Tuesday, May 08, 2018

The Month That Was - April 2018

A couple of trips this month, so travel, travel, travel below. It was, in a way, nice to get on the road again. That and house prep are about the sum of my activities for April. Winter has passed and I'm quite happy about that. It wasn't the coldest or the most snowy, but it did manage to rear its head at the most inopportune times.

I am still struggling health-wise. I brought some sort of desert bug back from Moab that I am fighting. I believe I have been battling congestion on and off for about most of this year, and even when I'm not I don't feel at full strength. I'm having a terrible time getting my endurance back up. And I've taken to feeling dizzy when I stand up. I strongly suspect I have some sort of mild virus that's draining me and my immune system can't seem to rid me of it. Time will tell. (And don't tell me to go to the doctor. I have. The doctor can see nothing, but all that means is that I don't have a commonly observable ailment. The doctor isn't going to do anything for me except give me a preventative round of antibiotics -- useless against a virus -- and treat the symptoms. I can do that myself.)

With any luck. I will get back to writing in May. I did get through a revision of my latest manuscript so I haven't totally wasted April.

[Travel,Rant] Vacation Life
[Travel] Marco and the 'Glades
[Travel] Again to Moab

[Travel, Rant] Vacation Life

There is always a certain stress to travel. There are so many systems to keep track of: the system that gets you to the airport, the system that allows you to park your car, the system that gets you through security, the system that gets you on the plane, the system that gets your luggage loaded, the system that gets your biological needs attended to in the air, and then all that in reverse at your destination. Then comes the system that gets you lodging, the system that gets you transportation (car rental for newbies, ugh), the system that keeps you fed and entertained while you're gone. For the most part these can be mastered through experience, but I would hate to have to try to master them all from scratch. There is so much to know (much more than when I was young) and only so much that signs, warnings, and instructions can clue you in on. A young, pliable mind of average intelligence can probably handle it, but to an old or substandard intellect, less prone to quick and accurate observation and inference, it must be horrifying, especially when so much of the process is filled with strident commands from punitive authorities and dire warnings about the failures to comply quickly. And let's not forget the ever present impatience of the skilled travellers you might be holding up. I have friends who are knocking on the door of 60 and never travelled significantly. I cringe at the struggle they are facing when they decide to finally take that dream trip. Even if they manage to adapt to all the norms, the rush-and-wait rhythm is exhausting until you are used to it. Inexperience both in the planning and performing of vacationing will almost certainly swamp that dream with disappointment.

But even if you have all this down pat, like Yours Truly, there are unknowns. In part or whole, all these systems involve humans in some capacity and that introduces random variables. As a result, these systems can change subtly and without warning -- one plane leg might be enforcing the carry-on limit and another may not; one security line might tell you to remove your watch, and another may not; one hotel might let you check in early, another may not or try to milk you for money to do so; one tour guide may be brilliant, another full of shit.

Even more uncontrollable is your personal situation. Are you travelling in a pair, or a group? If so, then every decision on what to do is a negotiation. There are people who are very happy ordering room service and watching pay-per-view movies in their room in paradise. There are people who will fly thousands of miles and then go to a mall and eat at Red Lobster. There are people who will pick fights with everyone in the service industry and believe they are being cheated at every turn. There are people who will happily sit on the beach for twelve hours a day. There are people who will plan everything down to the minute. There are people who madly rush to see everything they possibly can for 30 seconds, as if they are bagging sites like coins in a video game. There are people who wander aimlessly and settle for the entertainment comes to them. There are people who are prompt on the dot, and people who linger and wallow in minutiae until you are late for everything. (In my experience nothing is more dangerous to enjoying a trip than an incompatible group of personalities.)

Maybe you should travel on your own, you say? It does have its benefits, not the least of which is doing what you want when you want without explaining yourself. That said, are you prepared to join, say, a catamaran snorkeling tour with nothing but families and couples and you on your own? How about asking for a table for one? You must realize that often, when you travel alone, the people you encounter regard you with a mild form of pity -- will that bother you? More importantly, can you live inside your own head, with your own thoughts, for extended periods if you need to? To many, this challenge is insurmountable.

What I'm saying is that vacationing, like life, is a complex activity, and needs practice to get right. Bad trips are learning experiences, both about the external forces and yourself. In time, it can become a great pleasure; your vacations can form some of your most treasured memories and can mark the phases of your life, but if you push it off and wait until you are older to take that one dream trip -- your sense of optimism will be tested, even on something as innocuous as a Caribbean cruise.

[Travel] Marco and the 'Glades

I have been to Florida more times than I can count. There is little new there for me. I used to wander all around, but now I pretty much stick to the southwest Gulf Coast, anywhere from Anna Maria Island all the way down to Key West. I used to like Miami Beach, but I'm too old and too straight for that scene. Going north from there are some wonderful places but there is a preponderance of glitz that I am not comfortable with. Most of north Florida, from say Orlando north is fine, and there are some especially nice places in the panhandle, but a lot of it seems to be trying too hard to be something special. The southern Gulf coast is special, they don't really have to try. Or maybe it's just that I feel so comfortable there that everywhere else doesn't quite measure up. Who knows?

This trip started with a couple of days in Sarasota visiting my brother. Then a couple hour drive down I-75 targeting Marco Island. On the way I took a short detour through Bonita Beach and up through Estero. Once again, I found a new and lovely beach area I had never known about. It has the same beach town vibe as the rest of the area, with a large state park and a huge expanse of beaches. The sight of the beaches and boats and blue water surrounding the gulf islands was heady. There appear to be plenty of rental properties and beach bars; I need to do a little more exploring here in the future.

