Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Month That Was - May 2015

I was struggling with topics for this month, not because I had too few, but because they all ended up being Get-Off-My-Lawns. They weren't outright condemnations of stuff since I know a Get-Off-My-Lawn for what it is: just a reaction to a change that I'm either uncomfortable with or don't understand. Still it's worrisome that everything I am coming up with topic-wise is of the same flavor.

The problem is that what dominates my attention is often stuff nobody could conceivably care about. I never talk about work, my day job. That is asking for trouble. I don't discuss my writing in progress because I have both practical and superstitious reasons for keeping quiet about it until I have something worth talking about. I devote a lot of time to exercise, and I agree with Haruki Murakami that a gentleman shouldn't go on about what he does to stay fit." So unless I troll the web for material, I can feel somewhat limited in what I can come up with to write about.

Still, even when I get tempted to retire this site I realize that writing it is good discipline, which I need. I was a far more disciplined writer when I had my old football column and was forced to come up with 3000-5000 entertaining words every week. Not better, just more disciplined. I also on occasion feel the need to refer to some older stuff here -- My Back Pages, if you will. It's kind of like reminiscing over an old photo album.

So I conclude pressing on with blogging is what I should do, even with only a vague sense of its value. It's good to re-evaluate things when you get the feeling a change would make the grass greener. Not just the large features of your life but also the day-to-day activities. Increasingly, I find that what I'm already doing is just fine and that my grass is plenty green. Which is why I want you off my lawn.


[TV] The Last of Mad Men
[Books] Unfinished Book: Assassination Vacation
[Rant] Robots Quietly Wait
[Tech] Technorambling
[Travel] Colorado Springs

[TV] The Last of Mad Men

My first thought on the finale was "That was some weak tea, dude." Upon further reflection, I've had second thoughts. The finale was all about character resolutions so let's go through them and see what we've got. (I am going to refer occasionally to Matt Weiner's recent interview on the topic.)

Peggy/Stan - This came out of the blue for me. At first viewing I thought it must be some kind of dream sequence. They were always fast friends and occasional frenemies (a word I hate) but I never sensed anything romantic between them, then all of a sudden…face-sucking devotion. Weiner said he had to be sold on this idea, and was, but I'm not. I think they would have been better served leaving their final exchange about being defined by work as their ending.

Joan - Joan is still awful. I know, she has become something of a feminist icon and is in some eyes symbolic of all the terrible things men have done to women, and so her final act -- doing exactly what she wants in defiance of yet another man who can't let her be her own woman, or something -- is probably supposed to be heroic. To this end they had to demonize her ex-husband one last time with an offhand comment lest we think she may be in the wrong for passing off the child of his cuckolding as his own. As you know I'm allergic to politics, so I just look at her personally. She treats people terribly and has since the very first episode. She tries to fish Peggy into her movie production scheme, which Peggy rightly wants no part of. She has always done exactly what she wanted and thought of her own fulfillment above anything else, including her own soul -- even now, when she has enough money to not live in fear and insecurity, she still has a need for authority and control above all else. Yes, I know I am probably the only one who sees it like this, but she's awful. Nice rack, though.

Betty - A true tragedy; something we rarely see in television. She finally found her footing in life -- going back to school. She is still cold and distant to her kids, although she had made minor strides to connect with them more. She was improving and learning. Then her life ends. There's really no lesson I can see in this other than bad things can happen at any time. No silver lining. No symbolic logic. Just flat out tragedy. That in itself took some dramatic courage, but also from a dramatic standpoint, I think she came to peace with dying a bit too quickly. We maybe could have used another episode to dramatize it rather than reducing it to "I watched my Mother die and I won't do that to you." (On the other hand, if it was extended I might be complaining about it dragging on. Sometimes there's no winning with me.)

Pete - came to the realization that his inescapable dissatisfaction with everyone and everything was the source of much of his problems; the key conversation being a dinner with his brother where he saw that it was a legacy from his father. (If there is an ongoing lesson from Mad Men, it's a Gatsby-esque the-past-is-always-with-you sort of thing.) He gets out of advertising and rebuilds his family and seems to finally be on the road to the success he's always wanted now that he's turned his back on everything he thought would bring him success. In contrast to Betty, this is the one true happy ending. Not sure if Pete deserved it, but it was nicely coherent and built up well over the final episodes.

Roger - seems to have finished up by marrying someone more childishly neurotic than himself. My guess would be this marriage is as doomed as his others. It's hard to say how Roger comes out in the end. I do hope he rids himself of that ludicrous mustache.

Sally - turns out to be the most successful of all. Faced with a dead Mom, an absentee Dad, and an uncertain future in the care of relatives, she is more defined by what she doesn't do. She doesn't follow Don's pattern and check out and disappear to Europe as she had planned. She doesn't follow Betty's pattern and distance herself emotionally and take it out on her brothers by spewing hostility. She simply starts caring for them and decides to help however she can. In that, there is hope that she has broken with her emotionally dysfunctional inheritance. This is the most uplifting of the endings.

Which brings us to…

Don - Where to begin? The past few episodes have seen him stripped of everything. Perhaps as the result of his perpetual habit of fleeing when things get uncomfortable. Or perhaps he purposefully (subconsciously) stripping himself of everything just to see what was really there. At the Esalen Institute he is even stripped of his charisma as they are not the sort to be influenced by his looks or his charmspeak. When his niece is facing having given up her baby, a situation essentially identical to Peggy in Season 2, he gives her the Peggy speech about how she must put it behind her and move on, how she will be surprised how much it will have "never happened." Unlike Peggy, his niece isn't buying it, offering a simple, "I don't think you are right about that."

Now Don has nothing. His job, so important to his identity, has been abandoned. His family, in the midst of the worst possible tragedy, doesn't want him involved. And now he cannot even move someone with his words. All the striving of his life, all the constructs he labored to build, and the relationships he tried so deftly to manage, and he is still Dick Whitman, terrified and desperate for any amount of real love, security, and acceptance. All his life he has been beating against the current, borne back ceaselessly into a childhood in a whorehouse.

Then he is in group with the Bald Guy. The Bald Guy has a great nuclear family, his job is stable and steady, and he is the least charismatic man alive. In other words, he's Don's exact opposite ( a truly inspired moment by Weiner). Yet he puts into words exactly how Don has felt his whole life -- on a shelf in the cold dark refrigerator, occasionally there is beautiful light and warmth from the outside, but it never takes. You always end up unselected and back in the cold dark. (I would cynically point out that while it might be nice to be chosen to be removed from the fridge, it just means you're going to get eaten.) And in this image of his opposite expressing his exact feelings, Don sees that he is not really alone in his angst, the bulk of humanity is in the same boat. In the being-middle-aged industry, we call this an existential crisis.

And so we get the Coke commercial, and there are a few schools of thought about it. In the dumbest school it in indicates Don has rejected his previous life completely become a hippie of some sort. I'll ignore that. Then there are two variations of Don returns to McCann and creates that commercial. One is that his journey was for naught and all he got out of it was a new, cynical angle to sell sugared water. That kind of invalidates the entire final season, if not the whole series. The school I adhere to is the one that says the journey from "It's toasted" to teaching the world to sing was a personal one. Don once described advertising as convincing people that they are OK. He didn't really think people, including those in his life, were OK. He knew he was not OK: all along he had felt as though he was not part of the world, that his loneliness and alienation were personal. Yet he discovered that the wars inside himself are the same sort as the wars inside everyone else, and so maybe people really were OK, and by extension so was he. Or if not OK, at least qualified to sing a happy song on the side of a mountaintop.

Throughout its run, the world has tried to box Mad Men into whatever social context it felt was urgent. Matt Weiner always defied them. He always saw the disconnect between the mythology and the reality of the times he was portraying. The reality is that the time of Mad Men, like all times, was personal, not political. There are no great societal lessons from Mad Men; it was a simply bold vision of life and lives, of people on their journeys. And because of that, in the tradition of great humanities, it shined a light on us.

That is some seriously potent tea, dude.

Addenda:
  • To expand on the pitfalls Weiner dodged, when you turn your series into a socio-political commentary it ceases to be about the time in which it is set and become about today. It's no longer about the characters and their relationship to their world, it's about our world's judgment on them. It also becomes shallow and small-minded and outright pompous. Fall into that pit and you get Masters of Sex or The Knick -- shows that create a minor splash then fall off the radar when it becomes clear they exist to just bolstering our progressive social mythology. On the other hand, the one historical series that hasn't tripped up on this account yet is AMC's Halt and Catch Fire, which I don't think has ever been on the radar. So go figure.
  • It's going to be interesting to see what happens to the actors involved in Mad Men, and if they ever escape the glow. Hamm has scored a couple of commercial films and probably has a leading-man-in-a-rom-com future. Elizabeth Moss looks on track for a career of "serious" roles after her work on stage and on Top of the Lake. But what about the others? I don't see any of them breaking big. Slattery and Kartheiser seem more like second banana character actors to me. Will Christina Hendricks ever be anything but a bombshell? This is not a comment on their acting skills, which are certainly top notch, but the Hollywood machine doesn't really care about that. It cares that when people look at you they see Pete Campell or Roger Sterling or a nice rack. As fine as they were, it's going to be a struggle for them to get a role outside their image, and if they do they are going to have to really nail it.

