hundreds of miles over land and sea with no need to reach in my pocket. Normally I would not do this. Normally I would have stopped for lunch. Normally I would have bought my ticket at the dock. The thing is, if I had gotten too far north before I stopped, I may not have been able to make it back for my wallet in time anyway. So in some sense it was a blessing that I got all the way to the Island before I had a reason to beat myself up.

How was I going to survive? Ah, this is the thing that mitigated my sorrow. About ten or so years ago I forced myself into the habit of not carrying my cash in my wallet. I keep cash in one pocket and wallet in another. The idea is that I could lose one or the other and still be able to get by. Thus, I still had a pocket full of money. So I was conflicted by feeling like a moron for forgetting my wallet, but feeling like a genius for still have a couple hundred dollars in cash on me. The hotel had my credit card on file from the reservation and were nice enough to let me check in without seeing a photo ID. They even offered to give me a cash advance for a hundred bucks or so if I ran out of money. (Thank you, Bicycle Street Inn!). I would have to watch my spending, but $200 is plenty for a Mackinac Island weekend if you don't overindulge, so I was able to pay my way without washing dishes. I just had to reserve enough to pay for gas on the way home. I'm way too old to be carded, so that was a non-issue. In the end, the only thing I had to fear was getting pulled over on the way home, so I limited myself to five over the limit and managed to make it through a great weekend incident free.

Lucky I didn't forget my phone. That would have been a real disaster.

If you're not familiar with Mackinac Island, you probably should get so. Especially if you live within a day's drive. It can only be accessed by ferry ($20-ish round trip, give or take) or by small plane (too expensive for me). The ferry ride is 30-40 minutes. A lot of people stay at the cheaper hotels that surround the ferry docks on the mainland and take the boat over for the day. For a single day that may save you some money, but staying on the island gives you a place to relax during the day, otherwise you are just darting from destination to destination in a mad rush to get things done before you catch the ferry back at night. Rushing about to save a few bucks is distasteful because Mackinac Island, at least for adults, is a healthy dose of chill. Think of it as a classier, Up-North variation on a Caribbean vacation.

Famously, there are no cars. Transportation is either by horse drawn carriage (taxis and tours), by bicycle (rented bikes are the most common form of transportation) or on foot. One of the real visceral pleasure of the island is waking up to the clip-clop of horses hooves going about their daily routines. And horses and carts do all the work on the island, from delivering tourists to their hotels to picking up trash. (Downside: the smell of horse dung can be overpowering until you get used to it.) Another pleasure is the flowery landscaping everywhere and the broad green lawns with Adirondack chairs where you can sit and enjoy the wonderful world and beautiful people.

Luckily even if you refuse to rent a bike and are averse to horses, staying on your feet is workable because the vast majority of the hotels and restaurants and other activity is in about a one square mile radius right as you exit the boat. The look of most everything is old-timey -- and it's not all fake old-timey. The bulk of these buildings have been around for many decades, if not centuries. That's not to say it's some kind of a stuffy historical re-enactment. People feel comfortable cutting loose. With no cars and no crime you can give the kids a lot of freedom. And since no one is driving home, folks have been known to make liberal use of the numerous bars and pubs.

Three nights on the island is about perfect for a newbie. If you are familiar with everything, two is good. Which hotel? Here are some thoughts: The Grand Hotel gets all the press for its requirement of formal dress for dinner and its historical status and for Somewhere in Time, but I advise against it. It's really too much trouble to and too far away from the center of things to be worth it. Mission Point Resort is always a safe bet. As is Island House. Most of the hotels in town are on the bed-and-breakfasty side, the best of which I would say is the Iroquois (not surprisingly, it's also one of the more pricey). For something more quiet I would look one street back from the main street and give some thought to Metivier Inn. For something less rustic and more in line with the sort of room you might expect from a quality chain hotel I would try the above mentioned Bicycle Street Inn.

Where to eat? Doesn't matter much. There is no real fine dining, lots of standard pub food and basic American entrees. I like Mary's Bistro and The Gatehouse.

More importantly, where to drink? Anywhere. There are a couple of iconic bars however. You'll want to make a stop at the famous Pink Pony, once described as an Irish pub designed by Barbie. But if it's nice weather, skip the decor and head outside to the Porch at the Pink Pony. You might also want to try The Seabiscuit and/or the Mustang Lounge. Both are just the right mix of kitschy and divey and are the ones frequented by locals. Another good choice would be the gazebo at Mission Point which is right out by the water with beautiful views all around.

How about non-drinking activities? Well if you must... A good place to start is with a horse and carriage tour of the island. They'll hit all the key spots and give you time to snap pictures and do a bit of scurrying about. On your own, I suggest a rent a bike and a map; bike rental shops are everywhere. You'll want to see Arch Rock and Fort Holmes, both of which are on the east bluff. Take some time to wander the trails up there; lots to see. The west bluff (out behind the Grand Hotel) is dominated by exquisite neighborhoods of old money homes and wonderful views of the Mackinac Bridge. Bike the circumference of the Island along the shore -- 8 miles total. More specific activities would be a Fort Mackinac tour or a visit to the butterfly house. Arnold Ferry Lines runs cruises circling the island with food and drink available. Mostly, just see if you can capture the rhythm and the spirit of being on the island. Enjoy the sunset (or sunrise, as the case may be), watch the boats pass, admire the horses, wander and find someplace that touches you personally -- a shop, a garden, a view (I have a couple; I won't be sharing them). Visit once and you'll be back for more.

A word on pronunciation: It's pronounced "Mack-i-naw," as if the closing "c" was a "w." I don't know why. My spell checker keeps wanting me to spell Mackinac as Mackinaw. That's just wrong and I refuse to do it.

