Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Month That Was - September 2014

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

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

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

[Music] Quadrophenia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Movies] Two For the Action

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

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

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

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

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

[Health and Fitness] One Tough Mudder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I'll schedule days off for after.

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

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

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

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

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

[TV, Rant] Do We Not Bleed

Megan McCardle mirrors my feelings about the poor state of TV, specifically through the lens of the current fashion of period drama:
"The thing I find harder to forgive is the shows' inability to commit to that drama -- to try to actually engage with what was actually dramatic and interesting in those eras. They can't resist moralizing from the point of view of a 21st-century modern -- and so they sap the conflicts they're portraying of their meaning. Every poor person lives in unmitigated squalor; every person who is not poor is grotesquely oblivious or spouts absurd social Darwinist dogma. Race and gender relations are handled with the subtlety and gripping realism of an ABC Afterschool Special, and every likable woman must, of course, at least secretly aspire to work outside the home. In period dramas, the personal is always, always political."
This is what I was getting at in my previous look at Mad Men. No one short of Matt Weiner really has a grip on personal drama. To the rest of the world, drama consists conflict between socio-political stereotypes. It's painfully empty, and it's the reason why shows like Masters of Sex and The Knick, despite their promising premises, don't measure up to the great shows of the previous decade. The time of quality TV drama has passed for good.

In a bigger sense this is a by-product of the arrogance of our age. It's a great sneer at the previous generations who lacked wisdom and understanding of the current pack of pop-cultural elites. They portray the past as full of demonic sociological cliches to exalt the myth of their own progress and greatness. Whether it is true or not that this era is better than the preceding ones (for the record, my opinion is that it is but, other than technologically, not by very much) you can't help but gag at the hubris.

Related: This essay in Dissent touches similar themes from a workplace perspective -- how all novels of the workplace are really about workplace politics, not work itself, and they enter into the whole enterprise with the planted assumption that corporate existence is soul-crushing and empty. I don't think it's irrelevant to point out that your basic novelist would have no bloody idea what corporate life is like, and many have little understanding of how anyone can live a fulfilled life who doesn't spend their free time in the bistros of the Upper West Side. Sneer-meisters.

Tangential speculation: Speaking of sneering, I have always sneered at reality TV, and I still do at the sort that aims to manufacture celebrities out of attention whoring dirtbags. But then there is the "real jobs" style of reality TV that at least presumes to dramatize the workaday activities of normal people. (I say "dramatize" because we all know that "reality" TV is pretty thoroughly planned if not outright scripted.) Perhaps these shows are an awkward step at filling the desire for folks to see personal life, instead of editorializing and moral condescension.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Month That Was - August 2014

Well, that was a short summer. I think I fired up my grill a total of three times. I continued to wrestle with my garden, but I have high hopes for next year. Hornet infestations became a habit.  I have an ever growing fear of another terrible winter. Other than that, there not much new to report. Oh, I did get a new car [grin] -- story below.

[Cars] The Wheels Go Round and Round
[Books] Book Look: Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear
[Books] Book Look: A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite
[Rant] The Young'ns Don't Understand

[Cars] The Wheels Go Round and Round

This month I bid farewell to my trusty Camry. 12 years, 195,000 miles. Oddly, I never got all that emotionally attached to it. It wasn't the revelation of quality that my previous Camry was, in fact, it was not even as good a car; it's primary advantage came from improved rust protection that allowed it to last a bit longer. It wasn't as solid, although it was equally reliable, that is to say utterly dependable in all circumstances. Nevertheless, it served me well, and deserves as much gratitude as any machine. Sayonara, my friend!

Interestingly, the thing that put me in the market seriously was that it started burning oil at a rate of about a quart every 500-1000 miles. I deemed this unacceptable, although the net cost in oil would have been $60 a year, and, as I have since discovered, in some cars burning oil like that is expected. I believe a Mini, for example, is expected to burn a quart every 1000-1500 miles when new.

In what I consider to be my adult life I had owned exactly three cars:

(1) an ‘84 Toyota Celica ST. A perfect college and 20-something car. A sweet and sporty little thing with AM/FM radio (no cassette, CDs had yet to be invented), power nothing, and no a/c. The drivetrain was sweet though: a fuel injected 22re engine and a 5-speed. I drove it all over the country listening to whatever meager radio stations I could get and sweltering in the unconditioned air. These car were wildly underappreciated in their day -- if I still had it and it was in reasonable condition I could get serious scratch for it from the Fast & Furious crowd. I think I got 180,000 miles out of it. Rust was getting the best of it at the end, though.

(2) a ‘93 Camry LE. After the elemental experience of the Celica this thing was a revelation. Built just as Toyota was gearing up the Lexus marque there were all sorts of trickle down quality benefits. Driving this car was like driving a tomb -- it was dead silent and air tight. Never a squeak or a rattle, virtually no road or wind noise, road like a magic carpet. It really gave the impression that it wasn't so much assembled as carved out of a block of granite. This one lasted 180,000 also. Only starting to rust around the wheel wells at the end. I don't even remember why I sold it.

(3) an ‘02 Camry LE. The above mentioned car. I purchased this online through autobytel.com. At the time I was exclusively looking for Camrys because of my great experience with the previous one. This one, however, was not quite so astounding. There was a squeak in the dash that took a couple of visits to the dealer to resolve and a rattle in the door that I just lived with. It rode very smoothly -- a thing I rediscovered whenever I returned to it from stretch in a rental car -- but that seemed to be due to cushioning and soft springs as opposed to solid construction. Handling was loose as a goose, but predictably so. It had no discernable rust, even at 195,000 miles. And when I went back into to car market, it was good enough to let me take my time and find the right next car without feeling like I had to get out of it before there was any real trouble. But it was not so head and shoulders above other cars that I felt the need to restrict myself to another Camry, or even another Toyota.

I spent the last couple of months trolling car dealerships on Sunday afternoon when the salesmen weren't around -- getting sticker shock out of the way, checking out what was available, looking for good deals. For a short time I was leaning toward getting a CUV and test drove a Honda CRV and a Nissan Rogue, the idea being I could load them up with stuff from Lowe's as needed, or just throw my bike in the back instead of hitching up a rack. But while they were certainly nice, and the low end ones were inexpensive (only about 10% higher than what I paid for the Camry 12 years ago) I just didn't think I could get comfortable in them. They felt tippy and a little awkward, and the carrying capacity was not really that much greater than a sedan, just more convenient.

Then one Sunday I stopped by the Acura dealer and saw a lovely dark red TL. New, this car would have been out of my price range, but this was certified used 2014 (it had been a loaner vehicle) with 12,000 miles. The price on the window was still out of my price range, but it was about 25% off the new car price. I suspected I could get it dropped even more. So the following Tuesday I wandered into the dealership.

The car was as fine as I suspected. (If you didn't know, Acura is to Honda as Lexus is to Toyota as Infiniti is to Nissan.) It had all the trimmings (nav, bluetooth, Sirius, back-up camera), strong V6 engine. I made an offer at less than my max, of course. There was some back and forth and I came up a little beyond my max as far as dollar amount, but I demanded extended warranties and maintenance in exchange. We left it there and exchanged contact info. I figured I would sleep on it and decide the next morning if I just had to have that car, and if I did, just give in and call them back (really, the dollar difference was not that much). But, I did not. I decided to wait it out, knowing full well my Camry could carry me through for months until I found another deal I liked. Sure enough, by the end of the week I got the call from them to come back and talk some more. I went in expecting to fight, but they just accepted my previous offer. I took delivery within an 90 minutes.

