Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Month That Was - January 2016

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

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

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

[Rant] The Opposite of Righteous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I'm depressed again.

[Movies] Mad Max: Fury Road

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

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

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

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

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

[Rant] 2016 Plans

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

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

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

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

But the house comes first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Sports] Cheater's Code

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 09, 2016

The Month That Was - December 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[TV] Fargo, OK Then

It's brilliant, Fargo is. At least as brilliant as everyone says. Almost certainly the best drama on TV for 2015 and pushing at the edges of the Pantheon. There are so many good aspects to Fargo it's hard to know where to start but let me try an unconventional place: Tone. A multi-point balance of absurdity and earnestness, satire and reverence, triviality and moment. It amazes me how this can be kept up over ten hours of drama. You feel for these characters; they suffer and you want them to overcome, and yet everything about them is utterly surreal.

One key to this is the acting, and it is uniformly great. Jeffrey Donovan, fattened up as a semi-psychotic, pouting, North Woods gangster, is a long way from Burn Notice, yet he's perfect. Ted Danson as a gruff, old cop -- also a long way from his Cheers safe zone. Kirsten Dunst has always been a wonderful actress and she just nails the role of self-absorbed, deluded housewife. Everyone is playing a role that is either cliche or caricature, but it's done with such reality that you buy in instead of just smirk.

And in the end, as with the previous season and the movie, the good guys win. And by good I mean the sincere, helpful, faithful Minnesotans with their laughable accents and their ridiculous weather and their bland folksiness. They are prodded and teased, but not belittled or sneered at. The reward for their victories is the continuance of their lives and loves and hopes -- no ugly, angry, or cynical comeuppance. It's like nothing else on TV. Should you binge it? You're darn tootin' you should.

[TV] The Truth Will Be Out There

Even if you have no pretensions to geekhood, you probably know that the X-Files is coming back for an eight episode run in 2016. This is good news, of course, but there is also great news that I will get to after I dish out another long-winded preamble about the X-Files place in history for a moment.

If we look back before The Sopranos we can identify the nascent shows that would eventually lead to the quality TV we are all familiar with today. It all started with Hill Street Blues back in the 80s. It was really the first show that held any pretense of being literary in nature, or even artistic. This was also the origin show for David Milch who eventually begat Deadwood. (I shall regale you with a deeper appreciation of Milch at a later date.)

The '90s brought us a pile of quality classics. The obvious ones being Homicide from David Simon who begat The Wire; the tragically forgotten Northern Exposure who's executive producer, David Chase, gave us The Sopranos, which in turn gave us Matt Weiner who gave us Mad Men; X-files brought adult tone to goofy horror and gave us Vince Gilligan from whom we received Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul; and Buffy grew from tripe into legendary status and of course gave us Joss Whedon who went on to make a handful of obscure and unpopular Hollywood films. That's the quick and dirty family tree of the quality TV.

That was just for setting the stage as to why X-Files is important and not just another sci-fi reboot for next gen geeks. Now, long time readers may recall that I have waxed poetic about the work of one of X-Files writers, Darin Morgan. In fact I wrote an ode to him over ten years ago when I was writing for Blogcritics. I stick by every word of that and I would also note that he has since achieved minor cult status from folks who would agree with me. I've had the chance to rewatch his episodes once or twice over the ensuing decade and my esteem only grows.

So imagine my delight when I heard that Morgan is writing an episode for the reboot. And imagine my further excitement to discover it is going to be called "Mulder and Scullly Meet the Were-Monster". OH. HELL. YES. This is going to be great! (BTW, how did I miss this? It has been known since July and I'm just finding out. What other Earth-shaking news have I missed? Next thing you know I'll find out they've made another Star Wars movie.)

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Month That Was - November 2015

A fair amount of travel this month, and the griping that goes with it. I have a ton of photos, but I need to run them through editing. I'll post a link to smugmug when they are ready.

I set my fiction project aside for the entire month. I finally got the plotting complete and now I need to work on an outline. It is important, periodically, to set the damn thing aside for relatively lengthy periods now and then so you can re-approach it with a clear head. But now it's time to get back to it. Outline is the next big step, then rough draft. After that, things get easier because editing is orders of magnitude more easy than getting that first draft done. Anyway, I have no self imposed deadline yet, but I can't risk completely losing momentum.

