Monday, May 06, 2013The Month That Was - April 2013: It was a cold April. My flowers came up and then were immediately at risk from overnight freezes. The mower was serviced and, oxymoronically, I contracted to have the lawn fertilized and fed that it be especially healthy. In two months I'll wish it was dead. Three new trees were planted. Stone was installed around the fireplace -- a messy and inconvenient job, but it looks very good. I also contracted for have a patio put in and my deck repair/refurbished -- scheduled for May. And then there were the toilets -- two of them started running frequently -- tank leaking into bowl -- one severely, one slowly. I blame the bleach tablets that I was putting in my tank. I was quite proud of my do-it-yourself replacement of the damaged parts -- took a bit of work. Isn't that something? Of all the things that I thought I would be proud of in my life, toilet repair was not on the list. Still, in my struggle with home ownership, a victory is a victory.
But running season is upon us. I hope to do at least one organized run per month this year. I need a run for May. June is the Dexter-AA half marathon. I also need a run for July (but will have the Helluva Ride bike ride). August I'm thinking about the Chicago 10K, that might be a nice weekend trip. September is always the Mackinac 8-mile. October is the Marine Corps 10K in DC (already registered for that). November is whatever race I do out West during my Vegas Thanksgiving -- possibly the Death Valley half marathon. December is always the Holiday Hustle in my hometown (Dexter), but possibly something else too. The schedule needs a bit of fleshing out but it looks like this is going to be the shape of my travel over the next couple of years -- quick trips here and there for a run and some sightseeing. Nothing epic until I get the house the way I want it, despite the temptation to fly afar. Discipline.
[Books] Book Look: Kim
[Tech] Figuring 8
[Vegas] Got Your Baccarat
Labels: MonthlyBool Look: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling: Kim is not an easy read. It is loaded with "thy"s and "thee"s and the poetic sentence formation and the vernacular of the British Raj. It's tough to do it in small bites, which is really the only way I read nowadays. It's probably best in a more extended session with ample time to acclimate to the rhythm and style. Still, it's a ripping good yarn by any measure.
Kim O'Hara is a street orphan in colonial India (late 1800's). The son of an Irishman, he has completely gone native. He is as street smart as they come -- but sympathetic and good-hearted enough to be nicknamed "Friend to all the World." As the story unfolds, Kim meets a wandering Buddhist priest who becomes his mentor and something of a substitute father figure. His innate wiliness brings him into the circle of a Muslim horse-trader who is also a British spy and becomes another father figure, although representing something much more practical. He eventually encounters the army regiment of his late father, who assume the responsibility of taking him in and transforming him into a Sahib (a European). Here he is watched carefully and it is determined that he should be trained to join the Great Game -- the British Intelligence Service's name for the cold war being waged between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia. In time, he re-unites with the priest and the collision of hsi mentor's spiritual quest and his duties in the Great Game bring about a crisis and reconciliation for both the priest and Kim.
The surface story is a tale of adventure, with Kim as a figure of the sort we would now call "the chosen one" -- someone fated to face a challenge to fulfill his destiny. In fact, Kim is often lumped in the Young Adult section of your library (in a colloquialized, somewhat dumbed-down form, most likely). All the tropes we know from action movies are there, although they are used less blatantly in context. And it is the context that provides the most interest.
A book from more than a century ago can be quite a shock to the uninitiated. All the good progressive signally we are used to seeing every day is not present. There are few more ethnically and religiously diverse times or places than colonial India, and Kipling relishes in colorful descriptions of a various stripes of people. However, there are no paens to equality. There is a clear pecking order with the Sahibs on top. That is not to say they are oppressors or the non-Sahibs are denigrated. Orientals (Kipling's word) are regularly admired for the wits and the skillful way they get by -- and for the depth of their spirituality. Kim even notes that most Sahib's can appear dull-witted and out of place. However, there is no question that the resources and clear-minded understanding of the world give them the upper hand, and that is not thought unjust. Readers nursed on the later twentieth century view of colonialism will be off-put. But like I said, there is sense of a certain order, but there is no blanket denigration. In fact, the Sahibs who are truly culturally insensitive are in for beatdowns -- either figuratively or literally.
(Aside: I am not even slightly off-put by such things. I wouldn't judge the values of earlier times by the current ones, lest I be judged by young'ns. In fact, I'm getting to the point where I see the times of my youth regularly judged to be morally wanting and my reaction is almost always "As if your world is superior. You have no idea what you're talking about. Now get off my lawn!" So I'll stay off the lawn of the British Empire.)
I mention those things because we live in a world so obsessed with jockeying for socially correct poses. Kim soars by way of a colorful, sympathetic, and deeply endearing characters (of all cultural types) that Kipling laces throughout the book. The eye cast on these folks is clear sees no illusions, but it is generally celebratory, and we, along with Kim can revel in the wonder and mystery of the world. It is a genuine impulse, not a pose.
Should you read Kim? It's good for a curious and thoughtful mind. Although there is a fair amount of action, it is a bit dialogue heavy, but it's still a cut above what you would probably read in a modern book of similar themes. Kipling's prose is quite lovely and clever, although it takes a bit of attention to get into the groove. I would say yes, you should read it, if you're ready to put in the time and effort. Money is not a question as it is long out of copyright and is freely available in various formats at gutenberg.org. What's better than a great book for free?
Labels: BooksFiguring 8: My new laptop has Windows 8. The Windows 8 user interface is based on the Windows tablet interface. Tablets are for consumption and computer (laptops) are for production. My laptop is for writing and picture editing -- production. There is no easy way to do that without an attached mouse and keyboard and a big ol' external monitor. Reading emails and browsing the web and consuming music/books/videos are better done on a tablet. Microsoft's plan with Windows 8 was to closer sync up the user interface for computers with its excellent tile-based mobile interface. This is the interface I have on my phone and it really is nice -- much slicker and more usable than the rather haphazard conglomerations of icons on an iPhone or Android. But it is something of a shock to suddenly find it replacing your desktop. I'm not sure it works so well for production.
Now, before I turn into Bitchy McWhiner, I have to point out that you can still get your old desktop back -- it's just not the default and it's not immediately discoverable how to manage switching between the standard desktop and the tile interface. It's enough of a problem that in an upcoming patch, Microsoft is making some tweaks to clear things up and let you have the old desktop back by default.
It has not turned out to be a popular update. Why on earth did they make this change? Was it a just bonehead mistake? Do they fundamentally misunderstand their market? Well, let me confess, I have done this myself; in my day job I manage a software team, including design and implementation. On a couple of occasions I have been involved in throwing a new interface paradigm at the unsuspecting populace. So maybe I can explain.
Unsuspecting people will reasonably believe that there is no reason for software to ever change other than incrementally. If there is some functionality to add to product, just add it to the existing product, why do you need to re-make anything. The problem with that is that it pre-supposes your design specs to the programmers were something like "Here's what we want to do but please allow us to do anything else we may think of in the future." The business of allowing anything else in the future is a) impossible to do comprehensively (anything is, effectively, everything), b) prohibitively expensive to define and approach. Often the idea of "allowing" something and actually implementing it on speculation is pretty close to the same thing. So "allowing" such things means more code, more testing, more maintenance, more testing, more documentation, more testing, more time, more testing -- the project will spin out of control before you even have a prototype. It might be possible to build such software but no one could afford it.
So a piece of software, not surprisingly, becomes an exercise in compromise, targeting and prioritizing. You get a controlled architecture that provides enough value to sell and allows as much flexibility to add on as possible. If you do it right, it can go for quite a few years, but eventually changes in the market or technology will require you to provide something you can't feasibly support. The wise trade-offs you made in design become roadblocks. That's when you build the next gen product. The next-gen product is another exercise in compromise and often that means compromising old users' habits in the service of viability in the brave new world that caused you to re-write the damn thing to begin with.
In the case of Windows 8 -- and this is pure speculation -- Microsoft saw a receding and graying desktop market. Tablets, phones, and touch technology in general were taking over. At some point our user interface is going to have to be driven by the mobile market, not the keyboard and mouse users. So they bit the bullet and designed a tile-centric version of Windows. People freaked. They didn't know how to manage the tiles with mouse and keyboard. The famous "Start" button is gone so when they finally find their old desktop they can't figure out how to access an application that isn't on the desktop without it. There is a way, of course, I figured it out via stumbling about but I'm used to this sort of thing -- Mom and Pop aren't.
In fact, I bet that thanks to all the usability testing Microsoft does, once you know how to do everything and get the settings to match your desires, it's probably as easy, if not easier, to do what you want in Windows 8. But getting there is a big problem. So Microsoft responds (correctly) by adding a few tweaks to an update to ease the transition. It's the right move. This will mitigate criticism and still keep Windows on its course of mobile-first design.
Although I did struggle along with everyone else, I can't fault Microsoft for the re-make. It has to be done in this business. The problem I have with it is two-fold. 1) I don't see any obvious advantage to Windows 8 over Windows 7. I'm sure it's faster and more stable, but an interface upheaval was not needed for that. This may come in time though, if Microsoft is right in their interpretation of the future. 2) Relatedly, I am not sold on the One Paradigm to Rule Them All plan. This is really a philosophical point, but it seems to me that we tend to obsess a bit about making everything similar. As if we should have this one interface that can handle all sorts of different tasks and if we do it properly, we can write it once and reuse it in different circumstances and the big benefit is everyone will immediately have an easier time jumping from phone to laptop to kiosk to tablet to the dashboard display in your car. I think that's not going to work. The actions and workflows required for disparate tasks are in themselves disparate. Trying to wedge them all into a single interface paradigm is going to mean they will likely all be compromised in some way -- in many cases they will be compromised with complexity and bloat.
