Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Month That Was - May 2016

I wrote no fiction this month and that bothers me immensely. I have to find a way to get myself in gear on this but I haven't yet. The month was dominated by preparations for my house guests and my trip to Bar Harbor. I continue to be at war with my phone. I got the bike out of storage and managed a couple of decent rides. Blah, blah, blah; yada-yada-yada. But another month of nothing but my pleasant life is something to celebrate. Except for the whole fiction thing. That's disturbing.

[Travel] Down East
[Tech] I Hate My Phone, Continued
[Cars, Rant] Sin Diesel
[Good Links] Hit the Links

[Travel] Down East

I wanted to get back to Maine. I had only been once before, a brief visit to Kennebunkport on a 4th of July. This may get me in a bit of trouble, but for the most part, the storybook Maine coastal towns are very similar. They all have the style of old New England seafaring communities: cozy attractiveness, no-nonsense, homey architecture, a harbor, a series of bars and restaurants, craft stores where you can buy Maine merchandise both authentic and inauthentic, and little inns and B&Bs. It's all very nice, if a bit boring. You can only see so many stark, rocky shorelines and eat so many lobster rolls before they lose their luster.

Bar Harbor (pronounced Bah Habah), the most northern of well-known Maine coastal towns, has an advantage. It is the gateway to Acadia National Park.

One key aspect of this trip was that it was pre-Memorial Day. This was a genius move, since one overwhelming impression I got everywhere I went was that, in season, this place must be swamped. To access Bar Harbor you typically fly into Bangor and take an hour-long, non-freeway drive to the coast. Judging from the roadside attractions and advertisements along the way, I gotta figure it's bumper to bumper in season and there's not that much parking in Bar Harbor, which has to be a nightmare if you're commuting in for a day-trip or your hotel is outside walking distance.

That said, Bar Harbor is as top notch resort town. The presence of the park gives it an added draw and it's response is to be overly full of restaurants and craps shops compared to other places on the Maine coast, but it's not distastefully done. It's still obviously Maine, not Ocean City or Myrtle Beach. Besides I'm not some bearded hipster searching for some sort of faux authenticity -- I'm a tourist, and proud of it.

Hanging in a Maine coastal town is something everyone should do. They are as genteel as they look, begging to be strolled through in khakis and boat shoes having genial conversations about how lovely everything is. I know I sound flip, but I'm sincere. But unless you're a dedicated souvenir shopper or are otherwise happy to center your day around drinking and eating, you need more. Often there are fine water excursions available -- anything from lobster fishing to sunset sails aboard old schooners. This being before season there was little of that in Bar Harbor. But Acadia National Park is alive and kicking.

Acadia, in the midst of it's 100th anniversary, was a delight. It's highest peak, Cadillac Mountain is an easy drive to the summit. The iconic thing to do is get up early to catch the 4:30 AM sunrise from the peak, as it is considered to be one of the first places you can see the morning sun from the U.S. I passed on dragging my ass out of bed at 4 AM -- I was on vacation after all -- but I did make the drive on a one of the sunny days (I had two sunny days, one just before leaving) and managed to take some excellent photos.

My time in Bar Harbor consisted primarily doing something active in the AM the hitting town for a late lunch followed by some wandering and/or drinkin about the town or coastline. This is about a perfect way to spend your entire life and if you can afford it I highly recommend it. There a number of fine hikes in Acadia. You can haul your ass by foot up to the top of Cadillac Mountain if you choose. I chose not. Most interestingly, there are what are referred to as "iron wrung" routes which take to up steep and treacherous mountain paths via the use of iron handholds or ladders (not for the faint of heart). I did none of these.

My first night I headed on foot towards town and took a turn off to walk to Bar Island. You can only walk to Bar Island at low tide, the land path will be underwater at high tide. True, it's something of a novelty to do this. It isn't strenuous and you are in no danger of the tide instantly washing you back in. It's really just a sort of pleasant promenade a short way across the bay to the island. Some people actually drove it, which I found marginally obnoxious. There also appeared to be a meeting of a local vintage moped society, which I found marginally endearing. Mostly it's a mix of folks -- tourists like me, locals walking their dogs, kids running and screaming. Once on to Bar Island there is a path to the top of the island (easy, about a mile round trip) from which you can look onto the Bar Harbor waterfront. It's not quite as nice as many in Maine, but it's still photoworthy.

The next day I hiked the length of Jordan Pond on suggestion of a ranger who said that if the water is still, you can get those perfect reflection nature photos that garner attention now and then. The water was not flat that day, but the hike itself was a fine walk in the woods along the shoreline of the pond (actually a small lake). At the south end of the pond stands Jordan Pond House which is a bit a destination given it's a sizeable restaurant with excellent views of the pond and its surroundings. I suspect your average day tripper comes into the park, drives to the top of Cadillac Mountain then comes here for lunch. I chose to find my meals in town.

Dinner highlight that night was Scotch Eggs at Leary's Pub which bills itself as the Easternmost Irish Pub in America. Probably true. It's a tiny little place tucked down a short alleyway. I only found because the folks on Yelp seem to think highly of it. It has a solid pubby vibe, friendly bartenders, I could do without the Irish music, but that's just me. Were I resident and not out to explore, I wouldn't hesitate to make it a usual stop.

I had an interesting conversation with the bartender there. I had noticed just about every shop in town had Help Wanted signs up. She explained that much of town hires in seasonal help from Jamaica. This is not unusual -- they do this on Mackinac Island also. Summer is off season in Jamaica. However, this year there had been some snafu with visas so here everybody was a couple of days from the Memorial Day slam and the Jamaicans were missing. Everyone was understaffed and undertrained. Glad I wasn't going to be around for the holiday. I don't know if they ever sorted out the visa issues but if you're a young adult looking for summer work, you could do a lot worse than slinging drinks in Bar Harbor for a few months.

The next morning I rented a bike. Acadia's main road is called the Park Road Loop and it is exactly what it sounds like -- a long scenic drive through the park; 27 miles to be exact. I chose to bike it, although I did shortcut about seven miles off toward the end. The Park Loop will bring you in shooting distance of most of the park's main attractions, with a challenge of riding up to the top of Cadillac Mountain. I paused at a few overlooks along the way, but my main stop was at a place called Sandy Beach -- can you guess what is there? The bulk of the Maine coast is rocky, but there are packets of sand peppered throughout. On a sunny day in the height of summer, you could delude yourself that you've found a hidden cove in Florida or California. That delusion would last until you sank a toe into the frigid water. Still even pre-Memorial day there were optimistic people in bathing suits plunked down in the sand like they were going to work on their tans and sip a hurricane. Sorry, it was a lovely beach for what it was, but I've spent too many days on the Florida Gulf not to be a beach snob.

That said, the rocky coast is quite dramatic, with the perpetually crashing waves and the always threatening weather. Gothic is how I would describe the typical Maine vista. (You remember that old TV show Dark Shadows? It looks like the opening of that show.) And gothic is what I got the next day: on-and-off chilly drizzle without a ray of sun. It was a good day to be in the car, so that's what I did -- trolled the coast south.

My target was Camden, which has the tagline of Maine's hidden jewel, but the real hidden jewel was Ft. Knox Observatory. About half-way to Camden you stumble upon a suspension bridge over the Penobscot River that looks as though it came out of The Jetsons. Even better, one of the bridge towers contains an observatory; you ride an exceedingly fast elevator up to the top and are greeted with views of the surrounding miles, typical Maine coast picture-postcard views but dramatically expanded by your elevation. The coastal town here is Bucksport, an eensy little place with a nice harborfront that unfortunately ends in a large factory of some sort. But you get a lengthwise look at the broad Penobscot as it winds past green islands and shorelines to the Atlantic. Back on the ground you are free to wander Ft. Knox proper with its eerie stone catacombs and spiral stairways. All in all just very cool place. I'm sure there are guidebooks that suggest it, but I just happened on it by accident. One of those lucky rolls of the dice that can make a vacation.

I did make Camden, and it's as nice as any Maine coastal town. Not of the scope of Bar Harbor but of the same flavor. I snagged lunch on the waterfront and did a quick loop of the village, but there was nothing new or interesting. Just outside town there is a peak, Mt. Battie, that I drove up to try to get some shots of Camden from above, but by the time I got up there a dense cloud was covering the peak and all that could be seen was a uniform, end-of-world gray in all directions.

On the way back I made another stop, Southwest Harbor, which is yet another picturesque harbor and shops and restaurant town. The thing about Southwest Harbor is that it seems a little snootier than the other towns. The houses were definitely a step up, and there were a couple of restaurants that could be accurately described as high-end dining. I entered one took a seat at the bar and was completely ignored for a solid five or six minutes. So I left and tried to grab a sandwich at a deli but it was so crowded I couldn't get anyone's attention. So I abandoned ship and got dinner back in Bar Harbor.

My last day I decided to go for a run. Near my hotel, but in the park, there is a trail called the Witch Hole Pond route. It was identified by Runner's World magazine as one of the 10 can't miss running adventures. The loop is a bit over three miles and it was about a mile-and-a-half from my hotel so my plan was to run there, run the loop, then run back. 6-ish miles, easy peasy. First, the park is enormously hilly, so not easy. Second, as long-time readers will expect, I got lost on my way there. It took me two or three wrong turns and a couple of conversations with people who were smart enough to have park maps with them to find Witch Hole Pond. It also took me an extra three miles out of my way, so we were up to a 9-miler total. I did find the route eventually and it is a lovely run, enough that I had to stop a couple of times just to appreciate (not to catch breath, mind you).