Marco Island is about the final point on south on the Gulf coast before you have to turn east and swing across to the State to catch A1A to the Keys.The island itself is almost entirely covered in buildings -- homes, shops, condo towers, there are canal like estuaries where folks can have their boats docked at the back of their homes, but there are no open or wilderness areas per say, except the protected areas by the beach.

It sounds like ugly sprawl, but it's not. It's really quite nice. The homes are in tasteful neighborhoods, there is no obnoxious signage, and one of the benefits is that you are much more self-sufficient on the island rather than having to cross back to mainland for a grocery store or other conveniences like you do on other Gulfside keys. If it sounds like I am scouting for retirement properties, I am. I have been for years. Marco moves high on the list. It appears to have a strong combination of infrastructure and beachy goodness. It is, however, like all these other towns, not cheap for real estate.

The beach itself is exceptional. It has the standard powder soft gulf coast sand and extends up and down the southwest coast. The killer Gulf sunsets come along for the ride. But Marco's beach seems much broader than many of the others I have explored. That gives it a sense of being less populated (even though it probably is just as busy others).

Marco's positioning gives it a couple of advantages. First, there is no fee to access the island, like there is on Sanibel/Captiva or Boca Grande. Being as far south as it is can insulate it from the occasional cold snap that occurs every few years in the middle and north of the State. I know that sounds lame, but if it happens to coincide with your long-planned beach vacation it becomes a sign that God is angry with you. There is a shuttle ferry from Marco to Key West. That means anyone living here has easy access to a quick getaway down to the Conch Republic. Also, the heart of the Everglades is a couple hours down US-41.

I have been to great number of national parks, and when comes to viewing wildlife, Everglades takes the prize. The Shark Valley entrance is in the heart of the swamp off US-41 in the untamed land between Marco and Miami. Here they have installed a paved 15-mile loop that runs deep into the 'Glades, the midpoint harbouring a large modernist spiral observation tower. There are a couple of ways to travel the loop. One is to take one of their tour trams where a guide will give you the low down on the Everglades and everything in it. The other is to rent one of the beat-to-hell bikes they have available. (I suppose a third would be to hike the whole thing.) Any way you do it, you are going to get up close with gators. Some really big 10-12 footers. They will have pulled themselves up out of the water, and occasionally right on the path, to bask in the sun. You will be within 10 yards of some seriously toothy wild animals. You might wonder, given that this is not Disney, if anyone has been eaten. The answer is no. There is only one record of an attack, and that was when some kid apparently ran his bike directly into one some number of years ago. It is remarkable that no one has been eaten, but then I am reminded the most creatures will flee from humans, and the gators will too if you approach them. Most gators will bolt at the first sign of people. The ones in Everglades NP have never associated man with food so they really have no attraction to people, on the other hand, they have never been disturbed by people so they really have no great fear either. Humans are just random objects to them. It's only when you seem to be getting too friendly that they take off into the swamp.

In the course of biking the loop, I bet I saw 30 gators of varying size, many within a few yards of me, ignoring me as I rolled by. You become so acclimated to them that it's easy to forget this is not a zoo. You are in their domain. And even though they don't eat you, they could.

Beyond the gators you will also get close up with turtles of various species, huge fish in the deeper wetlands, and more cranes than you will see in the rest of your life. If you want to view wildlife, the Everglades is the place.

Back to Marco. As I mentioned it is almost fully developed but a walk on the beach will remind you how close nature is. I came across a poor puffer fish, dehydrated and sitting serenely at the high tide line. Gulls dived. Geckos dodged. Clams ducked. Even in a place as developed as Marco you must realize that Florida is a veneer of civilization over the primal swamp. I just hope the veneer holds up well enough for me to retire there.

[Travel] Again to Moab

My third trip to Moab. If I could fly directly into Moab, I would probably visit every year. Instead, the closest major airport is Salt Lake City, yielding about a four hour drive to get in. Since it's also a four hour flight, it pretty much kills a day for travel on either end of the trip. Too bad, because Moab has so much to offer I could spend weeks. There are two National Parks within shooting distance, one just outside town, so hiking is de rigueur. It is a mountain biking Mecca -- I am barely a dilettante mountain biker but on my second trip there I spent multipole days on the trails to the point of exhaustion. You can rent those ATVs (or they call them OHVs now I think) or jeeps and barrel or crawl around some very remote backcountry. Rock climbing -- you bet. Moab correctly bills itself as America's outdoor playground, and they ain't kidding.

That's not to say it's without issues. A visit to Arches National Park highlights just how busy it can get. Arches is one of the most popular National Parks, and visitors have doubled over the last few years. By late morning, waits to get into the park are over and hour. Wait times in excess of 2 hours have been clocked. It's easy to see why. Arches is chock full of 1-3 mile hikes to, well, arches, of all shapes and sizes. Magnificent red rock formations everywhere. It is paradigmatically beautiful and something you can do without any particular skills or athleticism. Families abound. The flagship hike is a three miler round trip to Delicate Arch (uphill there, downhill back). It's a wonderful hike, but you will not be alone.

When a National Park starts to get too busy, something has to be done. At Zion, once the season starts, they institute a shuttle service. You can drive in the park, you have to park your car and take the (free) shuttle anywhere in the park. It sounds inconvenient, but it works very well. Arches is planning on taking a different tack. They are going to have scheduled entry windows. You will have to reserve your entry window ahead of time. It will be interesting to see how this will work out and how behavior will change to accommodate it.

I will make an unpopular statement. Price would be another way to modify demand. Some of these parks could use surge pricing of some sort to smooth the demand curve. That would be grossly unpopular, but it would almost certainly work in an economic sense. For the time being, most parks are in the $20-25 range for a three-day pass. The deal of a lifetime is $80 for an annual pass that gets you into any park, anywhere for a year. I picked one up in the Everglades and I intend to use the hell out of it.