[Books] Unfinished Book: Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell

A confessed assassination junkie, Sarah Vowell travelled the country investigating sites of renown connected to U.S presidential assassinations -- Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. She is obviously quite knowledgeable on this topic and she writes in lively, clear, and entertaining prose. At first, it seemed like I was in for a good time with Assassination Vacation.

But nothing, and I mean nothing, got by without her striking a moral pose: a few innocuous words from a park ranger bring to mind the horrors of Guantanamo; Garfield's election is when the Republican party turned evil, etc. This is a scourge. God forbid anyone produce a creative work anymore without devoting a solid percentage of it to positioning it in the correct socio-political and ethical framework. It's depressing, but also understandable to a certain extent. Vowell is young (or was when she wrote this) and young people are simultaneously thoughtless and self-assured in their beliefs. I also blame Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for convincing an entire generation that smug political snark counts as witty insight.

In any event, I could tolerate the need of a 21st century progressive to pass sanctimonious judgment on folks from a century and a half ago when it came to the Lincoln assassination because that's the planted, inherited narrative we all have as our legacy. I was hoping when she got to the Garfield assassination she would let up and focus on the story. Nope. It got worse. She reached the point where the effort to identify and skip past the narrow-minded moralizing made it no longer worthwhile to continue. So I did something I have only done a handful of times in my life. I quit on a book before finishing.

Assassination Vacation got excellent reviews and was highly spoken of on a couple of forums I visit. That's how it came to my attention. Perhaps it would work better for people younger than me (that's most people) who expect, and possibly require, to know the moral positioning of the author of their reading material. For me, it's just an annoying distraction.

[Rant] Robots Quietly Wait

I belong to a facebook group that follows news and events and such for Las Vegas (no surprise) where recently someone started a thread about a minor dust-up in Sin City over the Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services. Traditional cabbies are feeling threatened; their union is preparing for battle against the upstarts. The cabbies response to this is a typically self-destructive protest: some are planning to park their cabs somewhere on The Strip for a couple of hours as a demonstration of...well, I don't know what. It's really just a form of acting out.

Here's the thing about cabbies in LV. They are cool enough individually, often clever conversationalists as they whip you around town. But every single one of them is on the make. They make heavy use of something called long-hauling, especially from the airport. LV is structured so that you can take either the freeway or city streets to get to your hotel. Taking the city streets is shorter distance-wise but because of traffic it takes about the same time as a longer route down the freeway. Naturally cabbies, who are paid by the mile always try to take the freeway. They do this all the time. The occasional tourist will never notice and only be out an extra few dollars (maybe one hand's worth of blackjack), but once you are a veteran visitor it really grates on you. This would easily be solved if the cab authority/city council would implement a zoning system with fixed rates. But I suppose the cab union or some group has wielded enough power to prevent it. Thus the attraction of Uber.

So through their own corruption the cabbies have pissed everyone off, and their response to Uber is to do something so profounding futile and childish that people will hate them even more. They just don't realize life as they have known it is already over. But they'll learn. Or maybe they won't. Maybe they'll just go through life with a victimized-by-the-man chip on their shoulder. Hey, it's easier on your self-esteem than admitting you're on the wrong side and adapting.

But that's not my point here. My comment in the facebook thread was "Long-term winner: Driverless cars." I don't think I need to go into that topic here as I have done it in depth in the past. But it made me think further about the automated world we are barreling toward. In the age of automation what would a trip to Vegas be like? More specifically, at what points will I actually need to interact with a human being?

I certainly don't need to see people at the airport. Exit the plane, take the shuttle to the terminal, pick up my bags, and grab a cab. I already don't have anyone involved. If I have a driverless cab that gets me to the hotel, then no humans needed. What about when I get a rental car? National already lets me just walk to the lot and get my own car. I have to check out with some guy before exiting, but he does nothing that can't be automated.

At the hotel, no reason I couldn't check in and have my room assigned at a kiosk. I rarely need help with my bags, but I have no doubt baggage handling could be automated. Even if I couldn't get direct transport to my room, I bet it could be automated at least to the point of having your bags waiting in a central area on your floor.

Having checked in I might want to hit the casino, where there will be no dealers, all the games will be electronic. Maybe you could even use your phone to play and pay for your chips with Apple pay.

Dining out is an interesting conundrum. Certainly, I would have no problem ordering my food from a touch screen at the table. Food could be delivered via a robot cart of some sort, but I suspect a lot of folks would want an actual person to talk to about suggestions for food and wine and such. That may become a sign of an upscale restaurant -- real, live servers. That is to say, you want to talk to someone, you'll pay for it. But you don't need it. The genius of buffets is just that: minimizing server labor.

Entertainment -- ah here we go. I have no interest in seeing a robot Cirque du Soleil. I already know machines can do things people can't. I want what people can do. And however perfect a robot might mimic Frank Sinatra's voice and phrasing and emotion -- the robot is not feeling it. Mimicry is novelty not art, otherwise Elvis impersonators would be as big as Elvis.

So I got pretty far before we found something people had to do. Now the response to this might be that while I didn't have to interact with any people, there were people behind the scenes that had to come through for things to work smoothly. I only agree with that a little bit. You need people but not that many.

You need systems people to maintain the automation certainly, but that's done wholesale. That is to say, you need mechanic when your car breaks, but not every car needs its own mechanic. So you need driverless cab repair services and perhaps even car routing assistance if things get fouled up, but that doesn't replace the number of cabbies no longer needed. And in that robot restaurant, you need people to resolve problems, address complaints, and offer assistance to the overly confused, but you don't need a server for every five or six tables. You've gone from needing a staff of twenty to cover the floor to a staff of two. Probably something similar going on in the back of the house.

So there are a couple of clues about how to position yourself for a career in the future. Creative work seems relatively safe. Anything that requires abstract thinking is good, too. Being good at dealing with uncertainty in general and when problem solving in particular -- like diagnosing a failure in an electronic poker system -- is going to be good too. But if your job just requires diligence, not wit, you're in trouble. If you can do it by following a checklist, you're toast.

And let's speak bluntly, IQ and creativity, the two human qualities most required for employment in this future world are already considered elitist qualities. And let's be even more blunt, they cannot be learned. Through diligent effort you might be able to increase your IQ a point or two or learn some tricks that can provide something approaching minor inspiration, but for the most part if you aren't born with brains or creativity, you're probably not going to acquire them. There is definitely going to be a class warfare aspect to this.

One thing we have in our favor as we approach this is our unmatched skill for hypocrisy. We can claim sincere beliefs in things while acting oppositely, with a straight face. For instance we might simply make it an honorable thing to be left behind. Instead of neglecting or denigrating folks who can't keep up, allow them the badge of honor of entitled righteousness. We do that to some extent already with virtually every disaffected group and many individuals today. Those who have adapted and overcome the difficulties of the world to find success find it in their interest to tell those who haven't "It's not your fault, we are in the wrong; it's us, not you, but we're trying to fix the situation -- here's a program (protect you industry) or a social norm (perceived authenticity) to prove you are of value" even though they wouldn't change places for anything. The underlying world goes on as it will and those who can't achieve in reality are mollified by the ego massage. The traffic in drugs will be permitted, but controlled, and Don Corleone will give up protection in the East, and there will be the peace.

That sounds dark and negative, but honestly, it's a feature not a bug. The desire to have other people feel of value is real, despite the hypocrisy of it -- partly for moral/religious reasons (they, too, have an immortal soul, no different from yours) and partly because we all know luck plays a role in the world and the folks who have "made it" know they could find themselves on the other side faster than they think.

The alternative to this self-worth management is to force the world to stop -- to say "That's far enough, no more progress, we're happy as we are ever going to be. No robots allowed." There is a naive, egalitarian appeal to that but it hides a greater evil. To stop the world from going the way it wants will require an exercise of authority unseen outside North Korea and brings costs beyond anyone's expectations (see: The War on Drugs). I do not know if the age of automation will bring greater overall happiness to the world, but I know stopping it will make the world much less happy.

[Tech] Technorambling

I see the laptop I selected a couple of years ago, the Dell XPS 13, is still discussed on the various review sites as the laptop-to-beat in most comparisons. It's a good one, I'll admit, and given my history with Dell it's a significant admission. I had battery go bad a few months ago, but was able to replace it inexpensively on my own. Lately the power cord has been flukey, but if that gets out of hand it's another easy replacement. I bought it from the Microsoft Store as part of their Signature Series -- they resell laptops that they have tuned and cleaned all the bloatware from -- which was another wise decision. All in all, it's worked out well, so I can readily recommend you make the same choice if in the market for a laptop. Although I must admit the new Surface looks awfully sweet. If I was in the market it would be the only competition for an XPS at this point. The Surface lacks the XPS 13's performance, but excels in convenience and flexibility.

In truth, I could probably get away with a $200 Chromebook of some sort. Everything I do is on the web. Writing, banking, shopping, reading, music -- all of it streamed. (If my internet connection goes down I'm pretty much dead. I have to resort to filling my time with housework.) The only software I run locally anymore is for editing photos. And while my photography has taken a back seat to time working on the house the past two or three years, that appears to be changing since I just purchased an new DSLR.