So where does that leave us? If you are thrust into Windows 8, don't panic -- it'll just take some time, you'll get there, and it will be easier after the upcoming tweak. On the other hand don't expect great improvements in your life either. The net result may just be a mild, but temporary annoyance.
Software aside, the hardware has been sweet. It is a Dell XPS13. Dell had been on my avoid list for years because my first Dell laptop had been such a disaster. In fact, my first laptop provided by work was also a Dell and it was not very good either. Both had serious problems with their power management. My second work laptop has been much better. Enough that I was willing to give Dell another try. My personal HP was on its last legs -- freaky power management, unreliable boot ups, constantly running hard disk and fan. Death was close.
So I bought the Dell from the Microsoft Signature Store where they take the time to remove all of the crapware you find taking up space and doing strange things on so many brands. It's got a 256 gig solid state drive which is totally sweet. Nearly instant on and off. Dead silent. No unexpected freak outs hooking up peripherals. Light as a feather. So far it's been well-nigh perfect. Highly recommended.
Labels: TechGot Your Baccarat: Apparently Baccarat is the table game of the future in Vegas. On track to displace blackjack as the most popular table game.
Blackjack is pretty much a settled proposition. The house advantage is cut to the minimum by playing a specific strategy. Once you know that strategy you have no decisions to make. Playing hunches that go against that strategy will simply increase the house edge. Trying to "feel" the cards or react to trends is voodoo. The worst thing that can happen to an inexperienced gambler is to have a good blackjack session based on gut feel. He'll end up deluded, although from my point of view I'm glad he's there so the casinos can keep making money. You may at some point meet someone who claims to consistently win at blackjack; they are either mistaken, lying, or just haven't played enough yet. (Note I am discounting card counters who in some Rain Man-esque way can actually shift the odds against the house.)
But with blackjack, at least here is the strategy to learn. When to hit, fold, split, double down -- it takes a little effort to learn and it can be difficult to apply when they keep bringing you free drinks.
Now along comes baccarat. Baccarat has been noticeably popular among Asians in Vegas (a big demographic) as long as I have been going, but it's getting more widespread. I'm not sure of the attraction of Baccarat. It is an absolutely mindless game. There isn't really even a strategy. There is a "banker" and a "player". Cards are dealt without any decision or intervention. Either the player wins or the bankers wins or it's a tie. You bet on either the player or the banker (although you can bet on a tie, but that would be truly dumb) and it's 50-50 as to who will win. And each hand the casino takes a little cut. So it is essentially a coin flip with vig. There is no strategy involved, although the superstitious will follow some imagined one. House edge is similar to blackjack -- which is to say it's one of the better deals in table games.
Perhaps that's what makes it perfect. Anyone can walk up and play as well as anyone else. You sit with some friends or make new ones around the table. Sip some comp drinks. Have a good time. It's not like you'd be more likely to win if you were playing some other table game. Why not baccarat?
Note that the type of baccarat we are discussing is not what you see James Bond playing in Dr. No and Thunderball. That variant is called Chemin-de-fer and it is a more ritualistic game where you play against others players at the table (not the house). I know of nowhere in the U.S. where Chemin-de-fer is offered. It's a European thing.
None of this affects me. I gave up table games. I stick to sports betting and occasionally poker. At least in those cases you are not mathematically pre-destined to lose over time. In poker if you don't screw up, make good reads, and get some cards you can win. In sports betting if you outsmart the general public, you can win. As a rule, you don't win, but it's not out of the realm of possibility to outperform based on your own wit. I've got a way to go on poker. But I generally feel good about at least breaking even on my football bets. By comparison, you cannot outperform your statistical disadvantage in table games for longer than a brief period.
The psychology of gambling is fascinating. I'm currently reading The Odds, by Chad Millman, about sports gamblers in Vegas back in 1999. It's gripping both in its examination of the gamblers and for some historical perspective. But that's a review for next month.
Monday, April 08, 2013The Month That Was - March 2013: We move into spring I move into Spring and I move into yard work. A better, stronger deck, three new trees, and assorted other odds and ends for this year. On the inside we have stone facing going onto the fireplace, which will be followed by a living room repaint. It never ends.
In the meantime, I got some solid travel done in March, which was a nice, but too brief, return to the old days. Before I was a homeowner, I would travel somewhere every month. I do need to find a way to go somewhere new this year. I've been hitting my old faithfuls pretty regularly for a couple of years now -- Southwest, Florida, etc. Even if it isn't exotic, it has to be new.
Also we have upgrades going on in the electronics front. I got a Kindle (see below) a new laptop (next month) and I'm thinking of switching to DirectTV from cable -- motivated partially by price and partially because I spend way too much time screaming at my DVR for not recording what it says it was going to. Grrrrrr.
[Travel] Heat Islands
[Travel, Vegas] Vegas Going Vegas
Labels: MonthlyHeat Islands: (photos on smugmug) I increasingly have an ulterior motive for my trips to Florida and that is to scope out retirement sites. Yes, yes, I know. I am still many, many years away, and it's a presumption to even think about affording retirement of any kind. (At age 80 I may be greeting you at WalMart or serving your Egg McMuffin.) Still, when it comes to retirement I seem to be zeroing in on Florida which I probably shouldn't do with a jerk of the knee. I've been to many places that appeal for the golden years. With all the time I've spent in the Southwest, I've spotted probably dozens of little places mostly in Arizona that would work well. Sedona comes to mind (pricey). Tucson for convenience (but rather big city-ish). St. George, Utah seems almost ideal (although it does have an actual winter).
So I ask myself, why do I keep zeroing in on Florida? Wisdom of crowds perhaps? Familiarity? Proximity to Michigan? Ah ha. At retirement time, why would I care about proximity to Michigan? I will have permanently decamped. But the subconscious motivation reveals itself. Evidently I have in the back of my mind a wish for a vacation home -- somewhere to escape to coldest months of the northland. In that case proximity counts -- a 2 hour flight to FL beats a 4.5 hour flight out west. Then perhaps if I ever find myself actually able to retire, I can use said home for that purpose. I suppose visiting my 88-year-old mom in Sarasota might have something to do with my thoughts rambling in this direction.
First, I flew into Tampa and made my way to Dade City for a swamp run. Dade City is inland Florida -- not a beach for a hundred miles. Folks are occasionally surprised to learn that away from the coasts and far from Orlando, Florida is the rural South -- cypress trees and swamps and pulled pork. I pulled into my motel and asked at the front desk where I might be a able to grab a decent dinner. I was direct to three different barbecue joints. And there's a Wendy's down the street if you don't like barbecue.
In a nearby State park, Withlacoochee River Park to be exact, folks were about to Dance with Dirt. Dances with Dirt is a quarterly series of trail running events that is distinguished by the fact that they use the word "trail" very loosely. Over the course of the weekend, numerous events are held, from ultra-marathons down to 10Ks, including a unique 50-mile team relay event that involves a fair amount of time dealing with being lost in the wilderness. This being my first, I chose the shortest possible event -- the 10K.
The trail wound through the park along dirt roads and then into the swamp proper -- pushing through reed fields and ducking around low hanging moss. My time was abysmal, which I attribute to running with soaked shoes. And I nearly got lost twice but was redirected by one of my fellow runners both times, lest I disappear into the jaws of Brother Gator. Remarkably, I finished third in my age group. This achievement was mitigated by the fact that there were four people in my age group, but still, you gotta take the victories as they come.
And there was free beer at the finish. Dances with Dirt was a good time. Almost hippie-ishly low-key. Recommended.
The next stop was Sarasota where I got little time to explore but then there is little left in Sarasota for me to explore. Most of the time was spent with visiting my Mom and family welfare and such. Private matters, etc. I did manage to make a brief run down Longboat Key to Anna Maria Island and I have to note that, while still stunningly beautiful, the volume of traffic in season put me off a bit as far as considering them as a vacation/retirement target.
The next move was further south, to the islands around Ft. Myers. There are a slew of islands off the coast here, the most famous of which are Sanibel and it's sister Captiva. I've been there a couple of times and they are wonderful places, but they are expensive. And there is one main road along their spine and, in season, it resembles a parking lot. It can be the better part of an hour to travel the eight miles to the far end of Captiva. It's also $8 to get on the island by car (although I understand residents get a break on this in the form of a discount and an annual cap). Off season it's wonderful, but I skipped it this time.
Further to the north, accessed from the other side of the bay is Gasparilla, another barrier island, renowned for powdery beaches and seashells. It is loaded down with condo/resorts, very tastefully done, in the same completely understated and integrated style of Sanibel. It is smaller than Sanibel -- in fact the best thing to do is find your self a parking space and rent a golf cart to get around the island (or a bicycle of you're in reasonable condition). There's a smallish, walkable central area with shops and a handful of restaurants. At the south end is the State park/beach which is the main attraction. It can stand with best of the gulf, which means it can stand with the best in the world.
Gasparilla is a nice spot. Not as large or as busy as Sanibel, but still crowded. Getting a table at lunch in town could be an effort. In fact, I slid out of the center of town to a little tiki bar in strip mall where I was one of four lunch patrons for tacos with fresh grilled fish. Gasparilla is also at least a half hour closer to points north since you avoid the busy roads around the bay and the heart of Ft. Myers, meaning it's an easier shot to my Mom in Sarasota. But still -- it's high-end as far as real estate and, like Sanibel, it cost money to get on the island -- in this case only $6.