So that was Bah Habah. As I look this post over, the tone seems a little unenthusiastic. That's real, but it's not the fault of Maine. Maine was exactly as promised and if you have an image of a coastal Maine vacation, Bar Harbor is the place you want to go. In fact, if the opportunity presented itself to go in season where I could partake of some of the water activities I might just do it. But I have traveled much and seen more. The Down East vibe of Maine, while a delight, can't hold a candle to Newfoundland. There is no place more Down East than Newfoundland. Literally. Hiking through mountainous regions -- well I 've spent my share of time in the Rockies and the various ranges in the Southwest. And as for waterside resort towns, all along the west coast of my state are the beach towns of your dreams. In fact, even one of the ten great running adventures, the loop around Witch Hole Pond, while beautiful, was no more beautiful than the runs on the Potowatami Trail a few miles from my house. And let's face it, these days you can fresh lobster in North Dakota.

So yes, Bar Harbor was a fine trip. I'm glad I did it and enjoyed myself. I can understand couples and families making an annual summer pilgrimage, especially families -- it would be a perfect week long summer vacation for a troop of kids. But set your expectations properly and reconsider if you're looking to step out of the box or for something that can't be had elsewhere.

[Tech] I Hate My Phone, Continued

I swear, everything with this phone is a chore (Nexus 5x - my first encounter with pure Android). I tried to figure out how to make it read text messages to me in the car. Turns out you need an app to do that. I downloaded one, spent a frustrating half hour trying to figure out which options to set to make it work. I sort of got it working, but the sound quality is awful, and it has a bad habit of reading the texts twice. I suppose it would be gratuitous to mention that my Windows Phone just did this perfectly out of the box.

The camera is mediocre and the photo editor is lame. Another app to download and another entity to have access to my info.

Transferring files to my laptop is a stupidly complicated. Why doesn't it just appear in Explorer like any other device.

I tried to set myself up an alternative lock screen to make use of all those wonderful customization options Android is so famous for and it turns out the Nexus doesn't allow you to turn off the native password protection so if you want to use an alternative lock screen you have to sign in twice.

Every app has different requirements, every app behaves differently. I get a message from someone on facebook and a circle with their picture appears and hovers in the way of everything until I dismiss it. Some icons show valuable info on the icon others you have to click through. It's as if the last 20 years of user interface design advancement have all been for nothing. It's like using DOS again.

No complaints about the Google Fi service. So far it's been exemplary and I'm coming in under $30 a month, but I just don't know if it's worth putting up with the bloody mayhem of Android. If I had it to do over I would probably go back to pick up an iPhone SE and go with TMobile service, or even back to Verizon (no complaints about Verizon except expense). I may still end up there. I plan to give my current set up through the summer then re-assess, but at this point I think its days are numbered.

I hate the world for not buying Windows Phone.

[Car, Rant] Sin Diesel

I've been casually following the Volkswagen Diesel gate developments and I'm fascinated by how it could happen from an organizational standpoint. The naive narrative is that these greedy corporate interests happily polluted the world for profit. That's good enough if your goal is to work up the warm glow of indignation in your chest, but it's not reality. I strongly suspect that in reality, no person in the decision chain that led to this thought they were doing anything wrong.

My experience in a management in a big multi-national corporation is that nobody has any malice or duplicity in intent, it's just that systems and incentives are mis-designed to allow or encourage it. When I first read about Dieselgate, I wrote, but did not publish, this as an expected analysis: A much more likely possibility is that everyone thought that within their purview they were doing what they should. Worker A is preparing a checklist for a car that's going into testing. Worker B gives worker a list of setting or equipment that he knows will pass inspection because he got the list from Worker C who didn't realize what he was submitting was not how shipping cars would be set because Worker D sent him an ambiguous email that read "These settings will pass the test but the final settings are not known" and Worker C assumed passing the test was the goal while Worker D meant for him to wait for the final specs before initiating the test. The Worker D got transferred and Worker E who took his place didn't realize anything was amiss and just thought the test was passed and years later heads are rolling and VW is fighting for its life.

That was way off. As it turns out, algorithms were created with the specific intent to pass emissions tests knowing full well they would never be used in the real world. A whole lot of people had to know of this and approve. What possible excuse could there be other than an outright company-wide endorsement of fraud? Again, given my first hand knowledge of corporate functioning, I would observe that if your conclusion leads to a bunch of avuncular old men sitting around a table exploring ways to lie, cheat, and steal to bolster next quarter's profit, then you have been watching too much bad TV.

It looks to me like the cheating the test was really just a baby step over the line from accepted practice. Here's a long, but telling description of the testing environment from Kapersky:
The biggest issue of emissions tests is that they are always performed with some standard model, like the so-called NEDC (New European Driving Cycle). This model consists of a few pretty short acceleration-braking cycles and one long cycle with higher speed, which represent city and highway traffic respectively. In real life nobody drives like this, and definitely nobody drives exactly like this.

But for emissions measurement they use this very model, thus engineers at car companies can do tricks to improve measurement results. Why do they do it? Plain and simple: it's way cheaper than to do real improvements. If an enterprise could do something in a cheaper way, it definitely would prefer this way to any other as the bottom line is important to company performance.

"Trickery on that tests is very common," says Lange. "What tricks people are doing to drive down the emissions? For example they blow up the tires by 3 bars more than you could actually use them on the road. The bottom of the tire looks like this, so that means that you only have that very small portion of the tire that still touches the ground, your resistance gets reduced."

"They put diesel into the oil, because diesel is lighter than the oil, so friction gets reduced. They take off the mirror on a passenger side, because that is not legally required to exist. So resistance gets away with it. They tape close all the openings of the vehicle. Obviously, when the wind goes over it, it goes much smoother once you have everything taped. All of these things are either Ok, or they kind of borderline grey area. And they do this. This is how actually emissions are tested."

The results of this trickery are very simple: measured values have pretty much nothing to do with what is going on in the real world. The whole auto industry knows this very well. Perhaps every car manufacturer uses software tweaks, just like Volkswagen did. As a matter of fact, 15 years ago BMW was actually caught on using a similar trick with software of its motorcycle.
So this stuff is known to occur even by the testers. With this as the accepted state of emissions testing it's not surprising (note: did not say "it's OK") that somebody pushed the envelope to the breaking point.

There is a also the effect of historical reputation. VW cars have dismally lagged the market in quality both in cars and service for many years. There is little goodwill to draw on. On the other hand, imagine if this happened to Toyota, makers of our beloved Camry and Priii. Toyota has been devoted to giving us cars that last a lifetime and beyond for a reasonable price as long as I have been alive. If I heard of this scandal at Toyota I would immediately assume it was an honest mistake and feel confident that they would do everything in their power to sort things out. In contrast, I would assume VW would deflect, defend, dodge, duck, dive, dip, and dodge (as they in fact did).

Heads have rolled at VW and more may yet. They are not exactly playing the PR game very well. Their stock price has crashed and sales in the U.S. have tanked (although not so much elsewhere). Enormous fines will be levied and it's entirely possible VW will be struggling to survive when all is said and done.

But should we not also hold the government agencies, who created such environments to get away unscathed. How did these tests get to the point where they were so divorced from the real world that there was an acceptable level of cheating. What was the reasoning behind not simply buying production models and testing them as is? That would seem a lot more logical. The system allowed automakers to game it, and even tacitly encouraged them. The cynic in me asks, Who profits? Well, the auto companies do obviously, from being able to save money by gaming the system. But to allow such a system to be set up in the first place, I can't escape the notion that lobbyists greased the correct palms to shepherd this convoluted and corruptible system into place.

Now look at me, doing exactly what I chastised others for doing: Assuming there was a cadre of greedy cartoon villains at the heart of the matter. The fact is there is nothing surprising in any of this. It is the nature of institutions, either multi-national corporations or government agencies, that they veer off into dubious activity now and then. They get caught, punished, and either correct themselves or disappear.

So thinking it through, it's hard to wax indignant about this. In fact, if I was in the market, I would be shopping for a VW. I have to figure there are some serious discounts available while they try to dig themselves out. Maybe they'll pull it of. The difference between VW and the government agencies is that VW will adapt or die, the government agencies have no reason to change.

[Good Links] Hit the Links

It's been a while since I dumped some interesting links on you, so have fun with these.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Month That Was - April 2016

I am in the midst of Spring preparations. I have decided to have a good bit of landscaping done, by professionals because experience has taught me that I am pretty much incapable of doing anything on any scale without wasting hundreds of dollars and untold weekends making stupid mistakes that professionals have already made and so don't need to learn again. The sad thing is that professionals are in high demand and are not always on your timetable. I know we have all heard about how awful it is for anyone looking for work as unskilled labor. But skilled labor -- tradesmen -- is in short supply. (There's probably a post in that.) Anyway, my yard looks like hell at the moment and it's going to be a couple of weeks at the soonest until they get to it. I think I am also going to try to get my house painted this year, but we'll see about that -- at this point it sounds like it might just turn out to be some fresh hell.