[Rant] Snapped Cable

There has been a lot of news recently about how all the cable channels are starting their own streaming services. Many folks are heralding this as the end of bundled cable. As in "Why am I paying for the Lifetime Network?" The theory behind this goes that it should cost less to just buy the channels you want. Well, in practice, I suspect it won't work out that way.

For example, HBO Go costs 14.99/month. That's a lot, but HBO is the ultimate. So let's say that the average station, a la carte, ends up at $10/month. If you want to subscribe to ten stations you're going to end up at $100/month plus whatever your internet service costs. Honestly, I don't see that being a lot cheaper than what you are paying Comcast/Time Warner/Charter/DirectTV. You might have a little more flexibility to swap stations seasonally depending on the terms of subscription, but it looks like a wash financially.

Put another way, If you are paying $100 for 300 cable tv channels, you are getting them for .33 cents a month. A la carte you will get fewer channels but at a greatly increased cost per channel. I suspect on average your monthly cost will be the same because cable has shown what the market will bear and a la carte subscription prices will increase to cover it.

Now, a la carte is a little more egalitarian in the sense that if you will pay relatively less if you really only have a two or three subscription channels versus the guy who really does regularly watch dozens. That seems somewhat fairer but I don't think that's a lot of people. But I suspect a lot of TV mavens who are lauding this development may find they end up paying even more.

The most egalitarian cost structure is on-demand -- pay only for what you watch show-by-show, episode-by-episode. We have that more or less already with Amazon/Netflix/Hulu although it is not comprehensive or timely. It may get there. I note that shows like Daredevil and Orange is the New Black (which I haven't watched) have taken to releasing entire seasons on demand at once. That's a much more interesting prospect to me.

But I have no complaints. I pay through the nose for Charter, but the service is actually pretty good, and my TV is on all the time -- I find it has replaced backround music in my life, perhaps not for the better. I also have Amazon Prime, but that is of broader value than just video. And I keep a Netflix sub, because it's just so cheap. All in all, I imagine I spend close to $200/month for entertainment and although I whinge about it occasionally, I suspect I get my money's worth. I don't see unbundled cable saving me all that much.

[TV] Lords of the X-Files

It's no secret the X-files is coming back and I admit I was fearful that it would be a disaster. The word was that the scripts for what is essentially going to be a mini-series were to be written by Chris Carter. Carter was a excellent show runner back in the day, but his scripts were dreary and slow and obsessed with the alien takeover mythology the show was trying to build over the years. The bulk of the best shows were written by James Wong, Glen Morgan, the mighty Vince Gilligan, and the divine Darin Morgan.

Well, the good news is that Wong, Morgan, and Morgan have all signed on for the new X-files. Vince Gilligan is, of course, too busy being the TV god of the Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul universe. So instead of fear disaster, I'm thinking this could turn out to be something truly great.

Furthermore, it looks like they are going to do a sequel to what was simply the ickiest hour of television ever produced. Hold nothing back, guys.

[Movies] More Action

Since I last listed and discussed the top action films of all time, back in March, I have had my opinion changed a bit. To refresh, here was the previous top ten.

1) Avengers
2) Iron Man 3
3) Thor: Dark World
4/5 tie) Dark Knight/Dark Knight Rises
6) The Matrix
7) Spiderman (original - not amazing)
8/9/10 tie) Cap: Winter Soldier/Iron Man 1/Spiderman 2(original - not amazing)

The revision comes for two reasons. 1) I completely missed out on the beauty of Captain America: Winter Soldier. My first viewing I was down on it because I felt it was humorless, but it wasn't, really. It never had a scene of lightheartedness like the other Marvel films, but it didn't need it. It would have been out of place. It hit the necessary tone just right. And the fight scenes were among the best ever produced. And 2) I had not yet seen Guardians of the Galaxy which was an absolute delight in practically every way.

So I am going to slot these two in places 3 and 4. The question is, which goes 3 and which goes 4? I'm going to go with Guardians slightly ahead because it pushes the farce and satire right to the edge, milking the most out of it without undermining the drama, so it gets a boost for degree of difficulty. That leaves us as follows:

1) Avengers
2) Iron Man 3
3) Guardians of the Galaxy
4) Cap: Winter Soldier
5) Thor: Dark World
6/7) Dark Knight/Dark Knight Rises
8) The Matrix
9) Spiderman (original - not amazing)
10 tie) Iron Man 1/Spiderman 2(original - not amazing)

I haven't seen Age of Ultron. Nor have I seen Kingsman which I have heard good things about. So I'll likely have to update this list once they hit the premium cable channels. I have seen a couple of recent conventional action films -- Jack Reacher and John Wick and they were well crafted engaging films. In the 80s they would have been the stuff of legend, but the action genre has passed such fare by.

I know it seems silly to dwell on this topic, but it's fun in a nerdy sort of way. And as I have mentioned before, action movies are at the pinnacle of craft and culture right now. They are the relevant form of art at the moment, for better or worse, so it's worth paying attention and engaging in the discussion.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Month That Was - May 2015

I was struggling with topics for this month, not because I had too few, but because they all ended up being Get-Off-My-Lawns. They weren't outright condemnations of stuff since I know a Get-Off-My-Lawn for what it is: just a reaction to a change that I'm either uncomfortable with or don't understand. Still it's worrisome that everything I am coming up with topic-wise is of the same flavor.

The problem is that what dominates my attention is often stuff nobody could conceivably care about. I never talk about work, my day job. That is asking for trouble. I don't discuss my writing in progress because I have both practical and superstitious reasons for keeping quiet about it until I have something worth talking about. I devote a lot of time to exercise, and I agree with Haruki Murakami that a gentleman shouldn't go on about what he does to stay fit." So unless I troll the web for material, I can feel somewhat limited in what I can come up with to write about.