And my phone is acting up. It periodically gets thigh-blisteringly hot and the battery drains wicked fast. Not all the time. Maybe once every couple of months, but my experience with such things tells me it's just a matter of time. This might be the end of Windows phone for me. There are too many apps I can't get access to. Although I like my Windows phone a lot, I would not recommend it to anyone else and that suggests I should not replace it with another. More later.

During the holiday slow down, I plan to binge Fargo season 2 (I've got them all DVR'd). Expect commentary next month.

[Travel] SoCal, Better and Worse
[Travel] Vegas and Utah as Usual
[Rant] Half of Life is Showing Up

[Travel] SoCal, Better and Worse

I truly dislike L.A. I know there is a core constituency of that city that thinks it is something special. Sorry -- I don't see it. It is immensely inconvenient and remarkably unwelcoming to visitors. I'm sure there are some lovely areas by the beaches and some shiny neighborhoods in the rich areas and so forth, but the bulk of what I have seen is dumpy looking. And lord knows you better be ready to sit in your car for endless intervals.

A perfect example is LAX. I had to pick up Kate there and, apart from it being a zoo, which many airports are, it seems designed specifically to assure that you can't get where you need to go. I stopped to pick up my passenger and sure enough it turns out I was in no parking zone. But rather than simply signal me to move on, the lowlife parking cop wrote me a ticket. Now I have been thru my fair share of airports and I know that while the traffic cops can be hostile bastards, they don't drop the hammer on you immediately, presumably because they are aware how totally confusing airports are. Not in L.A. Before you even realize you are double parked you are written up for $70.

It gets worse. You have to pay the ticket in 21 days or the fees start. But at least they are nice enough to offer you a way to pay online, right? Yeah, except a week passes and they still have not logged your ticket into the system (even though they claim it will only take 24 hours). So you try to pay online everyday for a week and you can't. Then you finally call to find out what the hell is going on, and they ask for your ticket information, then they key it into the system on the spot and then tell you can go pay online now. So essentially you have just had to inform the city of L.A. that they gave you a parking ticket just be sure that you can pay it in time to not accumulate any fines. It's really just an administrative version of "stop hitting yourself!"

Yes, I know: it's not about the rules it's about the revenue. But that episode pretty much defines the L.A. attitude for me. Whether it's not understanding the toll roads or a hotel that allows its parking lot to fill with non-guests so you have to pay for valet, you either know the tricks of L.A. life or you pay. No quarter is given.

There's a reason Joe Bob Briggs always referred to it as "El Lay." Because you're certain to get screwed.

And yet, an hour and a half south and you are into Orange County which is just splendid. The young folks I know there refer to it derisively as a "bubble," but they will come to appreciate bubbles. Everything is clean and fresh and new and the roads are wide and not too badly packed, except at the freeway entrances. You can roll down the coastal highway and find all sorts of character filled towns -- San Juan de Capistrano with it's mission and funky shops and restaurants along the railroad; San Clemente with its lovely beach and pier; Dana Point with it's active waterfront and high-end neighborhoods. If you wanted to, you could follow the highway even further south, down past Torrey Pines and La Jolla and into San Diego, a city which puts L.A. to shame.

I was in L.A. for work, but once the weekend hit I was off to Orange County for some delightful times with Kate and Anna. We stayed at the St.Regis which is usually one of the most beautiful resorts in the world, but unfortunately was under somewhat extreme construction -- check in was in a tent, the pool/spa was closed, they were down to a couple of restaurants, etc. Still, the room was beautiful, and we did have access to the seaside dining available to local members where we had a memorable night time meal with the ocean waves in the background.

Of course the highlight of the trip was a killer hike through Aliso and Wood Canyons County Park. I take the blame for it being killer. I misjudged the distance, and I misjudged the severity of the climb, despite the fact that the destination was called Top of the World. You would think that would have been a clue. The total hike was about ten miles, whereas I was expecting less than half that. There was mile stretch that was steep enough to require hand over hand up the rocks at some point. We made it to the highest point which was supposed to dump us out on the road, but we ended up in a school parking lot and had to ask some of the locals where we were. I think we actually started a fight between a couple when they disagreed about how we should get to where we wanted to go. I also think Kate entertained notions have killed me when I turned down a ride to our destination. Eventually making it to Top or the World, we were rewarded with amazing 360 degree views from the mountains to the sea. Also, we were blessed in that the rest of the way was downhill although it was very long, and for the last couple of miles I heard about my poor sense of distance with undisguised hostility.

