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.

[TV] Still Mad After All These Years

So we just finished 7 episodes of the final season of Mad Men and we now break until next year, so Matt Weiner doing the interview rounds. Here’s the money quote for me regarding the use of the very un-60s hip Frank Sinatra in the scene where Don and Peggy dance in the office:
For me, it was an explanation of the thesis of the show. There were a lot of people in the audience who were there, and it was their childhood, and they have a very distinct viewpoint on what was going on. And it has been cemented by the representation of the late '60s as this revolutionary moment, of cultural upheaval, whatever the cliche. My basic statement was there were a lot of people who were adults when this happened, and they had their own lives, also. It's just like the idea that as the hippies come along, "Oh, Don's going to be left behind." Well, you can read Playboy Magazine and you can see that a guy Don's age in a suit and a tie is still at the top of the heap in 1969. It's not like they were supplanted by people in bell bottoms and sandals. It really was a kind of acknowledgement of the fact that the way history has been metabolized is very different than the way it was.[emphasis mine]
I don't think you can overstate how important this is to the dramatic quality of Mad Men versus, oh say, everything else ever. Weiner is so fully involved with the characters he sees beyond them as socio-political actors and just portrays them as people. Contrast this to something like The Wire, which became ever increasingly an outlet for David Simon’s cultural frustration. Mad Men is, I think, unique the realm of high-end TV drama in that there is no larger theme. We know the Sopranos was about self-delusion and Deadwood was about civilization from savagery, but Mad Men is just about the characters in the show working through the arcs of their lives. To make that interesting, nevermind riveting, is a remarkable achievement. While we’re doing quotes, the legendarily acerbic critic John Simon once commented about the movies:
“[American films] do not (cannot? dare not?) cope with serious, contemporary, middle-class, adult problems….What is virtually nonexistent is serious filmmaking about the urban bourgeoisie and its ordinary problems of existence and co-existence–not something about beautiful young women dying of mysterious diseases, to say nothing of demonically possessed teenagers.”
Matt Weiner can do this, remarkably so. It is sad that, as Mad Men draws to a close, there is nothing else on the horizon that can. For example, here’s the word on the next HBO drama which concerns gay rights in the ‘60s:
Open City will feature "characters from disparate corners of Manhattan as they navigate the cultural revolution and political turmoil of the era." It will also include a look at the "unlikely alliance" between the gay community and the Mafia upon the opening of a nightclub in the West Village.
Good grief what tripe. (Yet, they keep cancelling Milch.)

Throughout this half season you couldn't help but feel as though there was attention being drawn to how far these characters have come, thereby setting up the endgame for next year. Don starting ever so slightly to overcome is self-destructive narcissism; Roger having to be a grown-up; Peggy coming to terms with the cost of lifestyle choices (notice how this could have been easily turned into a chest-thumping feminist issue, but it remained personal to Peggy); Pete's growing cynicism; Joan, despite her elevation, continuing to live entirely in a state of fear -- great stuff. And if you didn't love Robert Morse’s song and dance, made perfect by Jon Hamm's reaction shots, you’re dead to me.

I’m pretty sure I’ll binge this season over again just before the next one starts. And I’m sure I’ll binge the whole series again in a few years. So many memorable moments to relive.

[TV] No Win Game of Thrones

I have always struggled with what Game of Thrones is about. Dramatically speaking, I mean.  It’s obviously beautiful and powerful storytelling, but I had difficulty seeing a larger theme; a point beyond the events themselves.  Examples:  The Sopranos is about delusion.  The Wire is about the corrupting of life by institutions.  But what is Game of Thrones?  It constantly teeters on the brink of misery porn.  One horror after another.  Injustice upon injustice.  Good and Happy are two things that do not exist.  The traditional dramatic end of comeuppance is never in play.

And then I saw Peter Dinklage's soliloquy about beetles and I realized that’s what Game of Thrones is about.  It is about what life would be in a completely amoral world; a world where there are only two drives, survival and power. God (in the form of George R.R. Martin) has created an existence in which humans are the beetles to be smashed.  That is the function of human history in and of itself.  Tyrion obsessively tries to determine the meaning of the endless mountains of dead beetle husks (human history) but fails because there is none.  God is the moron without reason.  There is no purpose.

That makes G of T probably the darkest, most dire TV show in history. It is also quite troublesome from a dramatic point of view because unless there is a change, I don't see how it develops an endgame -- a conclusion, or at least a clear arc for the characters.  Is the only arc “So-and-so tries to find meaning but there is none so he fails and suffers and dies like everyone else”?  If so, it will continue to be horrible event after horrible event, with no justice or substantive change in sight.  Deadwood took savagery to civilization in three seasons and was a classic. So the question is no longer “What is Game of Thrones about?” but “Where is it going?”  “Nowhere, it’s neverending anguish without meaning” is not really a good answer.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Month That Was - April 2014

The saying goes there are two seasons in Michigan: Winter and Construction.  With the receding of the glaciers the roads were revealed to be cratered like the surface of the Moon with potholes.  The end result is there is the potential for a construction traffic jam lurking around every corner.  I can't imagine this taking less the the bulk of the summer to sort out.  Never seen it so bad.

Perhaps it should be Winter and Projects season because I have my own projects.  I spent the better part of the tolerable weekends getting the yard into shape, all the while trying to get an electrician to call me back about some interior projects.

My new book -- let's generously call it a novella -- is out, at last.  More below but I've started on the next one already.  Perhaps it will be done before I die.

Apart from all that I am just looking forward to a summer of activity and some minor travel -- as usual.  No desire to do anything epic. Things have changed from when I wanted to make sure to seek out new experiences.  My mind is still open, but between working on the house and revisiting places I love, the urgency for adventure, however minor, has waned.  Perhaps that's only temporary.

[Books] Book Look: Basho's Inward Road
[TV] Going on a Binge
[Science] Cosmic Debris

[Books] Book Look: Basho's Inward Road, by David Mazzotta

Interestingly, everything I have seriously considered writing over the past three or four years has been modifications or adaptations -- riffs, if you will -- of existing works or characters.  Basho's Inward Road happens to be the first, and only so far, that has come to fruition.

Matsuo Basho is generally acknowledged to be Japan's greatest poet.  Among Japanese scholars he is probably thought of as we in the West think of Shakespeare.  He lived in the later half of the 17th century and gained much fame in his lifetime and is considered to be the grand master of Haiku. He wrote the most instantly recognizable Haiku to anyone native to Japan:

an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water

In English translation, this, like most Haiku seems almost childish in its simplicity, but in the original tongue it (I am told, since I do not speak Japanese) it carries tremendous subtlety.  One can imagine that the source word for “ancient" conveys a great deal of scene setting, and that the “splash of water" indicated a very specific sort of sound.