Still, even when I get tempted to retire this site I realize that writing it is good discipline, which I need. I was a far more disciplined writer when I had my old football column and was forced to come up with 3000-5000 entertaining words every week. Not better, just more disciplined. I also on occasion feel the need to refer to some older stuff here -- My Back Pages, if you will. It's kind of like reminiscing over an old photo album.

So I conclude pressing on with blogging is what I should do, even with only a vague sense of its value. It's good to re-evaluate things when you get the feeling a change would make the grass greener. Not just the large features of your life but also the day-to-day activities. Increasingly, I find that what I'm already doing is just fine and that my grass is plenty green. Which is why I want you off my lawn.

[TV] The Last of Mad Men
[Books] Unfinished Book: Assassination Vacation
[Rant] Robots Quietly Wait
[Tech] Technorambling
[Travel] Colorado Springs

[TV] The Last of Mad Men

My first thought on the finale was "That was some weak tea, dude." Upon further reflection, I've had second thoughts. The finale was all about character resolutions so let's go through them and see what we've got. (I am going to refer occasionally to Matt Weiner's recent interview on the topic.)

Peggy/Stan - This came out of the blue for me. At first viewing I thought it must be some kind of dream sequence. They were always fast friends and occasional frenemies (a word I hate) but I never sensed anything romantic between them, then all of a sudden…face-sucking devotion. Weiner said he had to be sold on this idea, and was, but I'm not. I think they would have been better served leaving their final exchange about being defined by work as their ending.

Joan - Joan is still awful. I know, she has become something of a feminist icon and is in some eyes symbolic of all the terrible things men have done to women, and so her final act -- doing exactly what she wants in defiance of yet another man who can't let her be her own woman, or something -- is probably supposed to be heroic. To this end they had to demonize her ex-husband one last time with an offhand comment lest we think she may be in the wrong for passing off the child of his cuckolding as his own. As you know I'm allergic to politics, so I just look at her personally. She treats people terribly and has since the very first episode. She tries to fish Peggy into her movie production scheme, which Peggy rightly wants no part of. She has always done exactly what she wanted and thought of her own fulfillment above anything else, including her own soul -- even now, when she has enough money to not live in fear and insecurity, she still has a need for authority and control above all else. Yes, I know I am probably the only one who sees it like this, but she's awful. Nice rack, though.

Betty - A true tragedy; something we rarely see in television. She finally found her footing in life -- going back to school. She is still cold and distant to her kids, although she had made minor strides to connect with them more. She was improving and learning. Then her life ends. There's really no lesson I can see in this other than bad things can happen at any time. No silver lining. No symbolic logic. Just flat out tragedy. That in itself took some dramatic courage, but also from a dramatic standpoint, I think she came to peace with dying a bit too quickly. We maybe could have used another episode to dramatize it rather than reducing it to "I watched my Mother die and I won't do that to you." (On the other hand, if it was extended I might be complaining about it dragging on. Sometimes there's no winning with me.)

Pete - came to the realization that his inescapable dissatisfaction with everyone and everything was the source of much of his problems; the key conversation being a dinner with his brother where he saw that it was a legacy from his father. (If there is an ongoing lesson from Mad Men, it's a Gatsby-esque the-past-is-always-with-you sort of thing.) He gets out of advertising and rebuilds his family and seems to finally be on the road to the success he's always wanted now that he's turned his back on everything he thought would bring him success. In contrast to Betty, this is the one true happy ending. Not sure if Pete deserved it, but it was nicely coherent and built up well over the final episodes.

Roger - seems to have finished up by marrying someone more childishly neurotic than himself. My guess would be this marriage is as doomed as his others. It's hard to say how Roger comes out in the end. I do hope he rids himself of that ludicrous mustache.

Sally - turns out to be the most successful of all. Faced with a dead Mom, an absentee Dad, and an uncertain future in the care of relatives, she is more defined by what she doesn't do. She doesn't follow Don's pattern and check out and disappear to Europe as she had planned. She doesn't follow Betty's pattern and distance herself emotionally and take it out on her brothers by spewing hostility. She simply starts caring for them and decides to help however she can. In that, there is hope that she has broken with her emotionally dysfunctional inheritance. This is the most uplifting of the endings.

Which brings us to…

Don - Where to begin? The past few episodes have seen him stripped of everything. Perhaps as the result of his perpetual habit of fleeing when things get uncomfortable. Or perhaps he purposefully (subconsciously) stripping himself of everything just to see what was really there. At the Esalen Institute he is even stripped of his charisma as they are not the sort to be influenced by his looks or his charmspeak. When his niece is facing having given up her baby, a situation essentially identical to Peggy in Season 2, he gives her the Peggy speech about how she must put it behind her and move on, how she will be surprised how much it will have "never happened." Unlike Peggy, his niece isn't buying it, offering a simple, "I don't think you are right about that."

Now Don has nothing. His job, so important to his identity, has been abandoned. His family, in the midst of the worst possible tragedy, doesn't want him involved. And now he cannot even move someone with his words. All the striving of his life, all the constructs he labored to build, and the relationships he tried so deftly to manage, and he is still Dick Whitman, terrified and desperate for any amount of real love, security, and acceptance. All his life he has been beating against the current, borne back ceaselessly into a childhood in a whorehouse.

Then he is in group with the Bald Guy. The Bald Guy has a great nuclear family, his job is stable and steady, and he is the least charismatic man alive. In other words, he's Don's exact opposite ( a truly inspired moment by Weiner). Yet he puts into words exactly how Don has felt his whole life -- on a shelf in the cold dark refrigerator, occasionally there is beautiful light and warmth from the outside, but it never takes. You always end up unselected and back in the cold dark. (I would cynically point out that while it might be nice to be chosen to be removed from the fridge, it just means you're going to get eaten.) And in this image of his opposite expressing his exact feelings, Don sees that he is not really alone in his angst, the bulk of humanity is in the same boat. In the being-middle-aged industry, we call this an existential crisis.