Aside: I don't know why I am getting so fixated on the these island access tolls. They really aren't that significant. Like I said, I think they are capped at something like $400 / year for residents, but even if they aren't, let's say I lived on Gasparilla year round and wanted to get on and off the island 300 days a year. That' s $1800. It seems like a lot but when you factor in the fact that there is no income tax in Florida and property taxes are significantly lower than anything here in Michigan, it actually starts to sound like a deal. It's just the niggling of getting dinged for the act of crossing a bridge that's causing me psychological issues. Lesson for life: Mind the bigger picture.
Next up, Pine Island. Pine Island is a channel island, not a barrier island. It has no beaches. It is fairly large, free to access, and pretty much entirely devoted to fishing. It is comparatively low-end -- there are a fair number of mobile homes and Old Florida fishing bungalows, but there are enclaves of better residences. One gets the impression that it is the back-of-the-house for the on-the-water industry in the area. Lots of marina space and services, and endless fishing charters. Peppered with open air casual fish restaurants. I don't fish, but I'd learn if I lived here.
Between the mainland and Pine Island sits Matlacha (pronounced Matt LaShay) Island -- a narrow strip of shabby chic shops, on-the-water restaurants, and classically run-down looking motels. It's a pinch point for traffic as you pass all these colorful places while crossing "the World's Most Fishingest bridge" and then you are on to Pine Island, no charge.
There are a couple of notable resorts -- one is the Useppa Island club, essentially a country club that does maintains a highly respected B&B. The other is the Tarpon Lodge, where I stayed. Tarpon Lodge is some pretty sweet digs. There is a very nice restaurant -- probably the best on the island. Nicely manicured bayside grounds. Standard hotel rooms are in the lodge building with a few cottages sprinkled over the grounds. Built in 1926, they advertise themselves as a place "frozen in time" and that strikes me as accurate. It's not just that the buildings are maintain to keep the same old world charm (including paper thin walls), but the seem to have only grudgingly brought their technology up to about 1970 (with the exception of included wi-fi). There is no facility for billing your drinks to your room. Credit cards are through those old manual sliders. Your TV is a 26" trinitron from the last days of Jimmy Carter. You get actual keys -- big square brass keys. The windows open. You also get a friendly personal greeting and a chat about any special needs you might have when you check in (rather than a cold stare from behind a big desk). You get amazing sunsets. Tarpon Lodge is a good spot.
Using Tarpon Lodge as a base, I proceeded to check out a couple of other, smaller islands, that you can only get to via the water.
Cabbage Key is an island full of curiosities and is the place to go if you really want to escape the world, but still have water and power. No cars, no paved roads, not even a convenience store. It is dominated by the Cabbage Key Inn where you can rent a room and eat in the very nice restaurant, or you can rent a house (there are a handful of rental homes on the island), and there are actual private homes (snowbirds I would guess). There is a lovely, winding nature trail that at one point of termination has a tree on which are hung numerous pairs of panties. There's an water/observation tower (not too high) from which you get a 360 view of the world. That's it. You can pretty much cover the entirety of the island in a couple of hours, which is what I did, including lunch in the restaurant.
And that's what most people do. You take one of the ferries over to the island and grab some lunch -- wander around a bit, then skedaddle. So, as you might guess, the Inn is hopping during lunch time. Waitlists, and so forth. It's worth it. The food is very good, but the atmosphere is the best. The place is nearly entirely covered walls to ceiling with taped-on one dollar bills. That's a thing here -- you sign a one dollar bill, maybe add an obnoxious little comment, then tape it to the wall or ceiling somewhere. It's quite a sight. Estimates range anywhere from 30,000 to 65,000 dollars is taped to the walls and ceilings -- including one signed by JFK and another one signed by Jimmy Buffett, from before he was famous.
I have to take issue, though, with another claim of the Cabbage Key Inn. They seem to be under the impression that Jimmy Buffet either wrote or was inspired to write Cheeseburger in Paradise here. That is bollocks. Cheeseburger in Paradise was conceived of while sailing in the British Virgins (per interviews with Jimmy). But I can't be too harsh, there isn't a burger joint in South Florida that doesn't make the same claim.
I don't know how long I could stay on Cabbage Key. The idea of serene isolation is appealing in principle, but in practice it gets really boring after a couple of days. And it would take me ten lifetimes to afford a house there. But I would make a lunch trip a must-do for any visit to the area.
The last island on my itinerary was North Captiva. There is Sanibel, which is famous, and its sister island immediately to the north, Captiva, connected by a short, barely noticeable bridge. North of that is North Captiva, which is not connected to anywhere by bridge. You boat in, or there is a small dirt landing stirp for planes that, were they any smaller, would be radio controlled. The north side of the island is filled with rental homes, quite sizeable, and vacation clubs (timeshares). The south is state land -- more fabulous beaches. Like Gasparilla, transportation is golf carts. As far as facilities go there are two restaurants, two gift shops, and a small grocery store, although the individual clubs often have their own private facilities.
It's quite lovely from what I saw, which wasn't much. I got off the water, found that all the golf carts were rented at the moment, and without a map or guideline in my head, started walking in the wrong direction. Eventually I got myself righted but with little time to explore. I did walk through the main community and it was pretty sweet. But it's important to remember that anything you need you are probably going to have to get by boating to the mainland or ordering it to be shipped. One guidebook claims that most people who visit bring too many clothes and not enough food.
It's very family oriented from what I saw. I suspect there are packs of families who visit every year, probably meet up with others who share their schedule. But that's what North Captiva is -- it is entirely dedicated to vacationers and snowbirds. And although there are a handful of shops, it strikes me as another place where after a day or two you'll be aching to spend some time off island.
And that was my trip. If I had to pick a sport right now, it would be on the northern end of Pine Island, but it's all still a way off. I still have an excuse to visit the gulf many times before settling in.
Labels: TravelVegas Going Vegas: Her Royal Highness My Darling Miss Perfect Anna Banana turned 21. So that meant a trip to Vegas for me and for her Mom. And since Miss Anna is the center of the universe, it also meant a trip to Vegas for friends of hers from both coasts. Yeah, it was a thing.
Staying at the Bellagio for the first time in over a decade. I booked what I thought was a mid-level suite but the place was enormous -- a full sized living room, and giant bedroom and master bath, a wet bar as large as the one in my house (sadly unstocked). I actually had to double check my reservation to make sure I hadn't ended up in one of those four-figure suites by mistake. I would bet it approached 1200 sq. ft.
Another wonderful thing about the Bellagio is the pool, which is as classically beautiful as I remember. In honor of the occasion I sequestered a cabana, which turned out to be a brilliant move as it became the center for all comings and going of the various twenty-somethings all day. It had a fridge which was useful since the kids were ordering drinks by the handful then storing them fridge since the waitress couldn't keep up with them.
Naturally in Vegas, dinner is an event and our main dinner this time around was at Bouchon. Definitely high end French cuisine. Rich and tasty stuff -- I especially thought the appetizers -- escargot, bone marrow, foie gras -- were astounding. Everything was exceptionally well prepared. But identifying great restaurants in Vegas is pretty easy. They're everywhere.
Another one: D.O.C.G., an Italian place at the Cosmo. About the perfect balance of casual atmosphere and high end food. The homemade pasta was flawless. Ingredients were absolute top quality. Like I said, you run out of superlatives when describing these places.
Throw in a restorative visit to Qua, the spa at Caesars, and you have a full trip.
While we're on the topic, it seems that Vegas is booming again. There have been some lean years of late. After the boom of a decade ago, everyone and their Uncle Guido had a project of some sort. Most were cancelled outright (Las Ramblas). Some got started then killed with buildings left half done (Echelon). Others got completed and have yet to be profitable (City Center).
Now there is a huge complex in process for the area behind Harrah's called The Linq, which is going to feature an observations wheel along with the requisite bars and restaurants. In fact, there are two other observation wheels in planning -- one across from City Center where the Hawaiian Marketplace is, and one across from Mandalay Bay which would anchor the south end of the east side of the strip. Linq and it's wheel will make it. The others...?
Meanwhile, the low-end casino-hotels on the strip are disappearing and or being upgraded. Tropicana went through a major upgrade last year and the hotel operations will be taken over by Hilton's Doubletree division. That's good. Doubletrees are nice value level properties and the Trop definitely needed an influx of niceness.
The Imperial Palace is being remade into The Quad. I shall miss the IP. It was definitely low end but I had some great times in their high-energy casino back when I played table games (I confine myself to poker and sports betting now), even when I was losing big. It remains to be seen how The Quad will turn out, but it sounds like it was designed for college students. If they upgrade the rooms and restaurant it will be a plus. I would not have stayed or dined at the IP if you paid me. I'm gonna miss the Dr. Hahn's Secret Island Fortress decor most of all.
The Sahara is being remade into the SLS. Sahara was classy in the Rat Pack days, but barely on life-support for the last couple of decades. Looks like it's moving upscale. Following the theme of TLAs the former Las Vegas Hilton is becoming the LVH, although it appears little is changing there, so I would consider it mid-range. It still has the most comprehensive sports book in the universe and is right on the monorail line. The odd and out-of-place Bill's Gambling Hall, with arguably the best location in the world, is being taken over by Gansevoort - a very high-end outfit with hotels in Manhattan and South Beach. THE hotel, the high-end sister to Mandalay Bay, is going to be operated by the Morgans Hotel Group, famed for the the soaringly expensive, yet unprofitable, Delano in South Beach. Casino Royale is gone to make way for The Linq. MGM is renovating the entire west side of the strip from NYNY to City Center into a cohesive pedestrian friendly promenade including a beer garden, food trucks, and a performance stage. Wheeeee!