Towards the end of his life, he went on a journey to the far reaches of Japan along with this friend and student Sora.  He documented his travels into a series of vignettes and injected many of them with poems.  It was released posthumously as The Narrow Road to the Interior and it was a great success.  To this day travelers in Japan attempt to retrace his steps in homage.

I can't recall how I first stumbled on The Narrow Road.  I suspect I read it out of curiosity and an offhand interest in Haiku and the nature of translation in general. It is a short work, novella-length at most, and I ended up reading numerous translations which varied in tone from near-Victorian-baroque-epic to simple-and-blunt-Google-Translate.

The poetry was interesting, but the inherent problem of translation really diminishes its value.  You could argue that all poetry fails in translation and you would probably be right.  The same could be said about its value as a travelogue.  But here and there, we are given glimpses of Basho's personality and state of mind.  This is where the real interest lies for me.

Basho was a rapidly aging bachelor who spent his time travelling, unsure of his motives and purpose, alternating between mortal anxiety and joyful engagement with the world.  Who does that remind you of?  So I decided to rewrite it in my image.  I embellished and “re-imagined" Basho and his adventures under the assumption that the thoughts and feelings I recognized in him were equivalent to mine and so I could add legitimate depth to them. For example, I added humor and a strong sense irony -- things that were only hinted at in the original, but that I know to be essential in the make-up of any successful traveller.  I kicked up the moments of anxiety and worked hard to contrast them with moments of acceptance and resign.  I brought a more colloquial sense to the work and to the poetry.  I changed to arrangement but song remains the same.

This book has no hope of commercial success.  It's a personal project based on a 300 year old book from a distant land.  To call it esoteric is an understatement.   It's short -- barely a novella -- it could easily be read on a single plane ride or while you're waiting at the auto shop.  It's Kindle only so it's cheap -- $1.99.  If you're curious, you can get a copy for less than a latte.  My only wish is that it has some value for a few people -- that it connects in a small way.  If it does, please drop me a note

[TV] Going on a Binge

I've finally got around to that new national pastime, binge TV watching. Now mind you, for me binge watching is not a hammer-through-an-entire-season-in-one-sitting-until-your-eyes-shrivel sort of activity. I'm talking 5 or 6 episodes a week. Maybe 2 in one sitting now and then.

Terriers -- A cult favorite. A pair of low-end private eyes -- a disgraced ex-cop and a two-bit burglar he arrested at one point -- cracking wise and solving crimes. Exceptionally well executed with sort of a crime of the week along with a season long build up of a larger mystery. The writing is terrific, just crackles with wit at times. Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James had great chemistry as the leads solving crimes in their beat up little pickup truck. So there's no mistake, this is not pantheon level stuff, but it is absolutely state of the art police procedural with minimal contrivance.

Everybody who watched it loved it, but nobody watched it. It's a shame that building an audience through catch-up binge watchers wasn't on anybody's radar back then because I have no doubt it would have picked up a whole lot of steam over the seasons had it been allowed to. I really hope networks are beyond abandoning an obviously high quality show for poor first season ratings. (Case in point, had they done that Big Bang Theory would never have become the huge money machine that it is for them.) Here's a good gauge of what the cancellation of Terriers cost: imagine if nobody watched the first season of Justified and it got cancelled. That would have been a big loss. I think that's effectively the level of loss by cancelling Terriers. We lost a great show and FX lost the eyeballs of a future audience for years to come -- people like me.

Veronica Mars -- Another cult favorite although a much more successful one. So much so that they have basically done a 10 year anniversary reunion theatrical movie a couple of years early.

Veronica Mars has two obvious precedents. 1) Nancy Drew. Veronica is a high school girl who helps out her Dad in his investigation business, but spends plenty of time branching out on her own. 2) Buffy. Veronica is a little blonde girl who is actually a bad ass. No vampires, but there is a seasonal Big Bad. Action in pursuit of justice and right is intertwined with her circle of schoolmates and their shifting positions as friends, enemies, rivals, and loves.

In fact, Veronica Mars is just laden with cliches. The motivating force behind most of the episodic conflict is class warfare; Neptune High School has rich and poor factions, and the rich kids are all mean and spoiled and crush people through peer pressure, and the poor kids are good-hearted and oppressed and do bad things out of desperation. The big bads are authority figures who hurt kids. The Mars' have no qualms about any violation of privacy or criminal activity in the name of justice for their clients or friends.

It all sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it isn't. It's actually terrific. I credit the writing to some extent. There's not a lot of fat in these scripts. They are well-honed, sharp, and witty with little exposition. 22 episodes a year is tough, but Veronica Mars seems to keep things fresh by angling off into new subplots rather than getting overly detailed. They seem to be quite comfortable opening and resolving minor character development points in the course of a couple of scenes. Also the core relationship of the series is the relationship of Veronica to her father, and Kristen Bell (Veronica) and Enrico Colantoni (her father Keith) have this wonderful, easy-going, good humored, delivery. The side characters vary from annoying to enjoyable, but again, there is no dwelling on the rough edges, no wasted sequences. The overall effect makes it very engaging. I have not reached season three (the last) yet and I've read the quality drops off. But at least through season two Veronica Mars is very worth the binge.

Deadwood - Yes, I have waxed on about the beauty of Deadwood before, but HBO Signature started running them one episode a day and it still puts all other TV writing to shame. Every other word is f***ing or c***sucker and it is still the most poetic dialogue ever heard on TV and would compare well with the best of any drama (David Mamet, for example, who is great and honored in this respect, doesn't approach it).

Despite that, I can't recommend it universally. Having to pay attention to think about dialogue is not a part ot TV watching for most people. Others would never get past the frankness and coarseness to catch the beauty of the meter and pacing and plot structure. To a lot of folks it would just be just a ugly, dirty Western with cruelty and swearing. Compound that with the driving concept which is a dramatization of how a place moves from Barbarism to Civilization, and you end with something so far from the mainstream that it can't be watched casually. Still, if you're one of the ones who gets it, you know it has no peer.

The Future - When TV cools off this summer, after Mad Men and Game of Thrones close up for their respective seasons, I plan on going through a couple more series, probably The Americans and Silicon Valley and maybe something else, suggestions welcome.

[Science] Cosmic Debris

Just some links of some scientific relevance.

I previously discuss the validation of the Theory of Inflation for the pre-Big Bang universe, but here's a nice easy summary, along with an angle on the key scientist, Alan Guth. I was especially impressed with the story of his high school teacher who, realizing Guth was already way beyond anything he could teach, pulled him out of class, handed him a college level physics textbook, and told him to teach himself. Today he'd probably be fired for encouraging elitism or something.

