Friday, April 04, 2014

The Month That Was - March 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here begins a minor historical rant.

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

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

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

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

Here endeth the minor historical rant.

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

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

[Science] Getting Physical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Cars] We Got Robots on the CB

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

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

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

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

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

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

I exaggerate to make my point, but only slightly. I don't know how much of this transformation we'll see in my lifetime (I'm 53), but I know that all things must pass. Every idea, every concept, every dream has its day. The automobile as we know it has had, and for now still has, a great one. We should pause every once in a while to consider ourselves lucky to have lived during it. Our antecedents will one day read about people piloting vehicles themselves, of road signs and folding maps, of flat tires and tow trucks, of the horrible fiery deaths we all risked just to travel about. They will pity our ignorance and sneer at our backward ways. At least their cars won't let them do donuts on our lawns.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Month That Was - February 2014

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

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

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

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

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

[Rant] Tethered to Cable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Travel] Islands in the Gulf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Month That Was - January 2014

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

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

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

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

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

[TV] Detectives, True

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

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

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

[TV] Nerd Defense League

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

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

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

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

[TV] The Game has Two Left Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Cars] The Search for a New Ride

Search for a New Ride: The check engine light won't go off. I think it's an emissions thing which would bother me if I cared about the environment. I get a howling road noise between the speeds of 45-50 mph. Mechanic says a new set of tires will solve it. I'm not so sure, but I might try it in another 2000-3000 miles. But the real killer is that It's burning oil at a rate of about a quart every 1500 miles. No leaks, presumably just head gasket-y kind of stuff. It's got 185,000 miles (but, impressively, no rust). It might be the year to wedge a crowbar in my wallet and get a new car. Time to do some looking.

The first realization that comes from this is that new cars are really friggin' expensive. If I were to get a four-year loan for another Camry, a 2014, I'd be looking at a monthly payment between $550 and $600. Not to mention that my insurance might go up. Then there's the question of what to do with my current car. As a trade I would get nowhere near what it's worth. I could go through the hassle of putting it on Craigslist and finding a buyer that way, but who's going to pony up cash for a car with the Check Engine light on. And if I'm going to get it fixed up for sale, I might as well keep it, right? I could donate it to charity, but the tax write-off would likely be less than what I would get for trade-in. I'm so confused.

I really don't know what kind of car I would get. I no longer feel locked in to a Camry or any Toyota. Don't laugh, but my first thought is that I should get a minivan. Minivans ride and drive as well as most sedans, and when I look at that cavernous space in back -- well, it'd wonderful to be able to just throw a set of bikes in the back, or load up bags of mulch by the score, or take five people and their luggage on the 4 hour drive to Mackinac Island, all without breaking a sweat. But minivans are more expensive than Camrys. That's not entirely true; I could get a low-end Dodge Caravan for probably less than a Camry, but then I'd be driving a low-end Dodge and there are compromises in going low-end. For example, I would not get a full-sized spare tire -- a mini-spare is optional -- standard is a tire inflator kit. I think my minivan would have to be a mid-level Toyota Sienna or a Honda Odyssey, and that means moolah.

But let's face it: the overwhelming majority of the time, it's just me in the car. All that space would be empty. It would probably be cheaper, but a good deal less convenient, just to rent a van or pickup truck on an as needed basis. The practical answer would be to do that, then get something small and efficient. The new Honda Fit looks awfully cool. Another favorite if I went this route would be to go with a Prius V (the Prius station wagon model). The Prius V is roughly Camry-priced, but I would have to take it through a serious test drive to see how I liked hybrid driving. The Honda Fit might be even better. It can't match the hybrid for mileage, but it's no slouch, and I could slide in easily under 20 grand.

Then again, longevity is key, since I treat a cars as a durable good -- something that I will still be using 10 years from now if not longer. That makes me worry about mechanical and technical complications in cars like the Prius. Hybrids have been around for over a decade now, but is that long enough to be considered proven? And the Fit is renowned for its cutting-edge technology, which makes it suspect for the long haul.

Of course, if durability is the primary concern, the best choice is probably a full-size Lexus or Toyota -- especially a Toyota truck. That's an idea: a Toyota Tundra pickup, one with rear seats. It solves most of my issues, with the added bonus of allowing me to see over all the crossovers and SUVs and such. I could get the six-cylinder version since I won't be doing any major hauling. Two-wheel drive. Mileage still would probably be only around 17-ish on average.

So, let's recap. I've found reasons to both buy and not buy a new car, and if I buy, I've found reasons to select anything from a tiny compact car to a full sized truck. This is what it's like in my head. It's a wonder I ever make any decisions. If you were to bet, you'd do well wagering I was still driving my current ride by the end of the year.

[Detroit] Genuine Detroit

Genuine Detroit: Up until now I thought Detroit had nothing to offer. I thought the only positive attraction for outsiders was how easy it was to scam the authorities into providing tax breaks. That, and the ability to murder someone without getting caught. I was wrong, slightly. Detroit does have something that money cannot buy: Authenticity.