So the fourth car of my adult life is a 2014 Acura TL with the Tech Package. It's not as quiet or soft riding as a Camry, but it's not supposed to be. It's target personality is a bit more sporting. You can feel the road and hear the engine. The steering is precise and firm. It's a different experience from the Camrys I've driven but not at all harsh or unpleasant, and I could use more change in my life. Not driving a Camry, for me, means not feeling like my car will be totally reliable no matter what, but there are a number of things that mitigate that worry. Acura is not exactly a slouch in the quality department and the TL is well into it's model run (it's being replaced for 2015). It's based on the proven Honda Accord platform, in fact you can think of it as about the highest-end Honda Accord ever made. I got 7 year/100,000 mile warranty bumper-to-bumper, not just on the drivetrain, and five years on wheel and tire replacement. I also got 3 year/36,000 mile scheduled maintenance thrown in for good measure. Acura considers itself a high-end auto marque so I get a loaner anything that's going to take over an hour, and oil changes include free washing and vacuuming and other gold-plated service stuff. Basically, pretty much anything that happens I can just roll into the dealership and let them handle it.

I'm pretty happy. I'd like to get 15 years and 250k out of it. That would take me to age 68. After that Google should be driving my car for me.

[Books] Book Look: Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear (Vol. 1), by Javier Marias

This one was a real struggle. I came close to bailing on a number of occasions. Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear is billed as a sort of intellectual thriller, and it may be that as it moves into the remainder of the trilogy, but any expectations you have of intrigue need to be dialed down. The action is barely perceptible, and when I say “action" I don't mean action as in movie stunts, I mean action as in anybody actually doing anything outside talking and thinking.

Jacques Deza is a divorced man living in Oxford England, estranged from his ex-wife and family in Spain. He is recruited by a mysterious association that values his ability to read people with extreme accuracy, to the point of identifying likely future outcomes -- whether a person will succeed or fail at a given task, whether someone is capable of murder, etc. “Your face tomorrow" refers to seeing your future.

In the course of the book we meet Deza, get some background on him, meet his mentor/patron, Peter Wheeler, and follow his recruitment. Not a lot of activity there; one presumes it's set up for the sequels, but it's not the lack of action that directly causes the difficulty. Marias is simply the most long winded writer I have ever encountered. Every observation, however slight, is eligible for endless scrutiny; pages and pages of digression on the human condition flow from the tiniest of details. The effect, I gather, is supposed to be Proustian as we spiral away into novella length distractions. Or perhaps it is part and parcel with idea that this fellow Deza can see so broadly and deeply, and infer so much, based on seemingly unimportant particulars. While I acknowledge the fluidity of Marias prose and I appreciate that Omit Needless Words can be set aside for aesthetic purposes, there is such a thing as going too far.

And yet, there is good content. Deza's extended rumination on the state of his family and his estrangement reeks of a fearful, lonely humanity. And both Deza and Wheeler continue to be haunted by the past, including a common connection to the Spanish Civil War, in a way that makes it clear that the greater, more seminal idea is that the past never leaves us, which is illustrated very compellingly. But the last third of the book is an extended digression/rumination on how talk is necessarily interwoven into the human condition almost to the point where I suspected obsessive-compulsive disorder may be at work.  It was exhausting.

Should you read Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear? I have to say no. There are rewards, but there is such a high price in time and effort to get them, the payoff falls short. Much of what I have read about Marias suggest that he is thought of in some circles as a preeminent literary master. Fair enough. My impression is that his interest lies entirely in the realm of the mind and since a novelist's job is to understand and display his realm, he doesn't hesitate to let every detail loose. This is probably the sort of thing that folks in academia and those with a more esoteric sense of the novel appreciate. I doubt you are one of them. I don't think I am either.

[Books] Book Look: A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite, by Adam Higgenbotham

Slam Bam Wow! In what is a complete turnabout from the previous book, A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite reads like its title. This is the story of a violent and disgruntled man with nothing to lose. He hatches a plan to extort a casino in Lake Tahoe, one to which he owes a fair amount of money, by planting an enormous bomb and demanding 2 million dollars to disable it. It's a true story that plays out like an insanely well-paced action movie.

You can get a short, very unsatisfying, summary from Wikipedia, but you're better off picking up the book. Well, it's not really a book -- it's an Amazon Single -- short works that are too long to be considered longform journalism, but too short for a book. In this case it's about 70 pages for $2.99. That's a couple hours of fine entertainment for less than a latte.

It's a fascinating story just to see how the plot proceeds, how it falls apart, and how the bad guys are finally caught. Very well done. The prose a blunt and occasionally ungraceful, but that's like complaining about a lack of witty repartee in an Expendables film. After slogging through the Javier Marias book above, I was refreshed by the straightforward way it held me rapt without presuming on my time and attention.

Should you read A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite? Yes, for sure. Read it now and you'll get to say "Oh yeah, I read the book" when it comes out in a year or two starring Bradley Cooper.

Aside: The bombing occurred in August of 1980, and it was certainly all over the news outlets at the time, yet I had no recollection of it until I stumbled across this. I would have been a month shy of my 20th birthday and at the end of what was certainly a lazy summer in Ann Arbor after my sophomore year, getting ready to move into my new digs across the street from Zingerman's Deli. I must have been completely detached from any external reality.

[Rant] The Young'ns Don't Understand

In this post, Robin Hanson, at the indispensible Overcoming Bias, is worried about intergenerational conflict (a Generation Gap, to those of us old enough to remember that phrase):
New generations often act not just like the same people thrust into new situations, but like new kinds of people with new attitudes and preferences. This has often intensified intergenerational conflicts; generations have argued not only about who should consume and control what, but also about which generational values should dominate.
He posits that the rapid rate of societal change in the future in conjunction with longer lifespans will exacerbate intergenerational conflict. He goes on to suggest in the far, far future we will be inclined to employ artificial intelligence to run things so as to minimize problems. (Note 1: For most people this sounds like the ranting of an Internet crank, but this is Hanson's thing and he's well renowned for it. He's given a tremendous amount of thought to the far future and worked to build logical arguments based on plausible assumptions to reach his conclusions. Mostly you are right to ignore such rantings you happen across on the web but it's worth stifling your bs detector and get beyond dismissing this one out of hand.) (Note 2: It's interesting that he thinks we will yield to AI in the future, yet previously he seemed to suggest we don't have the socio-political capability to accept driverless cars. Hmmm.)

My issues with this post are not the Artificial Intelligence argument, to which I have nothing to add, but the assumption the rapid change and extended lifespans necessarily lead to greater generational conflict. I'm not so sure. None of these counter arguments I'm about to give have any objective analysis behind them, or are anything much more valuable than anecdote, but I offer them anyway.

In my lifetime, lifespans have gotten longer and the rate of technological change has increased, but it seems to me generational differences have decreased or at least not increased. Or perhaps not increased so much as not been a huge source of conflict. No, I do not have any hard data on this (does such exist?), beyond a survey from Pew Research and this chart of the trend in party identification (for whatever that's worth), but I think you'd be hard pressed to find anything more compelling to suggest the opposite.

Now, Robin's timeframe is much longer than one lifetime. I would be very interested in historical data and theories on the correlations and causation of generation value shifts (if such data exists). And, of course, my view is US centric. It could be that our current time and place is insulated by relative affluence: "I don't care what the old folks do as long as I have XBox." Perhaps intergenerational value conflicts become more pronounced in times of need?

Despite that, I would argue that unless there is some drastic change, cross-cultural value conflicts will utterly swamp cross-generational ones at any given level of wealth, and act as a binding force for people of all ages within a single culture despite their generational differences. The enemy of my enemy, and so forth.