Politically, the Park Service itself is peopled by folks who wear their Progressivism on their sleeves, thereby righteously alienating half their customers with the tone and tenor of their displays and discussions. On the other hand they take hits from the Left because there are not enough black people as either rangers or visitors. They make enormous land grabs against the wishes of State and Local interests because they see themselves as a bulwark against evil corporate polluters, yet they can't afford to manage the land they have and can't raise prices without making the parks even richer and whiter. In short, they are a thoroughly contemporary institution.

And yet, despite the crowds and the controversies, they are wonderful. Spending time in a good cross-section of them should be on your to-do list for life. I'm glad I have been able to to that and hope to continue. If they want to charge me to line-skip like Disney, I'd happily pay the cost.

Like they ask at the beginning of every Tough Mudder, "When was the last time you did something for the first time?" Well for me it was the next day, when I went whitewater rafting. The Colorado river is the essential water source for the entire Southwest. I have seen it in various places -- Lake Havasu, Lake Mead, through the Grand Canyon, Lee's Ferry, Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam, through Canyonlands and Moab -- but this was the first time I would actually ride it.

For a daily whitewater trip from Moab you generally have two options. One is the Fisher Towers stretch of the river, maybe 20-30 minutes out of town. This has Class II-III rapids and is a great family adventure with opportunities to swim and picnic lunch. A bit more intense is a trip through Westwater Canyon, which Class III-IV. The Fisher Towers trip can be done on a half day basis, but Westwater is a full day affair. Of course, I chose Westwater. You will take a bright and early tour shuttle nearly to the Colorado border to put in. The first half of the day is generally easy floating along with some light rapids. You stop on the banks for lunch and once you put back in, you get to the bigger stuff. You will get wet. You might fall in. It's like a series of short choppy roller coaster segments in a water park.

River rafting is truly a good time, although guide-dependent. To navigate among the rocks takes skill and experience. Using oars, the river guide directs the raft to the most propitious channels. He (they are exclusively men as far as I saw) is also you tour guide, and social director. There will be 8 people in your raft and for the course of the day you will be close friends. The guide needs to manage the personalities as much as the river. If you had fun, you should tip big.

I got a big kick out of rafting and I hope to do it again, maybe an overnighter down a more challenging river. I'd also like to try a paddle raft where everyone is involved in maneuvering. It goes on the list for future trips.

The last day in Moab was a jeep tour up through the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park (CNP). The first time I was in CNP, nearly a decade ago, I remember as I was leaving the park looking off to the left and seeing a steep jeep trail of switchbacks going down into the canyon and thinking how cool it would be to take that back to town instead of the highway. Well, I finally got to that trail (called Shafer trail) but this going up instead of down. From just outside Moab there is a road called Potash, which, not surprisingly, runs past a Potash plant. It runs, like many things in the Southwest, along the Colorado river for a while, passing a huge red rock wall on one side with elaborate petroglyphs, then turns into the a canyon jeep trail.

Interesting story: Along the way you note and enormous excavation site. This is the location of a former uranium mine. Many years ago, when the price of uranium dropped, the mine shut down. In time people came to the conclusion that the leftover dust from the mine was getting into everything everywhere and potentially responsible for a number of cancer cases. So there is now a 300 million dollar effort underway to literally dig up all the dirt, load it on to trucks and ship it out in railroad cars to a place 30 miles north, where it will be dropped in a hole and covered with some concoction of shale and sand that will prevent it from contaminating the planet. The things we get ourselves into.

Alrighty. Further up Potash Road you come to the actual potash plant, which given the state of affairs, has to be one of the most closely environmentally monitored facilities imaginable. After that you come to the trail proper. The first thing to note is that however high you think you are you can still go higher. You can inch your way up the trail to magnificent overlooks (including the spot where Thelma and Louise went into the "Grand Canyon") only to realize you've got a long way up to go.

Another thing you realize is how astonishingly stupid people can be. This is a real 4wd trail. In dry weather I might attempt it with 2wd, but I would at least want a high-clearance vehicle. You will however, encounter people taking their rental cars through -- just your basic Chevy Malibu -- causing untold stress and damage and, if you do get stuck, you might be looking at a couple of grand to get your car out. Also, if your rental car had a GPS tracker or you did any damage that was obviously from off road, it may be even more expensive than a tow. That rental agreement specifically forbids you from taking the car off road.

It is not hard to imagine how people get themselves into this. I am given to understand they are often foreigners who just think it's a dirt road until they get in too deep. Admittedly the only posted warning is a sign that says "High-Clearance, 4wd recommended" but there is no policing whatsoever. But the rock crawling is real, and the heights and cliff edges can be knuckle-whitening. You would think folks would turn back when they realize this, although maybe they just keep thinking the worst is over. It isn't. Whatever the case, if you make it through, there's a real sense of accomplishment to it.

And that was that, yet there is still more to do and see in Moab. Three times is not enough. I can't wait to go back.

Friday, April 06, 2018

The Month That Was - March 2018

There are markers of Spring. In my beloved town of Dexter, MI, one of the earliest is the opening of Dairy Queen, usually on the first weekend of March. Had you visited Dairy Queen on opening day you would have had to trudge through the snow to get there. The next one is, of course, the vernal equinox -- the astronomical moment of Spring. This was a little better. There was still some snow on the ground, but also a bit of sun. Of course, it was accompanied by a warning that the next couple of weeks could still bring snow. Then comes Oberon Day. This is the day the Bell's Brewing Company (of Kalamazoo) starts shipping the spring wheat varietal called Oberon. It is a reason to hit the bar. Oberon day was cold and gray. Opening day for the Tigers follows. Also cold and the game was rained out. Now comes the news that the real break in the cold won't come until as late as April 10th. Not great, but it's been worse in recent memory. Life in a northern town, I suppose.