The biggest project is the purchase of the Echelon project by the Malaysian gambling company the Genting Group. Echelon was going to be a City Center competitor in the previous boom but got abandoned in the crash. It is now scheduled to be reborn as a sprawling hotel casino complex called Resorts World that is specifically targeting Asian tourists.
And I haven't even touched on all the changes downtown on Fremont Street. But just conceptually it's interesting to note that the portion of income Strip properties derive from gambling has been dropping. Not surprising considering how they have squeezed their low-roller gambling patrons. Gambling action appears to be moving to Fremont Street where you can get better percentages on the table games.
Interesting times. It's nice to see things picking up and getting crazy again. Gives me new stuff to see and do. Although I have to admit, with all the new development I don't see how these places are going to not end up eating each other's lunch. Through all the flash and promise, you can see the seeds of the next downturn being sewn. Kindling: Still unsure of my purchase of a Kindle HD. I wanted a tablet because I needed something middling between my phone (which is always with me) and my laptop (which I only want to take if I plan to write while away), and because when I finish reading a book while away, it would be supremely awesome to be able to just download another at will, and because all the cool kids have them.
Choices were: iPad, Surface, Kindle, Nexus.
The iPad is too expensive, and I dislike the Apple ecosystem. The Surface (RT) would have been nice and possibly the best choice for me since I've glommed on to the Microsoft ecosystem, but it too is expensive also. That left the Nexus and Kindle in my price range. Both are Android devices, but the Kindle is severely modified and limited to keep you as close to Amazon as possible. Nexus is wide open.
There are pros and cons to each strategy. With the Nexus you can do anything that any android device can do and you also have the same learning curve you would get with any bare Android device. Kindle smoothes the way with a reasonably slick interface, and certainly, if your goal is devouring media as simply and efficiently as possible, Kindle's seamless access to the Amazon libraries of movies, TV, music, books, and comprehensive shopping will appeal. Kindle, since it is intended to be a conduit for you to buy stuff from Amazon, is also a little cheaper.
Now, you can still get all the Amazon stuff if you have a Nexus, although there is probably an app or two to download. But what you can't get is Kindle's lending library. If you are an Amazon prime member, Kindle provides the ability to borrow one book a month. Neat eh? The selection is limited and the publishers have to opt in, but it's a pretty sweet idea -- especially for avid readers like me.
What you lose with the Kindle is the ability to download all the possible 900 bajillion android apps. Amazon maintains it's own library of android apps and you have to select from those. Needless to say, you will not find any Google apps in the Amazon library. This is not the end of the world because even though you can't directly download them from Amazon, you can do something called sideloading, where you download them to your PC and copy them from your PC to your Kindle then install them. Still it's annoying when you have to do it. Again, I believe Amazon thinks that people use Kindle to primarily consume entertainment and if they are right, and they probably are, this is not an issue. But honestly, a number of best of breed android apps are not in the Amazon App store.
So why did I pick Kindle? Essentially because of the price and the lending library. But to be honest, I've not borrowed anything. There is really no easy way to browse it, that I can find, and I haven't come across anything I was interested in reading. That's not to say there is nothing worth reading, it's just mostly more popular/commercial titles that I have little interest in. And there have been a couple of times I have had to go through the sideload process to get apps I wanted, so I've experienced the downside without the upside.
Not only that, the setup process had a couple of snafus also, including Kindle's inability to locate my gmail account, until I changed the address to @googlemail.com instead of @gmail.com. My phone -- MIcrosoft Phone 7 which is equivalent (roughly) to RT on the Surface -- was able to set itself up without a second thought from me.
I'm hesitant to say I don't recommend Kindle, because for it's intended purpose -- eating commercial media by the great gobfulls -- I'm sure it is nearly perfect. Especially in conjunction with Amazon Prime. I just didn't realize that I'm not perfectly situated in that demographic. If I had it to do over, I would probably go with the Nexus. Or possibly the Surface RT out of consistency because I do so like the tile interface on Microsoft devices.
(That tile interface works less well on a laptop in Windows 8, as I have discovered thanks to the new Dell laptop I just purchased. But that story is for next month.)
Thursday, March 07, 2013The Month That Was - February 2013: Well I just got a new Kindle Fire 8.9, and a new camera - a Canon point-and-shoot. These, however, will be topics for next month. As will the return of travel posts. I have a couple of trips planned for March. February was pretty much same ol' same old. It was exactly as a cold as you would expect for a Michigan winter. I got the snow blower out twice. And, as usual for February, reached a point where I got sick of winter. Like I said, typical. Oh, and after a false start, I finally closed on my condo -- back to owning a single household -- with only a small snafu or two.
I have been alive for 629 months. February 2013 was one of them.
[Books] Book Look: Erasure
[Detroit] Fluff Among the Ruins
[Movies] Flick Check: Gettin' Some Action
Labels: MonthlyBook Look: Erasure by Percival Everett: A gem. This book stands as a fine example of the what I would like to see more of in novels, so regular readers are going to get an eyeful of repeat commentary.
Thelonious "Monk" Ellison is a literature professor, a skillful wordsmith who riles up academia with unpopular tracts on the sorts of post-modern literary theories that are completely undifferentiated from the schizophrenic rants of street people. He comes from an upper middle class family -- nearly blueblood -- he has a sister and a gay older brother who are both doctors, his father has passed and his mother is deteriorating, he likes woodworking and fly-fishing. In short, he is the perfect picture of the bourgeois. He is also black.
Here we have the formula for some heavy-handed socio-political commentary (Everett is also black) and education on the correct ways of thinking, but instead we get sharp and funny satire with outside the box characters. A very pleasant surprise. The socio-political angle is that Ellison, a skilled experimentalist, a man who is truly passionate about literature, simply cannot deal with the fact that the latest bestseller is an abomination of a illiterate ebonics that is being celebrated as a gritty, genuine take the authentic black experience, entitled We's Lives in da Ghetto. It disgusts him both personally and artistically.
So, in a fit of spitefulness, Ellison writes a novel: My Pafology, an illiterate, profane, recounting of the life of an animalistic ghetto-dweller. A parody that no one will see as such. He invents a false identity (Stagg R. Leigh) under which to publish it and proceeds to get rich -- disgusting himself in the process, but also providing for family and loved ones.
While that is the clever and quite humorous scaffolding, the meat of the novel -- and what appeals to me so much -- is that it is deeply personal. By that I mean much of the novel is taken up with Ellison's personal life. His siblings, though loving, have unresolved issues with him, since he was always the favorite, the special one. His elderly mother is quickly descending into senescence. His gay plastic surgeon brother is deep in debt and is in a legal battle to see his children. He discovers his late father had an affair that produced a child. His sister is killed in the bombing of her abortion clinic -- even this is not treated as a socio-political event but a personal loss. He is fighting to just to stay engaged with a world where he really has no kindred souls, or at least feels he doesn't. The big open issue is whether he is truly out of place or has separated himself. And, by the way, much of this is terribly funny.
The key take-away: All the bombastic societal satire has less meaning than the personal tale of a family no more or less unusual than any others. In the midst of the seemingly boundless social symbolism he embodies, his normal life is what counts. For me (as you know by now) this is huge. It's as if all my whining about the subjugation of the personal to glorify to socio-political is the arts has been heard. Well, was heard: Erasure is 12 years old now.
Should you read Erasure? Yes. I can't imagine anyone not getting a kick out of it. Everett has a lot in his bag of tricks -- imagined dialogue between historical figures, POV shifts, fantasy sequences, and of course, the entire novella-within-a-novel of My Pafology -- and these can at times seem pretentious, but since his lead character is a bit of a pretentious academic it's appropriate. Nice comedy. Good stuff all 'round. Makes me want to check out his other titles.
Aside: A bubbling sentiment running through Erasure is the apocalyptic frustration an author feels when he tries to write with subtle insight and intelligence with an eye towards illuminating some sliver of humanity, only to see some formulaic sixth-grade level potboiler or vampire novel soar to the top of the bestseller list while his sales are confined to friends and family. It's an ugly sentiment, one rife with arrogance and pettiness, one we know to suppress, but we all have it. Good on Everett for having a bit of fun with it.
Labels: BooksFluff Among the Ruins: For whatever reason, Detroit has popped up in the news cycle again. A new book by Charlie LeDuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy, and Governor Rick Snyder's attempt to appoint an emergency financial manager for the city probably have a lot to do with it. And as usual, the popular press gets a hold of the stories and passes them off couched in a superficial narrative. I feel the need, once again, to disabuse folks of a few notions that may be encountered.
1) Don't confuse Detroit with the Detroit suburbs, all of which are boring, but some are doing well and quite nice to live in. Don't confuse Detroit with nearby cities such as Ann Arbor or Flint. Ann Arbor is doing quite well, thanks. And Flint is...well, you are forgiven for confusing Detroit and Flint. Lastly, don't confuse Detroit with the whole of Michigan. Michigan is an astoundingly beautiful place that you should count yourself lucky to see. Detroit is Detroit and only Detroit.