I'm very happy I got to OC, since if I had to end my trip after L.A. it would have been infuriating. I'm good with Southern Cal, but there's going to have to be some kind of massive incentive for me to set foot in L.A. again. For me, SoCal begins south of L.A.

[Travel] Vegas and Utah as Usual

Once again, on Thanksgiving I found myself in Vegas and Southern Utah, which is about as typical a Thanksgiving as I have ever had.

I started out at The Cromwell, which is located right in the center of the strip -- corner of Flamingo and LV Blvd. -- and features and a bit of a gaudy, New Orleans whorehouse chic style. Great location of course, I'm told the pool scene is where it's at, but I'm no scenester and at 50 degrees a pool doesn't really interest me. Cromwell itself is fine; a cut above the properties on either side (Flamingo and Bally's) and more intimate than the behemoths across the street (Bellagio and Caesars). I see no special reason to pick it over something else, but I also see no reason to dismiss it.

Food was big this time around as there were lots of new restaurants to try -- all of which were excellent. The real stand outs were Lago in Bellagio: creative Italian style small dishes, under the name of Julian Serrano whose titular restaurant at Aria is also one of my favorites; and Yardbird at Venetian: advertised as Southern comfort food but it is really well prepared and there is a careful focus on quality. I'm not a crazy fried chicken guy, but I had the fried chicken and it was my favorite meal of the trip. Brined for 27 hours, evidently. Not heavy or greasy at all. The crust seemed like a mix of breading and batter and was not overly salted or spiced. It was just perfect. Made we want to try brining chicken at home. Definitely, on the list for a return.

Another new twist this trip was my first experience with Uber. You can't get Uber to or from McCarran Airport, but everywhere else Uber is available. Uber is, in fact, fairly new to Vegas and is engaged in a war (which they should inevitably win) for airport access [edit: you can now, hooray], as such there are still some glitches to work out. Most of the major properties have Uber waiting areas, but they seem to be located in odd and awkward places -- I don't know if this is just what they had available or a they're throwing a bone to the cabbies. Anyway, I took two Uber trips. The first was to pick up a rental car for my run to Utah. This guy was 10 minutes later than predicted and did not speak much English. He did not know how to get to the rental car center, but just followed his GPS, which was fine. I made it OK, probably saved a couple of bucks over a cab. The second trip was a run from the Strip to Downtown. This guy had previously been a cabbie for 18 years; now he was Ubering in a big shiny Mercedes sedan. Obviously with so much experience he had no need for GPS. He was wearing a stifling amount of cologne and offered me advice on the best strip clubs to visit (this is not an unusual experience for a single guy).

I'm glad Uber is around in Vegas and it will be even better when they get airport access and they get a more experienced cadre of drivers. Their app (at least for Windows Phone) could use some work. It doesn't seem to want you to input your location by the name of the place. It'll take it, but it may guess very badly at what you mean. When I entered "McCarran Rental Car Center" it came back with some place near San Francisco, so requesting a ride can be a little tricky, but obviously, paying is much more convenient and they don't seem to take the long way to increase the fare, which is a favorite game of Vegas cabbies. There is currently a debate as to whether you should tip your Uber driver. Some believe it is a bad precedent and counter to the dead simple transportation model. Other feel if you would tip a cabbie you should tip your Uber driver. I'm agnostic on this topic, but for the record, I tipped the cologne-smelling guy, but the not the late guy. That puts me in the position of having tipped a local in a big Mercedes, but not an immigrant in Nissan Sentra. Hmmm.