[Movies] Flick Check: Tone Opposites
[Books] Book Look: The Second World Wars
[TV] Toob Notes: Sneaky Pete

[Movies] Flick Check: Tone Opposites

Two big-budget sequels to sci-fi icons, Blade Runner: 2049 and Alien:Covenant, had stunning visuals, especially Blade Runner, but both left me cold. They are unremittingly grim.

Blade Runner: 2049 is a masterfully crafted film. Cinematography is unparalleled. But plot-wise, it treads well-worn ground. Once again we are in the future where everything is awful except for a wealthy elite. I am so deeply weary of dystopian visions. Even more so of dystopias that are kept in place by a corrupt and ruthless elite. Honestly, it's like sci-fi filmmakers can picture no possible futures for the world except to become North Korea writ large.

The plot revisits the themes of what it means to be human, what is the value of non-human life, or almost human life, etc. Essentially a more elegant take of various Star Trek episode themes. Yawn. But it is truly a feast for the eyes, and it's always good to see Harrison Ford in the old roles, which he still carries off like a true pro.

Alien: Covenant is less high-minded and less extreme in it's visual mastery, but still striking. Technically, it is both a sequel (to Prometheus) and a prequel (to the original Alien). It, too, trods well-worn ground. Two robots, one has turned against humanity, symbolize the discourse on whether humans are good or evil. Of course, all this was set in motion by wealthy elites in their greed to use the aliens for their own nefarious purposes. The scares of the original Alien are not approached. The crew characters can't hold a candle to the original, or Aliens either, or even Prometheus for that matter.

Honestly, despite the undeniable craftsmanship that went into both movies, the adolescent philosophizing and class-warfare dystopianism doom them. And really, would be impossible to inject a bit of levity here and there. There is barely a smile, never mind a laugh, wedged into all this gloom. I'm reminded of the Joss Whedon quote: "Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke."

In contrast, Thor: Ragnorak was a joke a minute. One thing Marvel has never had trouble with is putting humor into their movies. It is the thing that sets them above the imitators. Ragnarok pushes that capability over into outright farce. There was a thread of a plot here regarding the destruction of Asgaard and a bit of work forwarding the grand epic of Marvel, but it was all in service of the goofy fun. Even the characters changed to fit the script. Thor is not the mighty, noble, hammer-worthy god of thunder; he is hapless and desperate. Loki is not an evil mastermind, but petty and wagish. Hulk is not the uncontrollable beast, but a pouting child. It works because, as I have harped about before, Marvel casts actors that can do comedy. It is their (not-so) secret weapon. That said, it the larger scope of things, it has to be viewed almost like Deadpool: a one-off with little relevance to the big picture. When we get to Infinity War next, these guys are going to have to go back to their old characters (I assume).

And it's not without its shortcomings. Interestingly, the actions scenes lack some snap. They seem a bit pedestrian -- designed to generate still visuals for the posters. The plot is uninteresting and contrived. But that's OK because it was fun. Which is the point of farce: everything is in service of the gags and laughs. As fun as it was, it is ultimately a less satisfying movie that one that hits the killer balance of humor and drama just right. The previous Avengers movies and Spiderman: Homecoming come to mind as just about perfect in that respect.

Now there is a thing a never thought I would say: a movie is too funny. And it's not really, it did what it was supposed to. If every once in while, in middle of a major mythological epic you want to let your hair down, you should. (Trouble with Tribbles, anyone?)

[Books] Book Look: The Second World Wars, by Victor Davis Hanson

The plural in the title is telling. In this 20,000 foot overview, Hanson sees very the various conflicts of the collective idea of World War 2 as more distinct than the popular imagining. The variations came over time, technology, and ideology as opposed to simple geography. Hanson starts with the fact that in any rational estimation of the situation, the outcome of the war was foreordained. Had anyone sat down in 1939 and tried to determine if the Axis powers could fight a war as it was to be fought for domination of the world it would have been objectively impossible to see them succeed.

Of course, no one did such a thing. Decisions were made based on delusion, many of them were in fact racist delusions. Axis powers often fell into the trap of believing their opponents were inferior in mettle and so a temporary tactical or niche strategic advantage would be enough to secure victory. After a few early victories by the Axis it became apparent that the Allies would readily adapt, and anything they couldn't adapt to they would just outproduce into oblivion.

Hanson shows how this played out thematically in chapters on air power, naval power, infantry, artillery, leadership, etc. and gives the numbers, sometimes exhaustively, to back up his ideas. He is also a classicist, so as an added bonus you get comparables from history for many battles and concepts, pointing out nuances in the historical effectiveness of siegecraft or the primacy of infantry no matter how strong your navy (or air force).

When it comes to leaders, he weighs in as pro-Patton, down on Bradley and MacArthur and Montgomery to some extent. Churchill comes out well, Roosevelt and Stalin (as war leaders) did OK if not stellar. Hitler was, of course, a disaster.

Like virtually every popular historian I have read he engages in judgements that can seem arbitrary. One campaign is faulted for being too timid while another for being too aggressive. One leader should have paid more attention to details while another could not see the big picture. There may be valid reasons for the judgments that time, word count, or narrative limitations do not allow, but in the absence of explanation these can see like simple ex post facto rationalization. Like I said, I have yet to read a popular history that doesn't involve this to some extent.

Hanson writes in a very clear, forthright style -- perfect for history or non-fiction in general. Should you read The Second World Wars? Yes, if you are curious about the topic or are steeped in it and want to know how the winds of opinion are blowing. WW2 was the most monumental event in human history and it is slowly vanishing from living memory. Even those who heard stories of it from their parents, like Yours Truly, are sliding into old age. The great mass of Millenials will be unable to distinguish it from any other war from the olden days, never bothering to wonder of the source of the epithet "Nazi" that they fling wantonly at each other over Twitter. One can only hope that in each succeeding generation there will at least be a few folks who maintain a weird interest in this obscure historical topic. I suspect The Second World Wars will be on their core reading list.