Authenticity is a rare and highly prized commodity. It is a common theme of the middle and upper-middle classes that they seek authenticity. In this context, you can loosely define authenticity as an image of counter-consumerism. Anything that can position itself as being sourced from an impulse unaffected by marketing, profit, or mass appeal can be authentic. Bear in mind, something may be mass produced and ubiquitous, but still be authentic. It's all about the purity of intent behind the object, or at least the perception of such.

Examples:
  • Orlando, FL is not authentic. Sanibel Island, FL is.
  • The University of Arizona (the largest public university and a dedicated diploma mill) is not authentic. Notre Dame is.
  • A Carnival cruise to Cozumel is not authentic. A river cruise along the Rhine is.
  • Lou Malnati's is authentic. Papa John's is not.
  • A vintage Saab 900 is authentic. A GM-made Saab SUV is not.
You see, it is not the quality of the experience or the value that makes it authentic. It's the genesis of the thing.

Mass produced and popular items can be authentic. Guinness Stout is ubiquitous and authentic. I would argue Las Vegas is probably one of the most authentic places on Earth. There can be no question of the purity of intent behind Vegas: using vice to make money. It may not be laudable, but it is pure. Nike is perhaps the most skillful company at keeping themselves positioned as authentically dedicated to their field (athletics) while keeping equal focus on the bottom line.

Apple and Google also work hard to maintain their authenticity, the image of purity in their purpose. Apple works hard to be the artist of technology, the people dedicated to visionary design above all else. Google puts a lot of effort into not losing their reputation as the techno-geek paradise, the place where high-IQ daydreams become reality. As long as they do that, they know they will be authentic. Their products are not better than Microsoft's, but they are authentic. Microsoft is not.

It turns out, Detroit is dripping with authenticity. It makes sense. Now that it's mired in bankruptcy and has been turned over to a State-appointed administrator, Detroit can no longer pretend to be in the middle of rebirth, a phoenix rising from the ashes. It is the ashes. It is the endgame of a crime and corruption death spiral that has been going on for over half a century. It no longer has any deluded defenders who claim it isn't bad, or that it's just a perception problem. And in the decades it took to reach that point it became something: honest. It started with all the Ruin Porn. Then bankruptcy captured the headlines. But however it came about, the image of Detroit synced up with reality. In perception Detroit became a place without pretense. Detroit can't afford to keep the lights on so it has to sell off it's art works. Detroit is now a hero of day-to-day survival; a no-frills place where nothing useful wasted. It's a place where gritty celebrities like Eminem and Bob Dylan buy Chryslers. It is what you would be if all the luxuries and consumption that are the stuff of Liberal guilt were stripped from you. A place where dreams and delusions are not worth your time. Tough and unsparing. Serious and desperate. More than a little dangerous. It is what it is. Authentically so.

A thoughtful person, one unmoved by the contemporary authenticity fetish, would be happy to keep such a place far, far away, but we are not a thoughtful people. Although it does the city little good, some folks are hitching a ride of Detroit's authenticity to enhance their own. There is a hotel/casino in Las Vegas (downtown on Fremont street) called The D. It is acknowledgedly Detroit-themed. I visited it last fall and the Detroit theming amounts to having a Detroit-staple American Coney Island Restaurant (the first outside Michigan) and being a gathering place for Lions fans during football season. But still, the association with something glitz-free like Detroit positions the hotel as a spot for people who want none of wanton bling of The Strip. If your self image is one of no nonsense and you'd prefer a place and audience that puts on no airs, The D will flip your switch.

Another clever business using Detroit to make it seem real is watch maker Shinola. Formed by a founder of Fossil, they proudly stamp "Detroit" all their watches, which all have a clean and simple design, implying a company and that is devoted to its product, no nonsense or pandering to shallow fashion. The final assembly of the watches is in Detroit and if you're going to set up shop in a place as unglamorous as Detroit, you must be serious, right? I'll let the auto blog The Truth About Cars tell it:
Shinola, a brand name revived from the former shoe polish company by Fossil watch founder Tom Kartsotis, was founded in part to take advantage of Detroit as a brand. All Shinola products are branded "Shinola Detroit" and Kartsotis leases a floor in the Taubman building of the College of Creative Studies in Detroit's midtown section, where they assemble watches from Swiss movements and Chinese components.…Detroit, the city, the culture and the image, are important parts of Shinola's overall branding as is sourcing as many American made supplies as is possible.
This is not to say any of this is going to "save" Detroit, any more than urban farming or tax breaks for Hollywood or a new arena for the Red Wings will. There is no "saving" of Detroit to be had. It is just a curiosity; an odd, irrational signpost of our odd, irrational times. In our world, you can use failure and destitution to sell quality. It's in such a world that Detroits happen to begin with.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Month That Was - December 2013

The Month That Was - December 2013: And we can kiss that year good-bye. Not sure how I feel about it. Had some very good times. Interestingly, at the outset of the year I lamented that I would probably not be travelling so much, and yet I did. A lot. An epic trip to the Canadian Rockies. Twice to Florida. Twice to Vegas. Twice to Mackinac. So, yeah, I got around. All the trips were good, even the latest one where I was coughing my lungs out.