2) Detroit is not in the midst of a renaissance. Have some artists taken up residence? Yes, but they are using Detroit as a gimmick, a way to attract attention. They are not building an artist's culture. If any of them hit the big time, they will boot for one of the coasts faster than you can chug a Vernors. This is not Tribeca of thirty years back. Of course, there's the urban farming that is going to make up for the fact that there isn't a single grocery store in the city, right? There's a reason why grocery stores were developed in cities. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out why local farming cannot sustain a city. Urban farming is another gimmick, a romantic hobby for folks of a certain stripe. What about all the movies being filmed in the city? The production companies are getting tax breaks; they are getting paid to film in Detroit. If Gary, IN or Peoria, IL decides to pay them more, they'll go there. Business relocations? Every sizable business that has moved to Detroit has been bribed. No small businessman in his right mind would start-up in the city. New Stadiums? There is a mass of literature about how new stadiums don't pay off. You can tell this by all the boarded up windows and dilapidated buildings next to Comerica Park and Ford Field after all these years. Casino gambling? Detroit's single lifeline to actual revenue is the three casinos, there will be no more. Whatever you are getting from them each year is your annual income. Forever.
3) Detroit's troubles did not start with UAW strikes or the '68 race riots. Detroit's troubles did not start with the oil crisis and higher quality imported autos. Detroit's troubles did not start when Coleman Young chased out all the shiny, happy white people. Detroit has been dying for the entirety of my life. Anyone who has living memory of Detroit in ascendency is looking seventy in the teeth or the rear view mirror. Detroit is not just down on its luck. These are deeply-ingrained, multi-generational dysfunctions. They will not go away by any plans made in the City Council or bills from the State Legislature or handouts from Obama. Detroit is a goner. It will hit absolute rock bottom, die and become something else, something other than Detroit (a federally controlled charter city? a Road Warrior-style wasteland? who knows what?). How close we are to absolute rock bottom I don't know.
4) Detroit is not a universal cautionary tale. The latest trope goes something like "We had better fix Detroit because Detroit is the future of our cities." Bollocks. Detroit is not New York City is not Austin is not Salt Lake City is not New Orleans is not Chattanooga is not Spokane is not Chicago. Each city varies in geography, financial resources, history -- all the way down to the psycho-social makeup of it residents and leaders. Many old mill towns from the previous century have pretty much disappeared. Many pioneer and gold rush cities are now ghost towns. And, two words: Machu Picchu. Cities fall and vanish without taking the whole world with them.
Although I hear Machu Picchu is currently undergoing a renaissance thanks to the tourist industry.
Labels: DetroitFlick Check: Gettin' Some Action: Quick hits on three action films I recently got access to by one means or another.
Skyfall.Trying to remember the first James Bond film I ever saw...and I think it was You Only Live Twice, in the theatre when I was very young -- maybe 7 or 8. It may not have been first run at the time, but it was pretty close. I'm sure I saw a few of the Connerys when they hit one of the three networks as big events back in the late 60s, but the next one I remember seeing first run was Live and Let Die, Roger Moore's first effort. I would have been in high school. Hmm. I have no idea what that symbolizes other than that I am old. Skyfall is a high end Bond flick. The plot and dialogue are run-of-the-mill dumb, but not over-the-top shameful like the worst of them. The action is OK, although no match for the parkour sequence in Casino Royale. What this one has going for it is that it is absolutely beautiful. Every shot looks like a framed painting. And then there is the acting horsepower-- Dench, Bardem, Craig -- that make the inane story seem reasonable. Better Bond than most, but not particularly fun.
The Amazing Spiderman. Rebooted so soon? Is that too a sign of my age -- my relatively long take on the passage of time? The first Spiderman movie came out in 2002. For a 22-year-old that's half a life ago. For me it was just yesterday. Top notch action, as my fear of heights will testify. Absolute perfection in casting. Dead on in the Marvel-Comics-irony tone. There's no point in going into it too deeply except to say it is just what you expect, very skillfully done. It breaks no new ground in story, just minor variations on the Spidey mythology. This whole business of "rebooting" makes me wonder whether future generations are going to play with these stories and characters the way we play with Greek Mythology. Superman, Batman, Spiderman -- all have been altered and retold (rebooted) for differing effects just in our lifetimes. Star Trek has also. And I'm guessing Star Wars will. Hell, there have been like nine Hulk movies in the past decade. On the other hand, future generations might just wonder what all this childish nonsense was. Maybe no one will remember we existed. Maybe all three.
MI: Ghost Protocol. Tom Cruise has a redeeming characteristic (perhaps he has more than one, I wouldn't know) and that is that in the face of all the ridicule for his batsh*t insanity, he can laugh at himself. He either doesn't take himself that seriously or he knows how to act like he doesn't take himself that seriously. This is an approach he brings to MI:Ghost Protocol. It's all fun and games, lip service is paid to plot and character, but it's really just a carnival ride that get's your blood pumping without any pretense toward real harm. A minor attempt at a redemption backstory and a touch of geopolitical positioning are happily, and correctly, unobtrusive. Stunts, pacing, and good natured camaraderie are the end itself. That's meant as praise, in case you missed it. Cruise is one of the best at this (ah-ha, another good quality), which can easily be demonstrated by comparison with recent efforts from Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Another compliment: this is a such a quality action film that it doesn't need the big screen. I watched the whole thing on my Kindle 8.9 and still enjoyed it.
Thursday, February 07, 2013The Month That Was - January 2013: Things that happened this month include the first running of the snow blower, the completion of the painting of my kitchen along with the maturation of my painting ability such that I don't need tape, the starting and subsequent abandoning of the classic sci-fi novel The Mote in God's Eye (I gave it my best, but as good as it is, I'm just not cut out for hard sci-fi), ongoing work on what will be the final draft of my latest writing project, and perhaps most importantly, the accepting of an offer on my condo -- on the market less than a week before a full price offer came in.
So, yeah, lots going on.
[Books] Book Look: Nothing to Envy
[TV] Toob Notes
[Good Links] Link Slam
Labels: MonthlyBook Look: Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick: What stands out about North Korea is not really ideological. There have been plenty of communist dictatorships in the last century, all based on fear and propaganda, but there has never been anything like the total mind control efforts of North Korea. In North Korea a starving man can be told that his belly is full and he gets the gulag if he disagrees. Even without the threat of punishment, the North Korean approach to the world is almost comically false. The only way to visit is with an organized tour, during which you are monitored the entire time by a minimum of two handlers (so they can also keep an eye on each other) and every single person, place, and thing you encounter is carefully orchestrated to create an impression of normalcy. This, even though every visitor knows it is a lie, and every North Korean knows that every visitor knows that it is a lie. It's like a surreal, cinematic Orwellian dystopia come to life.
Of course, we can gawk, but people have to live (and frequently die) in it. In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick provides a truly remarkable look into living and dying in North Korea through deeply personal accounts of the lives of six defectors. All six started as loyal North Koreans (of varying passion) devoted to the image of North Korea as a communist paradise gifted to them by Kim il-Sung, who took on a godlike image. It's important to note that North Korea is not a garden variety communist state of the sort that was rather common in the second half of the 20th century. It is a place under complete lock-down. There is no (legal) source of information other than the word of the leadership, so there is no possibility for a non-conforming view. They could, and effectively do, say that beyond the borders there be dragons and no one has any reason to dispute that.
Of course there are always ways to get information, and desperate people will try ever more desperate ways. In the '50s and early '60s North Korea was actually ahead of South Korea in development. As market forces pushed South Korea ahead, the North still hung in there thanks to supportive assistance from the Soviet Union. The Wall falling was the demarcation point. The fall of the Soviet Union meant an end to aid to North Korea and the beginning of a terrible famine which, arguably, still continues today although the ongoing devastation is less dramatic than it was through the '90s. Desperation drove people across the Tumen River into China in far greater numbers than before. (It is estimated that less than a thousand people had defected from North Korea in the three-plus decades prior to the famine. Since then there are twice that many every year.)
Each of the defectors in this book has a different tale but they are variations on the theme that things got to a point where they could not stomach the charade anymore. For most it was the government's mortal demand that they believe in they were in a workers paradise in the face of all the devastation surrounding them. It is easy to accept a lie when you don't know any better. You can still convince yourself to believe if the consequences of skepticism are dire. But when things can't get any worse, when you are eating grass and tree bark, when everyone you know is dying or dead, faith can't stand.
Demick has woven a terrific narrative from years of interviews with these defectors. Their stories of life in the North and assimilation in the South are varied but uniformly compelling and utterly human. There is storybook romance of sorts -- two of defectors were young lovers in the North who eventually were reacquainted in the South. There is exultation and suffering; redemption and regret. All mixed in with societal background info in the just the right volume. It is an extremely well constructed book.
Should you read Nothing to Envy? Yes, absolutely. Parts are horrific, but told without excess bombast. The prose is clear as a bell and the pace is correct for the subject matter. I cannot imagine anyone not being both affected and fascinated by this book.
Related: Background from a recent trip to North Korea from Sophie Schmidt, who went with her father Eric as part of a delegation from Google. About what you'd expect. And this story from a former diplomat who got perhaps a less controlled, but still extremely limited, view of North Korea. I've read a few accounts such as these and in all cases I think it's good idea to be on guard against gawking and ironic thoughts. This is a truly nasty place, and any sense of entertainment should be tempered.
Labels: BooksToob Roundup: With January comes the return of some of my favorite shows. Three of them stand out as much for the way they sound as anything else. That is very encouraging. It has been a rarity in the past that dialogue would amount to anything other than utilitarian speech intended to push the plot along. These three shows have as much to offer the ears as the eyes.