As I also alluded to previously the big discoveries regarding Inflation and the Higgs Boson, while brilliant, don't really get us much closer to figuring out why there is so much darkness (matter and energy). This article suggests the answer most likely lies in the study of neutrinos where, instead of theory confirmations, we the unexpected.

But you want to get really out there, someone seems think they may have an explanation for the “Arrow of Time". Unlikely virtually everything else in the universe, time can only go in one direction, it's not reversible. Cosmologists find this deeply annoying. Matthew McConaughey believes it is because the time is a flat circle, but the folks here think it is an outgrowth of quantum entanglement -- what Einstein called spooky action at a distance. Personally, I think it may just be bad luck.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Month That Was - March 2014

As you can see I have actually update the blog look. Google kept pestering me to update to a revised template; can't blame them, since the old one was hand coded HTML from more than a decade ago and wasn't reacting well to the current browsers. This one still needs work: the titles are poorly spaced and the sidebar has to be rebuilt somehow. All in good time. For now, it's readable.

We actually saw a couple of warm days. By warm I mean 40. Then bam! A monster storm -- the first one in this year of storms that actually kept me in the house for the bulk of the day. But the end is in sight. We have passed the great triumvirate of end-of-winter events in Michigan: the Vernal Equinox, Oberon Release Day, and Opening Day for the Tigers. I am starting to make arrangements to have my deck stained and some work done in my yard once the ground thaws. I've ordered a big jar of coyote urine (no, really) to try to keep the critters aware from my flowers. I've also managed to complete the Ann Arbor Half-Marathon. I feel comfortable that I have survived my 54th winter.

[Books] Book Look: The War That Ended the Peace
[Science] Getting Physical
[Cars] We Got Robots on the CB

[Books] Book Look:The War That Ended the Peace, by Margaret Macmillan

Something you don't know about me: I have for many years had a passing interest in World War I. Not the war itself but the run up to it; the state of Europe in the early part of the 20th century and the events and conflicts the led to the war. Winston Churchill, who had fought in the Boer War, was Lord of the Admiralty at the outset of WW1, and led and inspired England in WW2, called the weeks leading up to the outset of WW1 hostilities the most dramatic moments in his experience. That's saying something.

Coming up on the 100th anniversary of its outset a spate of WW1 books were released this year, with probably more to come. The one I chose to read, The War That Ended the Peace, was well received, but I cannot give it a recommendation. It is unquestionably comprehensive and well-researched, and Macmillan writes fine, clear sentences. However, the content is overly dense and the focus is uneven. Paragraphs will often mix documented facts, general presumptions, anecdote, rumor, and editorial comments from varying years and circumstances, leading to the impression of cherry picking to validate a foregone conclusion. It is virtually impossible not to see the bias, and it's not just in the choice of adjectives or point-of-view. She has an entire chapter entitled "What were they thinking?" Also, rather annoyingly, she peppers the book with comparisons to current events. Whether as an earnest attempt to makes us see our current world more clearly, or as an act of marketing to help short-attention span readers relate, it's out of place. Also, although British, she seems to have a particular bone to pick with the U.S. Republican Party.

I should point out that bias in such a work is unavoidable. No non-trivial communication is bias-free and the start of WW1 is one of the most complicated moments of human history. But Macmillan's forthright projection that she views most of the main players as behaving foolishly, even drawing comparisons to those she believes are modern day fools, smacks of a soft arrogance. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the thing is that your final payoff for all this are conclusions that fall in lockstep with conventional wisdom. Again, there's nothing wrong with that it's just that as a reward for the time and effort of reading it's a bit of a letdown.

Here begins a minor historical rant.

One of the favorite games historians plays with WW1 is assigning culpability. For example, in the end we get the sense that Macmillan places the prime culpability mostly on Germany, or some combination of Austro-Hungarian intransigence and Germany's blank check, while acknowledging that the cumulative political effect of numerous individual developments over the preceding years contributed to the dangerous atmosphere. (From the meat of Macmillan's text she seems to fall into this camp, although in the epilogue she suggests that is is too complicated to sort out and really everyone is at fault for lack of effort or creativity in diplomacy. Weak tea.)

Minor variations on this is what I would call the conventional wisdom. People often stretch this by assigning smatterings of responsibility to the Russians for not having better control of Serbia or the England for being distracted and waffling, and so forth. Whatever the variation, I have a problem with conventional wisdom. All of these theories depend on the supposition that if the ultimate crisis wasn't triggered by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand something else would have done so, therefore we can place blame based on who is responsible for Europe being in the state it was in at the time of the assassination. But as I see it, that is by no means a foregone conclusion.

There had been several crises leading up to the assassination and each crisis was averted through diplomacy. There were dissatisfied parties in each case, but none of them lead to war. This was referred to as the Concert of Europe and was, in fact, so successful, that until the final hours there was a prevailing expectation that it would prevail again. To her credit Macmillan is quite good at highlighting this sort of bipolar mindset in Europe wherein everyone believed war was inevitable as was actively preparing for it, but also had faith in the powers to sort it out in their usual messy but effective way. So the fact that the Concert of Europe failed in this crisis, does not lead me to believe that it was doomed to fail at some point. It seems to me just as likely to not fail given its history. Put another way, no political system is so impervious to events that there isn't some crisis that would flip the switch on it. That, to me, lays the culpability at the feet to the assassins explicitly. That would be the trigger man Princip and his Black Hand partners, their boss Ilic, and their patron Apis and his cronies.

If you really wanted to look for root causes I would explore how all those men got into the positions they were in (both politically and psychological) rather than blame the machinations of the European powers, which were the result of incalculable complexities generated by flawed and irrational human beings. You may as well blame it on the rain.

Here endeth the minor historical rant.

Should you read The War That Ended the Peace? I'm going to offer a qualified no. If you already have a background in the era and events, it will add little to what you know. If you don't it would serve as a comprehensive overview and a basis for further investigation if you find yourself interested, however, there are likely better, easier places to start.

Let me just lob a couple of WW1 book titles if you're interested in pursuing this further. The best retelling of the events leading up to the War that I have read is Europe's Last Summer, by David Fromkin. It dodges much of the criticism I had of the Macmillan book; it's taut and focused and the approach is sufficiently detached to not further muddy the already opaque waters. Though still in the camp of conventional wisdom, Fromkin settles very firmly of the German General Staff for culpability. I gave it a brief review a while back. Dreadnought, by Robert Massie, is a view of this time through the lens of the naval competition between England and Germany. Although limited in scope with respect to the War it was an excellent story. Lastly, probably one of my top ten non-fiction favorites, The Great War in Africa, by Byron Farwell. It is not about the run up to war, but about its execution in far off lands. Just from the tone of it, I would guess it doesn't sit well with formal historians, but who cares when the stories are so damn good.