I got a good deal accomplished on the house. Enough that I can sense the point where I think the place is just how I want it is in range. No disappointments there.

I'm not sure why I'm not overly sad to be rid of 2013. Perhaps it's my lingering illness. Perhaps it's my day job, that has gotten a good deal more stressful and uncertain over the past few months. Or perhaps it's the noticeable degradation in my running times other fitness markers that make me think I am on the downside of life.

Still, there is no point in pessimism at the outset of a new year. I remain hopeful that 2014 will demonstrate I have a way to go before tumbling down the mountain. But a better plan would be to live it as it comes, appreciate it for what it most certainly will be -- another year of good life.

The new book is ever so close. I find it's important to revise after you've seen the book in original form because the presentation (Kindle, in this case) can cause a change in how it's read inside your head. Still, it is absolutely in the home stretch. I'm at the point where I ache to be rid of it and move on to the next project.

The posts this month are well over to the ranty side of things. Sorry. Back to normal soon, I hope.

[Movies] Where's the Action
[Rant] Not So Much Resolutions as Guidelines
[Rant] Tell Me All Your Thoughts on God

[Movies] Where's the Action

Where's the Action: Fast 6 - is exactly what it is supposed to be. It has tremendous action sequences. It makes no sense whatsoever. I wouldn't pay to see it, but I would watch it when it comes on HBO, and would likely find myself stopping after landing on it during a channel surf years later. I don't see the loss of Paul Walker (rest in peace) as key here. None of these characters short of Vin Diesel are really all that critical. Actually, The Rock may be critical now, which says something about the importance of acting to the series. I still see the Fast series as something of an action movie throwback. The last gasp of the style of action film that dominated for so many years -- centered around a macho action hero, often a lunkhead.

Hmm. There's a time wasting idea. Let's break down the action movie eras more systematically.

The Cowboy and Soldier era. The activities of the heroes in these movies were, relative to everything that came after, realistic. That may be due partially to the limited production technology at the time. For the most part the heroes in these movies did things that exceptionally skilled, but still normal, human beings could do. This was the only era for truly human heroes. Calling out when these eras ended is certainly open to debate, but I'm going to say this one ended with the release of Dr. No (1962).

The Bond era. Bond and his ilk were highly idealized. They weren't just skilled at one thing, they could do everything well. In fact, there was no situation for which they were not prepared physically, mentally, culturally, and technologically, to overcome. This hero is the ideal man. Something we should all aspire to be, but something that can't exist in reality. A big trope in this era is the villain believing he's got the hero subdued, but the hero -- always prepared, always capable, always superior -- satisfyingly turns the tables. Note: I put both Bruce Lee and Indiana Jones in this category. My instinct is to say this era ended with Rambo and Conan, both from 1982.

The Lunkhead era. Grunts and proles became the hero. Again, the humans are shown to have superior skills, but this time there is no pretense of intellectual or cultural superiority. In fact, there is often the suggestion that brains and manners are working against the villain. Nope, with these guys it all comes down to fists and firepower. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Segal, Bruce Willis, and a host of lesser knowns -- they cranked out action flicks the way studios crank out horror flicks today. Interestingly, the vast majority that came out during the glory years sucked beyond all reason. Only in the era's waning did some of these become quality films. No, not art, but they finally got proper pacing, acting, and production values. The end of the Lunkhead era came with The Matrix (1999).

The Superhuman era. This is the world we live in today and it needs little explanation. Lord of the Rings, the various Marvel movies. It's all about being beyond human. And to do that with economic efficiency you need high-end computer effects.

Note 1: It is certainly possible to get a good action flick that is out of it's era chronologically. The Mission Impossible series is Bond era. The Fast series and the self-referential Expendables are Lunkhead. We've seen soldiers out of their era, too -- think: Black Hawk Down, Saving Private Ryan. But Hollywood is not for risk takers. The formula and the style for the bulk of the films will always conform to the era.

Note 2: I don't know what to do about Star Wars. Chronologically it's Bond, but it's definitely not Bond. Thematically it's Cowboy and Soldier, but there is an aspect of Superhuman to The Force. Not sure where it falls. I am only speaking of the first trilogy. The abominable second trilogy is clearly Superhuman.

Note 3: The pre-Abrams Star Trek films are merely extensions of the TV shows so don't qualify for this list. The Abrams Treks have the same issue as the first Star Wars trilogy, although given all the techno-Deus ex Machina they employ I would probably lump them into Superhuman also.

Note 4: The Daniel Craig Bond films are probably still Bond but they veer well over to Lunkhead.