I am also about to have house guests for a month or so. I am considering hiring a housekeeper to come in every couple of weeks, but like most people, I want the house to be clean before I show it to the potential housekeeper which is truly silly, but undeniable.

Writing has slacked in the face of all this activity. It will pick up again. I am currently writing fiction at about the slowest rate I ever have. I'm lucky to get a couple of hours a week in at this point. Don't know when that will change, but it must. Maybe when I retire.

[Ann Arbor] Burrito Guidance
[Tech] Windows Phone, Vaya Con Dios
[Rant] Maybe It's Better
[Movies] Weak Force

[Ann Arbor] Burrito Guidance

This post will mean nothing to you unless you live in or around Ann Arbor. Non-homies can move along.

As a public service I thought I would provide the definitive rankings of fast burritos in town, since I know many people are paralyzed by the uncertainty where they should get their burritos. You're welcome.

  1. Chipotle -- Locations at Briarwood, on campus on State St., Washtenaw near Platt. Yes, the most common and popular is also the best. There is just something about the meat here. (No, not the bacteria, smart ass.) Great and powerful meat flavors mean you should probably get a bowl instead of a tortilla, since the tortillas are only average. And you should go easy on the fixin's. But, oh, that combination of Carnitas with Salsa Verde! I am convinced there is a secret ingredient in there. Probably crack.
  2. Pancheros -- Location in the new shops in front of Ann Arbor-Saline Meijers. A close second, but you must get the tortilla; a bowl would defeat the purpose. They grill them up upon your order and you can taste the difference. The stuffings are good quality, although crack-free. Fajita veggies can be added to any burrito for a buck. You should always add fajita veggies to your burrito as they are known to cancel out some of the fat calories.
  3. Qdoba -- Locations on Main and Ann Arbor Saline, North Campus on Plymouth Rd., Washtenaw in front of Barnes and Noble. Qdoba has some slightly different flavors that are a nice change, like ancho chile BBQ and spicy queso. Because of that, Qdoba is a good place for some non-burrito stuff - the tortilla soup comes to mind. Unless I'm mistaken, guac and fajita veggies are free which makes this a good budget choice.
  4. Moe's -- Location in the Colonnade, corner of Eisenhower and Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. -- The food is just meh, but there is a salsa bar, with including one with a nice garlicky flavor called Kaiser Salsa, so if you get a bowl or are OK with ripping open your burrito you can have some fun with flavors. Also they'll give you all the tortilla chips you can eat for free, so if you are are coming off a fast or a juice cleanse or a kale detox or some such, this is the place.
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention Taco Bell. I know, I know. Listen you can get a couple variations of burritos off the dollar menu. Thrown in a drink and you're out the door for around four-fiddy. This is a remarkable humanitarian service. Honestly, I don't know why we send food assistance to third-world countries when we could just set up Taco Bells. Besides, Taco Bell is kind of like White Castle. There is no point in rationalizing it. There are times when it simply must be done.

Note I haven't touched on tacos here, only burritos. For tacos you are better off hitting one of the more genuine Mexican shops: Chela's, Taco King, Tmaz, El Manantial. But that's for a different post.

[Tech] Windows Phone, Vaya Con Dios

Took me a long time, but I finally said goodbye to Windows Phone. I was not happy to do it, but I was compelled by happenstance and reality. Verizon, my former carrier, has made it clear that they are no longer interested in supporting Windows Phone. It took us well over a year after its release to upgrade us to version 8. Version 10 has been out for a while and there was no word from Verizon on an expected update -- I suspect they never will, hoping Windows Phone will just die out of their line up.

The larger reason, and one that I am sure would not go away, is the legendary app gap. Windows Phone has less than 2% of the market. No one is going to write any more apps for it and the existing apps will likely never get updated.

So I was facing a choice between Android and Apple. I am not an Apple fan. My few interactions with them in the laptop arena were a disaster. Years ago I regularly tried to buy music from iTunes and found it unusable. And you can always count on iAnything to be overpriced. It was going to be Android for me.

The upside of that is that I was able to kill Verizon and get on the nascent Google Fi carrier service. Google Fi is both cheap and interesting. First, it does a very clever thing whereby it uses either the Sprint network, the T-Mobile network, or Wi-fi, whichever signal is strongest, for all functions, including talk and text. That's pretty cool. It's also very innovative (and inexpensive) with respect to data: You are billed for a certain amount of data per month -- in my case 1GB which, along with unlimited talk and text, costs me $30 per month. But the cool thing is after the month is over they adjust your next month's bill to match the amount of data you actually used: up or down. That's right, they actually credit you for unused data, in real money, on the next bill. That is astounding.

To get this service you have to buy a Google Nexus phone, which I did -- a Nexus 5x. The knock on the Nexus 5x is battery life and while I had an early scare on that front, I think it was mostly because I needed to update the system multiple times and about 20 apps to get them current. Since then, it's been on par with my previous Nokia, still that only puts it on par with a 4 year old phone.

The real downside is the fact that the Android operating system is a usability dumpster fire. The elegant and beautifully simple tile interface of Windows Phone is forever gone, replaced with a haphazard stew of icons and notifications of varying shapes and sizes, none of which are consistent or discoverable. It is abysmal. I'm sure given the abundance of apps and services around Android I will eventually be able to get my phone to be as convenient as Windows Phone. But it's gonna take a while until I figure it all out.

As an interface, Android is a big step backwards and it's kind of sad that it is everyone's default experience through sheer numbers. Something tells me it's going to be many years before someone puts a coherent face on it. Maybe Microsoft?

[Rant] Maybe It's Better

I spend a fair amount of time on here making wry commentary about the direction of culture and its absurdities and how everyone should get off my lawn. But it's always important to try to put yourself in the shoes of those you can't understand so, as an exercise, I shall try to make positive arguments for the bizarre world our contemporary culture is building.

Maybe it's better they live in mortal terror of offending anyone. As some commentators have pointed out, it's pretty much impossible to fine-tune social interaction to the exactly correct balance of freedom of expression versus freedom from offense. Maybe the past was too far to one direction. Maybe political correctness, while leaning decidedly in the other direction, is somewhat better overall.

Maybe it's better their cars will drive themselves. The time will come when your grandchild looks at you incredulously and says, "You mean you aimed the car yourself and just went around crashing into each other?" That is to say perhaps the lives saved are worth the loss of the driving experience, however elemental it seems to us old folks.

Maybe it's better that every topic is open for public discussion. Being able to openly use the most profane language and freely discuss your sexual proclivities and bodily fluids in public, and see accurate fictional portrayals on screen as family entertainment, well, it's not for me. Perhaps, though, life is less stressful and more honest with fewer personal secrets to keep and mysteries to maintain. Who says reticence is a virtue?

Maybe it's better they are never out of sight of their parents until they go to college. They'll struggle with things like how to size up a stranger quickly, how to defuse a threatening situation when you are at a disadvantage, and generally how to gauge and evaluate danger. But isn't it better to learn self-sufficiency later in life than to be scarred or dead because you couldn't learn quickly enough as a child.

Maybe it's better that they don't bother reading unless it's a caption for something visual. Is there any non-prejudiced reason that written communication is better than visual. I mean, the Egyptians were all pictures and they lasted for thousands of years.

Maybe it's better to have an alphabet of genders. It's conveivable that being able to align your innate sexualtiy with 51 choices instead of just boy or girl could alleviate some behavioral compromises and make you more comfortable in your own skin.

Maybe it's better that politicians are unashamed of their behavior. We spent years with lawyers as politicians doing terrible things in private, how do we know shameless celebrities will be any worse?

Maybe it's better that every action is recorded for all time. Perhaps the New Golden Rule -- "Never do anything in public you wouldn't want to see on YouTube" -- will be more effective than the old one.

Maybe it's better that popular music entirely consists of assembly-line pop, R&B divas howling about empowerment, and illiterate, obscene, hateful rappers. Um...no. Sorry Millennials, there's no redeeming this one. You've ruined music. Full stop.

Whew. I can now pat myself on the back for being so open-minded. The world as it's currently constituted is certainly not to my taste, and it's only going to get worse. But then it's not my world to say how it should be and whining is no virtue for an old man. The world is like a rip tide. There is no point in fighting it, just swim athwart it until somehow you can escape.

To keep perspective, just think: In a couple hundred years somebody will create a mind-downloadable editorial entitled Maybe it's Better to be a Brain in a Jar.

[Movies] Weak Force

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is as bad as the reviews say. Well, it's not bad so much as it is just not there. There's nothing to it. It is, as most people have pointed out, A New Hope mildly re-arranged, with a touch of Empire... here and there. The is no snap to the dialogue, no compelling technical achievement. The new female Luke is bland as hell. The new black Han is a bit of a doofus. The new Darth is dweeb. The old Leia gets nothing to do that let's her have the fire of the old Leia. The old Han is about the only saving grace. After all the years, Harrison Ford can still pull off the role and frankly, when he's not on the screen the film becomes background noise.

Aside: J.J. Abrams needs a win desperately. Let's face it, it's been a decade since Alias and Lost, and the trend line of his movie production career has been on a slow decline. His work on the Mission Impossible films has been solid, but Star Trek has been spotty and I have heard nothing encouraging about the upcoming one. He's in danger of falling into Michael Bay territory.