[Science] Getting Physical

It seems science -- physics in particular -- is on a bit of a roll. Not only was the Higgs Boson located a while back (almost immediately after I chided scientists for having so much trouble doing so), but now it looks like gravity waves have been located, lending credence to the Theory of Inflation. What do these things mean?

The discovery of the Higgs goes a long way towards validating something called the Standard Model, which predicts the existence of a specific zoo of particles/forces. Every particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model had been found except Higgs -- now it's complete, except for that pesky force Gravity which nobody understands. But at least we can have a pretty high level of confidence in the Standard Model now.

The existence of gravity waves (yet to be confirmed, but confidence is high) supports the Theory of Inflation. As near as I can tell, Inflation is essentially the first thing the occurred after existence began. It turns out that our friend gravity can, in certain circumstances, work backwards -- it repels instead of attracts. At the instant of creation it was in repel mode and kickstarted the universe into expansion. Then at some point repel mode ended and the expansion of the universe has ever since been coasting along on the leftover of that early repulsion. There is a tentative implication from all this that the universe is quite literally something from nothing. Essentially, gravity is negative and matter is positive so they cancel each other out and mathematically a universe full of stuff that cancels to zero is no different from non-existence. Go figure. (An explanation from the horses mouth, physicist Alan Guth, is here).

What neither of these things do is explain the Darkness -- Dark Matter and Dark Energy, i.e. most of everything.

As we look around at the motion of things in the universe we realize that it behaves as if there is a lot more stuff that we can see; many times more matter than we can locate. So we decide to call this missing stuff Dark Matter. It must be out there, but we can't find it. Our Standard Model with it's hidden diva, the Higgs Boson, doesn't offer an explanation.

Inflation seems to say the expansion of the universe is coasting on the leftover push from the reverse gravity of Inflation, but it's not coasting. Oh it seemed to be coasting for a while, but now it's accelerating faster and faster. There is the idea that it coasted for a while but then something else began inflating it again. If Inflation isn't pushing it anymore what is? We have to invent something called Dark Energy that is all over, everywhere, but we can't see it or feel it or measure it independent of looking at the entirety of the universe. It is like a great ghost of existence.

These Dark things are really just shorthand for saying "The universe isn't acting like it's supposed to, and we have no bloody idea why." This is not a new phenomenon. This is what the medievals dealt with when they discovered magnetism -- objects moving for no good reason. In the past we might have assigned demons or spirits as the cause or possible some balance-of-nature sort of concept, now we just say it's Dark Stuff. For an interesting take on how humans respond to the unseen, see this article in Nautilus Magazine.

The bottom line for our era of science seems to be that while we have discovered more knowledge than any other era, we have been even better are discovering what we don't know. We have revealed ignorance faster than we have gained understanding. Much faster.

Tangential: The reboot of the legendary TV show Cosmos is underway. Carl Sagan has been replaced by Neil Degrasse Tyson, who is very good -- genial and clear spoken and calmly enthusiastic. I prefer him to Sagan. He was an excellent choice. The show so far is a mixed bag. They have come up with some clear exposition of ideas and beautiful visual explanations, but they have completely accepted convetional scientific dogma, almost to the point of arrogance, and they have been way off base about some things. It's a good and entertaining show and I will continue to watch it, but in terms of influence a new generation of scientists, as the original series is known for, I would expect Through the Wormhole will probably be the one the next generation looks back on fondly.

[Cars] We Got Robots on the CB

There is a reason Google and others are pouring so much money into driverless cars and it's not because they are techno-geeks chasing the latest flavor of cool. It's because there is disruptive technology-level money in this. Most of the commentary on this topic is about how much freedom will be lost to commuters -- no more speeding when you are late, no more of the visceral pleasure of the act of driving -- and the various consumer oriented issues, but the fact is the first place driverless cars will be adopted is in the commercial sector and probably in long-haul trucking. If I was a trucking firm I would be spending serious scratch to get out in front of this. The cost savings are astounding. Imagine the equivalent of a driverless big rig. No paying the trucker (union wages and all the retirement and health benefits that correspond). The truck itself can be simpler, smaller, and cheaper -- no steering wheel, no comfort controls, no airbags, no compartment to sleep in -- mechanical necessities only. Plus, it never needs to stop to eat or pee -- given enough fuel, it can go 24/7 from one end of the country to another, always moving at the most efficient pace possible. The profit increases in the transportation industry will be enormous.

It's interesting to speculate how all this will play out over time. Right now there is a certain, perhaps justified, fear and doubt about driverless cars. What happens if these things go haywire and slam me full speed into a telephone pole? What if they blindly follow my GPS and drive me into a lake? Although these occurrences will be exceedingly rare, the media will portray them with breathless moral indignation, dramatists will build stories around them for their police procedurals, and lawyers will sue for eight figures. It'll be like Invasion of the Zombie Cars.

Things will change, but very slowly at first. Eventually there will be a reaction to the overhyped driverless car-pocalypse. Guidance systems will get increasingly better. People who have become more dependent on things like adaptive cruise control and blind spot warnings will be less fearful. (Hell, you can barely see out of modern cars anyway, and the only thing you do see is the tinted glass of the gargantuan SUVs all around you.) Robot cars will catch on in one or two of the more fashionable addresses. More and more people will know someone who has gone driverless, or perhaps even had a chance to try one themselves. Insurance companies will adapt to cover them. Infrastructure may be built into the very streets in some particularly troublesome areas to assist navigation. Eventually folks will begin to realize that, although there may be an extremely rare case of death by a misguided driverless car, for every one of those there are a thousand fewer deaths in road accidents (or something on that scale) due to human fallibility.

When that tipping point arises, you do not want to be employed as a commercial driver. Not long-haul trucking or pizza delivering or anything in between. Those jobs will be gone in a matter of months.

But what of old school human-guided vehicles? I suspect things will get tough for them. They will be much less safe compared to our robot driver overlords who never get distracted and never do anything even slightly risky. Driver's licenses may come at a higher cost and other sorts of taxes increased in an effort to offset the cost to society of you and your dangerous meat-piloted minivan. "Dumb" cars will probably be required to have special lights or infrared transmitters so that the machine-guided "smart" cars know to give them a wide berth; they may be banned by certain jurisdictions. More and more, driving and car culture will become a niche activity -- like riding horses or worse, civil war re-enactments. Auto racing may become the main purpose of old-school vehicles, although it will likely take a hit too, assuming its attraction is as an extreme version of an activity everyone can relate to. It will be permissible to operate a motorcycle only one week a year and only in a ten square mile radius around Sturgis.