Note 5: I need a life.

[Rant] Not So Much Resolutions as Guidelines

Not So Much Resolutions as Guidelines: I don't make resolutions. I make organic goals that will evolve going forward. It's a more holistic approach. Resolutions are so binding, don't cha think? Kind of Fascist in a way. Well, I stand against New Year's Nazis. In the words of the great philosopher Captain Jack Sparrow, "They're more like guidelines." For 2014 there are three categories:

Travel: Again, I suspect there will be no great foreign adventure. Mostly my hopes this year are of getting back to places I want to go again. (Like everything else, I wonder what this says about my state of life. I really need to get over that.) I would like to get back to Maine at some point -- maybe Spring, before the high season starts. I would like to get back to Sanibel Island and continue my explorations into a Gulf Coast vacation/retirement home. I would like to spend time in Utah; get back to Moab and/or Zion to hike The Narrows. I would like to get out to the OC to see Miss Anna. Hawaii, if I have a big expensive trip this year I think I would like it to be back to Maui and Kauai. Alaska has been on the list for so long I no longer even mention it.

Of course there will be Vegas Thanksgiving, Mackinac in September, a Chicago long weekend; all the usual suspects. But for the most part I think travel is going to be opportunistic; it's going to be a matter of what works once the requirements of the 2014 calendar begin to form. I suspect a lot of my travel will coincide with running, which brings me to…

Fitness: First the planned races. Ann Arbor Half Marathon is on 3/30 (this is new, not sure how I got roped into it). The Road Ends trail run in Pinckney is 4/27. The Gnaw Bone 10K in Indiana is 5/10. The Helluva Ride through Chelsea and Grass Lake is 7/12. The Mackinac 8-Miler is (probably) 9/6. The Holiday Hustle is (probably) 12/7.

I need to do more swimming. I was doing a mile pretty regularly in 2012 and I slipped in 2013. So I need to kick it back up with an eye towards doing a triathlon in the summer.

I need to do more yoga. I don't particularly enjoy yoga -- I get bored -- but I do need to keep up maintenance on my joints and flexibility, which I have been slacking on.

I would like to bike a metric century at some point (62 miles). I would like to do one of the big name obstacle runs, either Tough Mudder or Spartan.

I'm a little scared posting all this, since I am now obligated to follow up with results at the end of the year.

House: Big thing is to get the master bath redone. It's going to be a big job, and I honestly don't know if it's even possible to finish it before the year is out. First, I have to figure out specifically what I want to do, then I have to find a contractor, then the work can start. I really need to get on the stick of figuring this out.

Continue to work on the front gardens, the tulip experiment seems to have been a failure, thanks to bunnies and deer and whatever voracious creatures inhabit the surrounding area. I need to get things sorted and I need to mulch.

Paint the guest bedrooms and outfit them -- this I hope to coincide with a switch to DirectTV.

----

Overall, I'd guess I'll get about half this done.

And there are always, always more words to be written.

[Rant] Tell Me All Your Thoughts on God

Tell Me All Your Thoughts on God: I am not a particularly spiritual person. Be it formal religion or new agey, the force of motivation from some intangible entity has never really hit me. Many people I know and respect draw a lot strength from prayer or meditation. I just never have. This is probably my loss. I have come to think of spirituality as an congenital ability; you are born inclined to it or not, although I have no sort of objective reason for believing that other than my own experience (sample size=1).

On the other hand, many young people I know of are fairly solidly atheist. At least they think they are -- young people (late teens, early twenties) don't know what they don't know yet. They speak of believers in that snarky, groundlessly arrogant way the young people speak (I know I did). They sneer at Creationists who worship a Old White-Haired Man in The Sky and giggle equating God to a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Anyway, all this has caused me to try to crystallize my own thoughts on the topic. So here we go.

The first question is always, What you mean by “God"? This is where the kiddies get confused. They don't differentiate between religion and God. That's because they are not actually trying to advance an argument but position their self and public images. For those of us seeking understanding, we have to get the basics down first. I would state it as follows. God is an a priori moral force. Religion is a codification of a method to reconcile with that force.

Let's start with Religion. You don't pick a religion, it picks you. Or so the saying goes. The belief in a certain religious creed is not generally the result of step by step logical analysis from a neutral starting point. What typically happens is that you are exposed to a certain dogma and you “see the truth in it". That is to say, it strikes you as self-evident. It is a matter of faith. A thing you know in your heart. This has never happened to me. No such creed has affected me that way. I do not discount the possibility or deny its validity. Too many people throughout history have experienced it, and too many people I know and respect are religious, for me to dismiss it. Also, how foolish would I have to be to think that because I haven't experienced something it cannot exist. Not only that, it may yet happen to me.