Friday, August 08, 2014

The Month That Was - July 2014

You get one of my longest trip reports ever. Lucky you. Apart from that my projects are still my projects and are progressing at their usual glacial pace.

The next book, more likely novella, is staggering along and I would place myself at about 30% done with the first draft.

I still don't have a new car, but I actually came close: I test drove a Honda CRx and didn't like it all that much, which is a shame because I was ready to go on it. The ride was a bit down from my now 12 year old Camry and it seemed a bit hobby-horsey over bumps. More test drives will put it in perspective.

Did a good bit of gardening; I estimate 50% of everything I plant doesn't survive. So does that make the garden half alive or half dead? Got a small hornet's nest removed from under the deck. I have not used my grill enough and have vowed to use it more.

Same ol' same ol'.

[Travel] Trip Report: Bryce and Zion and Vegas, Oh My
[Vegas] Where Should I Stay in Vegas?
[Rant] Snapchat is Scary
[TV] Flipping Channels

[Travel] Trip Report: Bryce and Zion and Vegas, Oh My

It had been a couple of years since I went out west during the summer.  Turns out, it's hot out there.  I mean really hot.  I saw 108 on a couple of days, but they had been getting over 110.  Saying it's a dry heat doesn't make it any better when it's that high.

So here was the itinerary:
Day 1: Fly to Vegas and rent car.  Drive 4 hours north to Bryce Canyon.
Day 2: Run Bryce Canyon Half Marathon
Day 3: Drive 2 hours to Zion.  Recover from Half Marathon
Day 4: Hike the Narrows
Day 5: Drive 2 hours to Vegas.
Day 6: Vegas, Vegas, Vegas.
Day 7: A little more Vegas.  Red-eye home.

Things didn't start terribly well, and it was mostly a matter of attitude, as is the great bulk of life.  Flight went well, but I was anxious about everything.  Like I said, just a mood, but a real one.  I had read there was going to be hour-plus delays going north out of Vegas and I had to register for my race by that evening.  I had given myself about a four hour cushion but that didn't ease my (unreasonable) tension over this.  Then the a/c in the car stopped -- no the a/c was fine, the fan just stopped blowing cold air. Did I mention the temp was in the triple digits.  This happened a number of times after extended high-speed driving (the speed limit on some stretches of freeway in Utah is 80).  I don't know why it happened and after some slow speed driving it would come back on, but it certainly kicked up my anxiety.  By the time it happened I was hundreds of miles from the rental center, well into southern Utah so going back to return the car was not feasible.  (It was a Hyundai Sonata and as a result I have scratched the car of my list of potential purchases.)

I checked into my hotel outside Bryce and of course the wi-fi didn't work.  Honestly, it amazes me what a horrendous job hotels do with wi-fi.  This has been the case for years and it has only gotten marginally better.  “Free wi-fi" often means they have a router set up under the front desk and you might be able to connect from nearby rooms on a good day.  And if you can't connect don't bother asking for help; Joe minimum wage behind the desk likely doesn;t know what a router is. Grrrr.  Despite everything, I picked up my race packet with about four hours of my four hour cushion to spare.  Still didn't really ease my tension.

The next morning I was up before the sun and prepped for the race.  I must say it was one of the coolest starts I have ever experienced.  It was actually chilly just before dawn -- in the 50s, about half of what it would be later in the day.  The starting area was lit by a series of bonfires that looked quite startlingly beautiful.  The start itself was punctuated by a small fireworks display.  The race started off with a flat mile, then a fairly steep downhill plunge for about 6 miles to the small town of Tropic, then another less steep downhill to finish line in the town of Cannonville where they had set out all the chocolate milk you could drink.

The first half of the run was about perfect. Towering red rock formations on the right, just getting hit by the low angled sun.  To the left was the stark big sky landscape of the West.  If you are a runner, you know you‘ve always had a vision in your head of that perfect run -- the one where you feel like you're just flying effortlessly through some exquisitely beautiful landscape.  The first half of this run is exactly that.  Wings on you feet, stars in your eyes.  The second half isn't too bad either, but you're past the red rocks and, for me anyway, anything beyond 9 or 10 miles becomes a question of survival.  I'd love to do the race again next year, but there are always logistical and expense issues when that distance is involved.

And despite the passing bliss at the start of the race, I was still feeling all struggly.  After lunch I hopped in the car and headed towards Escalante and Grand Staircase National Monument (about 30 miles)  to do the hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls.  It was only a 3 mile hike so I just wore shorts and sandals; no special gear. Upon arrival the ranger came out to let me and couple of other people know that he did not recommend hiking without close-toed shoes because the the temperature of the sand on the trail was 159 degrees (did I mention it was hot?).  Considering my feet were still tender from the race I decided not to test his measurement, and spent considerable time cursing myself for neglecting to throw my day hikers in the trunk before I left.

So I turned back -- the road to Grand Staircase National Monument is lovely -- it's a national scenic route (or whatever the official title is) and I was able to get some decent photos -- but I grumbled at myself the whole way.  Finally, almost back to Bryce, there is a small hiking trail right off the road that I had passed during the race. It's called the Mossy Cave Trail so I expected a short trail to a cave of some mossiness.  What I got was the coolest thing; a short walk along a creek, terminating in a waterfall -- a waterfall that you could actually walk under and splash around in the pool.  It was exactly what I needed.  It was cool and refreshing on my half-marathon-weary body.  Most of all it was a beautiful surprise.  It had been so long since I had a special travel moment like that, that I had forgotten about how exhilarating it could be to just accidently stumble across something so perfect, just when I needed it.  I was OK at that point.  Attitude adjusted.  I was on vacation for real.

A word about the Bryce Canyon area.  Although it's heavily touristed, it's relatively backwards in many respects.  There are no good restaurants or above average hotels.  Best Western would be the top hotel, although I am sure there are some B&Bs that have some nice features.  Ruby's Inn is probably the nicest restaurant and I would say it's about on par with a mid-range chain restaurant like, say, Chilis.  There is a lot of Old West theme kitsch, all of it non-ironic, which is almost precious.  There are no bars or nightlife and minimal alcohol anywhere, which I attribute to a combination of family values and Mormon influence.  But everything is clean and friendly and the service is sharp and nothing is overly expensive.  You can't help but like it, and admire the stripe of folks who live there.  Still, I would have loved to have a nightcap at a quiet bar somewhere the night before I left.

So the next morning I was up and out and headed for Zion, and doing it over what is probably the most beautiful road I have ever driven.  Because of the problem with the damn fan in the damn Hyundai, I resolved to take the scenic route out of Bryce and that means the legendary road from Panguitch through Cedar Breaks to Brian Head.  You wind through forests mountains past Lake Panguitch -- an exquisitely beautiful recreation point deep in the Utah woods where fishing and camping and the whole slate of outdoorsy activities occur.  Then you go higher, where you reach Inspiration Point (if you remember the Fonz and Happy Days you're giggling now) -- a turn off with a great view of the surroundings, but you will be chased off in short order by swarms of black flies.  You keep going higher, eventually reaching Brian Head Peak (that's singular, not Brian's Head, which you will certainly read as Brain Head, which only makes slightly more sense than Brian Head), the highest peak in the area, where you can drive up a short dirt road to the summit and get even better views, until the bees and hornets chase you away.  Despite the insect assaults, driving this road is really a one of a kind experience, and up high in the mountains the temperature is a beautifully reasonable 70 degrees with a fresh breeze.

From there the road cascades back down to Springdale and triple digits.  Damn, it was hot. The heat may be dry, but then so is a sauna.  And the sun is abusive. The first thing I did in Springdale is buy a Tilley Hat.  Don't know how often I will wear it, but it's supposed to last forever, and frankly, in the oven of southern Utah, a baseball cap just didn't seem to be serious enough.