And so we get the Coke commercial, and there are a few schools of thought about it. In the dumbest school it in indicates Don has rejected his previous life completely become a hippie of some sort. I'll ignore that. Then there are two variations of Don returns to McCann and creates that commercial. One is that his journey was for naught and all he got out of it was a new, cynical angle to sell sugared water. That kind of invalidates the entire final season, if not the whole series. The school I adhere to is the one that says the journey from "It's toasted" to teaching the world to sing was a personal one. Don once described advertising as convincing people that they are OK. He didn't really think people, including those in his life, were OK. He knew he was not OK: all along he had felt as though he was not part of the world, that his loneliness and alienation were personal. Yet he discovered that the wars inside himself are the same sort as the wars inside everyone else, and so maybe people really were OK, and by extension so was he. Or if not OK, at least qualified to sing a happy song on the side of a mountaintop.

Throughout its run, the world has tried to box Mad Men into whatever social context it felt was urgent. Matt Weiner always defied them. He always saw the disconnect between the mythology and the reality of the times he was portraying. The reality is that the time of Mad Men, like all times, was personal, not political. There are no great societal lessons from Mad Men; it was a simply bold vision of life and lives, of people on their journeys. And because of that, in the tradition of great humanities, it shined a light on us.

That is some seriously potent tea, dude.

  • To expand on the pitfalls Weiner dodged, when you turn your series into a socio-political commentary it ceases to be about the time in which it is set and become about today. It's no longer about the characters and their relationship to their world, it's about our world's judgment on them. It also becomes shallow and small-minded and outright pompous. Fall into that pit and you get Masters of Sex or The Knick -- shows that create a minor splash then fall off the radar when it becomes clear they exist to just bolstering our progressive social mythology. On the other hand, the one historical series that hasn't tripped up on this account yet is AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, which I don't think has ever been on the radar. So go figure.
  • It's going to be interesting to see what happens to the actors involved in Mad Men, and if they ever escape the glow. Hamm has scored a couple of commercial films and probably has a leading-man-in-a-rom-com future. Elizabeth Moss looks on track for a career of "serious" roles after her work on stage and on Top of the Lake. But what about the others? I don't see any of them breaking big. Slattery and Kartheiser seem more like second banana character actors to me. Will Christina Hendricks ever be anything but a bombshell? This is not a comment on their acting skills, which are certainly top notch, but the Hollywood machine doesn't really care about that. It cares that when people look at you they see Pete Campell or Roger Sterling or a nice rack. As fine as they were, it's going to be a struggle for them to get a role outside their image, and if they do they are going to have to really nail it.

[Books] Unfinished Book: Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell

A confessed assassination junkie, Sarah Vowell travelled the country investigating sites of renown connected to U.S presidential assassinations -- Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. She is obviously quite knowledgeable on this topic and she writes in lively, clear, and entertaining prose. At first, it seemed like I was in for a good time with Assassination Vacation.

But nothing, and I mean nothing, got by without her striking a moral pose: a few innocuous words from a park ranger bring to mind the horrors of Guantanamo; Garfield's election is when the Republican party turned evil, etc. This is a scourge. God forbid anyone produce a creative work anymore without devoting a solid percentage of it to positioning it in the correct socio-political and ethical framework. It's depressing, but also understandable to a certain extent. Vowell is young (or was when she wrote this) and young people are simultaneously thoughtless and self-assured in their beliefs. I also blame Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for convincing an entire generation that smug political snark counts as witty insight.

In any event, I could tolerate the need of a 21st century progressive to pass sanctimonious judgment on folks from a century and a half ago when it came to the Lincoln assassination because that's the planted, inherited narrative we all have as our legacy. I was hoping when she got to the Garfield assassination she would let up and focus on the story. Nope. It got worse. She reached the point where the effort to identify and skip past the narrow-minded moralizing made it no longer worthwhile to continue. So I did something I have only done a handful of times in my life. I quit on a book before finishing.

Assassination Vacation got excellent reviews and was highly spoken of on a couple of forums I visit. That's how it came to my attention. Perhaps it would work better for people younger than me (that's most people) who expect, and possibly require, to know the moral positioning of the author of their reading material. For me, it's just an annoying distraction.

[Rant] Robots Quietly Wait

I belong to a facebook group that follows news and events and such for Las Vegas (no surprise) where recently someone started a thread about a minor dust-up in Sin City over the Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services. Traditional cabbies are feeling threatened; their union is preparing for battle against the upstarts. The cabbies response to this is a typically self-destructive protest: some are planning to park their cabs somewhere on The Strip for a couple of hours as a demonstration of...well, I don't know what. It's really just a form of acting out.

Here's the thing about cabbies in LV. They are cool enough individually, often clever conversationalists as they whip you around town. But every single one of them is on the make. They make heavy use of something called long-hauling, especially from the airport. LV is structured so that you can take either the freeway or city streets to get to your hotel. Taking the city streets is shorter distance-wise but because of traffic it takes about the same time as a longer route down the freeway. Naturally cabbies, who are paid by the mile always try to take the freeway. They do this all the time. The occasional tourist will never notice and only be out an extra few dollars (maybe one hand's worth of blackjack), but once you are a veteran visitor it really grates on you. This would easily be solved if the cab authority/city council would implement a zoning system with fixed rates. But I suppose the cab union or some group has wielded enough power to prevent it. Thus the attraction of Uber.

So through their own corruption the cabbies have pissed everyone off, and their response to Uber is to do something so profounding futile and childish that people will hate them even more. They just don't realize life as they have known it is already over. But they'll learn. Or maybe they won't. Maybe they'll just go through life with a victimized-by-the-man chip on their shoulder. Hey, it's easier on your self-esteem than admitting you're on the wrong side and adapting.