But back to The Force Awakens. The main problem is we don't feel any affinity for the new characters. They are pretty much cardboard. We know their motivations because we have been told, but we don't believe them because, well, we've only been told, not shown. I have some sympathy; we have been spoiled by years of quality TV where you can take nearly a full season to develop characters. You need incredibly talented writers who can genuinely define and motivate a character in about two scenes and five minutes for a movie to work. (Note 1: Say what you want about George Lucas (he probably deserves it) but halfway through A New Hope we were fully invested emotionally in Luke, Han and Leia. Note 2: Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man had stand-alones to create themselves and connect with the audience so the ensemble opera could begin at full speed.) Instead we get about three minutes of the flimsiest background on Finn, Rey, and Poe which is somehow supposed to justify their strong loyalty and friendship with each other. The net result is that these characters aren't real or appealing, they don't respond to motivation so much as get just puppeteered around to generate set action sequences. (Han and Leia come off better because we already know them.)

And it's worse than just the shallow characters. As with the other recent disappointing come-back, Jurassic World, this was not so much a sequel as a remake. Not just in plot, but in concept and production. From tropes to camera angles to effects, there is nothing we haven't seen thousand times in the previous decades. What would make anyone think that a 20th century-style blockbuster will make it today? Have they not seen The Avengers?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Month That Was - March 2016

Holy crap! I didn't write anything. I literally looked up at the end of March and had nothing written in the whole month, so if what's below is a bit slapdash you have my apologies. Just a couple of long winded post this month. I'll try to stay on top of things next month.

[Travel] The Keys to Key West
[Rant] Web Status: Recked

[Travel] The Keys to Key West

I think this was my fifth visit to Key West and it remains a wonderful place. It's interesting that despite being one of the great bar and sunshine capitals of the world, it doesn't get a lot of college spring break madness. I assume for two reasons: 1) It is too difficult to get to cheaply - a four hour drive from Miami or an expensive connecting flight into Key West airport. 2) It ain't cheap. Major hotels near the water are going to run you in the neighborhood of $500 a night during spring break season, even at the cheapest. The upshot is that Key West, while being party mad, is a bit more adult.

While flyng that extra leg into Key West can be appealing. There are pluses to driving the length of the Keys. The path from mainland Florida onto the first key -- Key Largo -- is a well worn stretch of US 1, but there is an alternative. You can take Card Sound Road which parallels U.S. 1 about fifteen minutes to the East. There is nothing on Card Sound Road except a toll bridge ($1) and a remarkable swamp-side dive called Alabama Jack's.

There are approximately 9,327,438 waterside fried-fish-and-cold-beer restaurants in Florida, but Alabama Jack's stands out for a few reasons: 1) It's off the beaten path yet quite crowded suggesting folks go out of their way to get there. 2) It is old -- like, my age -- with roots well back in the heart of the previous century. The rustic kitsch you see here is genuine. 3) It has a broad cross-section of clientele, from families on vacation to bikers on the road to fisherman tying their boats up to local swamp rats. At 2pm on the weekends a country band plays -- the Card Sound Machine, they've had this gig for decades -- and sweet old ladies dressed up in their homey western swing skirts twirl around the dance floor. Just a good natured place all around. Worth going the 20 minutes out of your way.

The drive along the Keys is often described as beautiful, but most of it really isn't. It's crap shops, low-end shopping centers, cheap motels, and harborside facilities, and fried-fish-dives/tiki bars in places where the waters comes in close. The first two thirds of the drive is like this and can be very frustrating -- this is not a freeway. You're talking 40-45 mph with stops all the way through Key Largo and nothing to look at except the aforementioned crap shops. When you reach the next Key, Islamorada (pronounced I'll-am-or-ah'-dah) you will slow to a crawl with no passing lanes. It's tough when you have your sights set on Key West, still two and a half hours away -- but you must chill; there's no choice. The good news is once you get through Islamorada things loosen up a bit -- you might get some nice stretches at 50 mph along with relief from the crap shops and sweet views of the Gulf on one side and the Sea on the other. About 2/3 of the way through you'll hit the famous Seven Mile Bridge which is as lovely as described, and from there you're in the home stretch to your final destination. In Key West the smart thing to do is park and not get in your car again until you leave.

There is a lot to do in the Non-Key West Keys. Fishing is huge in Islamorada and Marathon, eco-kayak-watersports tours are everywhere, and there are a couple of excellent but crowded state parks, but apart from the occasional isolated lodge where isolation is the selling point, most of the stuff on the pre-Key West Keys is single purpose. The impression I get is that it's for families driving down for a brief, inexpensive weekend, or perhaps dedicated fishing trips. If you're going to hang for any amount of time you need to go all the way to the end of the road.

Having driven US 1 to Key West many times, I have no particular interest in doing it again. The added time is too meaningful to me now. I'd prefer to fly into Key West directly and take a ten minute cab ride to my hotel. But the drive is something you should do at least once.

There is another way into Key West, and that is via a ferry from Ft. Myers or Marco Island. It's about a four hour ferry ride so it really doesn't save you any time over driving and it departs for Key West early in the morning, returning late afternoon so it doesn't really work well as a commuter since you would have to fly into Ft. Myers the evening before, get a hotel room for the evening, then a cab to the dock early the next morning. It could be an interesting as an option for a multi-point road trip, though. Visiting other parts of the Gulf coast, use the ferry to swing down to Key West for two or three nights. That could work.

In any event, Key West is worth the effort to get there. The days can be as languorous or as hectic as you want them to be. One thing I have found is that when I am in the tropics I do tend to slip into island time. I may have a whole list of activities in my head but when I get there, that umbrella drink makes the lounge chair in the sun hard to escape.

A leisurely bike ride is a good way to get familiar with the island. Key West has many areas with distinct personalities. Duval Street is where the madness is -- the quieter southern end terminates right near the Southernmost Point. Here masses of tourist self-organize into a line to take selfies in front of a large buoy-shaped marker. The busier north end terminates at Mallory Square where people gather along the water to watch the sunset and the street entertainers. Quick note: All along the Florida Gulf coast watching the sunset is a big deal. Folks gather on the beach, or at least the beachside tiki bars, and drink and chit-chat and enjoy the final moments of Florida sunshine.

In the north, to the west of Duval is a lovely area called the Truman Annex -- it strikes me as the closest thing to an old money neighborhood. Row houses/duplexes on well-shaded, lightly traveled side streets. I suspect most of the units are rentals so it is almost certainly not old money, although I'm sure the larger houses in the area are.

Move south next and you get to Old Town, which as I understand it was a Cuban enclave up until a few years ago. It may still be as there a hints of latin vibrancy, but over the years I've been visiting it seems to be gentrifying. Some of the ramshackle spots seem cleaned up and higher end business are sliding in, such as the most popular restaurant on Key West, the Blue Heaven. I have tried multiple time to eat there but I refuse to wait an 90 minutes for a table off-hours on a Tuesday. No restaurant is that good.

You next step south is actually public housing projects. It's probably the worst area economically on Key West and probably the place you'd go to score illicit chemicals. But to be accurate I should point out the Key West is light on crime. In fact, the last time I looked at a Key West crime map, it turned out that most violent crime occurred on the northern part of Duval and along the waterfront. This tells me that violent crime is mostly assaults either on or by drunken tourists. And even that wasn't all that common.

Moving north from "the projects," such as they are, you come to a Naval Station -- no admittance. But adjacent to the Naval Station is Fort Zachary State Park -- a real gem.

There are no great beaches on Key West. This might come as a surprise. The largest beach is Smathers Beach that runs along the southern end of the island. As a public beach, it gets a lot of activity but it's usually filled with seaweed and the facilities are not well maintained. It's also very windy and so works better for kite-boarders and such. I suppose it's fine to throw down a blanket and get some sun on the days when the seaweed stench is not too bad, but if I arranged my trip with the expectation of a lot of beach time and a was thrust on to this beach, I would be furious. There are mid-range hotels here that do just that. Beware of any properties on the southeast side of the island.

In contrast, the beach at Fort Zack ($2.50 admittance for foot or bike) is clean and well maintained and quite picturesque amid rocky outcrops. In the water the bottom is rocky, so it lacks the gentle appeal of the beaches on the Sun Coast, but it's still a terrific place for a swim or a cookout. Apart from the small, privately maintained strips of beach at some of the high-end resorts, this is the best spot on the island to enjoy the sand and sun.

There's more to Fort Zack State Park than the beach, however. There are a number of nature trails that are popular with bird watchers, and then of course, there is the fort. It is exactly what you would think an old fort would look like: An enormous trapezoidal structure of thick concrete and brick walls, with turrets and a courtyard (more correctly: parade grounds) and cannons and all that stuff out of 19th century war films. It a nice little bit of history and a pleasant little bit of exploration. The turrets themselves are accessible via old stone spiral staircases and provide sweeping views of the point where "the green of the Gulf meets the blue of the Sea" as Jimmy Buffet says.