It's probably appropriate to talk about the special case of Christianity at this point. Beyond the resistance to religion in general, the kiddies often single out Christianity for special derision. One reason for that is that it's easy. Nobody gets punished for criticizing Christianity and no one issues a Fatwa or stages a riot. To the kiddies, one suspects, this is just another form of rebellion for the sake of image position. As post facto justification they often trumpet the idea that Christianity has caused little more than suffering throughout history. Well, all ideas have can cause suffering in the hands of mere humans. My response would be that politics probably caused more death and suffering the 20th century alone than Christianity has in a more than a millenium, yet they don't seem to be down on taking political stands. I would also point out the long, long history of Catholic scientific inquiry, the Puritan/Protestant work ethic whose economic effect underlies much of our prosperity, and the notions of forgiveness and redemption that pervade our culture.

So. I don't have religion, but I'm not a disbeliever (and I admire Christians and Christianity). What about God? Well one way to approach this question is to look at the landscape minus god. I can think of 3 possibilities approaches to morality absent God:

1) Nihilism. There is no morality. Good and bad are meaningless. This is a terrible thing to contemplate because it turns out that nothing matters. We live, suffer and exult as we might, then die, with no point to it. We are just minor blips of probability that popped up in the course of existence. Whether you lived well or poorly, selfishly or generously, long or short -- it didn't matter. You could even argue that in this case only the present moment matters so feel free to compound nihilism with narcissism. We have no hard evidence that this is not the case -- no scientific proof whatsoever. Apart from repulsion at these conclusions, to accept this as definitive is to again, say that until something is proven to exist, it doesn't. That strikes me as arrogant, for reasons that I will explain shortly. I see no reason to be confident that what I can't prove doesn't exist.

(Besides, Nihilists are known to cavort with nine-toed women. But if you are a nihilist, here's your toothpaste.)

2) Secular humanism. This is the one I'm least clear on, but it seems there is a philosophical school that was able to generate some sort of moral impetus that emerged from within the human mind. Or something? I can't figure it. Naive people such as me often hear concepts like “the greatest good for the greatest number" or similar principle as descriptions of humanist morality, but we are still left with good and bad as arbitrary rules of humanity with no absolute basis. There may be more to this that I don't know about, but it seems like a flowery covering over a tautology: “What we say is good is good."

3) Evo-psych. This is comparatively newish, but it supposes that morality, instead of being a priori, is a product of evolution. For whatever reason, a moral instinct has given homo sapiens a comparative advantage for the survival of the species. At first glance this seems like a good one. And it accounts for the varying influence of morality across people, races, and cultures -- the way physical characteristics vary. “What helps the species to survive is good." This idea probably has legs and will be with us for the duration. But the implications are troubling. a) What about activities that have no bearing on the good of the species. Do they have no right or wrong associated with them? That is to say, this may work in aggregate but for any given individual, most actions will not be connect to survival of the species and thus, amoral. Pushed further, how do you know if your actions are pluses or minus for species survival. Even if the evo-psych concept is true (who knows), it is, for practical purposes, pretty much useless as a guide to behavior.

So what about an a priori God. Well, a priori itself is not a concept that sits well in the mind. You can always ask “What came before that?" on to infinity. I won't say God was born in the Big Bang because “What came before the Big Bang?" is a popular question to ask in theoretical physics these days. If something came before it, it is not a priori. To me a priori would mean God is simultaneous and interwoven with existence itself. So am I saying that a big white-haired man in the sky has been there forever and ever? (That's what the kiddies would ask.) If I believed in an a priori God my answer would be yes. Obviously not a big white-haired man, but I would be saying the nature of existence carries a moral force. I know. It sounds absurd.

But is it really absurd? Is it so difficult to imagine that the various fields and forces of existence are arranged in such a way that encourages certain forms of actions or behaviors. To me that is no less absurd than spooky action at a distance or dark energy or the Uncertainty Principle. So no I cannot dismiss that idea of God, a priori, even without film at eleven.

My current belief is that we cannot know. Not that we simply haven't discover proof or disproof, but we cannot discover it. It is beyond our ability to see. It is like Infinity itself, a concept we made up because our minds are insufficient to comprehend it. Presenting us with evidence of a moral force, or lack thereof, would be like an reading Hamlet to an ant. I think the exact term for such a belief is Mysterianism. Sounds cool. I'll take it. But again, no help on question of how to live.

But if we can't know the nature of God, how do you know how to live? I base my philosophy on a form of Pascal's Wager. If there really is no God -- if one of those three godless realities is the truth -- then it doesn't matter if I'm good or evil. I'll live whatever life and die pointlessly. Otherwise, in an existence with an a priori God, there is value to being Good. So probably indicates the smart way to live is to be Good. Now it's just a question of figuring out what is Good.

Answers to the question of what is Good, or what does God want, are the province of religion, of which I have none. So I have come up with something makeshift. The only thing I can think of that can possibly matter past your life is affecting the lives of others for the better. That is my working definition of Good. Determining what affects people for the better -- what is Good -- is not a simple task. It is probably the most complex task imaginable. It is not what is shallowly described by the simple cliches and sentimentality of day-to-day life. It would require an essay in itself to describe even the basic ideas behind it (maybe that's next). But as far as I can determine it is the only way to make your life have value.