[TV] Toob Notes: Sneaky Pete

Sneaky Pete is sourced from folks in both the Justified family and the Breaking Bad family so you know the quality will be first rate. That is to say, these people know what they are doing. They know how to plot. They know how to dramatize. They know how to build characters. They know timing and pacing. They know good actors and casting. Naturally, they turned out this a top notch drama; probably the best one I know of right now (until Better Call Saul returns).

Marius Josipovic is a con man who assumes the identity of his cellmate, Pete Murphy, upon release from prison. The Murphy clan into which he is welcomed is a hotbed of secrets and shadiness themselves. Between the family bail bond business, Marius' (Fake Pete) con-man ways, and real Pete's history of criminality, there is enough fodder for an endless supply Elmore Leonard-y capers and characters.

The appeal here is the combination of crime capers and family drama. It works well, as you would expect of anything backed by the top-drawer talent behind it. It is not pantheon level. For the time being -- the first two seasons anyway -- it is plot-driven. Plot twists and hidden motives can only go so far. By the end of the recently released Season 2 we are starting to see some character's arcs begin, but they are still not driving the action. That may come. For now, it's just a top quality show that's worth binging. Enjoy it for what it is, and hope they are able to level-up going forward.

Friday, March 09, 2018

The Month That Was - February 2018

I suppose the best thing that happened is that I finally got over being sick. I had what seemed like a fairly severe cold from early January to nearly mid-February. I had an annual check-up scheduled so I used it for an exam but there's nothing they can do for a virus, so they threw a z-pack at me "just in case" and said keep treating the symptoms. Of course, in the process of reviewing my blood work they discover my PSA had doubled over the past year. March will bring a biopsy. Joy.

More joy: I have apparently turned into one of those old people who kicks off every conversation with a summary of his current medical issues.

On the upside, I have been writing. I'm working to recapture some of the discipline I was able to achieve in my early writing days. I've also found help from a little gimmick they call Pomodoro Technique. It's a simple time management technique. Essentially, you work for 25 minutes straight, the take a five minute break. After you do that four times, you get a fifteen minute break. I can rarely create a two-hour time block for one task, so I never get to the 15 minute break, but I find the 25/5 split good when I have an hour for a coupe of sequences. Naturally there is an app for that (actually there are probably dozens of them, most are free). I think 25 minutes is a good selection because it's long enough to be productive but psychologically it doesn't seem like much since it's not even the length of a sitcom. Anyway, it seems to be working for me.

[House and Home] Home, Bittersweet Home
[Rant] Rules for Life from Jordan Peterson and a Jerk

[House and Home] Home, Bittersweet Home

I have now been a homeowner for over seven years. I've noticed an uptick in unsolicited mailers from realtors which is likely the result of some research suggesting it is at seven years folks start thinking about relocating. I'm not. One of the great blessings of owning this big, comfortable house has been being able to help out my friends who, either short-term of long-term, need a place to stay, without having them crash on a couch or in a sleeping bag, or park half a mile away, or fight over the shower. I live on a quiet cul-de-sac in a quiet exurban private subdivision. I have huge tracts of protected lands to the rear including walking trails. Really it's one of the best places in the world I can think of to live. So much so that I often muse how different my life would be had I grown up in such a place, rather than low-end, nondescript suburb on the northern border of Detroit.

That said, it has been enormously expensive. I have four services just to deal with the grounds: lawn cutting, lawn spraying and feeding, tree spraying and feeding, landscaping. The septic system needs to pumped. The driveway needs repaving. It's close to twenty years old so things are starting to fail, like most any exterior part made of wood; windows are surprisingly costly. I don't have city water, I have country water -- that is to say, a well. While it is appealing to have all the water you need without worrying about paying the city, it does require you maintain what is essentially a personal water treatment plant in your basement: brine conditioner, iron and rust removal, reverse osmosis filtering for drinking water. It's quite an operation and it works nicely until it doesn't, then you have no water and have to get the well pump replaced for $1200. You get the picture.

Then there are the problems for which there is no monetary solution, of late that includes insects. Dexter, and apparently a lot of spots in Michigan, have been overrun with a couple of scourges: Boxelder Bugs and Stink Bugs.

Boxelder bugs are black an red, fingernail-sized, beetle-like entities. Near as I can they have no purpose in life other than to swarm. During the summer they are fairly innocuous, but when the weather starts to turn they seek warmth any way they can. As the sun hits my house and heats up the exterior they swarm, literally covering the entire south wall to gather maximum heat, and a good bit of any other parts of the house that catch some solar warmth. It's like some sort of insect apocalypse. They do not bite or eat plants or carry disease, they are just a hideous nuisance to any efforts to enjoy the outside. Of course, being bugs, they also frequently find their way inside. During the worst times, I probably kill five or six a day just aimlessly wandering about the house.

The prescribed action to take is to just kill the ones you find inside, and leave the outside ones be until the first frost finally rids you of them. If you want to try to kill a swarm, it's recommended that you spray them with soapy water. I have tried that with virtually no success. This year I have no intention of letting them swarm unimpeded, though. It's chemical warfare for me in spring and fall this year. Probably the smartest course of action would be to locate their favorite boxelder tree where they feed and breed and cut it down, but I'm pretty sure it's on public land which might get me thrown in jail.