My old camera was a Nikon D50. I was a big ungainly thing, no image stabilization to speak of, but when I nailed it with that camera I was able to take some astounding pictures. Sadly it suffered from a known issue that caused it to have some sort of especially bad dust spots, which I had to remove from all my pics using Photoshop. Nikon eventually offered free cleaning and inspection to everyone in an attempt to resolve this, but by that time the shutter mechanism had given up the ghost. I probably could have sent it in to Nikon and told them to fix everything, but by then my frequent traveling was coming to a temporary end, and technology had advanced quite a bit making it fairly obsolete. So I left it on a shelf, where it still sits.

I picked up a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot a while back, only to find out the picture quality is really not that different from my phone. One important thing I have come to learn is that a larger sensor makes for better quality photos (this is not the number of megapixels, but the actual physical size of the sensor in the camera.) Sensor size is the primary difference between a quality camera and something consumer grade. Another thing I learned was that zoom is not that important, in fact most serious photographers spend their money on high quality fixed lenses called "primes" often trying to mimic exactly what that eye sees. Beyond a certain point zoom is detrimental to quality, especially for ad hoc photography, which is pretty much all I do. Lastly, I learned about taking photos in "RAW" mode -- creating an uncompressed image that allows more flexibility in editing. These RAW images can then be saved to JPG/PNG for presentation. That eliminated most point-and-shoots, which have smaller sensors and focus on gaudy megapixel and zoom numbers and don't support RAW.

So after I settled into the house I got back in the market for a quality camera. It's really quite confusing. There are new formats, differing standards, a lot has changed, but it's still safe to focus on sensor size. The smallest sensor you want for serious photography -- by which I mean a serious amatuer or hobbyist -- is called APS-C. This is the one you will get in most entry-level and intermediate DSLRs and also in some of the newer more compact formats.

The next size up is referred to as "full frame" and at this point you start to get into professional level territory. Naturally, having learned my lessons about image quality, I thought I should go full frame but in the end I couldn't justify the cost. The cheapest full-frame I found was the Sony A7 which, with lens, would have run me no less than $1200. I simply cannot delude myself into believing I am at the $1200 camera level as a photographer.

So I scaled back to APS-C and search for the cheapest one and happened upon a dealer on eBay selling a Canon EOS Rebel T5i DSLR for under $500 with a short zoom lens (maybe 3x). That's a fair amount less than my old Nikon cost years ago, and it's probably many times the camera at least. Ain't progress grand?

Now it's up to me to re-ignite my photography hobby, which has been dormant the past few years, as evidence by my smugmug page. I just hope the house cooperates.

[Travel] Colorado Springs

How long has it been since I did a travel post? Too damn, that's how long. So I was in Colorado Springs, for work of course, but that didn't stop me from snagging an extra weekend for some exploration.

Colorado Springs is interesting in that it is clearly someplace you go for a specific activity. Not exclusively recreation -- that activity might be attending the Air Force Academy -- but usually recreation. And outside of the recreational centers the place approximates one of the nondescript Detroit suburbs I am so familiar with -- anonymus strip malls, aging middle class neighborhoods, and office buildings peppered between the major arteries, except with mountains in the background. But the recreational centers, which are available in spades, are a delight.

First let me say that if you ever visit Colorado Springs the place to stay is The Broadmoor, a legendary resort with old school service values. The Broadmoor complex is enormous including a small lake and some nature trails. The grounds are spectacularly landscaped and maintained, and all the buildings are architectural in a style I would simply call Old World Class. It put me in mind of a place I visited years ago, the Greenbrier. The target market is wealthy folks with a strong attachment to golf (there are three courses). High-end luxury by any standard. Naturally, I did not stay here. It was where the conference I was attending was running, so I did get to spend the bulk of my day within it's confines. It would be tough to overstate the exceptionalism. If you get the chance and have the money do stay there.

Colorado Springs is all about the outdoors and the prime attraction is Pike's Peak. There are a couple of ways to get up the mountain. The obvious one is to drive -- it's 19 miles at typically 25-30 mph so if you don't stop you'll reach the top in less than an hour. But you do want to stop. There are numerous overlooks and roadside rest stops, all of which have remarkable views of the surrounding miles. The second way is to take the cog rail. This is a train/shuttle that slowly carries you up the mountain at a leisurely pace such that you get views the whole time. It stops at the top to allow for exploration and, presumably, trinket shopping. Round trip is about 3 hours. I'm guessing it' a nice relaxing way to get up Pike's Peak. Here's a good overview of the rail trip. As for me, I drove. It's a pleasant trip up with a couple of nice stopping points that you will miss on the railway. It is much less of a white knuckler than many other winding mountain roads I've driven in the southwest, especially with the low speed limits. Nothing to fear here.

The third way up would be to hike or bike. I would love to bike up but it would probably kill me, not just because of the inclination but also the near complete lack of air about 12000 feet. I exaggerate, but only slightly. Above the timberline, simply exiting the car and walking across the street labored my breathing. (Here's a potential dream trip for me. Ship my bike out for two weeks in Colorado Springs to acclimate and make multiple summit attempts.)

The other thing about Pike's Peak is that any time outside the summer months you run the risk of the weather working against you. At some point earlier in the year, the road had opened all the way to the summit, but a series of snowstorms had the road close above 12,000 feet, so I never did summit the damn thing. But I was lucky in a way. After I turned to head back down another storm hit and the subsequently closed the road down to about 10,000. Win some, lose some. Pike's Peak is recommended if you are in the area. Might even be worth the trip down from Denver (about an hour-ish).

Closer to town -- in fact, pretty much right in town -- is the Garden of the Gods. A park featuring winding paths among massive stone outcroppings. Very cool looking, and a haven for rock climbers. You can see them spidering up any number of faces. The folks here are very lucky t have such a spot within a fifteen minute drive of most of them I would think. The trails are ideal for running along. It's one of those things you would show someone to explain why you liked living here after they got an eyeful of the mid-grade suburban sprawl. Yes, the rocks here are not Utah level rocks, but they are a sight. Another one recommended.

The final event of the weekend was a 10K. It consisted of about 4 miles up the side of the mountain, then turn around and finish in a downhill sprint. I don't know what possessed me to want to do this. Since there is no air to speak of, why would I want to engage in an activity that required me to breathe more of it? But there I was as the sun was coming up lined up and ready to go. It was as bad as I thought. By mile 3 I was alternating running and walking. By mile 4 I was just walking until I got to the turnaround then, through the magic of gravity, I was flying down to the finish. The great thing about this race was that it finished at the zoo. You cross the finish line and walk through the run expo and there you are face to face with a giraffe. I was unsure why he was looking at me like that, perhaps he thought I was an idiot to be running around without any air to breathe, when a young child leaped in front of me with a clump of lettuce and fed him directly from his hand. At the Cheyenne Mountian Zoo you can feed the giraffes by hand.

But the big thing I got from this visit was a re-ignition of my desire to travel to new places. Not necessarily exotic places, just new. Travel-wise I've been running on rails the past few years. Vegas and Florida, long weekends to Chicago and Mackinac Island. As much as I love comfortable escapes, I need to go have experiences like this. Things I haven't done and seen before. Like I said, not epic, just new. Let the planning begin.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Month That Was - April 2015

Life's a swirling vortex at the moment so you get a bit of a short shrift this month. Only two items, but they are both long, because I place absolutely no value on your time. Spring is upon us and that means chores. Work has gotten rather busier and is requiring some travel. Agonizingly slow progress in writing. Kinda same ol' same ol', isn't it? Except there's more of it. Hopefully back to more content next month.

[Books] Book Look: The World of Yesterday
[TV] Again, Toob Notes

[Books] Book Look: The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig

As I have pointed out occasionally, I have come, in the past few years, to appreciate the past in a way I never did before. I used to see the past as a mythology, the same shallow mythology that is passed down to most Americans that frames the past as a black and white silent film or a withered old painting; a two-dimensional world filled with an unfamiliar predecessor of humanity. This mythology is, not surprisingly, self-serving. It is morphed to demonstrate both our progressive greatness and our honor stolid traditions as required to support whatever the bias of the mythologizer, in spite of any internal contradictions.

This changed for me when Mad Men came to TV. (That's an odd thing to cause an epiphany, but there you are.) Here was the world of some of my earliest memories, painstakingly reproduced, and the dominant contemporary culture responded to it as if it was some freak show filled with ignorant cavemen. The light bulb went on over my head. First, it was obvious that I had been spun out of mainstream culture, as often happens to folks in middle age. This really didn't bother me because I have always been a contrarian sort, and mainstream culture can suck it. The cool thing it did for me was to make me lose adherence to the mythology. If the world looked at a past I knew to be as complex and deep as the present and chose to see it as shallow and backward, how could I justify doing the same to times before mine. History went from black and white cathode ray, to full-on IMAX 3D.

In this context The World of Yesterday has been a joy to read. Although sold as an autobiography, it is predominantly an overview of how life was lived during the lifetime of the author, Stefan Zweig. Zweig keeps the focus on the world and the events of the times rather than his personal life -- he was twice married but barely mentions either spouse.

Zweig was born in 1881, in Austria, and died in 1942 in the midst of WW2. Thus, his life starts in what is the late stages of one of the longest eras of peace Europe had ever known (there had been only small skirmishes post-Napoleon), a time that has been declared a gloriously free and stable age by virtually anyone who documented experiencing it. From that point, his world descends into the aimless slaughter of WW1 and the evil carnage of WW2.

(Quick note: because Zweig writes so clearly and accessibly, this review is going to consist mainly of quotes.)