So that's where I'm at with respect to God. You'll note that, unlike the atheist kiddies, I am not only uncertain in my conclusion, I am uncertain in my uncertainty. That's why nobody pays me for my opinions.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Month That Was - November 2013

The Month That Was - November 2013: Well here we are. Dug in for winter again. I have been busy with writing projects, one of which is agonizingly close to fruition. Details below. And, of course, with November comes Thanksgiving and with Thanksgiving comes Vegas. Details below also.

Around the house I made a minor run at textured painting, which was moderately successful. I've also started seriously drawing up plans to remodel the master bath, which I hope to get done in 2014, and I have a couple more painting projects that I hope to get done over the winter.

No book reviews this month. I've been catching up on Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford Mysteries for my distraction. I feel I bit of an affinity because they are set in and around the Florida Gulf islands, where I have spent a fair amount of enjoyable time. They're pretty well written with a solid formula and a nicely drawn lead and sidekick. White is a skilled outdoorsman with a scientific bent so he tends to fill the books with some interesting discursions on related topics. I had actually started reading this series from the beginning many years ago, but at one point they seemed to get gratuitously violent so I stopped. I have now picked up later in the series and the violence has taken a back seat. More about this when I catch up to the latest release.

In fact, short shrift on everything. Just a trip report and summary of my upcoming Kindle release. I have, since just before Thanksgiving, been at war with a terrible chest cold, which I am beginning to suspect must be some sort of mutant alien virus because it's been truly brutal and resistant to my common terrestrial immune system. It completely disrupted my vacation and is causing me to want nothing more than to crawl under the covers and disappear. More than usual.

[Books, Basho] Long Ago and Far Away and Here and Now
[Travel, Vegas] Spanning the Country, Being Thankful

[Books, Basho] Long Ago and Far Away and Here and Now

Long Ago and Far Away and Here and Now: As I've been hinting, what's coming next for me writing-wise is very esoteric. Back in 17th century Japan, a great poet named Matsuo Basho went on a journey north from Edo(Tokyo) and documented his travels and punctuated them with poems, what we would call Haiku. The book, entitled The Narrow Road to the Interior, became a huge sensation and has survived through the years as a seminal classic of Japanese literature.

Basho is almost certainly Japan's greatest poet. Most folks who read Narrow Road…, which in the U.S. is probably students and academics, tend to focus on it as a collection of poetry. The problem is that poetry loses nearly everything in translation. Even the shortest poems are deeply dependent on myriad subtleties of language, otherwise, they'd be prose. One could even argue that a working knowledge of Japanese would be insufficient, you would have to be near-native in your understanding of the language. So for me, with no knowledge of Japanese, reading the poetry is not particularly compelling. For exapmle: Basho is famous for writing what is considered one of the most perfect and exemplary Haiku (although this did not appear in Narrow Road...) about the sound a frog makes when jumping in a pond. To read the Haiku and see what I mean about translation look at this page. It contains 30 translations (thousands probably exist) and you can see how different they are, and how none of them truly capture anything that would considered an eternal work of art.

Basho was curmudgeonly character. An aging bachelor at the time he wrote Narrow Road..., in between the poetry he gives hints of uncertainty about the purpose of his journey and clearly has a growing concern with mortality -- remind you of anyone you know? As I read Narrow Road..., I read a travelogue of a man who was riddled with self-doubt, who was unsure of whether he felt compelled to travel to seek answers or escape questions. These are feelings I know intimately.

So in the popular spirit of re-writes of classics, I decided ol' Basho deserved one. The story becomes Basho's Inward Road and I focused on fleshing out Basho fears and emotional turmoil. I added doses of irony and humor, colored some characters, and colloquialized the language. The end result is, I think, something Basho would recognize -- one aging bachelor to another.

So now I am in the process of getting it setup for Kindle. It will be Kindle only unless I come to find there is a massive market for rewritten 17th century Japanese travelogues. It is short, barely novella length, so I'm thinking of a $1.99 price. I still need cover art. And I need to get the formatting right, which I don't remember being as hard as it's turning out to be. So it's not available just yet. If I can get everything sorted, I hope it will be by the end of the year.

Like I said, it's esoteric. But as esoteric as it is, I think it's worth reading. Obviously, it draws on my own feelings, but those cannot be unique, can they? So maybe, just maybe there is a small audience out there. That is the blessing of Kindle. If you are moved to write something, you can just write it and go. If nobody buys it, oh well. You live to fight and write another day. And something good could happen. From small things...

So with any luck, a link and maybe a quote next month.