But that's not my point here. My comment in the facebook thread was "Long-term winner: Driverless cars." I don't think I need to go into that topic here as I have done it in depth in the past. But it made me think further about the automated world we are barreling toward. In the age of automation what would a trip to Vegas be like? More specifically, at what points will I actually need to interact with a human being?

I certainly don't need to see people at the airport. Exit the plane, take the shuttle to the terminal, pick up my bags, and grab a cab. I already don't have anyone involved. If I have a driverless cab that gets me to the hotel, then no humans needed. What about when I get a rental car? National already lets me just walk to the lot and get my own car. I have to check out with some guy before exiting, but he does nothing that can't be automated.

At the hotel, no reason I couldn't check in and have my room assigned at a kiosk. I rarely need help with my bags, but I have no doubt baggage handling could be automated. Even if I couldn't get direct transport to my room, I bet it could be automated at least to the point of having your bags waiting in a central area on your floor.

Having checked in I might want to hit the casino, where there will be no dealers, all the games will be electronic. Maybe you could even use your phone to play and pay for your chips with Apple pay.

Dining out is an interesting conundrum. Certainly, I would have no problem ordering my food from a touch screen at the table. Food could be delivered via a robot cart of some sort, but I suspect a lot of folks would want an actual person to talk to about suggestions for food and wine and such. That may become a sign of an upscale restaurant -- real, live servers. That is to say, you want to talk to someone, you'll pay for it. But you don't need it. The genius of buffets is just that: minimizing server labor.

Entertainment -- ah here we go. I have no interest in seeing a robot Cirque du Soleil. I already know machines can do things people can't. I want what people can do. And however perfect a robot might mimic Frank Sinatra's voice and phrasing and emotion -- the robot is not feeling it. Mimicry is novelty not art, otherwise Elvis impersonators would be as big as Elvis.

So I got pretty far before we found something people had to do. Now the response to this might be that while I didn't have to interact with any people, there were people behind the scenes that had to come through for things to work smoothly. I only agree with that a little bit. You need people but not that many.

You need systems people to maintain the automation certainly, but that's done wholesale. That is to say, you need mechanic when your car breaks, but not every car needs its own mechanic. So you need driverless cab repair services and perhaps even car routing assistance if things get fouled up, but that doesn't replace the number of cabbies no longer needed. And in that robot restaurant, you need people to resolve problems, address complaints, and offer assistance to the overly confused, but you don't need a server for every five or six tables. You've gone from needing a staff of twenty to cover the floor to a staff of two. Probably something similar going on in the back of the house.

So there are a couple of clues about how to position yourself for a career in the future. Creative work seems relatively safe. Anything that requires abstract thinking is good, too. Being good at dealing with uncertainty in general and when problem solving in particular -- like diagnosing a failure in an electronic poker system -- is going to be good too. But if your job just requires diligence, not wit, you're in trouble. If you can do it by following a checklist, you're toast.

And let's speak bluntly, IQ and creativity, the two human qualities most required for employment in this future world are already considered elitist qualities. And let's be even more blunt, they cannot be learned. Through diligent effort you might be able to increase your IQ a point or two or learn some tricks that can provide something approaching minor inspiration, but for the most part if you aren't born with brains or creativity, you're probably not going to acquire them. There is definitely going to be a class warfare aspect to this.

One thing we have in our favor as we approach this is our unmatched skill for hypocrisy. We can claim sincere beliefs in things while acting oppositely, with a straight face. For instance we might simply make it an honorable thing to be left behind. Instead of neglecting or denigrating folks who can't keep up, allow them the badge of honor of entitled righteousness. We do that to some extent already with virtually every disaffected group and many individuals today. Those who have adapted and overcome the difficulties of the world to find success find it in their interest to tell those who haven't "It's not your fault, we are in the wrong; it's us, not you, but we're trying to fix the situation -- here's a program (protect you industry) or a social norm (perceived authenticity) to prove you are of value" even though they wouldn't change places for anything. The underlying world goes on as it will and those who can't achieve in reality are mollified by the ego massage. The traffic in drugs will be permitted, but controlled, and Don Corleone will give up protection in the East, and there will be the peace.

That sounds dark and negative, but honestly, it's a feature not a bug. The desire to have other people feel of value is real, despite the hypocrisy of it -- partly for moral/religious reasons (they, too, have an immortal soul, no different from yours) and partly because we all know luck plays a role in the world and the folks who have "made it" know they could find themselves on the other side faster than they think.

The alternative to this self-worth management is to force the world to stop -- to say "That's far enough, no more progress, we're happy as we are ever going to be. No robots allowed." There is a naive, egalitarian appeal to that but it hides a greater evil. To stop the world from going the way it wants will require an exercise of authority unseen outside North Korea and brings costs beyond anyone's expectations (see: The War on Drugs). I do not know if the age of automation will bring greater overall happiness to the world, but I know stopping it will make the world much less happy.

[Tech] Technorambling

I see the laptop I selected a couple of years ago, the Dell XPS 13, is still discussed on the various review sites as the laptop-to-beat in most comparisons. It's a good one, I'll admit, and given my history with Dell it's a significant admission. I had battery go bad a few months ago, but was able to replace it inexpensively on my own. Lately the power cord has been flukey, but if that gets out of hand it's another easy replacement. I bought it from the Microsoft Store as part of their Signature Series -- they resell laptops that they have tuned and cleaned all the bloatware from -- which was another wise decision. All in all, it's worked out well, so I can readily recommend you make the same choice if in the market for a laptop. Although I must admit the new Surface looks awfully sweet. If I was in the market it would be the only competition for an XPS at this point. The Surface lacks the XPS 13's performance, but excels in convenience and flexibility.