Spartacus -- Possibly the most misunderstood show on television, but they have no one to blame but themselves. This show is shot through with soft-core pornography and snuff-film violence -- really, to the point where they should be ashamed of themselves. It is cynical pandering to the basest instincts for ratings. And yet...it's amazing. In between all that nonsense is solid historical drama (loosely based, and so forth) and, more interestingly, some seriously beautiful quasi-poetic dialog -- a kind of invented language, sounding almost like a cross between Elizabethan English and the awkward dialog of old gladiator films, which I think was meant to sound like translated Latin. It nearly has a meter to it and it impresses as quite literate. I'm sure it puts most people off but then we get back to sex and gore before they change the channel.
Essentially, there is no middle ground. It both the lowest and highest concept with nothing in between. A no fiddling about either. The entire series will run 3.5 seasons. The production is assured and confident -- in fact, it is the only show I can think of that ever lost its lead actor and simply replaced him with another without missing a beat. Sort of makes it the AC/DC of TV shows. A unique and compelling achievement all around.
Justified -- Speaking of poetic dialog, I could spend an entire hour listening to some these guys jawbone joustin' in their hillbilly drawls. Terrifically vivid characters. Really captures the spirit of Elmore Leonard, especially this season wherein there is a central underlying mystery that we've gotten little dribs and drabs of in the standalone episodes so far, but will (in all likelihood) gather steam as the season goes on and as all these characters converge on it from some direction or other.
That's not to say there aren't flaws. You can get some Deus Ex Machina manipulations, the exposition isn't always well disguised, and there is the odd glaring plot hole now and then. But generally, it hangs together well, and for the rough parts, well, as they say, you can just ignore the story and enjoy the music.
Archer -- Easily the funniest show on TV. By a mile. The slam bang timing of it all is the secret and it's doubtful you can give the actors credit because a) it's animated and b) the actors record their conversations separately, according to recent interviews with creator Adam Reed, and then the editors painstakingly stitch together the dialogue for perfect pacing. However the process goes, it works beautifully. Linked dialogue, throwaway background gags, arcane and archaic pop culture references -- it all adds up to the sort of aural onslaught that I spoke of last month when describing Firesign Theatre's Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers. Just masterful.
It's good to see a trend for developing a show to have a good audio as well as visual style. The capability to affect the ears as well as the eyes been an advantage of motion pictures since the talkies came along, but mostly all that has amounted to is setting tone with music. It's good to see folks stretching the boundaries a bit and forcing us to appreciate our ears a little more.
Related: A critical evaluation of Breaking Bad, which is all wrong. And I say that based on the observation that it disagrees with me. The take is a essentially a socio-political one, a celebration of the series seemingly adopting a proper moral conclusion. I don't really have a take on the validity of that, I just believe that blatantly taking the correct moral stand has diminished the drama. The question, the central conflict, of whether it is better to be a "good" doormat or an "evil" protagonist, along with all the shading in between, is closed as the series rushes to conclusion.
Also related: Like Dustin, I'm still pissed off about Luck.
Labels: TVLink Slam: Odds and sods from aimless trolling of the web when I should have been writing.
- Paul Theroux on his travel wish list:
Nothing to me has more excitement in it than the experience of rising early in the morning in my own house and getting into my car and driving away on a long, meandering trip through North America. Not much on earth can beat it in travel for a sense of freedom - no pat-down, no passport, no airport muddle, just revving an engine and then 'Eat my dust.'Amen.
Places I have not been, that I would love to go to in my car include a trip north, starting in Cape Cod and taking in Quebec, and continuing until I run out of road, then turning west, seeing the rest of Canada, land of my fathers. I have seen only a small bit of it, but the rest of it beckons, the very names: Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife, Moose Jaw, down through Alaska - months of it, maybe a year, and why not?
- I suppose I am something of an outlier with respect to high school. I don't think my experience was all that different than others -- the usual mix of bullies, muddle-headed education, and awkward adolescence -- but I don't seem to be regularly dwelling on it. In fact, I rarely give high school a second thought. College was a much more formative time for me. (Maybe I'm just a slow developer.) In any event, this article on the persistence of high school's influence over the course of one's life is truly one of the best written articles I have ever read. It comes to the obvious conclusion that High School is a horrendous experience, even for the cool kids, but just when you are expecting a banal condemnation and a call for change you get something like this:
Today, we also live in an age when our reputation is at the mercy of people we barely know, just as it was back in high school, for the simple reason that we lead much more public, interconnected lives. The prospect of sudden humiliation once again trails us, now in the form of unflattering photographs of ourselves or unwanted gossip, virally reproduced. The whole world has become a box of interacting strangers. Maybe, perversely, we should be grateful that high school prepares us for this life. The isolation, the shame, the aggression from those years-all of it readies us to cope.No cathartic howling, no black-and-white answers, which is what you have gotten from 99.83% of typical journalists. Nicely done.
[Later, at her high school reunion] We'd all grown more gracious; many of us had bloomed; and it was strangely moving to be among people who all shared this shameful, grim, and wild common bond. I found myself imagining how much nicer it'd have been to see all those faces if we hadn't spent our time together in that red brick, linoleum-tiled perdition. Then again, if we hadn't-if we'd been somewhere more benign-I probably wouldn't have cared.
- Reason #936 why I have given up on being political.
- And reason #937
- And for that matter, why bother with opinions at all?
- If all that is not enough reading for you, here's a list of the best non-fiction web writing of 2012. Some of these you have seen here before.
Labels: Good Links
Tuesday, January 08, 2013The Month That Was - December 2012: And so we pitch the old calendar in the trash again. I'm not sure what to think about 2012. It offers me no warm feelings to recall, yet I know it was filled with many, many good times. I got to spend time with beloved friends. I got traveling done. Made fitful progress on the house. I'm still healthy, wealthy, and wise. Well, I'm one of those three anyway.
Yet I'm filled with the sense that I didn't accomplish anything. And that is true for the most part. My latest writing project stalled for a big part of the year. It's back on track and close to hitting Kindle (this year for sure). I get that done, I'll feel better that my writing efforts have not dropped dead completely. I also have the germ of an idea for a mystery novel that I can't seem to get together in my head. I need to get back to doing what I used to do: grab a rollerball pen and yellow legal pad and start writing crap that I can re-write into non-crap.
Real estate has also vexed me. Although I remain quite happy with my house, every time I turn around I see projects and maintenance. Nothing out of the ordinary, but I had the naive idea in my head that after two years, it would be "done". I need to re-jigger my expectations to five years. Meanwhile I tried renting out my old condo only to discover that I am not a very good landlord. That is to say, I am not a skilled landlord, not that I was bad to my tenant. In any event, the tenant has moved on and the condo is going on the market.
And as far as travel -- I got out and about and did some cool things, but I didn't do any NEW things. That's a key distinction.
These are things the internet kiddies call "First World Problems". In my day we just said, "I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden." Look, there is your intellectual outlook, then your emotional one. Intellectually I know there are few people in the world luckier than I am. Whatever hardship or disappointments I may have faced in life, I was born with the tools to deal with them. I also have demonstrated the capacity to capitalize on enough of my opportunities and make consistently sound enough decisions to not self-destruct (so far) - those virtues I like to think of as earned, but who knows? They may be luck also.
But the emotional side doesn't bother to weigh pluses and minuses. I am convinced that in other than extreme circumstances, your state of contentedness and happiness is a fact of birth not a reaction to the realities around you. It is simply a personality trait: God, or DNA, given. In my case, I am never able to accept and appreciate the state of the moment. I can't help but be dominated by the tasks awaiting my attention. Accomplishments are in the past as soon as they are accomplished. There is always more that needs to be done.
Nuke Laloosh: Can't you let me enjoy the moment?So I guess 2012 was a year like any other year -- many good moments, but the moments are over and there are miles to go before I sleep. Happy New Year.
Crash Davis: The moment's over.
[Books] The Chief Inspector Chen Mysteries
[Music] Dwarves, Uncrushed
[Rant, Tech] OMG Where Are The Pics
Labels: MonthlyChief Inspector Chen Mysteries, by Qiu Xialong: These are an ongoing series (six so far) of police procedurals set in modern Shanghai. Written by Qui Xiaolong, a Shanghai-born, Beijing educated expat, currently living and teaching in St. Louis. They are quite popular, and have been well-received critically. Now, mysteries rarely get outright bad reviews. If you are attracted to the formula, the book will not negatively impress you unless it is really abysmal. But what makes a mystery truly stand out has nothing to do with it being a mystery. The police procedural aspect of it rote. It's the hook that tells the reader: this book will likely hold your interest and you won't regret having dropped some scratch on this. Something more than the mystery aspect that has to be there to keep you coming back, and having read all six now (partial exception, I did not finish the fourth, A Case of Two Cities, because I left it on the plane on my way back from Cali) and considering myself a fairly discerning reader, it's worth examining what I liked and what I didn't like that made me keep coming back.
- The writing itself offered little pleasure. I gather Qui writes in English, not in his native language for translation. Qui is a poet by profession, so I don't doubt that he knows his way around words and images, but with English as his second language everything reads like a dutiful translation. Call the prose workmanlike, but with a certain unpolished awkwardness -- it gets the job done, but he just doesn't have the flow that sounds natural to a native English-speaker's ear . A mild negative, but nothing that would drive me away, obviously.