Stink bugs are another story. They look like some sort of alien monstrosity, albeit penny-sized. An invasive species from the Far East, they are not as numerous outside as boxelders, but they do take up residence indoors over winter. They don't bite and don't appear to be a source of disease, but they are disgusting. You just quietly sitting on the couch watching TV and you glance over an one is six inches from your face just looking at you like you owe him money. Like the boxelders, they are stupid and just wander around the house without even trying to hide. Also, like the boxelders I can kill four or five on a heavy day. Hopefully, since these are invasive and eat crops, somebody somewhere is trying to figure out how to get rid of them.

Tangential: I have a halogen lamp in my basement, it gives off a lot of heat and almost daily one of these critters flies into it and incinerates itself. I spent weeks trying to figure out where the roasted smell was coming from until I saw it happen in real time.

The point of all this to say that even though I might have wonderful images in my head of endless days of repose in my big, comfortable house -- it can never work out that way. Even if I had endless money for maintenance and could renovate to perfection, there is a always something to disrupt nirvana. Even if I master the civilized world, nature is still there supply an insect plague to keep things in balance. Like the great P.G. Wodehouse wrote, "it's always just when a chappie is feeling particularly top-hole, and more than usually braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with a bit of lead piping."

[Rant] Rules for Life from Jordan Peterson and a Jerk

Up until a few weeks ago I had never heard of Jordan Peterson. Then all of sudden he was everywhere, being declared one the most influential thinkers of our time which either thrilled people or made them froth at the mouth in anger. All I could do was furrow my brow and say, "Who?"

I am avowedly opposed to following the latest deep thinkers in ethics because in my experience 99% of the time they amount to little more than a passing fashion and they turn out to mostly be repackaging concepts that have been around since Aristotle. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Everybody needs a doorway into thinking deeply and if Jordan Peterson is yours, more power to you.

And that is, I think, exactly what he is. I have read a couple of interviews with him and read reviews of his books and it seems he has synthesized and very reasonable and constructive worldview that counters the pop culture-centric, eyeball-maximizing, transient mythologies that dominate contemporary life. Instead he offers a view where "likes" don't matter; where following your dream is not the ultimate joy; where identity doesn't come from your race or political tribe; where happiness is not promised; and most of all where your humanity is not unique to your generation. In other words he's telling you there is something more than the existence you get spoon fed to you from all quarters. You should accept that as truth even if you don't buy his depiction of it.

So in my time-honored tradition of expounding on things I know nothing about. Let's walk through his 12 rules for life and see what we have:

Rule 1 - Stand up straight with your shoulders back
No harm in good posture. Still, I think the point here is to be open and alert, to actively engage the world and ready to accept what comes.
Rule 2 - Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
Notice it is not someone you like, but someone you are responsible for. Taking care of yourself is an obligation. That is to say, save yourself from the self-destruction that can come from your bad habits. Good thought, but depends on you recognizing your own faults.
Rule 3 - Make friends with people who want the best for you
Absolutely. Your peer group has enormous effect on the quality of your life. How are you evaluating your friendships, by how they treat you individually or by what level of status they give you?
Rule 4 - Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
To do otherwise leads to resentment, which contemporary culture turns into moral outrage, which leads to righteous hostility, which is responsible for more harm than anything in human history. As they say in yoga, "Stay on your own mat."
Rule 5 - Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
Setting boundaries for kids is more important than their test scores. Amen. (Not that I would know.)
Rule 6 - Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
...he replied when Harvey Weinstein applauded feminism.
Rule 7 - Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
Yes, of course. It's harder and less fun, but you still have to do it.
Rule 8 - Tell the truth - or, at least, don't lie
Of all these this is the one I struggle with most. Humans lie. Humans have to lie. Without lies there would be no civilization. I would alter it to Do not lie out of self-interest or cowardice.
Rule 9 - Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't
To actually listen, you HAVE TO do this. I would link this up with Rule 3 and suggest this is closely allied with positive friendships
Rule 10 - Be precise in your speech
Please do. And writing. And listening. And reading.
Rule 11 - Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
Children need to learn how to cope with failure and evaluate risk. And they need to do it on their own, through experience, not through beneficent instruction.
Rule 12 - Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
Having not read the book, I'm not sure where he went with this one. It's a fine sentiment, although I am personally acquainted with a cat that will shred your flesh should you try this.

On the whole these are excellent, although perhaps further from groundbreaking than I had supposed. From interviews it's clear that Peterson is deeply conservative and anti-postmodern progressive, but not in a negative way. It's hard for me to imagine a reasonable person, however liberal, who would think young men in general would be worse off by taking this advice to heart. Many folks philosophically invested in the common precepts the-culture-of-now, to the exclusion of all else, are shocked that anyone might disagree with them. One of my personal advantages in having no idea what is going on in the world is not being particularly inflamed at either side.

Contemporary cultural values aside, at his philosophical core, despite an affinity for the Western tradition, he seems to have a streak of Buddhism in him. His message indicates that life is a never-ending struggle, but must be engaged forthrightly and positively: the joyful engagement of suffering, and so forth -- straight out of Gautama. In any event, were I a man of the left, I might secretly be glad for such a reasonable opponent.

Nassim Taleb is a jerk. Well, that's what everyone says anyway. He would describe it as not suffering fools. It makes sense that people in public life would think he's a jerk, because most people in public life are fools. He has taken to calling out book reviewers for their poorly reasoned critiques which has caused them to gripe, but in private I am sure there are many who are delighted by it. He has picked a fight with Steven Pinker over his latest book, but public slap fights among authors are more farce than hostility. He's also very sharp and thoughtful and holds the conventions of the-culture-of-now in contempt, which would qualify even the kindest soul for derision from said culture. None of this is here or there, I just find it interesting.

I have not read his latest book, but I've been following the chatter. And although not expressly trying to mold youth, he, like Jordan Peterson, offers some advice on how to live virtuously.
Finally, when young people who "want to help mankind" come to me, asking: "What should I do? I want to reduce poverty, save the world" and similar noble aspirations at the macro-level, my suggestion is:
  1. Never engage in virtue signaling
  2. Never engage in rent seeking
  3. You must start a business. Take risks, start a business.
I should explain these a bit.