The second thing I did was rent a pair of canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks, and a walking stick because I was going to hike The Narrows the next day. But first a word about Springdale.

Springdale is the gateway town to Zion National Park.  It is a good deal more upscale than Bryce, in fact there a a couple of near luxury hotels and more than a few good restaurants, with bars.  The commercial activity is built up along the road that leads to Zion; it's all hotels, restaurants, outfitters, and gift shops, but it's clearly controlled for aesthetic purposes.  There is no neon, no garishness, everything is set back from the road enough for a nice sidewalk giving easy foot access to most of it.  At this time of year, the bulk of Zion national Park is inaccessible by car.  The park is so busy that during high season they simply shut down the park road to everything except shuttle busses. You can park at the visitor center just inside the entrance but even that gets filled up by mid-morning so they take it a step further by having a shuttle that runs back and forth through Springdale that stops in front of most hotels that takes you into the park to get the park shuttle from there. So if you are staying in Springdale, you can pretty much park you car at your hotel and forget about it.  If you are driving in from elsewhere, you can park anywhere in Springdale and grab the shuttle.  Shuttle service and parking is free everywhere and it looks to be very efficient.  It's really one of the most intelligent systems of mass transport I have encountered.  Once again I am impressed with Utah and Utahans.

So, The Narrows.  This is one of two paradigmatic hikes in Zion (the other being the climb to Angel's landing, and don't get me started on that one).  This is a river hike, the Virgin River to be exact, which is to say a good deal of you hiking involves literally walking in the river.  Most of it involves ankle to knee deep water but for certain stretches the water can reach waist/chest high.  You could walk through the water the whole way but that gets quite time consuming because you just can't walk very fast through water, and since the full hike is ten miles round trip you do need to keep up at least a steady pace, so you end up doing a series of extended river crossing to get from bank to bank and then try to hike briskly along the bank as far as you can.  What's special about this hike is that you are travelling through a narrow canyon with walls hundreds of feet tall on either side of you.  A couple of miles up you reach a stretch known as Wall Street where the walls start to close in on you, getting as close as 40 feet apart, which is an eerie sensation.  You get sunlight for about half an hour around high noon, other than that the light is ambient which is nice because it keeps things cool.  Also in Wall Street there are no banks to speak of. If the water is high you are swimming.  If there's a flash flood you're in deep trouble.  You keep hiking up to about the five mile mark where there is a pretty little spring fed waterfall area where to can sit and eat your trail mix and recoup some strength because at this point you have to turn around and walk back.  It is technically possible to go further, but you need a back-country permit and, from my understanding, there is not that much to see further on.

The hike need not be strenuous.  You could just amble in the river for a mile or so in your sandals, take a cool swim, get some sun if you time it right, then turn around and go back.  A great deal of folks and bring their families and do just that.  The first mile or so of the river can be quite crowded, but the crowds drop away quickly as you go further.  The full hike is exhausting, primarily because although it is ten miles, the winding path you have to take back and forth across the river has to add another mile or two.  Not to mention it's a mile walk (on a paved path) from the shuttle to the river and then back to the shuttle.  I suspect the distance covered is closer to 15 miles, and the fact is for the bulk of it you are navigating uneven surfaces and precariously slippery underwater rock footing.  So yes, the full round trip is exhausting.  I know this because I was exhausted.

But I did good.  I made it all the way and as I was returning to the river entry point, where everyone has their kids and they are all splashing around in the river I was feeling a little smug about being a badass hiker in my canyoneering shoes and Tilley hat amidst all these folks who were just goofing around in the river.  Then not 100 yards from the exit, I slipped on a rock and face-planted in the water, in the process losing my $5.99 gas station sunglasses and getting a sarcastic round of applause from onlookers.  I'm so awesome.

The next morning I was up on the road again, this time back to good ol' Vegas.  No scenic road here, just a 2 hour freeway ass-hauling. Luckily the Hyundai fan held up OK so I was able to stay comfortably cool in the desert heat, and before I knew it I was pulling into the Hilton Grand Vacation Club at the Flamingo just off Las Vegas Blvd. There are few greater contrasts than going from wilderness beauty and little Utah towns to the Las Vegas Strip.  I love them both.

I have lost track of how many times I've been to Vegas.  Somewhere between 15 and 20.  The nice thing for me is that while I have my favorite spots to revisit, there is always something new to try.  Vegas is in a perpetual state of remaking itself.  The place getting the most extreme makeover right now is the Fremont Street area downtown.  Fremont Street (also called the Fremont Street Experience) is a section of town north of the Strip, where the street is closed off and it takes on the flavor of a smaller version of Bourbon St. in New Orleans.  Along the street are hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and so forth.  Arcing over the length of the street is the worlds largest electric sign, called Viva Vision, which display fairly impressive animated sequences set to music at the top of every hour after dark.  Up until now, had exactly one nice hotel -- the Golden Nugget -- which is probably on the level of an upper-mid level Strip hotel.  The remaining hotel and casinos, though some were storied such as Binion's, were the very definition of seedy.

That has changed recently.  Although there has been a longtime push to upgrade the area, it wasn't until Zappo's moved it's headquarters nearby that things kicked into high gear.  Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappo's, has taken the lead in getting things built up and cleaned up, gentrifying the place for his employees.  Also, two of the old seedy hotels have completely revamped and improved.  One called the Fitzgerald was remade into The D and has become the darling of some Vegas insiders because of it's minimal nonsense approach.  The D is not really themed, although they often say the are Detroit themed because the owners have Detroit roots and they have installed an American Coney Island, the first one outside the Detroit area.  It's a huge upgrade from the old Fitzgerald's and it's location makes it the centerpiece of the new Fremont Street.  Another old warhorse, the Lady Luck, just off Fremont, was remade into the Downtown Grand and has tried to bring some Strip level stylishness downtown, with mixed results.

It's not just hotels.  A hidden bar called the Laundry Room gained cache by requiring you to text a secret phone number for a reservation.  Once admitted you are treated to high-end craft cocktails from some of the best bartenders in Vegas.  Golden Nugget has a very clever pool area that is integrated with an aquarium that can make it feel like you're swimming with sharks.  The Andiamo steakhouse at the D is getting a great reputation.  And now there is a zip line ride under the canopy that starts at the top of a 100 ft tall slot machine called Slotzilla.

And the growth has spread.  Fremont Street East, the couple of blocks east beyond Viva.  There is the El Cortez, a low end casino that has a great rep with gamblers because of the better payoff tables.  A number of dive bars, including Atomic Liquors that was featured by Anthony Bourdain on one of his shows.  And a relatively new section called Container Park -- an area filled with shipping containers that contain food truck-y sorts of spots and little stores.  It is guarded out front by a giant metal praying mantis sculpture that appears to be primed to attack slotzilla.

Peppered throughout all the are sound stages with bands playing, often quite good bands, or in the case of the night I spent there, an Elvis impersonator, and a good one.  Like I said, it's very Bourbon Street in its vibe.  Fremont goes on the must visit list for all future trips.  It's a cab ride to get there, and all Vegas cabbies are on the make, but that won't stop me.  Still, I don't think I'll bed down there.  Dinner and some bar hopping after is about right.  I'll still lay my head down on the Strip.