[Travel, Vegas] Spanning the Country, Being Thankful

Spanning the Country, Being Thankful: I suppose I have just experienced a recurring nightmare of many travelers because the day before I left for Vegas I was struck with a devastating cold or flu or ebola or something. But flights were set and reservations past their cancel date so I was going to have to tough it out. At least I can confidently state that the beds at Cosmopolitan are very accomodating when you are alternately shivering and sweating through night. I had hoped to hit a couple of poker tourneys but given that I could only concentrate for a minute or two before needing a nap, it didn't seem like a good idea.

I did manage to spend a couple of hours on Fremont St. where I hadn't been since all the hubbub started a couple of years ago. Very impressed with all the new stuff, especially the Fremont East area. Very cool that they've found a way to improve without trying to morph into The Strip Lite. If anything it's starting to remind me of Bourbon Street and the French Quarter (or it will with a few more good restaurants) which is very cool. But even though it's all a lot of fun to visit for a night, I'm pretty sure when push comes to shove, I will still bed down on The Strip.

Even a sick boy has to eat. I tried Heritage Steak and was disappointed. On the suggestion of the server I ordered Kobe Skirt with a tabasco-pepper rub, and while the flavor wasn't bad, the rub completely overpowered the meat. On the other hand, the brussel sprouts with bacon and maple syrup were killer. I have now had less than amazing steaks at both Heritage and Gordon Ramsay. The best steak I have ever had in Vegas was the Chateaubriand at Botero.

For burgers, however, I'm down with Gordon Ramsay. I stopped by BurGR for lunch and the Euroburger was as good as it gets. Perfectly cooked. Tasted better than the steak he made me last year.

So, before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend madness I decided to decamp and drag my phlegm infested head to Laughlin, because….well, I'd never been there, and why not? Most people who are used to Vegas will think Laughlin is a dump. It is. But in a different light, it is totally surreal.

First, if you think you have seen folks playing slots in Vegas, you have no idea. The people here don't just play the slots, the drive the machines with a relentless ferocity. There is almost a hostile intensity to the background din of the machines. For these people, slots are not a fling at gaming, they are a calling, an eternal battle. They have grown old, fat, and toothless waging this war and, still, there is no let up. Their only allies are cigarettes and cheap beer. It's a remarkable thing to see. This being the holiday season, the casino had planted carollers on the gambling floor, singing beautiful harmonies to celebrate the birth of Our Lord and Savior, but you couldn't hear them over the din and even if you could I guarantee none of the slot zombie warriors would have broken discipline and looked up. Talk about a thankless job. Surreal.

I stayed at the Aquarius, a building whose infrastructure is a good 70% cigarette smoke. Absolutely everything smells like smoke. I suppose my non-smoking room technically didn't but the phlegm in my head was imbued with it as soon as I checked in -- there was no escape. One thing Laughlin has going for it is the Riverwalk, which backs up to all the riverside casinos. It's not a particularly attractive riverwalk, you get to see the service entrances to many of the casinos and in at least one case you walk by doors that open directly on to people's rooms, but the Riverwalk has air -- relatively fresh air -- and you need that as often as possible.

Now, along the riverwalk there are apparently a number of stray cats. And people will occasionally leave food out for them. That's nice, but the cats have to scarf down as much as possible as quickly as possible because the skunks come out soon after and chase them off. It was a very disconcerting feeling to be walking along the riverwalk in the dark of night and suddenly realize that you are surrounded by skunks. Several less than 10 yards away. During the day families happily recreate all up and down the river, but the night time belongs to the skunks. Fear them. Respect them. Actually, even more disconcerting is realizing that other people are gingerly approaching the skunks trying to get good close ups of the for their phone. Surreal.

Meanwhile across the street at a severely downscale shopping mall there is a Bikini's Sports Bar, where, as you can guess, all the servers are bikini-clad girls. This is as close as it gets to a gentlemen's club in Laughlin, which is not very close. The bikini girls here were not the ones you might see at Treasures. They are not even the ones you might see out in Pahrump. They are the ones you would see in WalMart, if WalMart had that sort of section. That is to say, they were in dire need of a professional overhaul of their fitness routines. Yikes. Surreal.

I honestly can't think of a good reason to visit Laughlin. I'm guessing the payouts must be pretty good or the slot zombie warriors would find another battlefront. A quick survey of the JoB machines around town suggests they generally run 8/5 with a few 9/5s, but my search was not comprehensive. There is no fine dining. There are no must see sights, in fact there are virtually no sites at all. Correction: I can think of one legitimate reason to visit and that would be to see Don Laughlin's classic auto collection. It's free and it's got serious collector cars. If you are into classic autos it's probably worth a visit, but just as a day trip from Vegas. I think place is best left to chain-smoking slot zombies.

Headed back towards Vegas, but keeping with my theme of being on the outskirts, I settled in for a couple of nights at the Hilton in Lake Las Vegas. Now I am sure this is the slowest time of year for the area -- the week after Thanksgiving -- but talk about a post-apocalypse landscape. It's like they built this lovely, manicured, country club setting and it's all a show piece; no one actually uses it. The one casino is shut down. The “village" had a few shops open and a couple of restaurants. Obviously, it picks up during warm weather season for water sports, but I understand why hoteliers are wanting to bug out. There are no customers.