In truth, I could probably get away with a $200 Chromebook of some sort. Everything I do is on the web. Writing, banking, shopping, reading, music -- all of it streamed. (If my internet connection goes down I'm pretty much dead. I have to resort to filling my time with housework.) The only software I run locally anymore is for editing photos. And while my photography has taken a back seat to time working on the house the past two or three years, that appears to be changing since I just purchased an new DSLR.

My old camera was a Nikon D50. I was a big ungainly thing, no image stabilization to speak of, but when I nailed it with that camera I was able to take some astounding pictures. Sadly it suffered from a known issue that caused it to have some sort of especially bad dust spots, which I had to remove from all my pics using Photoshop. Nikon eventually offered free cleaning and inspection to everyone in an attempt to resolve this, but by that time the shutter mechanism had given up the ghost. I probably could have sent it in to Nikon and told them to fix everything, but by then my frequent traveling was coming to a temporary end, and technology had advanced quite a bit making it fairly obsolete. So I left it on a shelf, where it still sits.

I picked up a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot a while back, only to find out the picture quality is really not that different from my phone. One important thing I have come to learn is that a larger sensor makes for better quality photos (this is not the number of megapixels, but the actual physical size of the sensor in the camera.) Sensor size is the primary difference between a quality camera and something consumer grade. Another thing I learned was that zoom is not that important, in fact most serious photographers spend their money on high quality fixed lenses called "primes" often trying to mimic exactly what that eye sees. Beyond a certain point zoom is detrimental to quality, especially for ad hoc photography, which is pretty much all I do. Lastly, I learned about taking photos in "RAW" mode -- creating an uncompressed image that allows more flexibility in editing. These RAW images can then be saved to JPG/PNG for presentation. That eliminated most point-and-shoots, which have smaller sensors and focus on gaudy megapixel and zoom numbers and don't support RAW.

So after I settled into the house I got back in the market for a quality camera. It's really quite confusing. There are new formats, differing standards, a lot has changed, but it's still safe to focus on sensor size. The smallest sensor you want for serious photography -- by which I mean a serious amatuer or hobbyist -- is called APS-C. This is the one you will get in most entry-level and intermediate DSLRs and also in some of the newer more compact formats.

The next size up is referred to as "full frame" and at this point you start to get into professional level territory. Naturally, having learned my lessons about image quality, I thought I should go full frame but in the end I couldn't justify the cost. The cheapest full-frame I found was the Sony A7 which, with lens, would have run me no less than $1200. I simply cannot delude myself into believing I am at the $1200 camera level as a photographer.

So I scaled back to APS-C and search for the cheapest one and happened upon a dealer on eBay selling a Canon EOS Rebel T5i DSLR for under $500 with a short zoom lens (maybe 3x). That's a fair amount less than my old Nikon cost years ago, and it's probably many times the camera at least. Ain't progress grand?

Now it's up to me to re-ignite my photography hobby, which has been dormant the past few years, as evidence by my smugmug page. I just hope the house cooperates.

[Travel] Colorado Springs

How long has it been since I did a travel post? Too damn, that's how long. So I was in Colorado Springs, for work of course, but that didn't stop me from snagging an extra weekend for some exploration.

Colorado Springs is interesting in that it is clearly someplace you go for a specific activity. Not exclusively recreation -- that activity might be attending the Air Force Academy -- but usually recreation. And outside of the recreational centers the place approximates one of the nondescript Detroit suburbs I am so familiar with -- anonymus strip malls, aging middle class neighborhoods, and office buildings peppered between the major arteries, except with mountains in the background. But the recreational centers, which are available in spades, are a delight.

First let me say that if you ever visit Colorado Springs the place to stay is The Broadmoor, a legendary resort with old school service values. The Broadmoor complex is enormous including a small lake and some nature trails. The grounds are spectacularly landscaped and maintained, and all the buildings are architectural in a style I would simply call Old World Class. It put me in mind of a place I visited years ago, the Greenbrier. The target market is wealthy folks with a strong attachment to golf (there are three courses). High-end luxury by any standard. Naturally, I did not stay here. It was where the conference I was attending was running, so I did get to spend the bulk of my day within it's confines. It would be tough to overstate the exceptionalism. If you get the chance and have the money do stay there.

Colorado Springs is all about the outdoors and the prime attraction is Pike's Peak. There are a couple of ways to get up the mountain. The obvious one is to drive -- it's 19 miles at typically 25-30 mph so if you don't stop you'll reach the top in less than an hour. But you do want to stop. There are numerous overlooks and roadside rest stops, all of which have remarkable views of the surrounding miles. The second way is to take the cog rail. This is a train/shuttle that slowly carries you up the mountain at a leisurely pace such that you get views the whole time. It stops at the top to allow for exploration and, presumably, trinket shopping. Round trip is about 3 hours. I'm guessing it' a nice relaxing way to get up Pike's Peak. Here's a good overview of the rail trip. As for me, I drove. It's a pleasant trip up with a couple of nice stopping points that you will miss on the railway. It is much less of a white knuckler than many other winding mountain roads I've driven in the southwest, especially with the low speed limits. Nothing to fear here.

The third way up would be to hike or bike. I would love to bike up but it would probably kill me, not just because of the inclination but also the near complete lack of air about 12000 feet. I exaggerate, but only slightly. Above the timberline, simply exiting the car and walking across the street labored my breathing. (Here's a potential dream trip for me. Ship my bike out for two weeks in Colorado Springs to acclimate and make multiple summit attempts.)

The other thing about Pike's Peak is that any time outside the summer months you run the risk of the weather working against you. At some point earlier in the year, the road had opened all the way to the summit, but a series of snowstorms had the road close above 12,000 feet, so I never did summit the damn thing. But I was lucky in a way. After I turned to head back down another storm hit and the subsequently closed the road down to about 10,000. Win some, lose some. Pike's Peak is recommended if you are in the area. Might even be worth the trip down from Denver (about an hour-ish).