This time I lay my head down at the Hilton Grand Vacation Club at the Flamingo. It was a good choice.  Hilton Grand Vacation Clubs are points based timeshares, that have always been tempting to me for reasons I won't get into right now, but they also function as good quality hotels when they have vacancies. There are actually three of these right on the Strip.  One is the Elara, where I have stayed before, another is further north up by Circus Circus, which I am told is beautiful, but it really is kind of in no man's land.  These are the type of property I have come to appreciate over the years: the non-casino hotel that is just barely off the Strip.  They tend to be low-key oases that still give you ready access to the madness.  In this class I would place Signature, Vdara, Elara, HGVC - Flamingo.  Also possibly Delano (formerly theHotel), Four Seasons, and Trump, all of which I have yet to try (maybe in the fall).  (See below about where a newby should stay.)

HGVC - Flamingo has nicely appointed rooms with mini-fridges and newish furnishings.  You have access to the Flamingo Pool and all the Flamingo services, but it also has it's own smaller pool.  Friendly staff.  A gift shop where the sundries are not too overpriced -- $2.50 for a Diet Coke instead of $4 as is typical in Vegas.  They even have special spaces reserved in the Flamingo garage just for HGVC guests.  It's about a two minute walk from the lobby to the valet entrance of Flamingo, then through Flamingo to the Strip into the LinQ.  The room rate is comparable to the Flamingo generally, and unless you have some sort of financial incentive, I can see no reason to stay at the Flamingo proper instead of the HGVC - Flamingo.  Recommended.

Which brings us to the LinQ, the newest area of the Strip.  It is an open air mall that extends from the Strip east about 300 yards, terminating in the new observation wheel.  It is filled with shops and bars and clever bits of art and displays and, I would guess, street performers or proper bands.  It replaces the odd mishmash of booths near the Carnival Court, which had little to recommend it and just created an annoyance to walk around.  The observation wheel creates a terrific backdrop, especially lit up at night, and, although I didn't ride it, it looks to be uncrowded. Definitely an upgrade.

The final new thing I tried in Vegas is Giada at the Cromwell.  The Cromwell itself is relatively new.  It's the old Bill's Gambling Hall converted into a high end hipster palace.  It clearly a nice place, and of course it has just about the best location in the universe, right at the corner of Flamingo and Las Vegas Blvd.  I may try to stay one day, but it's awfully pricey.  The signature restaurant is Giada's, named for the Food Network star and beauty icon Giada de Laurentiis.  They had been open for dinner for a few weeks, but I managed to snag a seat for the first ever lunch service.  It's billed as Italian with a California twist and it's very good; various Italian dishes with fresh ingredients.  It is overpriced of course, but no more so than every other glamourous Vegas restaurant.  Thinking of putting it on my short list for repeat visits.

And that was about it.  I did my standard pre-red eye visit to Qua spa at Caesars then on home where I wisely took the following day off work to reset.  It was a vacation of contrasts and it reminded me that even on my most well trodden paths there are new things to be discovered.  In a few years, maybe I'll come back and do it all again.

[Vegas] Where Should I Stay in Vegas

Since 2001 I have visited Las Vegas perhaps 15 or 20 times.  I still really enjoy going there even though I don't gamble much anymore.  It's gotten so it feels like an old friend.  I keep up on the new restaurants and attractions opening and try the interesting ones each time I go.  I know where the low stakes poker games are, which sportsbooks to check, etc.  It's really one of the few places in the world where I feel like just being there is an event in itself, even more so than, say, Manhattan or the French Quarter.  I've stayed at the majority of resorts one time or another, found off-Strip interests, fought with cabbies, lay in bed with the flu, been propped by hookers, discovered hidden gems, etc. I'm fully integrated into the experience.

I guess you could say I consider myself something of a minor expert, so I often hear, “We were thinking of visiting Las Vegas for vacation.  You go there a lot.  Where should we stay?"  This can be a terrifying question.  I used to feel the same sort of terror 15 years ago when someone asked, “Hey, you know computers.  Can you help me with mine?"  Essentially, it is someone looking for a simple answer to an enormously complicated question. I draw on years of experience and my own unlikely priorities when I make my choices and there no way to communicate that to someone who doesn't have a similar context.  And if they have a bad experience now it will be because I failed them.

So I have a new strategy.  My answer: “Vdara.  Just stay at Vdara."  Drops mic.  Walks off stage.

You see, up until now I have been answering this question all wrong.  I would usually respond with a couple of questions about their likes and needs then walk them through a simplified version of my own decision process and come up with a few options and suggest they price hunt from there.  Their response is usually to nod and smile and generally treat me like some sort of schizophrenic. Like I said, ALL WRONG.

These folks don't want options.  They want freedom from choice.  They want one name of a place to stay and anything more is just noise.

Now, I am not talking about young 20-somethings who are just out to get epileptically drunk at some place like Senor Frogs and maybe see some boobies and/or weeners.  They will crash 6-to-a-room in some dump, wake up in their own puke, and call it a good time.  No, I'm talking about grown-up Vegas neophytes.

Why Vdara?
1) It's a condo-tel, so no casino maze or flashy madness to disorient them.
2) It's about a three minute walk to either Bellagio or Aria/City Center  and about five minutes to Cosmo, Mandarin Oriental, or across to P Ho so there are all the casinos, restaurants, bars, etc. that you could ever need.
3) It's either cheaper or nicer than those surrounding properties.
4) It's not the absolute height of luxury but it's pretty darn high.
5) The pool is decent and on the low key side.
6) Since it is in the middle of the action but shielded from the maddening glare, it will make them feel like they were the beneficiaries of some secret insider knowledge and thus will hold me in higher esteem.

I will not offer alternatives.  No “unless you are looking for…," or, “on the other hand if you want…"  One and done.  Vdara.  If I'm asked why, I'll just say, “it's high-end luxury and convenience for a mid-range price."  Then stop.  I will not get sucked into trying to summarize my years of experience into some jumbled advice that is useless without context and will just as likely make them blame me if something doesn't turn out the way they want.

If they want to know more, they will have to ask specific questions which I will not hesitate to answer with the polite observation that they have a friend named Google.

[Rant] Snapchat is Scary

I don't understand Snapchat and it scares me.  I understand what it is.  Basically you can send snapshots to your friends who can only see them for a few seconds and then they are gone forever. (Although I'm not entirely convinced anything is “gone forever" on the internet.  It's certainly not gone forever if it was intercepted by the NSA, randomly or otherwise.)  I know what it is and I can see it as a curiosity but it seems kids are using this as a communication tool.  That's what I don't get:  How are they communicating anything meaningful?

It's a common view to pass it off as some sort of gimmicky kid thing.  But I'm not so sure.  We already know that the written word, the single most influential force in my life, is up for some serious degradation in the coming years.  Most young folks cannot be bothered to even use basic punctuation, such as end a sentence with a period.  Read any text, or facebook comment, or forum post from someone under 25 and it looks like diarrhea of the keyboard.  Basic stuff -- capital letters, commas, spelling, simple grammar  -- is deemed completely superfluous.

Snapchat may be the next step beyond this.  Maybe it's too much effort to punch the keys to say “hi hangin w zack + madison @pool hahaha whatevs" so you just snap a pic and send.  But even that can only have limited value if it just exists for a few seconds.

My real fear is that there is some sort of meaning is all this ephemeral tripe they send back and forth.  That they are finding a way to maintain and develop human relationships and substantive interaction that I cannot fathom.  I am 53 years old and up until now I have grasped every technological change I've encountered.  I haven't adopted or mastered them all, certainly, but I've understood them.  I even understand the degradation of writing.  I don't like it, but the world does not exist for my pleasure.

But this Snapchat thing -- if there are meaningful connections being made in this manner and they become a societal norm in the coming years, I may be toast.  I may be the guy looking for an ashtray or trying to send a fax.  Because I just don't get it.  Damn kids.