You might ask, Who on Earth would want to live in such a world? The soccer mom who can use her car as a chauffeur. The 88-year-old with the reaction time of a tree sloth. Pretty much anyone who drives a Camry. Normal people, that's who. As for auto enthusiasts, well, you can barely find a manual transmission today, how are you going to fight this?

I exaggerate to make my point, but only slightly. I don't know how much of this transformation we'll see in my lifetime (I'm 53), but I know that all things must pass. Every idea, every concept, every dream has its day. The automobile as we know it has had, and for now still has, a great one. We should pause every once in a while to consider ourselves lucky to have lived during it. Our antecedents 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.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Month That Was - February 2014

The Month That Was - February 2014: It remains the most brutal winter in my memory. Cold, snow, ice. Constant inconvenience and discomfort. Sky high heating bills. Businesses are going broke trying to keep their sidewalks clear and their parking lots plowed and avoid slip and falls. There is no road salt to be had -- they can't pull it out of the ground fast enough. The school year has been extended because there have been so many snow days. It's gotta end eventually right? Luckily I was able to spend a week down in Florida this month (trip report below) otherwise I would be homicidal at this point.

I still have a half-marathon to run at the end of next month and my training has been sparse. It's not so much the cold that is the problem it's that snow has piled up at the edges of all the streets which would squeeze a runner into traffic, and ice has covered everything else. I can't run any serious distance on a treadmill so I am stuck running in small circles around a local park or in the side streets around my neighborhood where they maintain a path. I have been keeping up on my cross-training so I hope I'm not that bad off, but I need to be back up to 12+ miles by mid-March or I'm done for.

I have an enormous amount of work to do around the house. The fireplace (gas) has never worked and I set to pulling it apart to see if I could determine the problem. All I got was sooty. I need to call someone in. And I might as well see about upgrading to one of those fancy units with remote control while I'm at it.

You get an extended trip report this month, something I haven't done in a while. Otherwise, short shrift. My car is still an issue. The book is still in revision. It's like my life is as frozen as the weather.

[Rant] Tethered to Cable
[Travel] Islands in the Gulf

[Rant] Tethered to Cable

Tethered to Cable: I managed to renegotiate my TV contract with Charter Cable, under threat of jumping to DirecTV, although I'm not sure I gained all that much. I basically got my (slightly discounted) monthly rate extended for another year, but added another movie channel, a couple of new special interest channels, Red Zone (woot!), faster internet, and was handed two extra DVRs and a new router for my trouble. Of course, in another year I'm going to have to go through it all again.

I could save a little money by going with DirectTV but only for a couple of years, then the DirectTV start-up discounts would end and I'd be back in the same boat so I took the deal for now. No contract so I can back out at any time. Expensive as it is, Charter has done a truly solid job of maintaining service. I can't remember the last outage.

It really amazes me how some industries have developed pricing models that thrust them into direct conflict with their customers. Auto dealers are the paradigmatic example. You know you are in for a battle as soon as you walk in the door. The guy you have to buy from is the antagonist. He will make you pay as much as he possibly can. He is not working with you, he is the enemy. And you have to assume that if he agreed to a deal, it was to his advantage, not yours. Another day, another salesman, another customer might end up with the same product at a lower price. There is no way to walk out of the dealership feeling positive, you have to hope that comes later when the trauma wears off and the experience of the nice new car dominates.

Airlines are not quite so awful, but they do have a similar problem. Pricing varies, although at least it is based on timing and not on you as an individual. No the big problem with airlines is that once they have, once you have purchased the ticket, you are at their command. They can jerk around your schedule, cancel your flight, switch around your seats, overbook, etc. You on the other hand, can't do anything without paying through the nose. Luggage? That'll cost you. Miss your flight? Tough luck, that'll cost you. Delay kills have your vacation? Hard cheese. Let's say you have a Sunday flight and you need to stay another day. Even weeks in advance, even if seats are readily available, if you call and ask to switch to a Monday flight they will charge you hundreds of dollars. It costs them exactly zero to move you from one flight to another, but they do it because they can. Because the nature of their relationship with the customer is antagonistic, it is to squeeze as much as they can out of you.

Cable companies are in the same boat. They offer you wonderful discounts to sign up and then, once they expire, your only hope of keeping a reasonable rate is to get them on the phone and threaten and cajole and complain in the hopes of getting something back.

All this flies in the face of everything we know about enlightened business practices, where you are told the soundest and most long-run profitable course is to build positive long term relations with your customers. This does put these folks on troublesome footing when disruptive technology comes along. True Car and the like could put the old school car salesman out of a job very quickly, and may have already. My cable company at least felt the need to do a live comparison of the price they eventually offered me with DirecTV to show it was competitive, but streaming services are coming on strong. So there is an element of risk in taking this path to revenue maximization.

Still I understand that these situations don't occur in a vacuum. There are economic and regulatory forces that push them that way. Not much you can do about it except stay keen to any alternatives that arise.

And never, ever take a job in customer service in one of these industries. It will crush your soul.

[Travel] Islands in the Gulf

Islands in the Gulf: There are few things more enrapturing than, in the middle of the coldest, snowiest winter in history, flying down to the Keys. OK, anywhere warm and sunny will do, but within the continental U.S., Key West is likely the only place you can be truly certain of summer weather. I have been burned in the past in both Miami and San Diego, expecting sunburn and getting a chill.

Not this time. I got off the plane in Fort Lauderdale, stuffed my big fat winter coat into my luggage, picked up my rental and was cruising south on the Florida Turnpike, windows open, radio blasting. It was Friday afternoon on President's Day weekend so I fully expected to be backed up for hours in traffic, but I wasn't. A couple of jams here and there, but nothing more than a few minutes. I pulled into the Pier House in Key West at sunset, changed into shorts and a t-shirt, went out and bought sandals because I had stupidly left mine home, and went walking up Duval Street in search of food and drink. Latitude adjustment.

Duval St. hasn't changed. It's a slightly older and less hairy version of Bourbon Street. In February, it is filled primarily with snowbirds and vacationers from the frozen north. I crossed paths with many Michiganders. In contrast to Bourbon St., there aren't really a lot of folks looking to get hammered and cause chaos. It's a lot of older couples, blowing off steam after a day of fishing or water activities. Much friendlier -- less aggressive. Just a fun place to wander from bar to bar and chat with the folks next to you.