As far as this trip goes, on a more personal level, I drank a lot. I never got drunk, but a bellini at brunch, a couple of cocktails poolside in the afternoon, wine with dinner, and nightcap or two before bed, was not unusual. I have written before about how I am generally happier person when I drink, but I don't allow myself because of expense and calories. But what the hell, I was on vacation. And so was everyone else in Key West. What lingers from a vacation at the end of road is just that: Casual slices of happiness; carefree moments of sunsets and sea breezes; al fresco cocktails and friendly fellow tourists; lizards at the pool and roosters on the road; disappointment that it has to end and gratitude for the time you had. We go back to Jimmy Buffett:

It's flashback kind of crowd
It's a cabaret sound
There's still some magic left
In this tourist town

[Rant] Web Status: Recked

Well they've gone and done it. They've ruined the internet. How hard is it to just write words and post them on a website? Evidently, very. It's much easier to prop your camera up and make a poorly lit video of yourself sitting on your couch mumbling your message and post it on youtube. Or better to ramble on about your topic off the top of your head and call it a podcast. Or if your topic is easily divisible, work up a slideshow.

I have over recent years come to terms with the imminent death of the written word. Honestly, in day-to-day activities, writing is almost a lost art for anyone under 25. But look, you need to match your media to the type of communication you are doing. The most efficient way to inform of anything complicated is via writing. The best way to inform someone of options is writing. It may be appropriate to punctuate this writing with pictures or videos to illustrate points but the words are what organize your thoughts in such a way that your audience can zero in on the specific information I want.

For example, let's say you want to express a thorough opinion on some non-trivial topic -- you want to editorialize. The first thing you would probably do is give some background. Well, if I already know the background I can skip those paragraphs. If you put it in a video I either have to sit through it or try to find a good place to which to skip forward. If you're a good expository writer, I can see where you're going at any given point by reading the first couple of sentences of section to see if it's new to me or you're just treading old ground. I need to be able to focus on the key points to me, or you're going to lose me.

Even something like a how-to guide is better when text based and highlighted with short direct pictures or video clips demonstrating what is described. Example: I recently needed to do some scratch buffing and touch up painting on my car. I had a general idea of what to do but I wanted to know if there were any tips or tricks that would be of value, so I fired up youtube. I found a video on how to apply touch up paint. I was approximately 6 minutes long. The first minute was a short logo and intro since this was apparently meant to be part of a car maintenance series. The next two minutes was a man standing in front of his car explaining that touch up is for paint chips and giving examples of how paint chips happen and explaining the how using touch up not only improves the appearance of the car but helps prevent rust. Let's pause there. The target audience for this video is people wanting to do touch up on their own car. So they probably already know what touch up is and certainly already want to do it, why go through all this pageantry? As it turned out, there was nothing new to learn from this video for me. But had it been text based -- say a step by step description of the process with video clips as demos -- I could have seen that in about three seconds.

Perhaps it's just poor design. If you want to see how to do a how-to video, go to facebook and search on "video recipes". Sites like 12tomatoes and Delish understand that these are not V shows they are producing. They whip through everything you need to know in under three minutes. No narration. Very, very well thought out, Phone friendly. They figure their audience is in the kitchen and they just fire up the recipe vid on their phone. They can pause it, or just replay it if needed because it's short enough. That, my friends, is how you do design -- give your audience exactly what they need. Whoever came up with this format for how-to videos deserves a medal.

Another example: I recently found a link to an interview with an industry personality with whom I share interest. I really wasn't interested in much of the technical detail as I was in the more conceptual aspects of his work. Normally I would either be hunting and pecking through the video to find what I wanted, but in this case there was transcript posted along with the video. Joy! I found out what I wanted in about five minutes versus sitting through a 25 minute video. There's a rule for life: always include a transcript.

All this make me yearn for the old days when people wrote plain text in blogs and since you needed HTML skills to insert a picture, and even when you did the browser wouldn't render it right, few people did. But not any more. Writing and reading are too hard and you can't do them well on your phone. So we have taken the tremendous abilities of adaptation and problem solving our ancestors evolved over epochs to survive and dominate in the primal world and used them to rid ourselves of the need to write or read.

And now I find myself, once again, an old man yelling at clouds. Even in small ways text is gone. What's left is it is 140 characters -- grammar-less, unpunctuated, uncapitalized, and misspelled -- and the demographic for even that is aging. Young millennials have no need of such archaic devices as an alphabet. Perhaps they process images as effectively as I process text. They communicate in images via snapchat, and the future is theirs.

Worse though, and what can't be dismissed as a consequence of my grumpiness, is that all these wonderful tools we have for speedy interaction with our screens have been turned against us. Land on a page and try to scroll and, as likely as not, nothing happens because the site is hunting across several third-party ad providers to load up every corner the page with video ads and flash links, then once it downloads and presents them and returns your cursor to you the focus in the wrong place for you mouse wheel to work, so you manually adjust the scroll bar and try to click on what you want to read, but by then the page is reloading fresh ads and one of them shifts everything on the screen just enough to move your link out from under your mouse and place an ad there for you to unintentionally click, which pops open another page that asks you if you are willing to take a survey and you have to hunt around for the little "x" to kill the survey window and by then the original page is reloading yet another set of ads so you just kill the tab and abandon whole idea of reading what you wanted.

In the end, you wanted to read something like 5k of text information and instead end up downloading hundreds of megs of videos and ads and don't get to read it anyway. I cannot fathom how any of this works for the advertisers. Do you know anyone who has not immediately dismissed an ad when given the opportunity? How about anyone who hasn't closed a page rather than sit through a 15 second autoplay video commercial that can't be dismissed. And to answer your next question, yes, these are legitimate websites, not some clickbait trash.

It's just awful. They've ruined the internet. Just totally ruined it. I'm beginning to see the attraction of Murder She Wrote reruns.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Month That Was - February 2016

For the bulk of February I had a sort of low-level chest/head cold that I couldn't seem to shake. Toward the end of the month I was hit with a general nausea that also lingered for quite a few days. Not sure what is going on with me. All this didn't stop me from doing anything really, but it did stop me from enjoying it.

I have now taken the snow blower out four times. I don't remember taking it out more than that last year, but it remains a blissfully warm winter by comparison the last couple of years. I ran in shorts in early December and again at the end of February. We've had a handful of days here in February that lurched in the 50s. Thank you El Nino. Feel free to stay a while. Although I suspect the nice, mild, only-need-A/C-twice-all-season summers we've had the past couple fo years may be in danger. Could be a scorcher.

Progress remains slow in my latest book project. It's always slow though, isn't it? I keep going, however, and recently turned a corner on a tough chapter I've been struggling with for a while. This is really the first time I've tried to write entirely via keyboard and it's not really working too well. Previously I was the guy at the local library or coffee shop, slouched into a chair scribbling on a big yellow pad. Things got in the computer on first revision. I think I'm going to go back to that. Although, what I am writing now is new to me and heavily plot dependent. I'm learning how to weave a complicated plot, but it's rough work.

[TV] Ex-Files
[TV] Got Milch?
[Rant] Sore Sorority
[Tech] State of Tech

[TV] Ex-Files

Here's the thing about X-files. It's always been occasionally great but mostly feeble. I granted it historic significance as the first modern show to marry quality drama to imaginative fiction -- current attempts at which are too numerous to count. That is not intended to excuse the enormous amount of crap episodes -- and there were plenty of them that were manipulative, overwrought, and little more than the characters making dire, expositional speeches at each other. The great, groundbreaking ones usually had the names of Wong, Morgan, Spotnitz, or Gilligan associated with them. The others, the crap, usually had the mark of Chris Carter on them. The six-episode mini-series that just concluded is exactly the same.

First, let me say that I have no doubt that Chris Carter is a top tier showrunner. Folks who work for him seem to think highly of him and he can clearly spot talent and get out the way enough to let it flourish. But he should never be allowed to write another script for as long as he lives. Of the six episodes he wrote three, two of which bracketed the series and connected it to the wearyingly mindless mythology that was at the core of the old series. They are not just weak, they are truly -- even offensively -- awful. They are abominations of screenwriting. One weeps for the poor actors trying to make something of the soul-crushing dialogue.

The series brought in big enough audiences that we'll likely get more, but in reality it was a disappointment. Beyond Carter's writing, the productions themselves were anachronistically staid. Did they think to experiment with camera angles, mood, lighting, pacing, or anything at all? Production was pure cookie cutter -- have they not seen an episode of Daredevil? Redemption came in the form of a couple of typically sharp scripts from James Wong and Glen Morgan, and a standout from the divine Darin Morgan -- though his script was the weakest he's submitted for X-files it was still a cut above, with his signature melancholy irony and humor.

Cliche of cliches, Carter ended it on a cliffhanger of a plotline no one cares about. Honestly, back in the day you had to crank out 20+ episodes a year so hack work was expected, but you had 14 years to generate six hours of quality and you got three; that's a sorry effort. The real cliffhanger is whether Carter will get a clue for the next set of episodes and turn all the writing over to others.

The sad state of the X-files dramatics is further emphasized by their most successful alum, Vince Gilligan, head cheese behind Breaking Bad, who just kicked off the second season of his prequel follow-up Better Call Saul and it's really turning into a Mad Men level character study. We are really getting ever deeper look at the demons and forces that push the essentially good-hearted attorney Jimmy McGill into the crooked drug lawyer Saul Goodman and then into a manager at Cinnabon. If you're not on to this yet, get there.