On the other hand, if it's just a mechanism for sending stupid and or lurid photos to your friends that your parents can't see, that's cool.  Have fun.

[TV] Flipping Channels

  • The end of True Blood can't come too soon. They had one season of campy fun. Now it is just awful. Truly one of the worst shows on TV. I watch it like a slow motion train wreck (similar to Dexter in that respect). That is to say I fast forward through a lot of it.
  • The Bridge continues to be fascinating, with the right combo of darkness and weirdness. I might lump this in with True Detective, Fargo, and to some extent, Justified as creative and adventurous police procedurals that push boundaries and make me realize how wrong I was about the genre being a dead end.
  • Sort of a Louie-esque reality-ish dramedy, Maron has grown on me. Maron is sort of like an old school crank crossed with Larry David. Sort of this sort of that -- we really need a word that sums up these sorts of shows. Anyway, I'm watching. Not burning-up-the-world good, but good enough to enjoy.
  • The best thing about Wilfred is never seeing Mr. Frodo again without picturing him doing bong hits with a guy in a dog suit. Always intriguing, with occasional flashes of comic brilliance. This one flew under the radar for its entire existence, which is ending in a couple of weeks. Worth a binge if you haven't seen it.
  • Vastly superior to the overrated Cosmos, Through the Wormhole just ended season five wondering where time comes from. For science geeks only, but this is the show that future Stephen Hawking-types will remember from their childhood.
  • I remain the only American who watched the bulk of the Tour de France. Coverage was spotty but generally entertaining; could benefit from a boost in technology (bike cameras, telemetry, etc. - Formula 1 racing is the gold standard for race coverage of any kind). Italian champ Vincenzo Nibali dominated pretty much the entire tour by a big margin, but of course, anytime one rider completely dominates, you have to wonder if the PED shoe is going to drop.
  • Most reviews rate Halt and Catch Fire a mid-range failure. I thought it had a lot of nonsense, but also some sharp insights. The idea of the lead characters going around thinking they were world disrupting visionaries only to be shown to be marginally more clever than average, and the soul searing disappointment that comes from that, was inspired. It needs a lot of work but it strikes me as exactly the sort of show that could come into its own, given time. Based on ratings, I doubt it will be given time.
  • Since we're all into comparisons, Penny Dreadful was a stylish, more coherent, less campy version of American Horror Story. Also magnificently acted, especially by Eva Green, dramatically shot and framed. It had its dead ends in plot here and there, but I'm looking forward to the next season.
  • Binge status: Third season of Veronica Mars. Everyone says it's not as good as the first two, but four episodes in, it seems fine to me, maybe even a step up. Coming next: Silicon Valley. I should get to Firefly one of these days.
  • There's not much good on the immediate horizon (fall). Boardwalk Empire will start its final season. A strong show but I can't help but think it never really achieved its potential. Some watchable broadcast shows will return -- Big Bang Theory, Elementary (didn't I say i was giving that one up?) on Thursday night. Hmmm. I might be watching a lot of football.
  • On the other hand, Mike Tyson Mysteries is coming. One way or another, heads will explode and ears will be eaten.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Month That Was - June 2014

Water, water everywhere. It seems like it has been raining non-stop since it got too warm to snow. I went to a lot of trouble and expense to get my sprinkler system in shape and I haven't turned it on. the guy who cuts my lawn is having a terrible time.

Yeah, I stopped doing that myself. My lawn tractor is just sitting in the garage. In fact I have a ton of stuff I no longer use sitting in my garage: a replaced ceiling fan, fireplace logs, and old crt tv, soon I'll have a couple of stereo receivers -- which reminds me to do a technology update next month.

I still haven't got a new car. I'm just adding a quart of oil every 1000 miles or so. I keep reading how auto sales are booming, so I'm gun shy. I'm still looking for that special deal, but for now I'm comfortable with riding out the summer and waiting for the model year change. Should probably write about that next month too.

I got up to Mackinac for the Lilac 10K which was a welcome respite and much needed since I may not be getting up there for the 8-miler in September like I usually do. I'm tenative planning something more drastic.

The first draft of the latest book is proceeding at my normal glacial pace. But at least I am unstuck for the moment. We'll see how long that lasts.

[Books] Book Look: Decoded
[Books] Book Look: To Say Nothing of the Dog
[Books] TV: True Detective vs Fargo
[Books] Cars: Robot You Can Drive My Car

[Books] Book Look: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Well that was clever. You want to write a British comedy of manners (with overtones of classic whodunits), and you do so via a time travel story. Truly inspired. I wish I had thought of it.

Connie Willis is an award-smothered science fiction writer (enough Nebulas and Hugos to stuff a mattress), but she has an obvious affection for those delightful old British genres. In To Say Nothing of the Dog we start in the late twenty-first century when time travel is common but really not fully controllable. A fairly influential and wealthy lady has taken it upon herself to rebuild an old cathedral that was burned during the WW2 bombing of England. She has her minions popping in and out of various points in time, getting the exact details right and trying to locate any surviving artifacts -- one in particular: the bishop's bird stump. I'm still not entirely clear on what a bird stump is, but it's an effectively silly macguffin.

In the course of all this cross-temporal scurrying about an incongruity occurs. That is to say, someone somewhere altered history in some significant way. When that happens, The Net -- the lattice of connection that is used to travel through time -- begins acting in unpredictable ways in an effort to self-correct. Time travelers don't alway end up where or when they expect to as The Net tries to guide events in such a way that the incongruity is corrected or cancelled out.

In the course of the mad search for our macguffin, an incongruity has occurred. A bad one. Soon it's all hands on deck to try to sort things out, in the course of which our hero finds himself in the middle on a bubblingly Wodehousian romp in Edwardian England to try to set things right. He is accompanied by a female colleague and together they encounter the full palette of timely characters -- the blustering aunt, the spoiled princess, the batty professor, the gruff adventurer, various young men is spats, the omnipotent butler -- as they try to piece together clues ala Poirot and, of course, fall in love.

Should you read To Say Nothing of the Dog? Yes - and that's a pretty confident yes. The story hits all the right madcap notes, but not without sly observations about fate versus free will and personality driven versus designed history. If there are criticisms they are small: it is a bit too wordy in scene setting early on, and the tangled web of causality gets quite difficult to follow, although it is well sorted out in the end. But, those are nits. It was absolutely one of the most fun books I've read in quite a while.

[Books] Book Look: Decoded, by Mai Jia

An odd, but very intriguing, book, Decoded is the first book by very popular Chinese author Mai Jia to be translated into English. From a writer's perspective it's a great example how rules are really just guidelines and the only thing that counts is what works.

The protagonist of the story is Rong Jinzhen (he also goes by various other names) who is an autistic savant -- socially inept, but an otherworldly talent at mathematics. We don't meet him until about a third of the way in. The first third is his family history starting a handful of generations prior. This could be an aspect of Chinese culture and the valuing of ancestors, but it also works to set up Jinzhen as a tragic figure. When we finally do meet him we never really get a story from his point of view. It all comes through the image of him as held by those around him. He gets minimal dialogue and very few scenes of him in action.

As a child Jinzhen starts out neglected, but is taken under the wing of a pair of Westerners. First Mr. Auslander, a servant of Jinzhen's family, looks after him and sees that he is provided for. Then a mathematician who is stranded in China during the war takes notice of his innate abilities and becomes a mentor. In time, Jinzhen is noticed by a government security unit and is sequestered in their compound, assigned to decode ciphers. He makes quite a mark in the field but eventually the stress of decoding, or possibly the expectations of the world, drive him insane.