- Characters are utterly crucial because a mystery series is to a standalone novel like a TV show is to a movie. A TV series succeeds because the characters are folks you want to hang out with, or at least folks who are compelling and interesting enough for you to want to keep track what they are doing. This is number one among the things that can keep you coming back. Chief Inspector Chen is a wonderful protagonist. The proverbial man working for change within the system; he is very ethical, yet accepts that the world as it is requires compromise. Even his career in the police force is a compromise of his preferred avocation of poetry and literature. An ongoing theme throughout the novels is how Chen's self-identity moves gradually from one side of compromise to the other. By the end of The Mao Case he has moved completely from being a poet who is a cop out of practicality to being a cop who takes writing jobs as side work. With each investigation he makes more and more cop-useful connections and works more for to limit harm goals than idealist fidelity law enforcement. Like most of us, Chen believes his actions are based in reason and principle when in fact they may just be rationalized acts of selfishness or convenience. Chen's immediate circle of support consists of his partner Yu -- less sophisticated than Chen but professionally solid, courageous, and well-meaning -- Yu's wife Peiqin -- although she has no official standing, she is a sharper study and more well rounded than Yu and gets deeply involved in the investigations -- Yu's father Old Hunter -- a retired cop with plenty of old friends and favors to draw on. Beyond them, Chen has connections in both the business world and in the Party, where his primary connection is his erstwhile, impractical, intermittent girlfriend who is a high Party cadre and is called on to pull strings on more than one occasion. Although Chen attempts to do right by all the people who support him, there is the definite hint that he won't hesitate to use them as needed to his own ends. The upshot here is that all these characters are interesting and/or likeable is some fashion. They are folks you make you want to keep up on, to see what they are up to. That, as I said, is the key to keep you coming back.
- Lastly, there is China itself. In one sense at least the conflicts of Chinese society form the basis for much of the conflicts in the novels. The antagonists and passing characters generally have one of two backstories: 1) either they or close relatives suffered greatly under Mao (Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, etc.) or, 2) they are fighting a battle (either winning or losing) with the oxymoronic dichotomy of contemporary China where unbridled crony capitalism flourishes in the name of the pure egalitarianism of the Communist Party. The interactions that stem from either of these two sources are generally the events that trigger the murders that are being investigated and are often the source of the "guided" resolutions that Chen must satisfy while pushing for proper justice, in his own semi-anti-heroic way. This lends an exotic, non-Western/progressive flavor to the books that is refreshing. (I should emphasise that my description is entirely based in Qui's presentation of China and he himself is of character type 1, having a father who was horribly mistreated under Mao. I have no first hand understanding of the situation.)
Tangent: This piece in the WSJ is a fascinating look at how language is used to criticize China within the bounds of permissible speech.
Labels: BooksDwarves, Uncrushed: On a whim, I re-listened to a record (I call it a record because the first time I heard it was on a actual record player) that I maintain is one of the underappreciated works of art in the last half-century: Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers, a comedy album by The Firesign Theatre. I can also safely state that you'll probably not feel the same way.
We live in the time of the comedy of personal discomfort. Prior to that was a tsunami of irony. Prior to that was sketch comedy. Prior to that was parody. There has always been cross-pollination among those. There is still parody today and there was discomfort half a century ago, but I think that is roughly the order that the primary comedy fashion has passed through in my lifetime, each with variations that are based on either manners or raunch. Don't Crush That Dwarf... arose in 1970 at the cusp of the parody/sketch transformation, so it is a form of comedy that no one is all that familiar with anymore. There are cultural references from long ago (Vietnam, the Rosenbergs, old time radio) that no one will get. And it's a comedy record. Like a stand-up routine or an improv troupe, sound only. Kind of like a book-on-tape or a podcast. So what I'm saying is that it's weird content and a weird format. To you. To us oldsters it's fairly common.
Firesign Theatre produced a number of sketch/parody albums back then, generally good material -- they're a talented bunch, but Dwarf... was one of those rare moments in entertainment where everything comes together and the whole of the product transcends the genre.
Ostensibly an "ages of man" narrative following one character through various stages of his life mapped onto an evening of him flipping channels on the TV. That whole idea is soon swamped in a relentless firehose blast of over-the-top caricature and seamless malapropisms peppered into a cross-talking melange of linked dialogue, often tying foreground and background threads into a nice little poetic bow, eventually spiraling into a causality defying vortex of aural madness.
And no, I was not tripping at the time.
But again, I have to emphasize that you probably won't see it like that. It will be too strange to you if you are young. And if you are old (like me) you will have long passed the age where that sort of oddball beauty appeals. Luckily it won't cost you too much to find out. Amazon has the album available for download at $9.99, but note: There are only two tracks (corresponding to each side of the record), and they are available for 99 cents each. That's right, you can buy the whole album for $9.99 or you can download the two tracks individually for $1.98. Obviously a glitch in the Amazon matrix, but it's certainly worth exploiting.
If you're going to try this despite my warnings: Listen to it. The listen again. Then listen again, this time to everything going on in the background. Then listen a fourth time to take in the full effect. With your mind blown, you can thank me later.
Labels: MusicOMG Where Are The Pics?: So some kid named Josh Miller decided to ask his little sister about how she and her friends use social networking in an effort to get a better handle on current trends, based on the (correct) assumption that adolescent girls pretty much rule the market. Josh is 21. His sister is 15. Obviously this is anecdotal -- in fact it is a single anecdote, but it's fascinating nonetheless.
Email and Instant Messaging are dead. Facebook appears to be seen as something of a necessary evil. Twitter has no value. The big winners are Instagram and something called SnapChat. SnapChat lets you send quick photos to all you friends/followers -- kind of like Instagram except it's push delivery to a specific group of friends and it's ephemeral, at least theoretically; the photos disappear after ten seconds. (SnapChat was described as what you use when you really don't have anything to say. Because god forbid you don't say anything.)
What they really want is something like Apple's FaceTime (video calls/chat) but cheaper or free.
Josh, the 21 year old, is one of those college dropout web entrepreneurs who changes games and shifts paradigms and gets all TED-speaky, so he uses this to try to spot market shifts and product opportunities and so forth. I took something different from it.
The written word is pretty much dead.
The joke used to be about not reading books without pictures. Now all they want is the pictures. Limit the words to some LOLspeak captions. They don't even want to talk for free, which they can do with Skype, unless they get a visual too. You can see this in another snarky post from the same site about spelling mistakes. These mistakes aren't typos or auto-correct errors. They are the result of people trying to use words they have never before seen in writing.
My knee-jerk response, as someone who is way older than Josh and his little sister combined, is that this can't be good. But that's not the right response. The fact is the communication develops and adapts organically and there is no sense in claiming that it's bad that a girl who has no memory of the 20th century can't communicate the way you were supposed to in 1965.
I still take a certain kind of perverse pride in that in the 15-ish years of this site's existence (the same age as Josh's sister -- she has never known a world where I didn't have a website) I have never posted a picture. I still get angry when I click on a web page and have to wait while it loads up megabytes of graphics and videos from 10 different subsidiary websites so I can read the 5k of textual information I need. When web journalists I like decide to switch to podcasting, I immediately condemn them for their laziness.
This is, of course, not 15 year old's problem. It's a 52 year old's problem. I will, for the remainder of my life, be ever more an outlier with each passing day. I need to accept that. It is not my world.
Tangent 1: One of the original web personalities, Guy Kawasaki, still cares enough about the written word to provide a great list of grammar gotchas. I link this solely for my own reference. Feel free to skip it as it has no relevance to Instagram.
Tangent 2: David Brooks (another oldster) still managed to find enough actual long-form writing on the web to give out his Sidney Awards. Part 1. Part 2.
Thursday, December 13, 2012The Month That Was - November 2012: That sad thing about posting this so late is that I am a ready under the gun to December going. Sorry about my tardiness, but it's been astoundingly busy. I have spent little time at home or in my routines since before Thanksgiving.
Unlike in Game of Thrones, winter is already here. I had a nice 10 day swing out west with absolutely perfect weather (see below) and returned to good old Michigan to a 27 degrees cold snap. Now, 27 degrees is not that bad -- there will be times yet to come that make 27 sound balmy -- but it is most definitely winter.
[Travel] Call of the West
[Tech, Cars] Machine Rebellion
[TV] Three Step Up
Labels: MonthlyCall of the West: This was my longest trip out west yet. As I have for the last I-don't-know-how-many years (maybe 8? 10?) I spent Thanksgiving in the Southwest. This originally started because it was easy to lose myself in Vegas over the holiday, but it eventually extended into destination hopping over the weekend and sometimes longer. This time I flew out nearly a week early and headed north of Vegas to the Valley of Fire to run a half-marathon.
Valley of Fire is a Nevada State Park about 45 minutes north of Las Vegas. If you have experienced any of the red rock area Parks, the landscape will be familiar: bizarrely-shaped, immense, looming rock formations dropped on to otherwise featureless ground. It's not as dramatic as some places, say Bryce Canyon or Monument Valley, but it's the same flavor. Each year they run a series of races through the park -- 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon. I ran the half-marathon (13.1 miles), which is about my maximum distance.
At a pre-run spaghetti chow-down in a local motel discussions turned to the course. One person claimed to have driven it earlier in the day and said that there was a large hill at the beginning but the rest wasn't too bad. Another claimed that it was very hilly but you don't notice it because of the beautiful landscape. Well, it was very hilly from start to finish -- not a flat longer than 50 yards -- and fairly steep. Climb, plunge, climb, plunge, repeat. And it was beautiful, but believe me, not so beautiful that you didn't notice the pain. Toughest race I ever ran. Some of the smarter people simply walked every uphill and flew through the downhills. I was foolish enough to try to run all the climbs but that only lasted about the first 8 miles. I did a good bit of walking on the last five -- and I rarely walk during a race. I ended up about 15 minutes off my personal best, which was better than I expected given how hard it was. The best thing? Post-race recovery was chocolate milk and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Awesome! It was like being a little kid again. Beats Gatorade and Powerbars any day.