As always, when Thanksgiving proper comes around I get out of town. This in itself can be an interesting experience. By Thursday night, the whole appears to be driving into Vegas. It' as if folks wolf down an early dinner with their annoying relatives, hop in the car and head for Sin City. As I go in the opposite direction I laugh at all the cars crawling in at songle digit speeds. In this case I headed up to the Red Mountain Resort in St. George Utah. There are few hiking destinations more appealing than the red rock regions of Utah. Most notable are the National Parks -- Zion, Bryce, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands are considered the big 5 -- but there are also many state parks the feature smaller scale but no less delightful features. Just on the outskirts of Vegas proper is Red Rock Canyon where I have passed a morning or two in my time. Head north out of Vegas on I-15 for 45 minutes and you'll come to Valley of Fire where I have both hiked and run a brutal half-marathon. Another hour or so north from there you clip the northwest corner of Arizona and cross into Utah where you have a hidden gem, Snow Canyon State Park.

St. George is as outdoorsy as any community. There are wide bike paths connecting the major hubs, outfitters and activewear outlets seem to do a robust business, and the parking in Snow Canyon fills up by noon. Snow Canyon is criss-crossed with trails over a wide variety of geology -- sand dunes to huge rocky outcrops. Its main attraction is something called Lava Tubes; remnants of ancient volcanoes which have left behind cave like tunnels that can be explored. They look deep and scary but it's really not a major deal to lower yourself into them and have a look around in the darkness. In a separate area of the park you can scramble down the red rocks into a canyon and make your way to a series of petroglyphs, then scramble back up the other side to a view of St. George and the surrounding areas from on high. It's all good fresh air in the lungs and more than a little sweat on the back.

In the midst of this is Red Mountain Resort a nice destination spa which is not surprisingly dedicated to physical activity. It is a full on resort in that you generally get a package that includes meals and a number of fitness classes and some other services. Then on top of that they offer longer hiking and biking trips, rock climbing, rappelling, etc., for fees. It's a nice place, but it does have its quirks.

I should note that my criticisms come from my days as a spa snob, but it is not in the same class as a high-end destination spa such as Miraval. The gym is so-so -- equipment is somewhat limited. The classes are fine but fairly standard stuff you could get at any gym at home. The dinners are nicely prepared but rather bland; lunch and breakfast are buffet style and rather industrial. Alcoholic beverages are extra cost, which is to be expected, but certain soft drinks are also extra -- lemonade is free, but $2 for a can of diet coke (why?). Also three meals means three meals, snacks not included. The spa facility itself is not really high end. There is a nice sitting/relaxation room, but the locker room is just a small room, with lockers and little steam room -- again, like what you would see and your gym at home. But you know what the weirdest thing was to me? There were no Do Not Disturb signs for your door. I know that sounds like a silly little thing to be concerned about, especially when you are up and hiking before housekeeping even starts in the morning, but it threw me a bit. I'm very used to hanging that sign on the door and leaving the tv on while I'm away in an effort to make people think someone is in the room and wants to be left alone. Also, on the last day when I was bugging out back to Vegas I wanted to sleep in a little later and sure enough, housekeeping knocked and woke me up. Anyway, like I said, it's minor but weird.

None of this is to discourage you because, while it isn't up to Miraval or Canyon Ranch standards, it's still very nice with strong, friendly service from the staff. It's also a screaming good deal -- not much more expensive than a standard hotel. You, not being snooty and opinionated like me, and not having eaten astounding food in Las Vegas just a couple days before, would no doubt enjoy yourself immensely.

But back to Vegas I went, mostly to reckon with my football bets which as of early Sunday were looking abysmal. FWIW, the Packers spot-on imitation a dead skunk on Thanksgiving assured I wouldn't come away ahead. Sunday it was shaping up to be a bloodbath when the Patriots disintegrated. Literally the last play of the week had the Ravens winning for me and I ended up with tolerable losses -- maybe a couple hundred dollars overall, but you can drop that on dinner and drinks in Vegas, or in ten minutes of blackjack so...tolerable.

Thus continues my personal Thanksgiving tradition. The last touch of ebullience for 2015. Winter is upon us. This will have to hold me for a while.

[Rant] Half of Life is Showing Up

There's been quite a bit of negative commentary lately about the giving out of medals for participation. Many of the more righteous folks in the world believe that medals are only the elite; that it's just another example of how we coddle ourselves and try to shield ourselves from the cold truth of the hard world, thereby weakening us in the long run. Often this narrative is couched in for-the-children style rhetoric.