The story is told via a narrator, who occasionally breaks the fourth wall, and his recitation of statements he had from those close to Jinzhen -- his boss, his wife, others around him. The tone of the book is that of a gentle fable. How much of that is due to the translation, I cannot say. I do know that Mai Jia's reputation in China is as a genre novelist, but this work, at least as translated into English, is more subtle and emotionally rich than a standard genre thriller. In fact, there really are no thrills to speak of, it is entirely cerebral.

I doubt there is a simple underlying theme the author was tracking. If there is it can only be that the pursuit of the unknowable (with ciphers as a stand in) that compels us also destroys us. Jinzhen experiences this directly and completely in his decoding work. Those around him experience it to a lesser extent by trying to known Jinzhen, who is himself unknowable. But there are other ideas in play. The notion of fate is strong from the outset -- Jinzhen is helpless in the face of genetic inheritance and political circumstance. Other ideas include the relationship between artistic creativity and analytics, and the ongoing memory and shadow of the Cultural Revolution which continues to hang over China today.

Should you read Decoded? Well, most of what I follow around the web seems to indicate that it is being marketed as a spy thriller. It's really nothing of the sort. If that is your expectation you will likely find it slow and unsatisfying. Mai Jia has done something very interesting though. He has written and accessible, superficially conventional, book that is in fact pretty far outside the box. If that sounds appealing you should give it a go. It is not intrigue, but it is intriguing.

[TV] True Detective vs Fargo

I'm trying to decide which one I liked better. Both were existentially dark crime dramas with splashes of dry humor for relief. Both pushed some stylistic boundaries. Both had remarkable acting. Alison Tollman and Martin Freeman go toe-to-toe with McConaughey and Harrelson by any measure. Throw in a deadpan Billy Bob Thorton and you might have to give the edge to Fargo.

By the way, has it occurred to anyone yet that it's Martin Freeman's world and we're just here by permission. In the British Office he became a paradigm (though it is not better than the U.S. one, as snobs claim); he not only matches Benedict Cumberbatch but becomes an essential Watson to his Holmes in Sherlock; Peter Jackson hires him to be the main Hobbit in his bajillion dollar epic and that turns out to be a low point; and now he gives Bryan Cranston a run for his money as a schlub who becomes a supervillain (and Cranston didn't need to do an accent). Jeez, what a run, eh?

Anyway, back to the comparison. They both had antagonists of pure evil, along with variations of evil. In True, Hart and Cohle did many bad things to get to the purer evil. In Fargo things were even more complicated. Billy Bob was the eternal big bad, but Martin Freeman went over (or was driven) to the dark side, and Colin Hanks wasn't without guilt. The plot and character complexities have to favor Fargo also.

Where they contrast is in the depth with which they view the evil. In Fargo, there are people who are born evil, people who are choose evil, and people who have it thrust upon them. In True, evil just is. Darkness is the natural state of the universe. In fact, there is very little difference between these approaches, just the the one in True is more meta.

Most interestingly to me is that the traditional victory-for-good-but-at-great-cost is where they both end up. In True the big bad is vanquished and Cohle sees something more than utter futility in existence. In Fargo the two big evils are killed and not only does one regretful act of cowardice get redeemed, but the good guys live happily ever after. You would expect folks who like to get arty and push the edges of style and tone would be the sorts of people to leave endings unresolved with respect to moral comeuppance because that seems so much more sophisticated to cynical viewers. Not so in these cases.

Overall, I have to give Fargo the nod. It was both more complicated and more coherent. It struck many chords, whereas True mostly sicked McConaughey and Harrelson on one. I'm glad for both shows and looking forward to more from the same sources. Funny, I would have expected cop dramas to be played out dramatically after The Wire but there's still something left in them.

[Cars] Robot You Can Drive My Car

I continue to be confounded by the opinions regarding driverless cars you find around the web. Even at the WSJ we get a passage like:
To revel in the future that the visionaries hold out, the obstacles are nearly insurmountable. In their lush vision, America's parking lots and driveways could return to nature as a relative handful of always-handy robot cars would supplant the mostly idle cars owned in the millions by Americans today. [That is not the “vision" of people creating driverless cars. That is the vision of someone who wants to create snark.]

In practice, though, all cars would likely have to be driverless—or at least capable of taking control away from a driver in heavy traffic situations—for any cars to be driverless. Otherwise, effectively one jerk in a '74 Buick would own the only right of way. [Why? Are we suddenly going to suspend all traffic laws and let human guided vehicles do what they want with impunity? In what way would the jerk in the ‘74 Buick own the road any more than he does now?]

Doing so, though, would require not only expensive onboard systems in every car but wireless networking that would likely raise privacy and personal autonomy fears far more alarming to many Americans than whether NSA computers are scanning their mostly boring emails and text messages. Imagine a National Rifle Association for car owners. [A. Not everyone. This will be no problem for lot s folks who already love the little dongles they get from their insurance companies for lower rates. B. Yes there will need to be regulatory and legal guidelines, and stuff will get sorted via the messy, inefficient process of politics. The horror. C. Expensive becomes cheap over time. “High Def TV? Never happen - it would require everyone to buy an expensive flat screen television."]
In exactly what way are these problems insurmountable?

We get a more thoughtful observation from Robin Hanson at Overcoming Bias:
Auto autos, i.e., self-driving cars, seem similar: while there could be modest immediate gains from reducing accident rates and lost productive time commuting, the biggest gains should come from reorganizing our cities to match them. Self-driving cars could drive fast close together to increase road throughput, and be shared to eliminate the need for parking. This should allow for larger higher density cities. For example, four times bigger cities could plausibly be twenty-five percent more productive.
But to achieve most of these gains, we must make new buildings with matching heights and locations. And this requires that self-driving cars make their appearance before we stop making so many new buildings.Overall, his observation is that the most beneficial place to target driverless cars are fast growing cities where the changes needed to support them most efficiently. In the end he comes to the same pessimistic conclusion as the WSJ editorial: essentially, that we may not be up to the task, socio-politically. I think that's true if you're looking for a near term revolution. But the process will be evolutionary -- from fish, with cruise control and blind spot warning systems and automatic obstacle avoidance, to amphibians with driverless cars is a multi-decade step. Also, while I agree the productivity benefits would be modest until we thoroughly adapt, I don't think productivity is what will power this. Productivity gains pale in comparison to the need to signal your good-hearted concern for the safety of your fellow citizens. I expect the reduction in accident rates would be quite sizable in any city. For example, let's say we replaced 50% of all meat-pilot vehicles with robot cars. That removes one half of all the potential idiot moves on the road. I can't imagine that the reduction in accidents would be only modest. I think it would be enough to make legislators and city planners quite righteous in encouraging driverless cars.

I still believe a tipping point will come, although probably not in my lifetime, and driving will become a niche activity and eventually fade away. As we have witnessed when a tipping point occurs, whether years away or decades away, the change can ripple through society stunningly fast. As I said previously:
Our descendants will one day read about people piloting vehicles themselves, of road signs and folding maps, of flat tires and tow trucks, of the horrible fiery deaths we all risked just to travel about. They will pity our ignorance and sneer at our backward ways. At least their cars won't let them do donuts on our lawns.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

The Month That Was - May 2014

I did not intend so, but this month is nearly all TV reviews.  Not so bad, since I haven't written about TV in a while. (I make no apologies for writing about TV a lot, as it swamps every other art form in our daily lives.)