[TV] Got Milch?

In the wake of this report the David Milch appears to have gambled away an unimaginable sum of money and as a result is pushing hard to get a Deadwood movie going. I binged his two lightly watched follow ups to Deadwood, John from Cincinnati and Luck, to see if they held up. The answer is yes they do, provided you are attracted to Milchian drama to begin with.

This is my third viewing of John from Cincinnati and, if anything, I am even more impressed at the vision behind it. Milch always seems to start with the highest of concepts and John... was the highest of the high. Set amongst a severely dysfunctional family damaged by a chain of cruelties committed against one another, an oddball who calls himself "John" appears. He's a naive, autistic-seeming, nonsense-talker who turns out to be a Christ-like figure who impels the players to face and unravel the cruelties that lead them to where they are. I can't imagine understanding the purpose of this show other than through repeated watchings and close listening. It is dense, oblique, and utterly wonderful. It is also loaded with good humor. The acting can be atrocious -- Milch is famous for employing non-actors with a connection to the plot to have sizable roles. That's a mistake. On the other hand Ed O'Neill should have won an Emmy; Rebecca DeMornay, too. And of course, it featured that delightful Milchian dialogue. People mostly with low-end scrubs and hardcases, I remember at one point during a conversation one character was pacing about and the other tells him to "alight." Not "chill out," not "sit your ass down" -- "alight." Beautiful.

The long term plan for John... was to follow this theme of redemption to a point where John would avert a genocide, or something of the sort, through his work at healing. As with Deadwood, Milch was following the ways in which society organizes itself under unusual circumstances. Only Milch could turn that into a quality adult drama. Only Milch would even think to try something like that.

Of course, it died on the vine, as would any TV show that takes multiple viewings to "get". To me however, it was heroic.

Luck in contrast was a good deal more conventional. Centered in and around the Santa Anita horse racing track, it was certainly close to Milch's racehorse gambling, and racehorse owning, heart. On this one he shared credit with none other than Michael Mann, he of the terse, highly-styled, crime dramas (Miami Vice, for one) fame. What we have here are a whole slew of interlocking characters and themes -- too many to go through individually. Lots of star power also, as might be expected with the drawn of a Milch/Mann creation.

Two of the threads were notable for the scenery chewing actors. Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Farina as a pair of aging, shady businessmen trying to settle an old score. This was one of Farina's last works and he just plays his standard Dennis Farina role which is great to watch. Another thread featured Nick Nolte, about as grizzled as a human can be, playing an aging horse trainer with a final shot at redemption.

But the most Milchian thread is the story of four broken down losers suddenly hitting a big score. It runs nearly counter to every narrative you have ever seen in that nothing bad happens and things just get better. They start out at the bottom of the barrel, make a big win, parlay it into something bigger, make sure they are loyal and helpful to everyone who's been in their corner, and by the end of the season the were virtually fully integrated members of society, with girlfriends and thoughts of moving into a nicer place with a lawn. It is very affecting but it only jumps out at you when you think about the arc. I repeat: nothing bad happened to them. Name another narrative on TV, or the movies for that matter, where you entered at the low point and everything was up from there -- nobody got a cynical beatdown, no hopes and dreams were dashed. I've never seen anything like it and it strikes me, once again, as the sort of thing only Milch would think to do.

Anyway, Luck was killed after two horses died on the set. There were no allegations of mistreatment and it was obvious to anyone who saw the show that everyone involved with the production had a complete reverence for horses. But HBO took the coward's way out and cancelled the series.

So now we're looking at finally getting those Deadwood movies we were promised upon the cancellation of the series. And Milch is onboard, perhaps pushed to make some money lost gambling. The difficulty is rounding everyone else up. Tim Olyphant might find enough free time, but Ian McShane is a seriously busy dude with a new series starting up.

Find a way. Twist arms, grease palms; do whatever you have to. Bring back that lusciously profane, quasi-metered dialogue. I'll eat up every second of it.

[Rant] Sore Sorority

Another one bites the dust. I previously wrote of the problems at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Alpha Mu fraternities that I had minor interaction with during my college days, now The Kappa Alpha Theta sorority at Michigan has just gotten disbanded over allegations of hazing (so I guess something worse than pillow fights in nighties?) and under-aged drinking (I'm shocked, I tell you). This caught my eye because back when I was in a fraternity a few blocks down the street from them, they were considered the creme de la creme. They regularly pledged a high percentage cheerleaders and pom-pom girls and the favored daughters of Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe. They were always thin and fresh and perfectly prepared. Envious girls seethed at them and frustrated boys sneered at them, but tunes would change were they to be favored with a pledge bid or a smile and a wink.

That was -- oh, let's see -- 30 years ago, so I have no idea whether their status on campus was still the same. Evidently they had been under scrutiny since 2011 -- double secret probation, I daresay -- and the impetus came from their national office so it was a matter of self-policing more than anything else, although the University forces were also involved. I can't help but be curious about what happened that would have degraded the poised debutantes of my youth into Kardashians gone wild. Of course, I don't really have to ask. Decades of increasing cultural crudity happened, just like it happened to everyone and everything else.

Still looking at a recent recruitment video, they appear little different from virtually every 20-something millennial girl I've ever met. They seem uniformly white, which in itself would probably incur the wrath of most institutions, yet insufficient ethnic vibrancy does not seem to be a formal charge. There is talk of hazing but no details, however an accusation of hazing from 16 years ago against KAT at the University of Cincinnati describes:
Kappa Alpha Theta members also shouted at new members while making them lie on the floor. In another instance, new members made animal noises until told to stop.
Am I creepy for wishing it had been something more juicy?

In the end, this looks pretty much like a win-win. I'm sure the ex-sisters of Kappa Alpha Theta will come out alright. After 30 years, they look to be the same sort of pretty, social, chippy, upper-middle-class, 20-year-old girls who have ruled popular culture since time immemorial. They'll share apartments and rented condos and have gatherings off campus where they are still the center of attention and where noble institutions won't make a fuss about their vodka and Red Bull. And the school-marms of academia will be able to pat themselves on the back and sleep easy with the righteous knowledge that they have made the world safer from the scourge of happy little girls of privilege.

[Tech] State of Tech

It's time for a new phone. I gave it my all with Windows Phone and have nothing but admiration for the work they have done. It's really a great interface and platform. But there's no denying that it's the walking dead. The lack of app support can no longer be tolerated. I can't get Lyft; I can't get Instagram; I can't get the nifty mobile app from my bank that will let me snap a photo of a check and deposit it right there. It's time to move on and wish Windows Phone the best.

That leaves an open question of where to go next. I don't really want a giant phablet sort of thing. A five inch screen is all I need; my current phone is 4.6" and that's just fine. There is an outside chance that, given a big-ass phone, I would start to do things like read Kindle on it, although I doubt I would ever watch video. But honestly, checking texts and facebook messages, maps and reviews when I travel, and the occasional dedicated app are all I do. I thought I might start using Spotify, but it's not ready for me yet (more below). I think it's more important to me that a phone fit in my pocket.

Actually my perfect phone fits in my pocket, has a SD card slot, has a replaceable battery, a great camera, and a fairly long battery life. I do not believe there is any phone that fits all my criteria. The smart thing to do is probably either get a Samsung Galaxy or an iPhone of some sort and then at least my problems will be the same as everybody's. Google's Nexus is also appealing. I would prefer to go android; I have never been for of the Apple ecosystem, but Apple's upcoming small sized iPhone might be a winner. My current plan is to wait until that's out and the early adopters pass judgement, then decide.

Meanwhile my Dell XPS 13 laptop is showing signs of being on its last legs. It has always had curious power management issues, I even replaced a battery on my own at one point, in violation I am sure of whatever warranty might have been left over. Now it's taken to dropping wifi connections -- a restart sorts it out. I'm hoping it will last me a while longer -- and I'm sure it will, but what's to follow? I have been very attracted to the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book for a while. They seem to have had some power management issues themselves, but they are now sorted. That said, the newest generation of Dell XPS 13 is getting rave reviews.

Lastly: about my brief encounter with Spotify and music streaming. There are a number of music streaming services. In the past I have used the free versions of these, but I have come to find the commercials intrusive and low quality intolerable. At first I keyed in on Pandora, but Pandora's problem is that it has a fairly small library. Like most services you can pick an artist and it will create a station of works by that artist and similar ones, but after a while I found their algorithm to be repetitive. Either that or it occasionally drifted far afield from the sound of the chosen artist.

Spotify is different. The largest of the services library-wise it depends primarily on users building playlists and sharing them. You can create artists targeted streams like Pandora, but the benefit of shared playlists is that someone one with similar tastes has already set up a nice playlist for you. You can then follow that playlist and many list authors keep actively editing and expanding their lists which keeps things fresh. I was so intrigued by this that I actually signed up for their free 30 day trial.

It didn't go so well. First despite their enormous library a couple of artists of interest to me were not available (yet oddly they were on Pandora). Secondly I ran into a fairly common bug in that occasionally playlists would just stop playing at the end of a song. It would need a manual pause/start to start playing again. Annoying as hell. Turns out it is a common complaint, but no word from Spotify even acknowledging it. So I'm pretty sure I'm going to kill my subscription before my trial is up.