Closer to town -- in fact, pretty much right in town -- is the Garden of the Gods. A park featuring winding paths among massive stone outcroppings. Very cool looking, and a haven for rock climbers. You can see them spidering up any number of faces. The folks here are very lucky t have such a spot within a fifteen minute drive of most of them I would think. The trails are ideal for running along. It's one of those things you would show someone to explain why you liked living here after they got an eyeful of the mid-grade suburban sprawl. Yes, the rocks here are not Utah level rocks, but they are a sight. Another one recommended.

The final event of the weekend was a 10K. It consisted of about 4 miles up the side of the mountain, then turn around and finish in a downhill sprint. I don't know what possessed me to want to do this. Since there is no air to speak of, why would I want to engage in an activity that required me to breathe more of it? But there I was as the sun was coming up lined up and ready to go. It was as bad as I thought. By mile 3 I was alternating running and walking. By mile 4 I was just walking until I got to the turnaround then, through the magic of gravity, I was flying down to the finish. The great thing about this race was that it finished at the zoo. You cross the finish line and walk through the run expo and there you are face to face with a giraffe. I was unsure why he was looking at me like that, perhaps he thought I was an idiot to be running around without any air to breathe, when a young child leaped in front of me with a clump of lettuce and fed him directly from his hand. At the Cheyenne Mountian Zoo you can feed the giraffes by hand.

But the big thing I got from this visit was a re-ignition of my desire to travel to new places. Not necessarily exotic places, just new. Travel-wise I've been running on rails the past few years. Vegas and Florida, long weekends to Chicago and Mackinac Island. As much as I love comfortable escapes, I need to go have experiences like this. Things I haven't done and seen before. Like I said, not epic, just new. Let the planning begin.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Month That Was - April 2015

Life's a swirling vortex at the moment so you get a bit of a short shrift this month. Only two items, but they are both long, because I place absolutely no value on your time. Spring is upon us and that means chores. Work has gotten rather busier and is requiring some travel. Agonizingly slow progress in writing. Kinda same ol' same ol', isn't it? Except there's more of it. Hopefully back to more content next month.

[Books] Book Look: The World of Yesterday
[TV] Again, Toob Notes

[Books] Book Look: The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig

As I have pointed out occasionally, I have come, in the past few years, to appreciate the past in a way I never did before. I used to see the past as a mythology, the same shallow mythology that is passed down to most Americans that frames the past as a black and white silent film or a withered old painting; a two-dimensional world filled with an unfamiliar predecessor of humanity. This mythology is, not surprisingly, self-serving. It is morphed to demonstrate both our progressive greatness and our honor stolid traditions as required to support whatever the bias of the mythologizer, in spite of any internal contradictions.

This changed for me when Mad Men came to TV. (That's an odd thing to cause an epiphany, but there you are.) Here was the world of some of my earliest memories, painstakingly reproduced, and the dominant contemporary culture responded to it as if it was some freak show filled with ignorant cavemen. The light bulb went on over my head. First, it was obvious that I had been spun out of mainstream culture, as often happens to folks in middle age. This really didn't bother me because I have always been a contrarian sort, and mainstream culture can suck it. The cool thing it did for me was to make me lose adherence to the mythology. If the world looked at a past I knew to be as complex and deep as the present and chose to see it as shallow and backward, how could I justify doing the same to times before mine. History went from black and white cathode ray, to full-on IMAX 3D.

In this context The World of Yesterday has been a joy to read. Although sold as an autobiography, it is predominantly an overview of how life was lived during the lifetime of the author, Stefan Zweig. Zweig keeps the focus on the world and the events of the times rather than his personal life -- he was twice married but barely mentions either spouse.

Zweig was born in 1881, in Austria, and died in 1942 in the midst of WW2. Thus, his life starts in what is the late stages of one of the longest eras of peace Europe had ever known (there had been only small skirmishes post-Napoleon), a time that has been declared a gloriously free and stable age by virtually anyone who documented experiencing it. From that point, his world descends into the aimless slaughter of WW1 and the evil carnage of WW2.

(Quick note: because Zweig writes so clearly and accessibly, this review is going to consist mainly of quotes.)

From last month I quoted Zweig's description of the end of the 19th century and I'll repeat it here:
In its liberal idealism, the nineteenth century was honestly convinced that it was on the direct and infallible road to the best of all possible worlds. The people of the time scornfully looked down on earlier epochs with their wars, famines and revolutions as periods when mankind had not yet come of age and was insufficiently enlightened. Now, however, it was a mere matter of decades before they finally saw an end to evil and violence, and in those days this faith in uninterrupted, inexorable 'progress' truly had the force of a religion.
Science, the archangel of progress, had worked all these miracles. Social welfare was also proceeding apace; from year to year more rights were granted to the individual, the judiciary laid down the law in a milder and more humane manner, even that ultimate problem, the poverty of the masses, no longer seemed insuperable. Sociologists and professors competed to make the lives of the proletariat healthier and happier--no wonder that century basked in its own sense of achievement and regarded every decade as it drew to a close as the prelude to a better one.
Notice how the vision and language of progressive idealism has not changed for probably 150 years. This description could be a template for every politician, journalist, community activist, college freshman, or other loudmouth who speaks of the glories of the coming age when their pet ideas have finally triumphed. Are we there yet?