At the moment most of my obsessions are getting the little annoyances of my life straightened out.  For whatever reason, the extended very cold winter left me quite antsy about getting stuff done.  This was exacerbated when pretty much everything I had planned to have done for me needed to be re-done and re-done again such that I spent the bulk of May running back home from the office to deal with workers, whom appear to be unable to schedule their activities with anything less than a six hour margin for error.  The fireplace took three visits and even then I had to figure out how to get it right myself.  The sprinklers took two visits and still left me with work to do on my own and the folks were so haphazard I have to find another service.  The car two visits to find out nothing could be done (more below).

The highlight of the month was the, now annual, trip to Nashville Indiana for the Gnaw Bone 10K, the World’s Toughest 10K.  It’s a killer race, but a really enjoyable experience.

And I’m making some progress writing, but my current project is in a genre quite foreign to me and I’m struggling with the plot intricacies.  There is nothing to do but keep going and remind myself that it has to be bad before it’s good.

[Cars] Carpocalypse
[TV] John from Cincinnati from David Milch
[TV] Still Mad After All These Years
[TV] No Win Game of Thrones

[Cars] Carpocalpyse

So my car is officially toast.  Not unusable, but it makes no economic sense to repair it.  It needs a new catalytic converter, ~$800, which left unrepaired just means I have a permanent check engine light and I get to pollute the environment.  I can live with that.  But the oil-burning problem is not going to go away without an engine rebuild or replacement, ~$3000.  The blue book on the car in perfect condition is $3500, so I think it’s time to give up.  I’m fortunate that it is still drivable, just have to add a quart of oil every 1000 miles or so.

I have cast out a lifeline on Craigslist to see if anyone is willing to do an engine rebuild at a price that will make it worthwhile, but I do not have high hopes.  So I am officially in the market, seriously this time.

Unlike in the past when I would have only ever considered a Toyota, it is not my first choice this time around.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, my car has less than 200k miles.  While that sounds like a lot to us old timers, it’s really not all that special for contemporary cars. I consider needing a rebuild at 200k only average from a durability standpoint.  It’s not like it’s a fragile, high-end German sports sedan. It’s a Camry. It should be like a cockroach.

Second, this was my second Camry and honestly, it was a step down from the first.  The first one was a ‘93, the legendary third-generation model (V30) that was released roughly at the same time Lexus was getting going and Toyota had gone ballistic in the quality department.  That car was quiet and steady as a tomb.  The current one, while always reliable, did not have the build quality of that earlier model -- a squeak here, a rattle there.  It’s level of comfort was high, as I discovered every time I got back into it after a week in a rental, but it was achieved less through solidity than cush.

[I just realize this is going to turn into an excessive rant, you may want to back out now.  Fair warning.]

So it was (is) a good, but unspectacular car.  Maybe I’m spoiled.  I’m told the latest generation Camry -- that would be the 5th -- has stepped up in quality, so maybe I should keep an open mind.  But a couple of contacts who I respect as far as auto knowledge have gone over to Honda as the most durable and reliable brand.

I test drove an Accord a few years back and was really unimpressed with the ride quality.  Maybe that has changed.  But the Honda that kind of appeals to me is the CRV.  Price-wise, the Hondas I’d be interested in are base model CRV or Accord.  I’m still in the prelim stage; narrowing my selections based on web research.

The other half of the equation is selling my Camry.  The perfect situation would be to trade in, but that would be sub-optimal price-wise.  It’s got pretty much new tires, and I’ll get it detailed.  I can clear the check engine light easily enough and keep the oil topped off, so if I was a dishonest guy I could dump it on to some unsuspecting soul.  I don't want to do that, though, which means I’d be selling it on my own knowing full well it needs more repairs than its value.  Not likely going to get a high price anyway, so I may as well just trade it in and haggle with the dealer over it.  At least the dealer can get stuff fixed at cost and possibly turn a profit.

An added wrinkle is what to do about Sirius.  Many years ago, possibly as many as 15, I splurged on a lifetime subscription to Sirius.  I fretted over the decision but it turned out to be one of the smartest things I ever did.  Since then, for something more a decade, I had Sirius in my car with no monthly fee.  Now, I have had to use aftermarket receivers that plug into the aux jack, but that’s fine.  The only time it cost me any money wa when I had to transfer my subscription to a new receiver.  I think I did that once and it cost $75.  Over the course of the years I bet I have saved in excess of $600 over the usual monthly subscription price.  But that was because I had external receivers.  New cars have Sirius-ready radios and that means that a) I’ll be dropping another $75 subscription transfer fee and b) I don’t get to transfer again after that, since Sirius doesn't allow transferring a lifetime subscription from an in car unit (a policy which, as far as I’m concerned, is pure bollocks and should garner the attention of the FCC).  Now this is not a big deal really. As we know, I keep cars for over a decade so I would still have my free access for a very long time.  But for the car after this one, I’ll have to move to the subscription model.  I can only hope technology provides a solution and I can move away from Sirius to some other free model.  Or better yet I will have an unlimited data plan and just use Pandora.  So I guess this isn't really much of an issue after all.  Forget this last paragraph.

A sobering thought:  There is a good chance that this will be the last car I drive.  If I keep it 12 years I will be 65 when I move on. Oh, I may own another car after this one, but it will likely be driverless.  Maybe 50-50 odds on whether my new model year 2026 car would require human intervention to function.Meanwhile, I’ll be spending a few Sundays trolling the car lots; gathering intel when the annoying salesmen aren’t around. As it stands I am one fo those people who HATE buying cars.  So this may take a while.

[TV] John From Cincinnati from David Milch

So Amazon hooked up with HBO to stream their shows for all of us Prime subscribers.  Interestingly, it isn’t all their shows.  Some of the older ones are excluded, like Larry Sanders, Dream On, and a couple of one season wonders, like the late lamented John from Cincinnati.  (You can stream J from C, but it’s not covered by Prime, you have to pony up cash for it.)  That’s a shame because if there was ever a series that merited a quick binge watch to see how time has treated it it is J from C.

J from C was decidedly experimental and self-indulgent.  Milch was coming of the unfortunate cancellation of soaring Deadwood and HBO was clearly ready to let him try whatever he wanted.  He came up with this surreal tale of a severely dysfunctional family of world class surfers in Imperial Beach, CA, on the edge of Mexico.  One day an odd fellow appears and becomes integrated into their lives.  A pure innocent, he seem to have some kind of clairvoyance or even magical skills, or maybe he’s just brain damaged.  The family patriarch starts levitating uncontrollably (just slightly).  Two of the roles are played by former teen idols (Luke Perry and Mark-Paul Gosslear) something that Milch would not do by accident.  It gave a sense that it was a random swirl of any wild thing that came into Milch’s mind, without rhyme or reason.

But it carried the usual Milchian dialogue; words selected for beauty and effect, not utility, this time with a hint of savagery to them.  It was also deadly funny, a thing that was missed by many in their confusion over plot.  It feature one of the finest acting performances ever by Ed O’Neill (yeah, the dad from Married with Children).  Its cancellation was disappointing but not surprising.  If you have any interest in an adventurous attempt to do something special with TV drama, it’s a gift.  But it’ll cost you, even if you’re a prime member.  (I think $20 to purchase the whole season.)

Milch’s relationship with HBO has been rocky to say the least.  Deadwood is the GOAT, but it never did get finished, even though it ended almost perfectly.  J from C was justifiably cancelled after a single season.  Luck was unjustifiably cancelled after a single season due to HBO cowardice. His latest project was called The Money and was to star Nathan Lane, but HBO decided not to pick it up at all.  It seems like a downward spiral since Deadwood, and yet, HBO has extended Milch’s contract through 2016.  I wouldn't put it past HBO to never produce any of Milch’s shows but keep him on the payroll to prevent the possibility of a hit show appearing somewhere else.  Hoopleheads.