I'm distrustful of all narratives and this is no exception. I have a certain sympathy for it in that I think it is sourced from a desire to see the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. The world is competitive and likely always will be. No institution, whether for work or play, private or public, will ever be without a hierarchy. This hierarchy may be subtle or gross, explicit or implicit, but there will always be differences in status. Homo sapiens are status seekers and evaluators from deep in our genes and that is not going to change. The only truly status-less organizations are weird hippie communes and they don't last long because that is simply not our nature. So raising your kids or trying to live your life as if you don't have to compete is foolish -- worse, it simply provides greater advantage to those who are prepared and willing to compete.

That said, there's nothing wrong with encouraging participation, we do it in lots of different ways. For an example, take running races of the sort I do many times a year. If you sign up for a race you get a t-shirt. It's yours to keep even if you don't show up. If you finish the race you get a medal -- you can think of this as a participation medal (although technically you could start and not finish and not get the medal). If you are one of the top finishers, either overall or in your age group, you get prizes. I honestly don't see a problem with this. There is still differentiation between the elite and the folks who just made it through. I guarantee you nobody is looking down at their 5K finisher's medal and thinking "Now the Kenyans will fear me!"

Participation is of value. We acknowledge it in many ways. Where I work, you get gifts on your 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, etc., anniversary. Nobody asks about your performance; you may have been just good enough not to get fired, but you stuck around and made your contribution. It counts. Even in sports there are participation rewards. Everybody on the high school football team can wear a letterman jacket, even if you never played a down.

In fact , I would argue -- especially in the case of children -- that rewarding them for participation in something they do not, and likely will not, excel in is a good policy. Despite the fact that I am far from a natural athlete and I will never be anything more than mediocre, I enjoy all these races and fitness challenges I take on. I would have been out a lot of pleasure in my life had I been conditioned to believe there was no point unless I won. And besides, aren't we supposed to be learning that it's OK to fail. There's another thing I wish I had embraced earlier in life -- being unafraid to fail. Doesn't rewarding folks for the attempt encourage them to not fear failure.

So you see, all this medals-should-be-for-winners-only stuff is quite overwrought. Yes, we should acknowledge that victory is the goal and reward excellence, but we do that, so what's the harm in acknowledging participation, also? Look at it this way: if others didn't participate, how would you know you won?

Saturday, November 07, 2015

The Month That Was - October 2015

I'm quite harried -- lots of travel, some for work. So sorry only a short shrift this month. Haven't really had time to work up any content worth posting. Fiction is also suffering, right when I finally think I got the skeleton of the next book sorted. It might have to go until the end of the year before I get back to it. Well, perhaps it will be better for a little extra reflection.

In any event, hopefully things will chill out by year end and I can get some more content out. At least the two posts this month are long-winded. So that's a plus, right?

[Movies] Jurassic Spielberg
[Travel] Florida, Man

[Movies] Jurassic Spielberg

The dynamic duo of the 80s, Spielberg and Lucas, haven't really lit the world on fire in the age of Whedon and Abrams. From the armchair it easy to ruminate about why, the culprit likely being the loss of the childlike joyfulness that prompted their visions to begin with. So when Jurassic World came on I didn't have high expectations, but I didn't expect it to be outright bad. It was outright bad.

It was slow. The action was late in arriving and generally sparse until the finale. Worse, the slow parts were atrociously poorly done. The dialog was recycled adolescent-level ranting; a vaguely anti-corporate and anti-science and anti-military mish-mash, right out a hundred b-grade sci-fi films from the 50s. The characters were uniformly unlikeable, and honestly, how do you make a heroic character played by Chris Pratt unlikeable? They managed. The little scenes and comments they manufactured in a failed attempt the imbue them with personalities were just embarrassing. The plot was essentially the same one as Jurassic Park with some details changed, evidently to move the plot from speculative sci-fi to outright absurdity. The incoherencies built up by the minute. The special effects could have come right out of Jurassic Park also, as if the intervening years never happened. And lastly, the level of violence was astonishing. I was trying to remember how many people died in Jurassic Park, I think it was only four or five. I would guess hundreds of people die in Jurassic World, some in very gruesome, non-kid-friendly ways, but since there aren't really any characters we care about I guess they are all just fodder anyway.