I still have Amazon for streaming, which comes free with Prime, but the selection is truly lame, as are the playlists. They might improve with time. Microsoft, Google, and Apple all have streaming options, so I may start experimenting with those.

I have a closet in my basement office where I dump all my old, discarded technology. It will soon be overflowing. I have no explanation for why I hoard my obsolete technology like that. It just feels weird throwing these things out -- they must have some value, I mean, who am I, Bill Gates that I can just toss usable stuff away. Also, maybe someday Pawn Stars will give me top dollar for it.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Month That Was - January 2016

I have no resolutions. I never do. I sort of inventory my wishes and make nebulous plans, but not resolutions. Perhaps I should make resolutions. My cholesterol is up; getting that to drop that would be a good one. And my labs from my last physical suggest there is a "liver thing" going on for which the strategy seems to be to do more tests in six weeks.

For now I am just expecting that 2016 will be a lot like 2015. That may be very boring for you to read about so I am batting around ideas to spice things up here. We'll see.

[Rant] The Opposite of Righteouos
[Movies] Mad Max:Fury Road
[Rant] 2016 Plans
[Books] Book Look: How to Catch a Russian Spy
[Sports] Cheater's Code

[Rant] The Opposite of Righteous

I try to avoid scanning the media because it makes me so depressed. Not because the news is all bad or the world is going to hell; that has always been the case and always will be -- that is to say, the world is probably just fine or at least as fine as it has ever been. No, what bothers me is not anything ideological, it's personal. If you read the media, you are left with the impression that the bulk of the population is seething with moral indignation of the perceived evil of the other side. This effect is magnified anytime you get close to election season, which we are. My facebook feed fills up with glib memes and "liked" political propaganda to the point where it outnumbers cat videos 2-to-1, which is saying something.

The act of heralding your comments and opinions is the basis of human self-organization, of how we build coalitions to accomplish things that require more than individual efforts. What I find so disturbing is how infantile and banal these sentiments are. They range from inane comments about how a favored news-celebrity "destroyed" a news-celebrity on the other side, to vacuous memes about gun control and immigration and such, to these futile-minded hashtag campaigns.

What are these people trying to achieve? Do they think they are swaying opinions with their facebook posts? The answer, of course, is no. Or if they do think that, they are deluding themselves about their own purpose. There are three things they are achieving: (1) Mood affiliation; finding others with common feelings and patting each other on the back in encouragement. (2) Demonstrating their goodness, for in the depth of their hearts they know that people who believe these things are good and those who don't are bad. (3) Offering anyone who is susceptible to such temptation the opportunity to raise their status by making similar statements and thereby affiliating themselves with the good people.

That may sound condescending but that's not how I intend it. Do these actions truly achieve one of the 3 effects I listed? I can see them as a form of small-talk to (1) bond with others of your tribe, but does that glib meme that supposedly highlights the hypocrisy of the other side when it comes to immigration or gun control or abortion (2) demonstrate your goodness or just make you look shallow enough to reduce complicated subjects to memes and snark? And honestly, are the people susceptible to such thoughtlessness (3) the kind of people you want to affiliate with?

Of course this folly is heightened by the election and, yes, I realize it's always been like this, but the internet makes it more obvious. I really don't want to make this a sneer at everyone who posts this stuff, but it does depress me to think that this is what constitutes the ongoing political conversation. Perhaps I'm just an old man yelling at clouds.

I know the expression of political opinion is supposed to be a good thing that all concerned citizens should partake of as civic duty, but considering that these are immensely complicated issues that well-intentioned people on both sides have pursued for years with no clear resolution, how does pointing out that somebody got "annihilated" on some news/entertainment show last night really add value? Facile opinions are in oversupply; thought and perspective are the rare commodities. Am I wrong to think we'd better off if folks spent a little more time critically curating their opinions?

You know what? Most people who indulge in this sort of behavior would agree with me about this, they just wouldn't realize I'm talking about them. They probably think that they are scrupulously objective and unbiased in their actions. It's other people who are the problem. The world is made for those who aren't cursed with self-awareness.

Now I'm depressed again.

[Movies] Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road was very good. The actions sequences were second to none, comparable to Whedon at his best and made more impressive by the lack of CGI. It's an all time top ten action movie, for sure, and highlights my previous observations that we are in a Golden Age of action movies; that this will be a era that, over the long term, is considered that apex of the craft of making action films.

That said, it's been awfully overrated as a piece of drama with many serious movie review sites calling it the best movie of the year (2015). If it is, then the quality of other sorts of movies must have dropped like a stone. As compelling as it is to watch, there is no theme or plot pattern that hasn't been ground into the dirt a thousand times over. The characters and their arcs and motivations aren't anything new or particularly complicated.

A good deal of praise has been given in the name of feminism. The plot revolves around a great female warrior rescuing a trio of enslaved female concubines by removing them from a sadistic patriarchal post-apocalypse to a sanctuary run by a tribe of brave and wise females. There are two males on the side of good, one is there due to common cause the other an enemy who defects; in time both come to see the virtue and nobility of the females and devote themselves to their cause. If you are the sort of person who needs a righteous socio-political backdrop to your entertainment, then it will give you chills. But all that means little to me -- it's just plot and casting choices that could have been made any number of other ways with little or no difference to quality.

A movie can focus on human drama; try to illuminate our lives and struggles in some new or interesting way. These movies are rare and when they achieve this they become art. The great bulk of movies do not. They follow well worn paths looking for different ways to push buttons. Horror films push the fright button, rom-coms push the romance button, action films push the tension button, etc. Films that do this are not art, they are craft. (I can't immediately think of any films that do both, but I can think of a number of TV series that do, although they have a lot more time to do it in.) For the record, craft is not "lower" than art; apple and oranges. Craft is exceedingly difficult to master at the level it was done for Mad Max: Fury Road. Craft at this level can inspire awe.

So perhaps from the point of view of craft, Mad Max: Fury Road is the best film of the 2015. I don't know, I haven't seen that many new releases. Whatever the case, it's wonderfully entertaining and not to be missed.

[Rant] 2016 Plans

So what are my plans for this year? Usually I try to rough out both my travel plans and my fitness goals for the year. Lately I've been including house projects because they gobbles so much of my decision making effort. And money. These plans only work out about half the time, but a man's got to have a plan. Although most every other aspect of my life goes unplanned, so maybe a man doesn't got to have a plan.

Let's start with the house. I want to re-landscape a section of the front yard. That should be readily do-able. I think the next renovation will be the master suite. That's not including more minor, but still expensive, decor upgrades like area rugs, and bits and pieces of furniture. This will be my big goal for 2016 but it's a sizable enough project that it may not get done until 2017. After that either the kitchen or the basement, probably the kitchen. But if I get the bit of landscaping done and just make progress on the master suite I'll declare victory.

Travel remains problematic. I can count on a spring trip to FL and out west at Thanksgiving again, but beyond that who knows? I've had Alaska on my radar since forever. We'll see. But there is a plan floating around that might get me back to Hawaii, which I guess I could live with. For the first time I really have no clue where I want to travel this year. I've been getting to urge to hit one of the destination spas again, mostly because I think it would help me break some bad habits I've developed, but that's going to depend on the market to provide me with the extra scratch I need -- those places aint cheap.

Fitness-wise, I want to do another triathlon. I'd like to do an Olympic distance (roughly twice as long as the Sprint distance I did last year). I'll probably do some of my tried and true foot races, being sure to get in a half-marathon somewhere along the way. You know, there's a Half in Yosemite, that might be a good fitness/travel combo.

But the house comes first.

I got 99 problems and they're all good ones to have.

[Books] Book Look: How to Catch a Russian Spy, by Naveed Jamali

It's kind of a fluffy bit of non-fiction. Naveed Jamali, who appears to be a pretty standard issue Gen X slacker sort of guy, finds himself working with the FBI to catfish a Russian agent. It quite an entertaining story. His parent own a research service firm that is frequented by known Russian agents. The parents have been passing along the Russian requests to the FBI for years, but young Naveed gets involved and works to up the ante. Entirely unromantic, the covert meetings here occur in places like Pizzeria Uno and Hooters.

Jamali is capable for the most part, comically drawing on bad movie thrillers to try to figure out how to behave during his clandestine meetings. He is also a bit of a self-absorbed bro, and more than a bit of a drama queen. One suspects all along that the FBI agents must have felt like parents cajoling a immature child. This is borne out at the end when they finally acknowledge that throughout the operation Jamli was driving them nuts. Credit to Jamali for the honesty of this reveal. Also credit to him for appearing to be genuinely motivated by patriotism, which is refreshing.

The upshot of the operation itself is confusing. The relationship with the Russian is developed over the course of years, but as near as I can tell it amounted to little more than FBI being let in on the sorts of information the Russians wanted. Then, abruptly, the FBI decides to take action, except the final outcome does not seem to resolve anything; it disrupts and embarrasses the Russians but I don't see much in the way of practical outcome. It almost seems like the FBI had figured Jamali had gone as far as he could and he might he might blow the whole thing if they pushed him further so they settled for what they could. That's just speculation.