Where Duvall falls down compared to Bourbon St. is in entertainment, perhaps not surprisingly. Whereas on Bourbon Street you will hear astounding music of many kinds -- trad jazz, zydeco, electronica, straight ahead rock -- flowing into the street from every venue. On Duval, there is basically one form of live entertainment: a guy playing guitar -- sometimes alone, sometimes with a partner, sometimes with a recorded backup band -- but every one is a variation of the Jimmy Buffet/street troubadour image. Of course, a solo performer playing for free beer is cheaper than a professional band, but really, Key West could stand to step it up in this department.

And there are plenty of daytime activities, beyond the various water-based tours. I can be fun just renting a bike and tooling around the island. In fact, a bike is probably the best way to get around, although the more lazy types would pick up a scooter. With a half day on a bike, you could easily cover:
  • The Southernmost Point - a big, garishly painted kiosk labelled Southernmost Point. It is not actually the southernmost point in the continental U.S. as there are clearly points that you can see further south. It may be the Southernmost point on a main road. Whatever the case, a line spontaneously forms for folks to take pictures in front of it.
  • Smathers beach and the southern coast bike trail - many people are surprised to discover there are no really great beaches on Key West. Most are rocky or have thin, gritty sand. Smathers has a few decent spots, and the area is generally quite windy, meaning kite-flyers and windsurfers and kite-surfers make good use of this area.
  • Fort Zack State park - Here is certainly the most dramatic beach, and excellent for sunning and strolling. Good facilities. You can also explore the Fort itself, a site of some historic import and offering nice views of the surrounding area. This is also a good place for wildlife watching -- you can spot iguanas the size of your arm in the mangroves surrounding the fort.
  • Key West Cemetery is worth a stop just for the famous grave stone that reads “I told you I was sick."
I know you could easily cover it in a half day, because I did. On one of those beat up single speed beach cruisers, even.

Interestingly, this exploration revealed something unknown to me. That there are actually “bad sections" of Key West. As in high crime sections. One is the section just south of the cemetery, which looked like a pretty standard working class neighborhood as I rode through it. Apparently, it's the center of drug trafficking after dark. The other is one the western end of the island just up against the naval base. This looked more appropriately ghetto-ish with obviously low-end apartments. I saw a cluster of seedy looking guys jivin on a street corner and an occasional car stopping to interact with them. Hmmm. Both these sections are about two blocks long and, I suspect not much of a problem in daylight. Still, both these spots are within a quarter mile of some heavily touristed areas. But I suspect the crime here is most drugs and solicitation -- not so much violent crime. (A crime map confirms that things like assaults tend to happen in the bar-packed areas; meaning for the most part it's probably a couple of drunks mixing it up.) Key West, for all it's good qualities, is not life under a dome.

The big first for me this trip was the Hemingway House. It's a large compound that was occupied by Ernest on and off during the 30s and was a place where he wrote many of his famous works. The house is maintained as something of a museum and the grounds make up some of the best gardens in the area. Weddings are often held here; it is that picturesque. The house itself and the tour are really nothing all that special, but then, it's not expensive either. The most interesting thing are the six-toed cats that pretty much have the run of the place (actually only about half of them are six-toed mutants). It's a good distraction for an hour or so.

As to the question of accommodations, the three previous times I've stayed in Key West I've stayed on the south side, essentially just off the end of Duval St. furthest from the action. The three resorts -- Casa Marina, Santa Maria Suites, and the Reach Resort are all fine and beautiful places. It's a bit of a walk -- probably close to a mile -- from main attraction area of Duval, but it's also not bad to be a bit secluded from the madness. They are close to Fort Zack, and Casa Marina and Reach -- both are Hilton properties -- maintain their own private beaches and share room charging privileges. This trip I stayed right down in the center of the action at Pier House. It's a top notch spot. Very luxurious, two restaurant and two bars, a spa, big comfy rooms that are very stylishly furnished, a deep pool, and a small private well-maintained and serviced beach and bay with a cool swimming platform. Interestingly, there is also a small section of the beach area that is tucked away for topless sunbathing, although as far as I could tell nobody was doing so.

My first choice is usually Casa Marina but that is because I collect Hilton points. The grounds are a little nicer than Pier House, I think, but there is a distance to consider if you plan on walking back and forth down Duval a couple of times a day. You won't go wrong at Pier House; I would happily stay there again in a heartbeat.

As to food and drink, it's everywhere and it's generally pretty good. There are no high end fine dining establishments, everything is island casual. It's tough to tell from the name of the place where you're going to get something really tasty versus just a run-of-the-mill dish. The hottest restaurant at the moment is the Blue Heaven Cafe, and you better have reservations -- the weekend brunch will spill out into the street. I went for a very late lunch and managed to snag a seat at the bar, only to be told they don't serve food at the bar. Everybody in Key West will have their favorites -- I like the crepes at Banana Cafe for breakfast and I had good meals at the Rum Barrel and in the Harbourview Cafe at the Pier House. But don't follow anyone's advice. Explore: there are little gems everywhere.

So that was Key West. As you know, I am on a slow-burn hunt for vacation/retirement spots in Florida and have been exploring all around the gulf to see where I want to end up. I don't think I want to end up in Key West. It's fun and active, which is nice, and there's good infrastructure, but it's also far from everything. It's about a three hour flight into Ft. L or Miami, add a couple of hours for airport commute and security, then a four hour drive to Key West. That's a full day burned even if everything works right. Contrast that to somewhere like Sanibel/Captiva and you can knock three hours out of that at a minimum. Which is a good segue into phase two of my vacation…

Captiva Island (which is immediately north of the more heavily trafficked Sanibel, connected by a short bridge) is a pretty solid opposite of Key West. The energy level is low, as is the sense of chaos. The nightlife is, well, let's call it subdued by comparison. There are really only a handful of restaurants and bars. The beaches are astounding. It's like a big chill pill.

Although not as long a drive as the one to Key West, getting to Captiva is not trivial. The closest major is Ft. Myers. From there you have a good half hour before you reach the bridge to Sanibel. It's $6 to cross the bridge on to Sanibel. (Yes, everytime you go back and forth across the bridge to get to Ft. Myers it's $6. The State of Florida shows little mercy when it comes to road tolls and fees. Most toll roads do not even have stops to pay them -- they nail you by photographing your license plate and sending out bills. So a couple weeks after you have turned in your rental car your credit card gets dinged for road tolls. This being Florida, the burden falls disproportionately on tourists, which enables them to have no state income tax. Must be nice.) Sanibel is about 12 miles long, with a single stop light. The speed limit is 30 on the main road, but you will never approach that. Traffic is so thick in season that stop lights are useless. They put actual traffic cops at two or three of the main intersections just to keep things moving as smoothly as possible. In fact, if you are trying for late afternoon-early evening exit back to Ft. Myers plan on sitting in your car for a couple of hours. That is to say, don't bother trying to leave. Find a nice bar with view and relax until the madness passes.