From last month I quoted Zweig's description of the end of the 19th century and I'll repeat it here:
In its liberal idealism, the nineteenth century was honestly convinced that it was on the direct and infallible road to the best of all possible worlds. The people of the time scornfully looked down on earlier epochs with their wars, famines and revolutions as periods when mankind had not yet come of age and was insufficiently enlightened. Now, however, it was a mere matter of decades before they finally saw an end to evil and violence, and in those days this faith in uninterrupted, inexorable 'progress' truly had the force of a religion.
...
Science, the archangel of progress, had worked all these miracles. Social welfare was also proceeding apace; from year to year more rights were granted to the individual, the judiciary laid down the law in a milder and more humane manner, even that ultimate problem, the poverty of the masses, no longer seemed insuperable. Sociologists and professors competed to make the lives of the proletariat healthier and happier--no wonder that century basked in its own sense of achievement and regarded every decade as it drew to a close as the prelude to a better one.
Notice how the vision and language of progressive idealism has not changed for probably 150 years. This description could be a template for every politician, journalist, community activist, college freshman, or other loudmouth who speaks of the glories of the coming age when their pet ideas have finally triumphed. Are we there yet?

How about the generation gap, surely that came about with the brave new world in the beautiful 1960s, right? Well, no.
None of these young people believed their parents, the politicians or their teachers. Every state decree was read with distrust. The postwar generation [post-WW1] emancipated itself with a sudden, violent reaction...Anyone or anything not their own age was finished, out-of-date, done for...School councils...were set up, with young people keeping a sharp eye on the teachers and making their own changes to the curriculum, because children wanted to learn only what they liked. Girls had their hair cut in such short bobs that they could not be told from boys; young men shaved off their beards to look more like girls. Homosexuality and lesbianism were very much in fashion, not as a result of a young person's instinctive drives, but in protest against all the old traditional, legal and moral kinds of love.
Oh my. Zweig insightfully suggests that all this disorderly liberty contributed to Hitler's rise, keenly noting that the fascist rises not from creeping oppression, but in reaction to chaos.

Then there is this regarding the written word:
The definite article was omitted, sentence structure reversed, everything was written in abbreviated, telegraphese style, with excitable exclamations.
Sadly, they had yet to discover the glory of a 140 character limit.

One of the interesting aspects of Zweig's life is that he encountered seemingly most of the renowned artists, writers, and thinkers of his day, though many the names are now unrecognizable to the contemporary world. His description of the life of these figures is quite different from how we would picture a life in the arts today.
"To all outward appearance, the life of these Impressionists whose work now fetches tens of millions of dollars was just like the life of a petit bourgeois living on a small income--a little house with a studio built on to it, none of the showy splendors of the grand villas...The writers whom I soon came to know personally lived as simply as the artists. Most of them held minor public office in a job that did not call for much strenuous work...For instance, they might be appointed as librarians...others were doctors...or ran a little picture gallery...or taught in grammar schools...none of them were pretentious enough to base their lives on the independent pursuit of their artistic inclinations, like those who came after them and had inflated ideas of themselves as a result of films or large print runs of their works."
I am reminded of one of Jerry Pournelle's comments from long ago, that he saw no reason a writer shouldn't have a day job. Of course, I suppose it could be argued that for most people in the arts, self-promotion is their day job.

He gives a harrowing, yet strangely upbeat, account of the times of hyperinflation after the end of WW1.
Strangest of all is the fact that today, with the best will in the world, I cannot recall how we managed to keep house in those years, when everyone in Austria had to raise thousands and tens of thousands of crowns...just to survive, and then had to do it again and again. We got used to the chaos and adapted to it. Logically, a foreigner who did not see those days first hand would probably imagine that at a time when an egg cost as much in Austria as the price of a luxury car in the past, and the later fetched four billion marks in Germany--roughly the basic value of all the buildings in the greater Berlin area before inflation--women would be rushing through the streets tearing their hair, shops would be empty because no one could afford to buy anything, and theatres and other places of entertainment would have no audiences at all. Astonishingly, however, it was just the opposite. The will for life to go on proved stronger than the instability of the currency. In the midst of financial chaos, daily life continued almost unchanged. Individuals, of course, felt great deal of change--the rich were impoverished when their money in the bank and government securities melted away, speculators grew rich. But regardless of individual fates, the flywheel of the mechanism kept turning the same old rhythm. Nothing stood still...the baker made bread, the cobbler made boots, the writer wrote books, the farmer cultivated land, trains ran regularly...the bars and theatres were full to overflowing. For with the daily loss of the value of money...people came to appreciate true values such as work, love, friendship, art and nature all the more, and in midst of disaster the nation a whole lived more intensely than ever before, strung to a higher pitch.
Whoa. So much to comment on in that paragraph. First, our underwater mortgages don't hold a candle to real financial chaos. Second, it seems that in certain circumstances financial chaos doesn't lead to social chaos. Would our world of service jobs and energy dependence and class envy and entitlement fare as well? Gotta give this one to the cavemen.

This one is self-serving, but it's another observation that you could have just as easily read right here on this blog.
A book really satisfies me only if it maintains it's pace page after page, carrying the readers breathlessly along to the end. Nine-tenths of the books that come my way seem to be padded out with unnecessary descriptions, too much loquacious dialogue and superfluous minor characters; they are just not dynamic and exciting enough. I get impatient with many arid, slow-moving passages even in the most famous classic masterpieces, and I have often suggested a bold idea of mine to publishers--why not bring out a series of great works of international literature...with the unnecessary parts cut?
Heh, heh, heh. Preach it, brother.

When Hitler's takeover of Austria was imminent Zweig was travelling in the U.S. and South America. (He was one of the wise and/or lucky Jews who escaped.) That time generated this wonderful snippet.
But travelling, even as far as to other worlds under other stars did not allow me to escape Europe and my anxieties. It seems almost like Nature's fierce revenge on mankind that the achievements of technology through which we have taken her mysterious forces into our own hands simultaneously destroy the soul. The greatest curse brought down on us by technology is that it prevents us from escaping the present even for a brief time. Previous generations could retreat into solitude and seclusion when disaster struck; it was our fate to be aware of everything catastrophic happening anywhere in the world at the hour and second when it happened.
Why didn't he just log off Twitter and shut off his cell phone? Oh wait, this was 1938. TV was barely on the radar at that point, yet a similar rant is written on some blog just about everyday today. Could it be that our problems aren't so new and special after all? And how far back do you have to go to find solitude? Do you suppose the Neanderthals had it right?

Should you read The World of Yesterday? I found it so rewarding that I can't say no. But I also can't deny it will have only niche appeal. If you have the same historical curiosities I have you shouldn't miss it. If you don't really have historical interests or are comfortable with the mythology (no reason not to be) it's going to be tough to appreciate. Although there are some bits of interest from an artistic angle, including encounters with Strauss, H.G. Wells, Shaw, and Freud, they will not add much to your understanding of them or their work. But I found the book so rewarding that I can't imagine a thoughtful read not yielding pleasure.

The arc of Zweig's life was ultimately tragic. He was born into a the comfort, peace and stability of the centuries-old Habsburg Empire and saw the world get progressively more bloody and savage through the course of his years, all in the interest of progress. He died a stateless Jew, effectively on the run from Hitler in 1942, never seeing the end of the 20th century horrors. Had he lived to 135, he would have found today rather familiar.

[TV] Again, Toob Notes

Like last month, only different.
  • The last scene of The Sopranos is turning into a modern day Mona Lisa smile. The sort of thing everyone has a comment on, everyone sees what they want in it. We (by `we' I mean weird people on the internet, like me) still ruminate over what it all means -- is Tony dead or alive, what did it all mean? The only one who actually knows is David Chase and he just recently gave his most revealing interview about it. I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed. He has said in the past that Tony living or dying was not the point. I think that was pretty easy for most thoughtful people to see from the get-go. But there had to be more meaning, didn't there? The odd cuts; the innocuous, yet loaded dialogue; the staging; Meadow being late, the man in the Members Only jacket, the Cub Scouts -- it all had to mean something. It just had to.
    Now we have the most detailed description from David Chase yet, and it didn't help much. Could we have read-in all the symbolism we saw?

    The unusual camera cuts that made it seem like Tony was watching himself, or evaluating his life, were just an homage to the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Meadow trying to squeeze into the parking doesn't seem to have any special meaning, whereas I took it as a symbol of her finally fitting in with her parents lifestyle after all her youthful rebellion. "Don't Stop Believin'" wasn't a commentary on the ongoing need for self-delusion in humanity, it was just an kindly exhortation to never give up on living.

    Sorry but I can't accept this. I'm sticking with my own interpretation of what was meant. I think I'd know better.
  • A well done series finale can truly elevate the series by tying up the core philosophy of the show, although usually they just become an orgy of closure -- see Boardwalk Empire for a case in success, see Dexter for a failure. Although there was a fair amount of closure throughout the last season of Justified, but in the end -- it was less closure and more summation. Oh, we have a good idea "where they are now," but by no means are their conflicts closed.