Should you read How to Catch a Russian Spy? Don't feel compelled to, but no harm will come to you if you do. Might be fun for a plane trip or a day at the beach. It's primarily autobiographical so you get the best and worst of Jamali. He is essentially a good-hearted dude, probably a decent guy to hang with, but you'll be hit with immature self-congratulations on every page.

[Sports] Cheater's Code

This pinged my radar because I am one of the eight Americans with an interest in professional cycling and who follows the Tour De France. One of the fascinating things about the Tour to me is the contrast between the strong sense of sportsmanly honor among the participants and the fact that it is also the dirtiest sport with respect to doping or juicing or bio-chemical what-have-yous. They have a tradition that if the race leader goes down in an accident or with a mechanical problem, everybody holds up until he's back on track because they want to win based on their cycling skills, not the happenstance of equipment or road conditions or the like. A point point a couple of years back everyone just stopped racing in a stage because an idiot had thrown tacks in the road and a number of people got blow outs, so they all held up and finished together as a group. It's very admirable and truly idealistic, yet there was also a string of well over a decade when every winner got stripped of his victory due to failing blood tests. The cycling subculture has its own concept of sportsmanship that is more extreme than other sports in both the noble and ignoble directions.

The doping issue seems to have been resolved -- seems -- but it's really hard to consider there to be any mitigating circumstances with the latest method of cheating in cycling. It appears some folks have taken to installing hidden motors in their bikes to give them an added boost. When I skimmed the headline I thought it too absurd to be real, but that's exactly what's going on. Evidently it's not a terribly new development and there are firms out there that provide kits to modify your bike in a stealthy manner. You can read the details at Gizmodo.

I would think cyclists would see this as a order of magnitude more ignoble than doping, because it is a mechanical thing. Shouldn't the same sporting instinct that makes you hold up when the leader has an equipment failure also make you ashamed to enhance your equipment for victory. Doping, as illegal as it was, was at least a change to the cyclist's body which is still, well, the cyclist -- not a piece of equipment. But I don't know. Human beings are designed for rationalized hypocrisy at the cellular level; maybe they'll figure out a way to justify it. If they do, it would really make me wonder where the line will be drawn. Maybe at taking a shortcut to the finish line?

It's going to make this year's Tour very interesting. To the eight of us watching, anyway.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

The Month That Was - December 2015

Another year bites the dust. And what a year it was. A fair amount of upheaval for me, what with my Mom dying. Lots of changes at work. Got my ass kicked in the market. Sadly little progress in other areas of my life. I think the difficulties are going to continue through the outset of 2016, but I do hope by mid-year to be back to my carefree self.

Any complaining I do has to be tempered by the base knowledge that I continue to lead a life of good fortune. I am healthy (physically and mentally, especially for my age), wealthy (well, enough that as a singleton I have no money worries), and wise (enough to know how lucky I am). Whatever conflicts or concerns I may have, I remain safe and secure and future-oriented. There will be times in my senescence when I look back on this as if it were utopia. And at least I will never have the regret of not realizing how good I had it. I know and appreciate it.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that it has been one of, if not the, warmest December in history. On at least two occasions I was able to go out running in shorts. I could do with winters like this going forward.

[Rant] That's, Like, Just My Opinion, Man
[Books] Book Look: Trigger Mortis
[TV] Fargo, OK Then
[TV] The Truth Will be Out There

[Rant] That's, Like, Just My Opinion, Man

The past few months I have been struggling for things to write about here. So naturally, I am writing about how I am struggling for things to write about. Part of the problem is that I don't write about a number of aspects of my life. I never write about work, and I never will. I never write about personal relationships except in the vaguest way, and I never will. I do not subscribe to the modern notion that private life should be a source of entertainment for others. I never write about my obsession with fitness because I have the strong impression that most people find such stuff a crushing bore. Perhaps I should start, though -- it's not like I'm not boring you from time to time, and there is the outside chance I could find a way to make it interesting. I am also travelling significantly less than I used to, so trip reports have been rare.

But the main problem is I just don't have that many strong opinions any more. Oh, I do on books and movies and such, but in other aspects of life, not so much; and I actively resist having opinions on politics or current issues and so forth.

It's a long steady change from, say, 10 years ago. Back then I could crank out a 3000 word football column for Blogcritics full of snark and glib assessments, expressed with great assuredness. Hell, I could write multi-page reviews of hotel rooms for the late, lamented Hotel Chatter site. But for some reason I changed. A lot. So much so that it makes me wonder how I managed to change so thoroughly and, more importantly, whether it has done me any good.

Part of the reason I changed is humility. I simply don't have the faith in my beliefs and opinions that I once did. This has just been the result of ongoing observation. Whereas I used to look on those who disagreed and foolish and wrong. I realize that I am as likely to be the one who is foolish and wrong. And I don't want to be foolish and wrong, or more importantly, I don't want to regularly read something I wrote five years ago and think, "God, what an idiot I was." Instead, I have to consider the possibility that I am being an idiot and that it's probably best to keep my mouth shut. Note: If everyone felt this way, what passes for political discourse in the media would grind to a halt.

After a certain age, if you continue to spew your opinions like that, in any non-trivial capacity, you are either a) truly exceptional at deluding yourself about your chance of righteousness, b) you believe the expression of opinion is of value in itself regardless of whether you are right or, possibly, c) there is financial gain in it for you.

In reverse order. There is no financial gain in it for me, at least there would not be any immediate gain. I would have to have a noticeable outlet and build a following to either get paid fees or garner eyeballs. So I would essentially be spending time acting like I was worked up about stuff for the sake of entertaining those who get worked up about whatever I was acting like getting worked up about -- if you get my meaning. An honestly, I don't think the ultimate payoff for that is all that great.

As for the expression of opinion being of value -- that's empty. An opinion is only of value if it informs, or otherwise brings a new perspective to a situation. Otherwise it is just sort of a proclamation of identity, a shot at increasing your status by demonstrating you hold proper or superior beliefs. Sadly, I don't give a rat's ass what you think about me or any topic.

Deluding yourself of your righteousness means you are expressing your opinion either to persuade others to those beliefs, or perhaps to bolster the spirits of others who already believe as you do. That's actually a good reason. Without that there would be no discussion of any topics, no furthering of understanding in any area that wasn't mathematical or scientific. Everyone would be going around shrugging in indifference at each other. Of course, considering the amount of discourse that is civil and valuable, shrugging might be better in ninety-nine out of a hundred cases.

But I have, perhaps unwittingly, chosen a to resist self-delusion. I'm not sure I would recommend a similar path. I don't know that it has done me much good. I like to think it makes me objective and makes me see things a bit more clearly, but even if it does (which in itself may be delusion), what does that get me? It has probably made me apathetic in equal measure. It's also possible I am mistaking a desire for objectivity for fear of failure -- the failure of being wrong.

I don't know. I haven't figured it out. I am comfortable with myself mostly, and I think I am better liked than before (said the guy who not two paragraphs ago said he didn't give a rat's ass what people thought of him). But when I read a well-written, fervently-argued, clever opinion, I find myself a bit envious that I don't/can't/won't do that anymore.

On the other hand, please disregard the above opinion. God, what an idiot I was.

[Books] Book Look: Trigger Mortis, by Anthony Horowitz

Trigger Mortis is an attempt to write a new classic James Bond thriller. The time period is back in the Cold War. All the cultural references are from the mid-sixties-ish. Evidently this is supposed to have occurred just after Goldfinger. It's a noble cause, but perhaps doomed.

The plot starts out troubling and only briefly improves. We begin with Bond keeping Pussy Galore (from Goldfinger) "safe" with him in London, although being the playboy that he is, he is angling to get rid of her. He gets called away on a mission that is going to involve him racing in a Formula One race to foil a somewhat implausible Russian plan. In the course of his training he has to work with a pretty, but tough, female driving instructor. After the implausible Russian plan is foiled and there some other tight situations are overcome, the pretty but tough driving instructor and Pussy Galore end up together as a couple and they both blissfully disappear from Bond's life. Because if you're James Bond, no other man can compare, so the only way to rid yourself of unwanted romantic entanglement is for the women to go lesbo on you.

I want to pause at this juncture to make a point. If the intent was to generate a new Fleming novel it has failed. What I just described is mock Ian Fleming. Caricature at best, parody at worst. It's a fine line with Bond and very few interpreters either in print or on film can toe it.

Some aspects of the Formula One section are quite good. Interestingly, this is the section that was guided by some found notes of Fleming himself. After that's over we get into a standard world domination plot with a plucky female Treasury Agent sidekick whom Bond will eventually bed. The final third of the book is dominated by a handful of narrow escapes, chases, and action scenes. None of which are terribly compelling.

Aside: Action scenes are immensely hard to write in a way other than as a straightforward description of what you would see if it were on a movie screen. The problem is that pure action scenes rarely affect the plot or the characters -- they are simply descriptions and therefore, even in the hands of someone skillful at building tension, they are filler in the scope of the book. Even if there are events in the action scene that alter the arc of the characters they tend to be brief moments wedged in middle of 10 or 20 pages of serial activities.

Should you read Trigger Mortis? Nah, don't bother. There are better choices. Though the time frame of the book promises the old Ian Fleming experience, all you end up with is a rehashed Roger Moore film.