Was there anything to like? Honestly, no. Not even Chris Pratt, whose likeability is off the scale, comes out unscathed. I really thought, given the state of the the craft of making action films, that it was pretty much impossible to make a bad film. Even The Phantom Menace and the Crystal Skull had their moments. Jurassic World has none.

Watch the first five minutes of Avengers: Age of Ultron to see how it's done. There is more action, humor, and character building in those five minutes than in the entirety of Jurassic World. Ultron was amazingly good. The knock on it has been that it was too busy; that it was overloaded with characters and plotlines. That's true, but even with that issue, it still manages a to be a blast, and in many ways that makes it a greater achievement. Whedon had to set the table far umpteen upcoming Marvel movies and TV shows and he pulled it off without compromising quality. A huge win.

Spielberg and Lucas are now in the place where the makers of the later Roger Moore bond films were. The world has moved so far beyond them they look like parodies. Lucas finally stepped away from Star Wars. Can Spielberg step away from Indy or Dinosuars? I'm guessing no. The Spielberg I used to know kicked out something like Used Cars seemingly on a lark. He was so good he threw away movies that stand up 35 years on. Does he realize how bad Jurassic World is? Does he see how bad the Crystal Skull was? I'm going to stop now, this is making me sad.

[Travel] Florida, Man

The top three places designed to separate you from your money, in order of effectiveness:
  1. Washington D.C.
  2. Las Vegas
  3. Orlando
With respect to me, I pay my taxes conscientiously and visit Vegas at least once a year, but Orlando -- not so much. I tend to show up every few years, either due to my day job or as a brief stop in a multi-locale trip. And every time I come I realize that me and Orlando are cordially at odds.

I refuse to dump on Orlando as overly commercial. Yeah, it's there to squeeze and manipulate you for profit -- so what? Are you so incapable of self-control that you are Disney's bitch? When you complain about commercialism you are either saying you are being victimized, or other, less amazing people than yourself who don't know any better are being victimized. So you are either a mental weakling or an arrogant prick. I have no quarrel with Disney (or Universal Studios, or whatever else is in Orlando), I totally respect the hustle.

No, my quarrel with Disney/Orlando is more practical than theoretical. First, let me say I have never in my various visits mastered the roads. I don't know what it is. It might be lack of grid structure. It might be that they give you no warning about street names until you are right on top of the street, instead only labelling intersections by what resorts are in which direction (Google Maps doesn't really work that way). Whatever it is, I would bet that I have missed a solid 40% of every turn I've needed to make while driving in Orlando. Typically I realize I am in the wrong lane to late and I overshoot because I can't make it across the beautiful, smooth, eight lane streets in time. Then of course I have to drive into the next county before I find a legal way to turn around. Now, I have driven in cities all over the country; I have maneuvered winding, nameless mountain roads on Maui, I have navigated the on the wrong side of the road around Grand Cayman, and I have done both simultaneously on St. John. I have done high speed bumper-to-bumper in L.A. and low speed bumper-to-bumper in Manhattan. I have gone off road in Death Valley. I am well experienced driving in strange places. So while I know the designers of Orlando devoted an enormous amount of effort to road planning and they have public transport second to none, I still have to figure there are holes in their game.

Secondly, it is not a place for grown ups, and despite evidence to the contrary, I am a grown up . That is of course, my personal issue. For example, the one Disney park that is not totally oriented for kids is Epcot. At least there you have a long walk through various "countries" where you can sample the food and drink of the "natives". Now the food selections are fairly cliche but at least they are well made, and Disney wrote the book on service. The booze is not really special. But it's not like there is a place to gather and watch the game or any such thing. There is actually a pub in the "country" of England but it's absolutely not intended for gathering at the pub, more for showing you what a place for gathering looks like if you really wanted one, but Disney clearly can't imagine why would you want to do such a thing in a theme park. As limited as it was, it was packed with grown-ups.

And even this veteran of dropping unseemly money in Vegas balked at the $100 entry fee on top of $20 parking just to enter Epcot. Wowza.

There is an area of Disney that does work for adults -- Disney Springs, formerly Downtown Disney, formerly Pleasure Island, or sumething. There are interesting restaurants here, with actual bars including a very cool looking one that is part sushi restaurant part bowling alley called Splitsville. Over at Universal Studios I believe they have an analog called Citywalk. Anyway, these are cool spots, but nothing you can't get in many places.