    Boyd is in jail and has resumed playing preacher. It seems like a dead end, but this is Boyd. He is no doubt working hard on an escape plan. Ava seems to have escaped Harlan alive. She's got Boyd's child and seems to be living an idyllic life in hiding. Raylan believes she's out of the criminal life, but if push came to shove, you have the sense she'd wouldn't hesitate to step back in the game, probably in the name of providing for her son. But Raylan buys her story, or seems to, and actually goes to some lengths to make sure Boyd believes she is dead so if he does escape he won't come after her. Does Boyd believe Raylan's lie? Raylan goes to far as to bring the sacred "We dug coal together" oath in support of it. Who knows? Elmore Leonard characters never stop being Elmore Leonard characters. (Do I smell a movie sequel? The door is open.)

    The essential story of Justified -- which doesn't get enough notice -- is Raylan's daddy issues. Arlo's shadow looms large over everything Raylan did in his life, even in death. Justified's human story is of Raylan trying to get control of that. In that sense, the real climax of Justified came earlier in the season when Raylan found Arlo's "secret cabin" which, as a child, had all sort of scary myth surrounding it. It was empty. All that awe and mystery, and yet there was nothing to it. Its summation is when Raylan doesn't but a bullet in Boyd like a cowboy would; he just arrests him like a responsible cop would. And so Raylan made progress in sorting himself out. He's not at rest. He's not a man in complete possession of his psyche. But, he's better than he was. He's trying to do well by his daughter, and generally being less of a dick.

    And so Justified doesn't really close. It just rounds out this phase of events nicely. Nobody is too much different than when they started, just enough to call it a character arc. Which is about perfect.

    I will miss that dialogue, though. I wish real life sounded like that.
  • I will not however, miss the dialogue in Daredevil, which is not to say I didn't enjoy the show. When I was a nerdy, awkward, 13-year-old lover of Marvel comics, Daredevil was my guy. I read the bulk of all the Marvel comics, but my key faves were the teams: Avengers (became the best action movie ever) , the Defenders (coming to TV, I understand), and the Fantastic Four (They mess of those movies, didn't they? How can you mess up the Silver Surfer?). I never really got attached to the X-Men for some reason. Daredevil, was the one solo guy I did connect with. I'm not sure what it was that attracted me to Daredevil. I could say it was his closeness to everyday humanity -- he just had some training and amplified senses, no world crushing superpowers, no immortality -- but who can explain why a fearful and sensitive child makes the connections he does.

    Anyway, Netflix's new Daredevil series got a lot right. They got the tone right -- gritty and more graphic than your standard Marvel fare. They got the villain right -- Vincent D'Orofino should get an Emmy nomination for his wonderfully shaded Kingpin portrayal. They got the style right -- the settings and fight scenes were striking to say the least. But, oh, the dialogue was painful! Riddled with exposition and cliche, it was overly long and every time two characters got in a room and started talking the pace of the show fell through the floor. The actors did their level best with it, but they really have to sort that out for season two or this will fall off the watch list very quickly. That would be a shame because there is a ton of potential in this show.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Month That Was - March 2015

Apart from surviving another winter (my 55th) the life demarcation of the month was my mom's 90th birthday. She survived a childhood during the Great Depression, which makes our houses-underwater crisis look like paradise; served with the Waves in WW2, the sacrifices of which make our long lines at airport security seem like fly spec on the window; and she raised me and didn't end up in therapy, which should have earned her a Nobel Prize. She still drives to the store, still sits on her condo board, and still goes out to eat with her friends, and seems as happy as can be. Because of her I am convinced that, if you can stay relatively healthy, independent, and engaged with the world, happiness increases with age, not the reverse. Next target: triple digits.

Apart from that, still writing, still working, still pushing my way through life as best I can. I am 36 years behind my mom.

[Books] Book Look: The Devotion of Suspect X
[Rant] Fraternal Disorder
[Tech] The End of an Era
[TV] Latest Toobage
[Books] The Mirror of Yesterday

[Books] Book Look: The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino

For me, the toughest part of writing a novel is the plotting. I really struggle with a generating a complex, interwoven, causal series of actions to get my point across.So when I come across a book like The Devotion of Suspect X, which is exquisitely plotted, I am doubly impressed.

Yatsuko is a divorced mother working hard to raise her daughter solo. She is paid a visit by her scumbag ex-husband and things turn violent. In the process she kills her ex as he is assaulting her daughter. She frets that she is now a murderer and her fate is sealed, but her next door neighbor, Ishigami, overhears what happened and, as he has a secret love for Yatsuko, he takes it upon himself to hide the crime. Ishigami, it turns out, is a mathematical genius who uses all his clever intellect to arrange things so that even though suspicion might fall on Yatsuko, there will be so much misdirection and uncertainty that nothing will come of it. Unfortunately, the police are in the habit of employing Manabu Yukawa, a physics professor and former classmate of Ishigami, to assist in these sorts of investigations. His nickname is Detective Galileo, so you can expect a high order game of cat and mouse.

The novel doesn't necessarily dodge all of the shortcomings typical in police procedurals. There are potential inaccuracies: I am not familiar with criminal legalities in Japan but I find it hard to believe that a woman who kills a man while he is assaulting her daughter would be charged with murder like any other criminal. Perhaps there is no such thing as justifiable homicide in Japan? But this is required to trigger the action. Much of the investigation is based on “evidence" no person would actually think of as connected to the case. But again, this helps keep the narrative moving. There is manipulation: Detective Galileo keeps secrets from his colleagues (and therefore us) until it is dramatically appropriate to reveal them. And the characters, at least at the outset, are fairly cliched. This is all de rigeur for a police procedural and in no way out of line or jarring in this book.

And there is so much more on the positive side. First and foremost the story really moves. There are no dead spots. At no point was I thinking, as I often do, that the length could easily be cut in half. It is an exceptionally well paced book; tautly written and, presumably, tautly translated; that is half the battle in genre writing. And as I mentioned before the plotting is extraordinary. The step-by-step actions and reaction is interwoven seamlessly with the steady, teasing stream of reveals.

But the icing on the cake is the ending. The characters, adequately drawn for most of the book, suddenly take on a deeper humanity that brings a real emotional effect. Our protagonists go from hopeful of total escape, to acceptance of lesser suffering, to total devastation. Law is enforced, but Justice is only partially served. Unlike most books where the ending is almost a letdown, here the ending elevates the story above the crowd.

Should you read The Devotion of Suspect X? Yes. I can't think of anyone who wouldn't enjoy it, either as a connoisseur of well-written police procedurals or just for an engrossing beach read. Enjoy.

[Rant] Fraternal Disorder

When I was in college I belonged to a fraternity (this was at The University of Michigan). Of course, my fraternity was not anything like your stereotype. I don't recall many formal parties and, since we were really a bunch of low-end slackers, it wasn't like the sororities were remotely interested in spending time with us. A significant portion of our membership were there because they really had nowhere else to go, and because nobody complained too loudly about how much weed they smoked. I won't mention which fraternity so as not to embarrass anyone who has tried to lead an upstanding life since then.

So here's my SAE (Sigma Alpha Epsilon) story from thirty years ago. Every year there was a festival called Greek Week where all the frats and sororities on campus got together and held silly little competitions and various events, mostly for charity. Supposed to be a fun thing. Since there were many more frats than sororities, each team consisted of two frats and and one sorority, randomly drawn. One year, my frat, probably the least desirable one on campus, got teamed with SAE and some sorority I don't even remember. Needless to say the SAE Hitler Youth were not happy about this; it must have been a source of great shame to have to been associated with us. At one point a couple of them stormed over to our house and told us we were going to do whatever they told us, when they told us, or we were going to get our asses kicked. This was the mentality of these idiots.

So when I heard about the racist video from their Oklahoma chapter and I realized they were going to have the full weight of righteous progressive society dropped on them from on high, my gut reaction was that it couldn't have happened to a more deserving bunch of guys.

I don't really have a SAM (Sigma Alpha Mu) story. In my time, they were thought to be a decent sort; good Jewish boys, and such. Although SAM hadn't been exclusively Jewish for decades, it was still predominantly Jewish at the time. I have to think that changed because -- and this is not intended as a backhanded bigotry -- most of the Jewish people I know are way too intelligent to trash a ski resort in a drunken rampage.

Anyway, both those places -- the Oklahoma SAE chapter and the Michigan SAM chapter -- are history now. That's probably appropriate. Although I will say in a half-hearted defense of SAM, it's really hard to cause 400K in damages in a weekend, even for frat boys. My guess is the figure is closer to 100K and 400K is just the start of negotiations.

In further mitigation of outrage, I'll just point out that fraternities are an easy target; they are reviled in popular culture and you will see them get painted with a broad brush by people who would go into a fit of moral indignation if you engaged in such stereotyping in any other circumstances. All fraternities aren't full of drunken, spoiled brats who drug and rape coeds with impunity. All chapters of a given fraternity aren't the same from campus to campus or era to era. It's entirely likely that the SAE chapter at Michigan is no longer peopled with Hitler Youth. It is certainly true that my fraternity at Michigan is no longer filled with layabouts and scoundrels. Indeed, those times had changed before I even left.

But I have to say, given the events of the past few weeks I have never been happier to have been a part of a brotherhood of low-end, bong-hitting, undesirable slackers. Whatever our shortcomings at the time, at least we did no harm.