Sanibel is about two-thirds rental homes and beach resorts, peppered with the usual assortment of trinket outlets and restaurants. The other third is given over to a wildlife sanctuary. Although it's not a particularly big island, there is really no central village or strolling area. Once you get settled in on Sanibel, the best strategy is to rent a bike and use that to get around. On Sanibel your days are given over to biking about and maybe doing some sort of waterborne activity, followed by drinks at sunset and a leisurely dinner in the evening breeze.

Captiva is the next island north of Sanibel, connected by a very short bridge which crosses a small channel that you could probably walk through is you needed to. Captiva benefits from being a dead end -- the masses of traffic have drifted off to various points on Sanibel. That's not to say it's not busy, just not insane. You do not want to have to park anywhere on these islands in season, other than the resort you're visiting.

Captiva benefits from a couple of other things. First, the top resorts are located here. The sprawling giant is the South Seas Plantation. A huge manicured campus style complex at the very end of the road. You will not be allowed in without stating a purpose and paying a five dollar parking fee if you're not a guest. Many charters and tour boats are stationed here so there is some traffic through the grounds, but for the casual day tripper, having already dropped $6 to get on the island, dropping another fin just to look around is unlikely. The other high end resort is Tween Waters, named because it occupies a spot where the island narrows such that the back of the resort abuts the channel and the front looks out on the gulf. Tween Waters is where I stayed and it's a terrific spot. It contains both a nice restaurant and a fun pub along with the requisite pool bar and cafe. It has it's very own marina on the sound side and comfy loungers and umbrellas that you can rent on the beach (small fee -- maybe $20 for all day). Rooms are spacious and nicely styled -- many have screened in balconies. Service was excellent start to finish. Highly recommended; I could easily see this place being a “go to", however there are always numerous timeshares and condos for rent -- I have to make a point of checking that out next time. The aforementioned South Seas Plantation, for example, is a Hilton Timeshare property and there are a number of little condos that appear to be rentable tucked away in a corner convenient to the main area of Captiva.

Which brings me to the second thing Captiva has over Sanibel -- a wee little main street that is a nicely walkable area. The bulk of the activity on Captiva is contained in about a three block stretch that includes a number of interesting little restaurants, some retail, and a small grocery store. If you can snag a place to stay in walking distance of this your transportation needs drop pretty close to zero. Some of the restaurants in this area have some tasty stuff. Key Lime Bistro has a very tasty lunch and Doc Ford's (part of a three restaurant chain in the area) is a cut above. Also there is the semi-famous Bubble Room, which is primarily known for it's desserts and its somewhat disturbing clown and circus theme. Down on the beach is the Mucky Duck, an Irish pub-style place which would work well for sunset.

Of course, this being the Gulf, there are a plethora of sunset cruises and other sorts of island tours. Interestingly, although you can catch a sunset cruise from just about anywhere, there really is only one outfit that goes on day cruises to nearby island. Captiva Cruises runs various lunch/day trips to Cabbage Key, Boca Grande, Ussepa, and Pineland -- in all cases they drop you for lunch at a place of some interest, give you time to explore the surroundings then bring you back to Captiva at their home port in South Seas Plantation. In high season you had better make reservations well ahead of time for these. Every cruise was sold out during my stay. A sunset catamaran cruise was, however, just perfect.

The slow-burn question is, could I live on Captiva? I think probably yes. There would be some sense of isolation that might make me crazy after a while, but with judicious timing I could be on the mainland in well under an hour (off season a good deal less). I would probably have to buy a little boat to make access to nearby islands easy, maybe even get a scooter of some sort that I could load on the boat. Hmmm. I don't know exactly how I would afford it, though. A 1-bedroom 1-bath hovel would go for 300 grand. That's the old story of not being able to afford the places I want to live. Maybe I should start with a low end timeshare to see how it goes.

There's still more exploring to do. I want to spend a few days on Boca Grande to see how that is. And I should probably do a panhandle trip since I keep hearing good things about it - Pensacola/Destin specifically. But, all in all, I would definitely like to re-visit Captiva. In fact, I'm sure I'll see Key West again also. There's always another winter coming around.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Month That Was - January 2014

The Month That Was - January 2014: Man is it cold. I mean ludicrously cold. Sub zeros. Multiple feet of snow. This either proves or disproves global warming -- or perhaps both. You know what the worst part is? I got suckered into signing up for a half-marathon at the end of March, so I have to go out and train in this ice-covered deep freeze. Lesson for life: never sign up for a long race until after May. Unless it's in Florida.

Beyond the cold, it's been a rough start to 2014. I cracked a tooth and needed an emergency cap. A stomach ailment that I had last summer, and which the doctors couldn't identify before it disappeared on it's own seem to be back. I have regular old man aches and pains, including a bad one in my hip. When you pile up all the crap and top it with a polar vortex, it makes you want to stay in bed until it's all over. I'm beginning to appreciate my mammalian cousins who hibernate through this sort of thing.

A triple hit of TV reviews this month. I should probably save some for later when I can't think of anything to write about, but sometimes you gotta live life for the moment; reach for that star, and so forth. I'd be remiss if I didn't also point out that I am once again re-watching The Sopranos. It's probably my fourth time through. The quality still amazes me. And I'm not the only one.

I was about five keystrokes from publishing the new book, when I realized it still needed another revision, so I am in the midst of that. It's to the point where I really want to have it off my back, and that's the dangerous point where you start making compromises. I need to remind myself another month or two will make no difference. Much beyond that, though, and I will risk being indecisive and fearful, which is worse. I need to stay focused on pulling the trigger, because the next writing project is starting to take shape -- in my mind, at least.

[TV] Detectives, True
[TV] Nerd Defense League
[TV] The Game has Two Left Feet
[Cars] Search For a New Ride
[Detroit] Genuine Detroit

[TV] Detectives, True

Detectives, True: True Detectives is the latest darling of blowhard elitist TV watchers like myself, and it's certainly worth watching. It is, primarily, an actor's showcase. Dominated by Matthew McConaughey's drawl-slow intonation of nihilist soliloquies, they take some riveting deep dives into the mind of a character, probably predisposed towards depression, who gave up on existence when his daughter was killed in a car accident. He has since only tenuously come to terms with not committing suicide and devoting his time in the world to police work. It's intelligent, yet chilling, stuff. Less mind-blowing, but equally skillful is Woody Harrelson's portray of his partner, a man completely invested in his illusions of the moral principle, and his self-justifications for violating it.