The fact is I simply have no need to use Orlando as it was intended to be used: with the family in tow and purchasing multi-day passes, spending time in hour long lines for 5 minute rides, generating videos of the kids dancing around with the various characters. I have to admit the times in the past when I did this with Kate and Anna were worthwhile. So I am cautious to characterize it as "not for me" rather than a scam. Like I said, I respect the hustle.

So I was delighted to hightail it out of Orlando in the morning and be body surfing on Siesta Key in the afternoon. My new happy place in Florida is Siesta Key Village. Siesta Key regularly gets named the best beach in the Continental U.S. in this or that poll. It earns it. The sand is like talcum powder and the beach flows seamlessly into the Gulf very gradually and it undulates such that sandbars can form many yards out into the sea. Folks can wade out to them for fishing purposes giving the impression that they are standing on the surface of the water. Wildlife abounds; pelicans bomb the waters, and do seagulls. The fish respond by swimming close, but not too close, to human bathers. Geckos swarm on the heated asphalt, scurrying to safety when they sense footsteps.

The a short walk from the beach, the Village proper is a classic beach town; a walkable few corners with alternating open air bars, beach gear rental desks, and souvenir shops, but also some hidden gems -- a place to get breakfast in the back garden, a homey used bookstore. And of course, it has the advantage of being about fifteen minutes from the heart of Sarasota where you can get anything.

I spent a too-short couple of nights at Siesta Sands on the Beach, a terrific little hotel, convenient for a couple of longish beach walks and a an afternoon of amazing body surfing. Interestingly, this is the exact activity I engaged in 43 years ago during my first trip to Florida. And it was just as memorable (I hope).

From there the last stop on the tour was Crystal River, about an hour north of Tampa. Crystal River part of an area called the Nature Coast. You see, Florida has named coastal areas, like New York City has neighborhoods. The Gold Coast is the area around Miami, the Space Coast is named for Cape Canaveral, St. Pete is in the Sun Coast, etc. The Nature Coast constitutes much of the area of the Gulf where the peninsula curves into the panhandle. It is called Nature Coast because it is largely undeveloped, or at least what passes for undeveloped in Florida Coastal terms. It is as close as you can get to what might be referred to as "Old Florida" on the coast (there is still lots of "Old Florida" inland), although it is quickly morphing from genuine "Old Florida" to polished "Old Florida" for those who want to feel like they are in "Old Florida" but still have wi-fi and craft beer.

Crystal River and the Nature Coast in general, aren't typically renowned for their beaches. These coastal areas are mostly marshlands that give way to shallow waterways the weave through little island of mangrove and cypress -- areas often known as "flats". In the case of Crystal River, it is a spring fed bay area that flows in river form into the Gulf. The springs at the source emit perfectly clear waters at a steady 72 degrees year round. This makes for some interesting water-life, not the least of which are manatees. During the warm months, manatees wallow up and down the gulf coast, but when the gulf cools in the winter they migrate up Crystal River in search of those steady temperatures.

The best thing about manatee encounters is that they can be very interactive. The pups especially enjoy playing with humans -- grabbing with their flippers or gently nibbling at your swimwear. The adults are enormous and less inclined to interact, but quite docile. As they glide past you with long strokes of their tails you can gently pass your hand along their sides -- which feel a bit slimy. For the most part they just feed and go about their business pretty much ignoring the swarm of snorkelers floating around them. If Disney were to invent a wild animal, it would be the be the manatee -- big and goofy and completely harmless and occasionally friendly. No training or feeding required; it's just their affable nature.

This nature got the manatees population down pretty low in Florida back in the 80s. Less than 1000 were counted back then, but thanks to ferocious protection via three separate laws, the population has grown at least six-fold. Recent surveys suggest there are over 6000 in Florida and that is after a big die-off in the 2013 due to a bad "red tide" and a cold snap. The river guides in the area believe there are even more, often quoting populations as high as 8000. The guides themselves are equally protective of the manatees which is an interesting phenomenon. Like I said, this is Old Florida so the guides are not the smug hipster environmentalist do-gooders you see elsewhere. They are working watermen -- fishing guides, shrimpers, boat builders, etc., with beer guts and baseball caps. But they know the manatees habits, likes and dislikes, and even name the more familiar ones, and there is zero tolerance for harassment. They don't even let you were flippers while snorkeling in case you disturb them by kicking up silt.