[Tech] End of an Era

Over the years I have documented my various misadventures with technology of all sorts, but through it all there had been one item that consistently merited praise. It will sound strange, but the most pleasing and reliable piece of technology I have ever owned is my SMC router. After going through a couple of name brand routers that failed pretty much the instant their warranty was up, I ended up with the SMC based on a review I read on NewEgg. I first plugged it in maybe ten years ago, it worked well, and it continued to work well, without fail. No phone, no tablet, no laptop, no TV -- no piece of technology has been as loyal and stress-free as my little router.

So imagine my shock a few months ago when I suddenly lost my wi-fi. I fiddled around a bit and eventually resetting the router got me back on-line. Just a fluke, I told myself. But then it happened again a month or so later. Then it started happening a bit more frequently. At this point I have to reset it every week to ten days on average. Not bad, really. I know of brand new name brand routers that don't work as well. But it is a sign that my dear little friend is sliding into dementia. There will come a point when resetting it won't work. That will be a dark day indeed.

I have purchased a replacement just in case. I don't want to be in the middle of something only to find myself untethered and having to cobble together something make-shift, or worse, head for the nearest McDonalds, to finish. The only question is When do I pull the plug? I think sooner rather than later. If I pull it while it's still working I can continue to use it as an emergency back up. I don't think I could bring myself to throw it away. Instead I'll let it sit idly on the shelf in well-earned retirement. Never can say goodbye.

Oh, the new one is a TP-Link AC 1750. Purchase based on a recommendation from The Wirecutter. It has a lot to live up to.

[TV] Latest Toobage

Justified is doing fine in its final go 'round. I'll should write a retrospective once it's over. It had its uneven streaks over the years but it was a cut above. Not eternal art, but top quality TV and it will be forever iconic in pop culture, I strongly suspect. Assuming Raylan Givens survives the finale, I can easily see a follow-up movie or mini-series. Once again, TV outdoes movies -- this time at interpreting Elmore Leonard.

Mad Men is coming, and going, in the next couple of months. I've pretty much written its eulogy before. It is the last gasp of TVs heroic age. Little more needs to be said than that. It was not high-concept like the holy trinity (Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire) it was simply the finest sustained character study in the history of film and video arts.

I am cheered by Better Call Saul. Vince Gilligan is proving himself to be awfully talented once again. And frankly, from what I've seen Better Call Saul has potential to join The Pantheon. (The Pantheon is the holy trinity mentioned above + Mad Men and Breaking Bad.)

There are a number of TV critics who think The Americans is the best show on TV now. One in particular, Andy Greenwald at Grantland, declared season 2 the best TV show of 2014. I had to check it out to see what I was missing. Short summary: I disagree. It's a very good, well made show, but there are too many holes in its game. I really struggled with tone. On the one hand there is realistic Cold War intrigue, but on the other hand they will end up with action scenes where a 90-pound Keri Russell is kung-fuing two-hundred pound men into unconciousness. That pulls them from being a tense, semi-realistic thriller into Buffy-style fantasy. There was also the suggestion that the show was fascinating in the way it made you root for Russian spies over your own country. It didn't do that for me. I found myself hoping the protagonists got caught and strung up by their jubblies. For a while that's OK, but it's remarkable how exhausting it is to watch a show where the bad guys always seem to get away. I tried to binge season 2 and got about eight episodes in before I gave up. Good show, top quality production, you'll probably enjoy it, but not as great as you may have heard. Still, I may finish it one day.

My other binge, Silicon Valley, is turning out nicely. Terrific performances and pitch perfect satire. One of my get-off-my-lawns is how inane dorks like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have conditioned the public to think that satire is just half-witted snark that confirms your views and massages your ego. It's not. Silicon Valley is satire of the highest order. In all the years I have been blogging I have never mentioned the company I work for but it's a big progressive multinational in the information industry and you can bet your gold Apple Watch that I see a lot of the sorts of things being satirized in Silicon Valley every day. Great, sharp-eyed stuff. There are weak moments of broad farce, and a fair amount of empty raunch, but at its best it approaches a level of comedy unseen since Archer in its heydey.

I have been one of the dozen or so people who have been watching Episodes on Showtime. Since you probably never heard of it, it's a lightweight comedy about a married pair of English TV writers who try to recreate their hit show in America and have all sorts of misadventures with a zany cast of characters. The writing is standard fare, but there was usually a good guffaw in each episode, mostly due to the fine comic chops of the actors, including Matt LeBlanc playing a douchebag version of Matt LeBlanc. They only did 8 episodes a season and first couple of seasons were fine; the third not so much; and the just-finished fourth one was pretty sad. A good case study on what happens to a show when you run out of ideas. Time to let it go.

Lastly, the big rumor is that one of my favorite shows in history, X-Files, looks to be getting re-start order as a short stack (6-8 eps). David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are on board, which is good, Chris Carter is going to be the showrunner again, which is OK, and he'll also do all the writing, which is not so ok. He was responsible for every boring episode of the original series and the lame movies as well. Unless he can lure back Vince Gilligan, Glen Morgan, James Wong, and the divine Darin Morgan to do the heavy lifting, I do not have high hopes.

Can't return soon enough: Second seasons of Fargo, True Detective, and Silicon Valley, and the 5th of Game of Thrones, of course.

[Books] The Mirror of Yesterday

I have been slowly working my way through The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer from the early twentieth century who had suffered a decline in notoriety, but has recently been given attention because Wes Anderson stated hisbooks to be very influential on his creation of The Grand Budapest Hotel. It is a remarkable book for many reasons, and I'll review it in full soon. For now, let me just give you an extended quote:
"In its liberal idealism, the nineteenth century was honestly convinced that it was on the direct and infallible road to the best of all possible worlds. The people of the time scornfully looked down on earlier epochs with their wars, famines and revolutions as periods when mankind had not yet come of age and was insufficiently enlightened. Now, however, it was a mere matter of decades before they finally saw an end to evil and violence, and in those days this faith in uninterrupted, inexorable 'progress' truly had the force of a religion.

Science, the archangel of progress, had worked all these miracles. Social welfare was also proceeding apace; from year to year more rights were granted to the individual, the judiciary laid down the law in a milder and more humane manner, even that ultimate problem, the poverty of the masses, no longer seemed insuperable….Sociologist and professors competed to make the lives of the proletariat healthier and happier--no wonder that century basked in its own sense of achievement and regarded every decade as it drew to a close as the prelude to a better one."
In my middle-aged pursuit of understanding the validity of our societal faith in cultural progress, have I not said almost exactly the same things in describing us (although probably not as eloquently)? Tell me if that does not sound like something I've written in the last couple of years. It shines a light on much of what I have been thinking and feeling about progressivism: that it is not new but must delude us that it is for it to hold. More next month, but I just felt like I had to offer a little taste.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Month That Was - February 2015

It's been a trying winter, one of the coldest in history, but I have to count my blessings. My house has been nice and warm, my car has never failed to start. I have been lucky to spend my evenings with a fire in the fireplace and cup of ramen. Still, it will be the cusp of Spring before I get away for any travel. In general, have come to terms with Winter, and not just as a counterpoint to green flora or a cost to pay for the beautiful summer. It is nice at times to have a respite from yard work and hornet's nests or other projects around the house. But immoderate winters like the last two (last year was the snowiest, this year the coldest) can really wear on the soul. In such times it's important to get away for a break of sunshine and warmth and I did not do that. That situation needs to be rectified going forward.

I am building ideas for this year's travel and I am torn between doing things I have done before and know I love, versus new experiences. For instance, I would love to do the Bryce Canyon half marathon again, but that's a big undertaking and I would have to spend some time out there to make it worthwhile, but I've already seen all the highlights. If I'm going to expend that much effort, wouldn't it be better to go and see something new, like maybe Glacier National Park?

In any event, I am still making writing progress. That's important. And I still have my health, my friends, my intellectual curiosity, and my sense of humor. So I guess I'm doing pretty well.

Blessings counted.

[Movies] Action Summit
[Cars, Rant] Driverless Cars and The World of Tomorrow
[Books] Book Look: The Lost Domain
[Science] Start Making Sense
[Rant] Something from the Bar

[Movies] Action Summit

Just following up on an off-hand comment I made last month. Here's how I would rank the best action films of all time.
  1. Avengers - Joss Whedon is 2nd to none at action and he is just slightly younger than me so I suspect we had the same reading material as tweens -- Marvel Comics. With The Avengers he was in the element of his life.
  2. Iron Man 3 - Sir Ben Kingsley for the win: "Well I panicked, but then I handled it." Perfect blend of comedy and action.
  3. Thor: Dark World - arguably should be second place with a better finish than IM3, but lacks to top quality whimsy of IM3 at it's best.
  4. Dark Knight/Dark Knight Rises - the best non-Marvel properties. Striking for the unfashionable political themes that the action allows you to ignore if you want.
  5. The Matrix - a landmark that kicked off the action film pinnacle.
  6. Spiderman - a revelation at the time about how astonishingly good superhero movies could be and a bellwether for Marvel properties to come.
  7. Cap: Winter Soldier/Iron Man 1/Spiderman 2 - this is where things get murky and I lose interest in ratings...
There will be a cadre of folks who will make arguments for older films Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones, Alien(s), even some Schwarzenegger/Stallone/Willis style films. They certainly match the best when it comes to humanity, but the modern Marvel films excel at pacing, cinematography, editing, and the more technical aspects of filmcraft. These are linearly developable skills that make possible steady improvements over time, like athletic world records. I guess you could say when it comes to action films I'm a progressive.