It's cleverly structured dramatically. The action takes place in the late nineties (ish?) and it is to a large extent narrated by the leads in the current day, under the guise of recapping the case because the initial records were lost in Katrina (the setting is Louisiana). However, the inscrutably silent present day cops who are taking notes of the recap clearly have an agenda beyond that -- a more current murder that is similar. So interestingly, we know that the leads solved the case in the first two minutes of the series. We know, roughly where they ended up in their lives. There is some suspense related to the present day murders, but the bulk of the interest is the personal story of the two leads, their backstories, and what they went through in solving the original case that resulted in their current state. I love this. I recently lamented that the only shows ever produced anymore we're crime based, there is little that is truly personal. This turning of the police procedural into a deep rumination on the depths of individual characters by rendering the "mystery" inert is brilliant. And it works because the characters, and their portrayal, are up to the task.

So when I tell you that the mystery seems to be little more than formulaic serial murder construct, it really doesn't matter all that much. In fact, it may almost be the whole point. I guess we'll see as it develops. But if you haven't been watching I suggest you binge to catch up. I'm crossing my fingers in hopes that it ends as strong as it's started. Plus, if you're familiar with the show you'll get the humor in the True Detective Conversations tumbler.

[TV] Nerd Defense League

Nerd Defense League: I like Big Bang Theory. So does everyone else. It's only the most popular show in the known universe or something. The writing is not as crisp as it was in the early seasons, but the it has one of the strongest ensembles of comic actors you'll ever see. It's run into some resistance in the media as it has evolved over time, though.

First, a common complaint is that it is nerd blackface, that it's gone from laughing with nerds to laughing at them. There is some validity to this. Early on in the series when the nerds were picked on, although there may have been a laugh here and there, it was ultimately portrayed as sad. At least to be a nerd on this show was not to be ridiculed or shamed or have it be something you were supposed to get over. Now occasionally the nerd-slamming is the joke in itself, but that kind of fits with the age of the characters. They are all adults now, with adult problems, not being picked on by bullies, so they would likely laugh at nerdiness now because it's not such a symbol of pain anymore. (I say this as someone with painful memories of high school geekery.) At least it is still respectful of nerds, enough to get the facts and prevailing opinions straight.

The second complaint is that it has turned from a show about four nerds to a latter day version of Friends. Well, there's not much you can do about that. If the show is going to last more than a season or two, it's going to have to morph. Five years down the road, you don't want to find yourself in the writer's room trying to figure out a new spin on Leonard working up the courage to ask Penny out. For the sake of longevity, you get 3-4 years of nerd tropes, then 3-4 more of Friends knock offs, and then you have entered the sitcom run-length stratosphere along with Cheers and Frasier and Seinfeld and Friends, offering lucrative lead-ins and endless syndication to make millionaires out of everyone involved. If you're really, really good you relocate to the suburbs and start knocking off Modern Family or Everybody Loves Raymond for another four years. Then Men of a Certain Age. I am only being marginally absurd.

For now everyone should just chill out and appreciate that it is still smart and funny, usually, after all these years. It's a high quality three camera sitcom and has remained so. It's part of our shared culture now. One of the few shows that can say that since the 90s.

[TV] The Game has Two Left Feet

The Game has Two Left Feet: Sherlock and Elementary: these Sherlock Holmes updatings, from opposite side of the Atlantic, are both deeply flawed.

The English version, Sherlock, is the better of the two, mostly because the Holmes/Watson duo is portrayed by the killer combo of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The show itself is perhaps the most uneven TV show I have ever seen. There are episodes that are heart-stoppingly brilliant, and others that are among the worst of TV, some that are both. Some of the scripts crackle with wit, others are little more than filler. Even the nasty episodes produce some joy in seeing the back and forth between Cumberbatch and Freeman. They can occasionally save bits of the more ham-fisted productions.

The U.S. version has Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu (as "Joan" Watson). Martin/Liu have good chemistry, but can't approach Cumberbatch/Freeman. Elementary degrades Holmes to some extent. It treats the show as if it is just another one of the endless mind-numbing police procedurals network TV has cranked out over the years. The show is no different from CSI or NCIS or any of those other alphabet soup cop shows. That Sherlock Holmes is the lead character is just a gimmick.

Now, that said. Sherlock generates about five hours of drama a year. Three episodes of roughly 90-100 minutes. This is typical of the Brits. I fail to understand why, given that schedule and the writing talent they can draw on, every episode is not a polished gem. On the other hand, Elementary is of the old school 24 hour-long episode season construction. Perhaps that explains why they just regurgitate the old police procedural formula week after week.

Another contrast is how fast and loose they play with the original Holmes and Watson. Both shows have had to make adjustments simply because Holmes, as formulated by Arthur Conan Doyle, is not conducive to a long television run where characters have to grow and develop and have an arc of some sort (unless you're the cast of Seinfeld). How do you do that with a self-confessed automaton like Sherlock Holmes? Sherlock pushes Holmes to the edge of emotional growth giving him a streak of sentimentality, but for the most part the Holmes is still the cold fish he is in myth, although with a much more biting wit and stronger penchant toward irony. Sadly, Holmes does not simply deduce -- he has something called a "mind palace" where he does his deductions. It's a misguided attempt to use special effects to show his thought process. This is presumed to be superior to a simple explanation, at least from an entertainment standpoint. It's not. It's kinda dumb. But not as dumb as turning Watson's wife Mary into a clandestine superspy. It's jarring to watch a show where the dialog and acting are brilliant while the plot twists is so abominable.

Elementary pretty much goes all the way to demolishing the known characters. The setting is New York City, not London. Holmes is a recovering drug addict with a tendency to fret. Watson is his former councilor, now turned partner, and one gathers she is now his equal in detection. Since this Watson is a woman, she can't be portrayed as mentally subordinate to any man, even Sherlock Holmes -- not acceptable in our world. Effectively this turns Holmes into just another smart private eye/police consultant. Holmes grows emotionally over stretches when he is blamed for a policeman's getting shot, or he becomes a sponsor for another addict, or he has to reconnect with his brother -- all the sort of weepy cliches TV drama has thrown at us endlessly over the years. The most appalling change is to convert his brother Mycroft, who in the books was the only man who could outthink Sherlock and was essential to the functioning of the British government, into a pointless dopey-ass restaurateur. Da hell?

I'd follow future seasons of Sherlock, if there are to be any, mostly because at five hours total output it's worth it in hopes of catching a killer episode. I'll probably watch out the string of this season of Elementary just out of habit, but with each episode it slowly recedes to background noise while I read my Kindle. Unless they do something spectacular by the end of the year, that's it for me. Although not for everyone else apparently. It's garnered high ratings.