The Hilton is as refined and beautiful a hotel as you can imagine, certainly a match for anything on the Strip except in gaudiness. It used to be called the Ravella, and before that it was a Ritz-Carlton so, yeah, it's high end. In most cities this would be the flagship resort. It's easy to get to, easy to park, easy to walk to whatever activities (if you can find any). Free shuttle to The Strip (MGM). I fail to understand why there isn't more activity out here. If you ever had the notion of staying off-strip and just driving in for the action at night, this strikes me as the place to stay. If you have to bring your kids to Vegas, this is probably the healthiest place for them to stay. It's not that expensive. Certainly not more expensive than, say, Cosmo. And I bet it is rarely booked such that there are spikes in price. For my part, the first night of my stay (Sunday after Thanksgiving) I strongly suspected I was the only one in the hotel. I felt like the Omega Man.

I really hope they make something of Lake Las Vegas. I love the area, and I'm hoping to re-visit in the warm weather to see what's up. As you pull in from Lake Mead Pwky. and look to your left you have a great view of the entire Strip, from Mandalay to Downtown, which is worth it for the photos at sunset.

Oh and it's a short drive to Hoover Dam. I've been coming to Vegas since 2001 and this was my first visit to Hoover Dam. If you don't feel the need to actually walk on the Dam itself, just pull over at the Tillman Plaza and walk along the Memorial Bridge to get your photos. No cost to hit the bridge. A ten-spot to park near at the Dam site. Another tenner if you want to see the visitor's center. Probably about an hour door to door, traffic pending. You needn't give it high priority, but any Vegas regular should probably get there eventually.

Certainly not my best Vegas trip. But not my last either.

Next came part two, starting with a cross country flight to Florida. In Sarasota, a catch up visit with my Mom and younger brother. Sarasota is a great spot, but very hectic in season. As I inch closer to getting a place in Florida, I occasionally waffle to locating there as opposed to points further south -- the Ft. Myers area being my first choice. This whole notion of getting a place is still an embryo. I don't have the exact purpose down -- have ready access to my Mom as she ages, set myself up for retirement, vacation home for the winter, rental property in the mean time -- details have yet to solidify and so I can't really zero in a locale. The ultimate would be Sanibel Island, but that is and will likely forever be out of my price range.

Anyway, by the time the weekend rolled around it was time to decamp again, this time barrelling across the state via Alligator Alley to Ft. Lauderdale to meet Miss Kate. Ft. Lauderdale is not my preferred destination in Florida. In fact, I will take just about anywhere on the Gulf over the Atlantic side. I won't go through the series of reversals of fortune that caused us to end up in Ft. L, but on our only full day we hopped in the car and made a beeline for the Keys.

Then one of the oddest and most infuriating things happened. Heading south on the Florida Turnpike, a toll road, right out of the blue the police shut down the entire freeway. Just made everyone stop dead. Big frustration #1 was that had we been five minutes sooner we would have missed it completely. Frustration #2 came when we realized the stopped traffic dead on the high speed freeway to let a group of what must have been a couple of hundred motorcyclists use the road unimpeded. Near as I could tell these were not public officials or anything of the kind, there were just a huge group of motorcyclists who somehow got the police to reserve a road exclusively for them despite everyone on it having paid for it. I searched the news for references to this event but found nothing. In all it was probably only a twenty minute or so delay but it was truly annoying when we really only had the one day free and, I can't emphasize this enough, we were paying to use that road. And if you thought we were upset, you should have heard the asshat in the BMW SUV next to us laying on his horn, to no good purpose other than to raise the hostility level of everyone around him.

All in all, it took us probably close to two and a half hours to get to Key Largo, when it should have only taken an hour and half-ish. I had hoped for us to do a kayak trip, but the place I wanted to go to could not be found. I located it on the map, used the GPS in my phone, and drove right past exactly where it should have been a couple of times and saw nothing. Grrrr. By this time is was noon so we stopped at the Hilton Key Largo Resort to grab some lunch. And it was so beautiful we decided to just stay there the whole afternoon.

It didn't hurt that Caribbean Watersports was on site, so we got to spend a half hour on a jet ski, before Kate ran it out of gas with her badass hoonage. That was followed up with a parasail along Florida bay, both activities punctuated with Margaritas. The weather was that incredible South Florida winter weather, 80 degrees and a fresh breeze coming off the water. Yeah, this is why folks retire down here.

A nice evening's dinner along Las Olas Blvd. A final morning by the pool. And that was it. It was time to haul myself and my congestion back home, where I was greeted with a leak in the basement and a beeping smoke alarm. Luckily I have perspective. I know that even when things aren't the best, they are still worthwhile. So I won't say it was a bad trip. Too many good things happened. I will say that I can do it better, and I'm sure I will.