Honestly, I have to admit this list is probably biased to my personal experience. I have written previously about how the tone and tenor of Marvel Comics from roughly the 70's-ish has come to dominate the blockbuster movie milieu. Beyond that, actually: the whole era of hyper-ironic, self-referential, magic realism that forms a huge part of our pop culture can, I think, be traced to 13-year-olds like me following Spiderman and The Avengers every month. In that sense this list may have been self-fulfilling. Is Marvel-ism ascendent because it is superior or is it just the cultural and economic influence of people like me forcing our opinions on the rest of you? If it's the later, then all I can say is you're lucky we're in charge otherwise The Expendables would be sincere and serious. For a more critical and less Marvel-oriented view of action movies you can watch this video.

Various aspects of culture peak at different times, either because of fashion or technology or just happenstance. For example, today there is fine music being produced as always, but no musical genre is at it's peak right now as say, rock was in the late '60s or the times of the Great American Songbook in the 30s and 40s. I don't believe any form of writing is at it's peak right now, although good writing is happening in so many different forms and being delivered in so many different ways that it's hard to tell. TV peaked just recently -- remember the days when Sopranos and Deadwood and The Wire were running simultaneously? TV is still good, but not what it was. I'm ranting about action movies because they are the aspect of our culture that is at its peak right now. Movies, in general, are not. They are, in fact, mostly awful, but action films are peaking. Even what we would consider an average action film today -- Edge of Tomorrow, for an example -- would have been a revelation 15 or 20 years ago. They may not be great and eternal works of art, but action films are what we do best at the moment. It's probably worth paying attention.

[Cars, Rant] Driverless Cars and The World of Tomorrow

The march to driverless cars is inexorable. Like it or not, they are coming. Now, it's slowly starting to dawn on everyone what an enormous societal upheaval this is going to be. To get an idea, check out this map of the most common jobs in every state. In 2014 commercial driver was the most common in about 29 states. Driverless vehicles will do away with every one of those jobs. Up until recently the notion of losing your job to automation has been a niche thing. A few factory workers here and there, often unionized workers who had at least some sort of cushion. In fact, a lot of displacement via technology has happened in more low-end white collar jobs as when the internet did away with discount stock brokers and bookstores/video rental. Driverless cars will be the first wholesale obsolescence of unskilled labor. I expect:
  • Unending breathless news reports about how horrible it is.
  • Protests, possibly riots. (We have spent far too many decades equating victimhood with righteousness for this not to turn ugly.)
  • Potential power grabs by organizations associated with class conflict and working class populism: Unions, Occupiers, etc. (These will likely fail because they invariably end up collapsing under the weight of internal contradictions. When the anti-elite win, they become what they opposed.)
  • Mad confusion as everyone twists the crisis to support their own causes: higher taxes, lower taxes, less immigrants, more immigrants, etc.
  • The well-intentioned upper middles who still have jobs will call for all sorts of assistance to the displaced, while their robot cars take the kids to soccer practice.
  • In the short run (perhaps not only in the short run), it's entirely possible that some of the displaced workers will be allowed to ride along with the robots as emergency backups, essentially being paid for nothing in the interest of social harmony.
In the long run, the problem remains. The further into the future we go, the less the value of people on the left hand side of the bell curve -- that's harshly put, but accurate. And as flip as I may sound, it is a real problem. It's hard for someone on the right hand side of the curve not to address this without sounding condescending, but I'm sincere. A world where huge swaths of the population are useless and purposeless is a monstrous dystopia, yet it seems to be almost inevitable.

My characterization of it as a bell curve issue implies a relationship to IQ and to some extent it is. High IQ people will adapt better in a world where more and more jobs require abstract thinking and information jockeying. The ultimate key however is a question of skilled versus unskilled. The abstract thinking required of a plumber is not great, but you can't be an idiot and be a successful plumber because the skill level is high, and that's a clue. Skilled blue collar jobs will probably be alright. I can easily envision a robot truck driver; not so much a robot plumber or electrician. Along the same lines, a low-skill white collar jobs is as likely to crash as a low-skill blue collar job -- entry-level jobs in retail sales, for instance, are at risk, as are something like actuaries and claims adjusters, or any information job that mostly involves following fairly well-defined rules and protocols. This is not to say skilled jobs won't disappear eventually, it just seems an order of magnitude further away.

That said, even though it looks bad I don't anticipate the apocalypse; just a painful period of adjustment. I suspect it will all settle in some new, unspoken social compact wherein there is more wealth transfer from the skilled to the unskilled. It won't be in the form of direct welfare since that angers both the givers and receivers. It will be in the form of payments for what is ultimately unnecessary work, or work made inefficient through regulations, or status premiums to hand-made goods, so as to keep people employed and make them feel of value and allow everyone, payers and payees, to maintain a plausible image of reason. Fringe elements will decry this as societal delusion and hypocrisy, but the mainstream will rationalize it because it keeps the peace and keeps civilization going. That is, after all, a hallmark of civilization: rationalizing hypocrisy for the greater good.

I'm getting into futurism now, which is not really my forte. Much of this will occur long after I'm gone. There is always a temptation to see the bad in change and weep for the settled world of the past, but the past was not so glorious, nor is the present. Neither will be the future. It will just be different.

Of course, in the very long run, all jobs will be gone and we'll all be dead brains in jars.

Related: Google's been in the game for a while, now comes Apple.

[Books] Book Look: The Lost Domain, by Alain-Fournier

Also known by the titles Le Grand Meaulnes, The Lost Estate, the Wanderer, The End of Youth, and probably others, The Lost Domain suddenly popped up on my radar when I read somewhere that it was a major influence of F.Scott Fitzgerald and could be thought of as an French equivalent of Catcher in the Rye. It was also spoken highly of by Nick Hornby of High Fidelity and About a Boy fame. Given its pedigree as a hidden influence on some great literature I almost had to read it.

There are really three aspects to the book. First is an idyllic description of rural life in France before the World Wars; a flowery, poetic existence filled with gentle youthful activities and provincial comforts (instructively, to my 21st century senses it seems rather like poverty). This is the world of the narrator, Seurel, who is in his mid teens. Into this mix appears a stranger named Meaulnes --
Le Grand Meaulnes -- an older and larger teen who quickly becomes a dominant force among the youth of the area and a great friend to the narrator. So it is clear this book is of the "stranger comes to town" genre.

Then a turning point comes. Meaulnes sneaks away on some juvenile escapade, gets lost, and finds himself at a private estate where a wedding is imminent. He is mistaken for a guest and joins in the festivities, which take on the feel of an otherworldly fantasy. In the midst of all this revelry, Meaulnes is lovestruck a beautiful young girl and develops strong bonds of friendship with the groom. Then, suddenly it's over. The groom receives a message that his bride is not going to marry him after all, he flees in shame and disappointment, all the attendees filter away and Meaulnes staggers back home completely changed by his experience.

The next section, the 2nd aspect, of the book takes the form of a quest. Meaulnes cannot remember where this estate was and so cannot follow up on his desire to help the former groom or find the love of his life. With the help of the narrator he leaves no stone unturned in his search to find the girl who bewitched him. They explore the area, make maps, pursue clues in the stories of their elders, until a final clue comes that compels Meaulnes to abandon his provincial life and his narrator friend Seurel, and make his way to Paris.

Without giving away details, let's just say this all ends in sorrow and tragedy and regret. So...yay for love and romance! The book's 3rd aspect, and in truth the overall theme of the book, which is clear from the outset more or less, is the loss of youth and innocence to the cold reality of adult life. A well trodden theme, but perhaps not so well trodden well over a century ago.

It's easy to see the F Scott Fitzgerald connection. The misguided juvenile motivations and obsessions show up in This Side of Paradise, and the tragic hero whose story is told by a well fleshed-out narrator form the structure of Gatsby. The Catcher in the Rye not so much; there is little cynicism.

Should you read The Lost Domain? I have to go with a qualified "no". The translated prose is rich and well-coiffed, if occasionally bordering on overwrought, but the Innocence Lost theme has no novelty for even a casual reader and in this case, it feels very distant culturally and chronologically. I could identify quite well with the actions of the characters in This Side of Paradise, but here the small actions, which (I think) were intended to be familiar and build an image of rural life, were not in my realm of understanding. More importantly, the teenagers presented seem overly precocious, filled with profound inner thoughts and a strong sense of solemn purpose. I cannot relate to that at all. In my experience youth equates to thoughtlessness, shallow beliefs, and a near total lack of self-awareness. This generated an underlying feeling of implausibility that I couldn't shake.

Alain-Fournier never wrote another book. He was killed in the trenches in WW1, so if this book came from his personal experience that youthful glee leads to tragedy, he sadly never got to experience the adult joys that balance it.

[Science] Start Making Sense

Mavens of cosmology and metaphysics will occasionally remark on what tremendous progress we have made in understanding our universe. To that I say, "Bah!" What you see as progress I see as a mess. We have "solved" our equations with gussied-up hand-waving in the form of Dark Stuff: Dark Matter and Dark Energy. These aren't actual things, you see. When our formulas and expected values don't turn out to be right, we need to invent something that makes them work, thus Dark Stuff. This is our way of saying "Our equations are failing, so either A) they are outright wrong or, B) there is something out there we can't see that makes them right. We pick (B), and because we are scared of being wrong." Well, (B) might be correct but treating the selection of (B) over (A) as progress is shameless.