How about the generation gap, surely that came about with the brave new world in the beautiful 1960s, right? Well, no.
None of these young people believed their parents, the politicians or their teachers. Every state decree was read with distrust. The postwar generation [post-WW1] emancipated itself with a sudden, violent reaction...Anyone or anything not their own age was finished, out-of-date, done for...School councils...were set up, with young people keeping a sharp eye on the teachers and making their own changes to the curriculum, because children wanted to learn only what they liked. Girls had their hair cut in such short bobs that they could not be told from boys; young men shaved off their beards to look more like girls. Homosexuality and lesbianism were very much in fashion, not as a result of a young person's instinctive drives, but in protest against all the old traditional, legal and moral kinds of love.
Oh my. Zweig insightfully suggests that all this disorderly liberty contributed to Hitler's rise, keenly noting that the fascist rises not from creeping oppression, but in reaction to chaos.

Then there is this regarding the written word:
The definite article was omitted, sentence structure reversed, everything was written in abbreviated, telegraphese style, with excitable exclamations.
Sadly, they had yet to discover the glory of a 140 character limit.

One of the interesting aspects of Zweig's life is that he encountered seemingly most of the renowned artists, writers, and thinkers of his day, though many the names are now unrecognizable to the contemporary world. His description of the life of these figures is quite different from how we would picture a life in the arts today.
"To all outward appearance, the life of these Impressionists whose work now fetches tens of millions of dollars was just like the life of a petit bourgeois living on a small income--a little house with a studio built on to it, none of the showy splendors of the grand villas...The writers whom I soon came to know personally lived as simply as the artists. Most of them held minor public office in a job that did not call for much strenuous work...For instance, they might be appointed as librarians...others were doctors...or ran a little picture gallery...or taught in grammar schools...none of them were pretentious enough to base their lives on the independent pursuit of their artistic inclinations, like those who came after them and had inflated ideas of themselves as a result of films or large print runs of their works."
I am reminded of one of Jerry Pournelle's comments from long ago, that he saw no reason a writer shouldn't have a day job. Of course, I suppose it could be argued that for most people in the arts, self-promotion is their day job.

He gives a harrowing, yet strangely upbeat, account of the times of hyperinflation after the end of WW1.
Strangest of all is the fact that today, with the best will in the world, I cannot recall how we managed to keep house in those years, when everyone in Austria had to raise thousands and tens of thousands of crowns...just to survive, and then had to do it again and again. We got used to the chaos and adapted to it. Logically, a foreigner who did not see those days first hand would probably imagine that at a time when an egg cost as much in Austria as the price of a luxury car in the past, and the later fetched four billion marks in Germany--roughly the basic value of all the buildings in the greater Berlin area before inflation--women would be rushing through the streets tearing their hair, shops would be empty because no one could afford to buy anything, and theatres and other places of entertainment would have no audiences at all. Astonishingly, however, it was just the opposite. The will for life to go on proved stronger than the instability of the currency. In the midst of financial chaos, daily life continued almost unchanged. Individuals, of course, felt great deal of change--the rich were impoverished when their money in the bank and government securities melted away, speculators grew rich. But regardless of individual fates, the flywheel of the mechanism kept turning the same old rhythm. Nothing stood still...the baker made bread, the cobbler made boots, the writer wrote books, the farmer cultivated land, trains ran regularly...the bars and theatres were full to overflowing. For with the daily loss of the value of money...people came to appreciate true values such as work, love, friendship, art and nature all the more, and in midst of disaster the nation a whole lived more intensely than ever before, strung to a higher pitch.
Whoa. So much to comment on in that paragraph. First, our underwater mortgages don't hold a candle to real financial chaos. Second, it seems that in certain circumstances financial chaos doesn't lead to social chaos. Would our world of service jobs and energy dependence and class envy and entitlement fare as well? Gotta give this one to the cavemen.

This one is self-serving, but it's another observation that you could have just as easily read right here on this blog.
A book really satisfies me only if it maintains it's pace page after page, carrying the readers breathlessly along to the end. Nine-tenths of the books that come my way seem to be padded out with unnecessary descriptions, too much loquacious dialogue and superfluous minor characters; they are just not dynamic and exciting enough. I get impatient with many arid, slow-moving passages even in the most famous classic masterpieces, and I have often suggested a bold idea of mine to publishers--why not bring out a series of great works of international literature...with the unnecessary parts cut?
Heh, heh, heh. Preach it, brother.

When Hitler's takeover of Austria was imminent Zweig was travelling in the U.S. and South America. (He was one of the wise and/or lucky Jews who escaped.) That time generated this wonderful snippet.
But travelling, even as far as to other worlds under other stars did not allow me to escape Europe and my anxieties. It seems almost like Nature's fierce revenge on mankind that the achievements of technology through which we have taken her mysterious forces into our own hands simultaneously destroy the soul. The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time. Previous generations could retreat into solitude and seclusion when disaster struck; it was our fate to be aware of everything catastrophic happening anywhere in the world at the hour and second when it happened.
Why didn't he just log off Twitter and shut off his cell phone? Oh wait, this was 1938. TV was barely on the radar at that point, yet a similar rant is written on some blog just about everyday today. Could it be that our problems aren't so new and special after all? And how far back do you have to go to find solitude? Do you suppose the Neanderthals had it right?

Should you read The World of Yesterday? I found it so rewarding that I can't say no. But I also can't deny it will have only niche appeal. If you have the same historical curiosities I have you shouldn't miss it. If you don't really have historical interests or are comfortable with the mythology (no reason not to be) it's going to be tough to appreciate. Although there are some bits of interest from an artistic angle, including encounters with Strauss, H.G. Wells, Shaw, and Freud, they will not add much to your understanding of them or their work. But I found the book so rewarding that I can't imagine a thoughtful read not yielding pleasure.

The arc of Zweig's life was ultimately tragic. He was born into a the comfort, peace and stability of the centuries-old Habsburg Empire and saw the world get progressively more bloody and savage through the course of his years, all in the interest of progress. He died a stateless Jew, effectively on the run from Hitler in 1942, never seeing the end of the 20th century horrors. Had he lived to 135, he would have found today rather familiar.