Crystal River is worth a trip for the sole purpose of snorkeling with the manatees. It's a little over an hour north of Tampa/St. Pete and just shy of two hours west of Orlando. A day trip is quite possible, but it's better to stay the night which might give you the chance to kayak down the river and into Three Sisters Springs, an exquisite cove that could have been pulled right from a postcard of the Caribbean -- this is where that you get that heavenly clear water.

The settled area off the coast is loaded down with old school waterfront seafood restaurants with tiki bars and the best shrimp and grouper you have ever tasted. I do hope to get back here and do all this again sometime.

One quick sidelight to this trip. I spent a long afternoon in The Villages -- a curious place. The Villages is about 45 minutes northwest of Orlando. It is a planned community for active seniors centering around golf courses and an entirely prefabricated "downtown" area with shops and restaurants and even a town square. That makes it sound like an average retirement community, but it's something more in that it's absolutely huge. It counts as a full city -- in fact, it is the fastest growing city in the country. Entire communities have built up around it that do little but support the retirees, almost like a company town. Miles of paved pathways are maintained so folks can get anywhere in their little golf carts, some of which are tarted up like custom cars. The attraction of such a place for older folks is obvious. The Florida sunshine and low cost of living. There is virtually no crime. And the seniors I saw there all seemed quite happy and very active. I gather then tend to spend their mornings on the golf course and eventually make it over to the bars in "downtown" afterwards. They are a back-slapping easy laughing lot. Not surprising when you look at what they have there.

As you know, I have been on a kick in the past few years of following the assumption that if there is something everyone is doing, there is probably a reason for them doing it, even though the fashionable folks sneer at it. It was that kick that sent me to buy a big house in the exburbs. So as I gently begin considering options for my retirement it would seem The Villages would have to be in the mix. And yes, I could see myself retired here. During the more active years of my retirement I would expect to be travelling a fair amount so the proximity to Orlando works out. I don't golf, but I do drink, and certainly appreciate the conflict free style of living. There's a lot to recommend it. And I suspect the far end of my retirement, when I will be valuing convenient, high quality medical services most highly, would be well supported just due to market forces. What you want out of old age is to keep your life emotionally rich and stay intellectually engaged, but minimize the risks and downsides of general societal interaction. The Villages certainly can do that for you.

On the other hand I have always pictured myself somewhere like Siesta Key. I've always wanted to live on a beach. Again, the active phase of requirement would be well supported -- I'd probably buy a boat and proximity to Tampa and other airports are good for travel. Plus, the sunsets are not to be missed. I would likely be more engaged with the wider world, which sounds like a positive, but after a lifetime of engagement with the wider world it might be nice to not worry about locking my doors or fighting traffic. And often the images we have in our head, don't end up matching reality. This is why it can be good to follow the crowd who have already sorted that out.

I don't know. If I am still a fitness maniac like I am now, I really need a youth culture to have the facilities I want and there is no youth culture in Florida outside college towns and South Beach and maybe Orlando. Frankly, that would be an argument for staying put in Dexter, at least until phase two.

Anyway, I'm sure more communities like The Villages will be popping up. The population is aging dangerously fast. If you want to see the future, The Villages will give you a more accurate view than Epcot.

I just realized how often descriptions of my trips to Florida end up with ruminations on retirement and mortality. It's odd because they are usually full of activity and new discovery. The inevitable is, well...inevitable, but for now there is more to do and more to see and not just in Florida. This has been the enduring lesson of travel for me, since way back. Travel is motion and motion is life and life is the future. At least for now.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Month That Was - September 2015

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

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

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

[House and Home] Home, Bittersweet Home

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

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

Except.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Cars] Wheels Go 'Round

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

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

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

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

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

[Tech] Microsoft, I Can't Hold On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[TV] Mr. Robot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 04, 2015

The Month That Was - August 2015

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

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

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

And so I move inexorably back towards my ongoing life.

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

[Books] Book Look: Slouching Towards Kalamazoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[TV] Halt and Catch Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Cars] Deep Driverless

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

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

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

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

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