The downside was that I was really too tired to do any hiking afterwards. I was able to drive back through the park and appreciate the scenery a bit more but I couldn't even force myself to wander down any of the trails -- just had nothing left in the tank. Still, you can check out some Valley of Fire photos from a previous visit.
From Valley of Fire the next stop was Sedona, AZ. I had been to Sedona before, but I stayed in a resort outside town and really only got into the main tourist area for a couple of hours. This time I stayed right in the main area at Amara Resort, a very nice place located well below the main street. To get out was to climb the equivalent several flights of stairs, but the setting was really astounding. It's a fine place all around. Good service, free shuttle service for those not inclined to climb, free yoga class every morning, and the pool and courtyard are definitively lovely. There are two luxury resorts right in the main part of town, Amara is the less expensive of the two. The high end on is called L'Auberge and it is just down the street from Amara and about twice the price. I can't understand why since it's hard for me to see where it is that much better.
Sedona seems to have been created just for the views -- and they are spectacular in 360 degrees. Actually it starts on the way in if you are coming from the north, which I was. Just south of Flagstaff you branch off onto Route 89A which is a soaring wind up through the mountains then back down through a heavily forested area leaving you in the heart of town. Just stand on the street and turning around -- the background defies belief with red rock mountains the look as though they have been painted into the landscape. Sit at one of the outdoor cafes and it's like being in the middle of a National Geographic 3D extravaganza.
What's even cooler is the most of the mountains and rocks can be hiked and climbed fairly easily. My first hike was a climb of Doe Mountain which is a relatively moderate, but scenic hike to the top of a mesa (Doe Mountain is not a mountain, but a mesa). Once up there are pathways crisscrossing about half of the mesa and the other half can be easily navigated, although there are not actual paths. The views from the top were amazing.
What was not amazing was that my camera decided to fail. My once trusty Nikon D70 DSLR ceased to work while on this trip. Something wrong with the shutter mechanism. I took it to the local camera store and they almost immediately said I would have to send it to Nikon to be fixed. Given it's age and obsolete technology it's probably not worth fixing. Sad -- that camera had accompanied me all over, from Hawaii to Tulum to Newfoundland. Vaya con dios, old pal.
So I was reduced to using my camera phone but still, it's hard not to get great photos around Sedona. I even tried to capture a few videos, but the problem with videos was all the other hikers kept talking. Standing on top of Doe Mountain trying to capture the stunning landscape from high above and some idiot standing ten yards away from me decides to take a call on his cell phone. Loudly. Won't it be sweet ten years from now when I reminisce about this trip and I fire up a video only to hear this clown and his wife planning dinner?
Even that, however, cannot ruin the beauty. For hike number two the next day I chose the paradigmatic hike for Sedona: Cathedral Rock Trail. This is a pretty steep one, mostly climbing over slickrock. Not for those with a bad fear of heights -- fortunately, I only have a mild fear of heights, but I did notice that weak knee reaction kicking in on a couple of occasions. I noticed that anaerobic burn in my lungs on a couple of occasions, too. Technically interesting hiking and lovely views, although be prepared to butt-ride some of the steeper passes on the way down.
So for a couple of days I had the wonderful routine of getting up in the morning and going for a gorgeous hike then retreating to my resort and sitting out at the pool for the afternoon, thanks to the unseasonable warmth. A routine I could really get used to.
I should point out that there are things about Sedona that could grate on the nerves, the primary one being the unrelenting new agey-ness of the place. It not a youthful place either -- it can seem as if every last-chance drugged-out hippie-shaman pulled what was left of his gray hair into a ponytail and settled here. Also, the restaurants are really only mediocre. Southwest cuisine is everywhere, and at each place declared to be genuine, which I suppose this being the Southwest, it literally is. But all this is tolerable.
I need to spend about a week in Sedona -- and recapture that routine. With a proper camera this time. I vow to make this happen.
Coming up fast on Thanksgiving, the next stop had to be Vegas. The routine is set. Hit the major sportsbooks to find the best lines for the NFL games. Try out the new restaurants and enjoy the old favorites. Poker -- possibly, but that's getting to be a bit hit or miss for me. Stripwalk under the flashing lights. For me it's as traditional as turkey and stuffing. And in lieu of turkey and stuffing I had Gordon Ramsay cook me up a filet mignon at his steakhouse. How's that can of cranberry sauce working out for ya?
There's actually quite a bit of change going on in Vegas of late. There is an enormous development going on between the Flamingo and Imperial Palace called The Linq -- it's going to have plenty or bar/restaurant and retail, along with a bowling alley (which is a brilliant addition to the Strip), but the big attraction will be the observation wheel, like the one London is famous for, to be called The High Roller. This is tentatively scheduled for a late 2013 opening. It will likely be delayed, so I suspect it will be a highlight of my 2014 Thanksgiving.
Also, the Imperial Palace is no longer the Imperial Palace. It has been renamed "The Quad" and is also under heavy construction, although still open. It's a pretty low end place; I've never stayed there, but back when I played table games it was my go-to destination. Low limits, zany people, always a high energy place. They had, and still have, dealertainers -- dealers dressed as hollywood icons who often dance about with the music. Vastly more fun to play at a $10 table there than say a $25 table in a morgue-casino like the Venetian. It was also one of the most wonderfully kitschy places ever. It looked like Dr. Hahn's evil fortress from Enter the Dragon. Considering the new name I'm guessing it's going to be remade along a college campus theme. Sad. I dropped a buttload of money there to demon blackjack at the height of my gambling. (OK, maybe it's not so bad that it's gone.)
Another thing that's quite noticeable to me is the increase in Thanksgiving traffic. Wednesday before is my favorite day. It's as empty as Vegas gets, which is not very empty, and most of the people there are Asian or European. I suppose as soon as their early Thanksgiving dinner with the relatives is over, folks start heading into town for the long weekend. By 8 or 9 on Thanksgiving night, it looks like any other Thursday with the usual cross section of drunken idiots, porn slappers, dazed tourists and other denizens of the Strip.
The holiday weekend proper is a complete zoo, so I get out on Friday morning. This time I got out to Death Valley -- it involved a bit of spider dodging on the roads. You see what appears to be a mouse or chipmunk slowly crossing the road and as you get closer you realize it's a tarantula. It is, I think, the tail end of their mating season so they get active. It's a little creepy to think about, so let's not.
If you have a picture of Death Valley in your head, it is probably an endless expanse of dry flat land, and there is certainly that aspect to it, but it really is one of the most overlooked National Parks (it is also, I think, the largest). Peppered throughout the park are fascinating little sites. There is enormous variety. I was able to take my SUV on a treacherous trail -- Titus Canyon Trail that went from a savage washboard road, to a twisty climbing rock passage into the mountains then back down through a flat dirt road between towering canyon walls and then back out into the desert in the morning, followed by a visit to Scotty's Castle, a lonely mansion built on one of the thre oasis in the Valley -- with a fascinating story about it -- then on to Ubehebe Crater, a dormant volcano that invites you to slide through the loose volcanic rock down into the center, then burns out your lungs as you try to stagger back up through it. A full day of adventure.
There are two lodge facilities inside the park, the Furnace Creek Inn and Furnace Creek Resort. The resort is a broad, family oriented facility -- Motel 6 level rooms, a western themed bar and restaurant, pool, shuffleboard, bike rental, etc. The Inn is more adult and luxurious. It has a decent stylish restaurant where I spent a couple of dinners sitting out on the porch and watching the sunset over the mountains. The Inn is also about double the price of the Resort (which is expensive enough), and you can use the facilities of either. They are both overpriced, the Inn especially so, but because of the vastness of Death Valley National Park you pay for their convenience. The nearest town is Beattie only a few miles outside the northern entrance but it is a hardscrabble desert town with only a handful of run down motels. From there you stretch out to about 45 minutes to an hour away to Pahrump, famous for its legal brothels, where you can find a decent mid-range property. If you want a proper vacation lodging you either pay the price to stay in the park, or you are two and half hours away in Vegas.
Not everyone is unaware of Death Valley's charms. Cost and obscurity aside, the park properties can fill up on busy weekends. Families in the Resort, couples mostly in the Inn. But there is a definite sense among everyone that you're in on a secret. Three or four nights in Death Valley would be a tremendous active family vacation. (Photos from my first trip back in '07.)
Now winding down, I headed back to Vegas for a couple more nights. I must say the Vegas portions of this trip were pretty pedestrian. The hotels I stayed in were VDARA and Elara. Both were fine, well positioned, and comparatively inexpensive, but nothing special. However much exploring I do on the Strip I always seems to end up spending most of my time in Bellagio or Caesars. I should probably just confine my rooms to those spots in the future -- Bellagio rooms have been renovated since I last stayed there and it remains the classiest if not the flashiest Strip property. Caesar's has add a new high end tower and is adding another one to be run by the guys who run Nobu, the fancy-schmancy sushi restaurants. Good to se development activity return to Vegas after the recessionary crash.
I have a system for making football bets. It has served me well in that I have never done worse than break more or less even with two or three nice wins over the years. Still, this year it kicked out bets on a whole bunch of games and as any gambler will tell you, betting lots of games increases the likelihood of ending pretty close to even -- which I did, exactly.
But traditions aren't about generating shock and awe. They are about comfort and familiarity. As weird as my personal Thanksgiving tradition is, there's no denying that's what I get.