The Physics arVix Blog discussed a number of paradoxes that our current theories cannot explain. Some strike me as pretty damning of our understanding. For example:
Perhaps the most dramatic, and potentially most important, of these paradoxes comes from the idea that the universe is expanding, one of the great successes of modern cosmology. It is based on a number of different observations.
...
What's curious about this expansion is that space, and the vacuum associated with it, must somehow be created in this process. And yet how this can occur is not at all clear.
We know, or at least we think we know, that "empty space" is actually something -- fields and potential energy and so forth. So how does "empty space" get created as the universe expands? Either we have something wrong or there is another Dark Thing doing the creating -- a Dark Creator (careful, don't say God). (As I look through those paradoxes it sure seems like our interpretation and use of redshift causes a lot of problems. Hmmm.)

The latest broadside against convention is that there is now a theory of existence that doesn't require a Big Bang. Clarity: It's not a "disproof" of the Big Bang, but a possible structure of the universe that doesn't require one. Sadly it does imply an infinite universe and so doesn't resolve the issue of Creation requiring either infinity or a brute fact, but the overall effect here is the Einstein and Relativity is coming under doubt. While this is not really a new development, it is starting to gain force. (Tom Bethell wrote a book called Questioning Einstein years ago, suggesting we have failed by accepting relativity to the exclusion of other possibilities. Too bad he can't be as thoughtful about website design.) Just so we are clear, the argument here is not that relativity is wrong. There are tons of experiment outcomes it predicts exactly. The argument is that relativity is unnecessary to explain these outcomes.

For all our confidence in progress and our scientific hubris, it seems we are as susceptible to error and foolish faith as everyone else. We are not that smart after all. We are the most arrogant era of man and yet we are at least as wrong as every one before us.

[Rant] Something from the Bar

One curious aspect of being me is that when I drink I am a happier person. That is not to say I am unhappy otherwise, it's just an observation of how I react to alcohol. As a former bartender, I can testify that there is a great range of potential psychological reactions to drink -- some people get depressed from drinking, some get violent, most everyone gets less inhibited -- in my case I tend to laugh more easily and feel stronger enthusiasms. For example, I might laugh out loud at something I would normally just smile at, or be quicker to express opinions even if they aren;t well thought out. Things I just like when sober, I love after a couple of drinks. It's not the real me, and I honestly don't think I would like to be like that all the time (although, maybe...), but it's not a bad feeling and it certainly makes drinking an attractive occasional activity to me. And if in vino veritas, then it's an indicator that I am deep down a happy person.

Drinking is not a risk to me, as far as I can tell. I do not believe I have an addictive physiology. When I was young I drank a good deal more than I do now. I can vaguely remember long stretches -- say 3 or 4 months -- where I had multiple drinks daily, yet I was never had any problem turning of the switch and doing without. About the only chemical in my life that I have ever had a physical withdrawal reaction from is caffeine, and the reaction consists of a headache for a day and then feeling out-of-it for a while because my body is so used to being caffeinated. But given how I feel when I drink, I can see the attraction of alcoholism to alcoholics. The worries fade, the world becomes a nicer place. I'm sure with frequent and consistent drinking anyone could become an alcoholic, and if you can live out your life with your worries stifled and laughing more, maybe that's not so bad.

There are trade offs, of course, otherwise everyone would be doing it. An alcoholic is effectively useless and a source of pain to anyone who may be depending on him. If you believe, as I do, the core object of life is to have a positive effect on other people, alcoholism amounts to abject failure. Judged from a purely narcissistic point of view, however, alcoholism is not a bad path. In some cases, it may actually optimize total personal happiness over a lifetime. Is it really that much different from whiling away your days in a Zoloft haze?

Tangent: There is endless irrationality and hypocrisy in our attitudes towards drugs (including alcohol). This is no surprise. As human beings there is endless irrationality and hypocrisy in pretty much everything we do. The evolution of societal thought toward rationality is a slow, ten-steps-forward-nine-steps-back process, but it does happen. For the great bulk of recorded history there were no laws or regulations limiting the use of any chemicals. The notion of "controlled substances" are a product of aggressive progressivism -- idealized behavior modification en masse. It's interesting to note how the this trend of prohibition and criminalizing drugs may have peaked in the 20th century. There was (capital P) Prohibition early in the century and the militarized War on Drugs in the later half. I detect a long term shift in this trend. Not just because we have dipped a toe in the legal pot pool. We are beginning to see acknowledgement that many of our drug taboos are too strident. The world is repelled by athletes uses chemical enhancements, but we are also starting to acknowledge that stuff like testosterone and HGH can improve the quality of life in certain circumstances. (Personally, HGH sounds wonderful to me. I hope to be wealthy enough to afford it by the time I'm 60.) The door is even opening for hallucinogenics again, if not quite at Timothy Leary levels of devotion. And I am told there are now shelters specifically for alcoholics that no longer discourage drinking. They offer a secure place to just let them drink their lives away. Changes comes slowly. End tangent.

No, my bigger concern with alcohol is the calories. A couple of beers or drinks and you're looking at 300 calories. Add 300 calories a day to your diet and you'll pack on pounds surprisingly fast. Were I to habitually take a couple of nightly drinks, I would have to knock 300 calories out somewhere else. That means finding the strength of will to forego all the sweets and such that people bring into the office every damn day. I don't think I could, which is pathetic, but realistic, of me. Were I what an economist might refer to as a "rational actor" that would imply that I am actually happier snacking at work than I am drinking at night. But I don't feel that way, so either I am deluding myself about the happiness work snacks bring me, or I am not rational. My money is on the later.

I have now completely forgotten where I was going with this, except as an observation that I should find a way to drink more and thus be happier, although as you read this I suspect you are thinking I need to drink less.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Month That Was - January 2015

This month has been rather depressing for me. I suppose I see little to look forward to in 2015. What I have for this year are house renovations and repairs, and a trip to Florida for my Mom's 90th birthday, and the usual round of other trips in conjunctions with races, and, um, well that's about it. At times it seems like nothing more that way for me to spend my savings with as little variation from habit and custom as possible. It's a good life, but like most people, a good and settled life doesn't translate into excitement and enthusiasm (although it should).

But that is under my control, right? If I want something to look forward to, I need to make something to look forward to. I would like to get a new DSLR and resume my travel photography hobby. That would require a) spending money on a new DSLR and b) spending money on travel. And whenever I think about spending money on a new venture the house puts on puppy dog eyes and cries, "What about me?"

The book continues to progress. I am making some decent headway in plotting, and working from an outline for the first time ever. It's still a long, long way off, but I think I can say that if I ever do finish it, it will be the first book I have ever written that has a shot at anything resembling commercial success.

And I have done one new thing this year. I have started working with a personal trainer. In all the years I have diligent about fitness this is the first time I have done this. It has nothing to do with the running or biking that I usually do. It's all weight lifting, which I have come to understand is exceedingly important as you age, just to combat the natural muscle loss that comes from being an old man. It's also expensive and exhausting, but come summertime I should know if it has been worthwhile.

Summertime. Will summer ever come?

[Rant] To Do List: 2015
[Tech] TechnoBedlam
[Rant] I've Solved Poker, Says the Fish
[Books] Book Look: The Martian

[Rant] To Do List: 2015

No resolutions for me, just hopes and dreams. For the house it would be a remodeled master bath and new flooring in the living room. Both are doable and casual inquiries have been made. That would leave the kitchen, the basement, and the upstairs, in that order, for the future.

Honestly, if I get those two things done on the house, and keep up on my fitness goals, I would declare the year a success.

Fitness-wise, like a I mentioned above, there's the personal training adventure and I'm sure I'll do my usual mishmash of races. I would like to finally do a triathlon, after vowing to the last three years. I'd like to get in another Tough Mudder which should not be a problem since the team all wants to get together again. I'd like to get a half-marathon done, just so I don't backslide on distance. I think all that is doable.

As to travel, well, here's where I've scaled back from the days when I could go somewhere or do something every month. I made a conscious decision a few years ago to ease up on travel and devote my resources to the house, and I don't see a way around that. I'm thinking a spring trip down to FL to for my Mom's 90th, so that means doubling up a couple of nights in Sarasota with something else. Not sure what. Thanksgiving is Vegas again, this time with the emphasis on the week before, possibly a Monday-to-Monday situation. Details TBD. I'm sure there will be at least on Chicago weekend in there, during a time when it is warm enough to bike the lakeshore.

So I think I can do another reasonably sized and priced vacation in there somewhere. But where? Lately I've had a hankering for going back to Miraval, but that's an arm and a leg at the cheapest. Alaska is another possibility I've been considering for years, but it too is on the expensive side. Back to Hawaii? The Big Island needs to be seen, as does the North shore of Kauai, but: expensive A convenient possibility would be Bermuda, which was my first serious adult solo trip 18 years ago (!). This will require the pleasant sort of thinking with which I can while away a weekend afternoon.

But one key thing is for me to try to learn something new. To challenge my brain to remain plasticky enough to adapt. Again, I don't know what that would be, but I need to find something to which to devote an hour every other day or so that will just keep me slightly out of my comfort zone. I have taken to griping more than I should and dwelling on my age and shortcomings. The best thing I can think of to break the trend is to step outside it.

More thinking is required. Or perhaps less thinking and more doing.