Virtue Signalling is when you perform actions with the intent of showing others your nobility rather than actually doing good for good's sake. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest this is the bulk of good acts you hear about through the media, just by virtue of the fact that you heard about them through the media. Ask yourself if a thing actually causes change. That "Coexist" bumper sticker -- has such a bumper sticker ever actually changed anyone or anything or are you just advertising you goodness, signalling your virtue? Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with Virtue Signalling. It's essentially just an announcement of your identity to an audience. The problem comes when you delude yourself that your virtue signalling counts as "doing something". It does not. It is useful in certain circumstances, but can't really be called virtuous. That includes that meme you just posted on facebook.

Rent-Seeking is a term in economics that effectively means gaining advantage by changing the rules. It is most often used in a political sense, especially with respect to lobbying. If firm or institution lobbies the government for a change in laws that gives it an advantage, it has profited but not by getting better at its job. This advantage has added (probably temporarily) to their bottom line, but it has done nothing for the world. In fact, it probably encourages inefficiency with respect to the performance of the organization.

Start a Business is a handy shorthand for take a risk with your own well-being or, as his book is titled, put Skin in the Game. Don't think critiques and opinions get you anywhere. Those are zero cost. Start a business and make a fortune, then you can actually do actual good beyond adopting the proper pose.

Taleb and Peterson have provided wonderful advice; no "do what you love" or "follow your dreams" or clouds and unicorns. This is the hard stuff, there will be sacrifice, loss, and no guarantees. Good to know there is this truth out there, however unappealing you may find the messengers.

...said the guy who hasn't read the books and is just speculating on hearsay, something they would both decry, I'm sure. But hell, I'm older than both of them so they can get off my lawn. You young'uns, on the other hand, should do as they say, not as I do.

Tangential: Clayton Christensen, most famous for The Innovator's Dilemma and other books on business, once noted that if a young person asked him what was the best way to do good in the world he would suggest go into corporate management. Don't laugh. A manager has tremendous influence over 1/3 of the life of every employee he supervises. He has to balance all sorts of demands -- financial, functional, personal, political -- and if he can do that while seeing that the people who work for you are getting fair treatment and an opportunity for growth he has done inestimable good. The specific quote: "Management is the opportunity to help people become better people. Practiced that way, it's a magnificent profession." This is what I hope I have been able to do in my 20+ years of management.

Friday, February 09, 2018

The Month That Was - January 2018

I don't make New Year's resolutions. If it is important to do something, why wait until 1/1? Just start doing it. Waiting until some point in the future is just rationalizing procrastination. If it's a bad habit you are going to quit, I seriously doubt whether giving yourself a some cushion time to continue your bad habit before you go cold turkey on 1/1 is going help at all.

On the other hand, it's just a harmless little cultural touchpoint and I should stop being such a wet blanket.

I've pretty much distilled my plan for good living down to two principles:
  1. 1) Whenever possible, enhance the lives of the people I care about.
  2. 2) Fight sloth (the Deadly Sin, not the adorable forest creature).
If I do those things, most everything else falls into place. I've been fairly successful at #1, I think. Probably less so at #2. In any event, they will remain for now.

Like many people I spent the bulk of January sick. I only had a head cold of sorts -- no flu -- but it was a doozy and while a standard cold lasts four days with me, this one hung on for a full two weeks. Then, after a couple of days good health, I caught another cold which continues to this day (which is why this is so late). I can barely remember what it was like to breathe freely.

[TV] Forehead Sweat of the Flukeman
[Ann Arbor] Stupid Drunken Kids, Yesterday and Today
[Travel] Messin' With Texas

[TV] Forehead Sweat of the Flukeman

In a thousand years, when the bizarre cyber-humans look back at these times, they will sneer smugly at the pathetic ignorance of the last millenia, just like every generation of humans before them has, but not without pausing to observe: "But Darin Morgan sure was great, though."

Many years ago I wrote an appreciation of Darin Morgan's work on the original X files and it's short lived spin-off, Millenium, which has, remarkably, totally vanished from the Internet. I didn't think you could make something completely disappear from the internet if you tried, but I can't even find it in the Wayback Machine. I originally published it on blogcritics.com. (The happy, friendly old site, not the new slick one, from which it has been summarily removed along with apparently, virtually all articles from that time. Or at least all my articles. Somebody should open an X-file.)

The good news in that I get to write it again for you now, in honor of another brilliant effort from Morgan on the latest X-files, "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat". Before we get to the resurrected X-files, let's review what he wrote for for the original series and Millenium.

Humbug -- Set in an encampment of carnival freaks, Mulder and Scully investigate the Fiji Mermaid which turns out to be a parasitic twin. Extended ruminations on the nature and desirability of normalcy and abnormalcy. Also self-impalement and cannibalism, all in good humor.

Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose -- an Emmy winner. Clyde Bruckman can see your death when he touches you. So naturally, he's a life insurance salesman. The topic here is free will versus determinism. Also autoerotic asphyxiation is no way to die.

War of the Coprophages -- A lighter theme of how we react to perceptions rather than reality. Robot cockroaches cause mass hysteria, an entomologist named Bambi and a Stephen Hawking doppelganger mix it up with Mulder and Scully.

Jose Chung's From Outer Space -- Quite possibly the finest teleplay ever written. Seemingly about the way reality can be shaped by second-hand description, the episode is exceedingly technically adept. There are moments where you are three flashbacks deep, yet you never lose your place. The step-by-step plot of is almost too complicated to describe. Jesse Ventura and Alex Trebek are Men in Black. Charles Nelson Reilly is Jose Chung. You will fear Lord Kinbote. Just an tremendous accomplishment all the way around.

Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense -- Jose Chung returns, this time to Millenium and in a battle with a Cult of Selfosophy (probably meant to parody Scientology) and its founder, failed writer Juggernaut Onan Goopta. Fun is made of all the trouble that comes from worrying about being "too dark," a criticism leveled at the series itself.

Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me -- Another from MIllenium. Four demons share coffee and recount their adventures that brought them into contact with Frank Black. The dark comedy of the stories only serves to reveal the pathos of the demons.

Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster -- From the first season of the reborn X-Files, this seems like a standard issue b-movie horror film from the 50s, but a twist at the end makes you wonder who the monster is. Also, Mulder is confounded by his iPhone. (Probably Darin's weakest work, but still head and shoulders above the rest of that abysmal season.)

The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat -- Which brings us to the latest and a brilliant return to form. A strange man appears and tries to convince Mulder and Scully that all their memories are fake, that he was their partner in the X-files over all those years and that there is one man out their, Dr. They, altering everybody's reality with impunity. This is Morgan's take on the "post-truth" world (and he does take a cheap shot or two at Trump, specifically). Whatever the reality, at least we know it's not parallel universes -- that's just crazy. This episode should have been the series finale, since it appears there will be no more episodes after this season.

In all of these scripts, Morgan uses self-referential parody to break the show's tone, opening up his own canvas. His characters then spin in a blender of existential moral and philosophical conundrums, which remain unsolved and broken, leaving them with only their humanity to hold on to. At the end of Jose Chung's From Outer Space, all the supernatural and conspiratorial machinations are for naught and we are left with the bewildered adolescent who started it all, sadly declaring his unrequited love. In Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me, when the demons are done cackling and bragging about all the chaos, sorrow, and pain they've sown, Frank Black looks at them and hits home with, "You must be so lonely." In The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat, once all the surreal upending of the truth has passed, Scully yearns to hold on to it saying, "I want to remember all of it. Exactly as it was." This is where Morgan suprasses the crowd. In the end, it all comes back to simple heartfelt emotions, often elegiac. In the face of the mad and the madcap, when all is said and done, what remains is humanity.

My words do not do justice to the supreme irony, humor, and structural elegance of these stories. You should binge them. You're welcome.

[Ann Arbor] Stupid Drunken Kids, Yesterday and Today

One of the first things I did when I left for college was get drunk a lot. The year was 1978 and the drinking age was 18. The following year it would be raised to 21, without a grandfather clause. Thus I was legal to drink for a year before the privilege was taken away. Like everyone my age, I was righteously indignant and saw myself as horrible repressed. The fact is, it was probably the right move for the State of Michigan, at least based on my performance during my year of legality.

The place to get drunk for me was an Ann Arbor bar called Dooley's. It was an absolute zoo. Surly, power-drunk bouncers mixed with pompous, trouble-seeking frat boys in the land of 2-for-1 pitchers of Budweiser. The place was two levels tall, reeked of mold and vomit, and was packed Thursday through Saturday nights. Many nights were spent there downing cheap and horrendous lagers with assorted groups of my dorm floor buddies. The epic drunken stagger back to the dorm could involve anything from lewd behavior to public urination to property damage. One thing it never involved was women. We skillfully avoided harassing women by being pretty much invisible to them. We also never got our asses kicked by equally drunken athletes, though we might have deserved to now and then.

I don't recount this in the spirit of laughing at the folly of youth as a warm memory. We were idiots; myself most prominently. Stupidity and waste are nothing to celebrate even in youth. It's tempting to say that I had to spend some time as a complete fool to learn how not to be one, but there are plenty of people who manage to be solid citizens without a long and glamorous stage of asshattery. Be that as it may, it is factually the path of my life. Hopefully I can laugh about it without taking pride in it.

All this comes to mind because after the drinking age was raised, Dooley's became the place you knew you could probably get a drink without getting carded. I do not know if this was intentional or not; whether the bartenders chose to ignore the law or if they were just as stupid as the patrons. Sited many times for violations of the years, Dooley's closed its doors and after an incarnation or two as an unsuccessful restaurant the building re-opened a few years ago under new, but like-minded management, as Scorekeepers. Turns out, some things don't change. Here are a smattering of Google review quotes:
  • What a terrible place for anyone over 20. I totally advise against even thinking about entering the premise. It's full of frat boys and college girls with little else to do than drink. Terrible.
  • Probably the filthiest place in all of downtown Ann Arbor. Just walking by it smells horrific.
  • Like the atmosphere but got kicked out after some kid was trying to start stuff for no reason
  • Smells like hot garbage and raw sewage every day walking past this place. The city ought to shut this place down.
  • Best college bar in existence. Debauchery, babes, cheap drinks.
  • Staff is very rude and banned me for something that makes no sense after being a loyal customer each week for years and causing no issues. Tap lines are never cleaned is why the draft beer tastes bad. They also pack the bar to over double the recommended capacity so many fights result.
Ah, yes. Those brought back memories. But under the heading of Deja Vu, it looks like the same story line from 40 years is replaying: The cops want to shut 'em down.

The business model of Have a Slimy Bar that No One in Their Right Mind Would Go To and Make Profit on the Underaged Who Can't Go Anywhere Else is a time honored one. So sure close 'em down. Another one will rise in short order, probably in the same building. Demand dictates supply and as long as the kids want to drink, some place will come along to fill the bill and make a quick few years of profits before getting shut down.

It's the circle of life in a college town.

[Travel] Messin' with Texas

I was in Texas. I've been to Texas before. It's a bit of an odd place to a Great Lakes boy.

Dallas is like any other big city, although the lack of zoning gives it an unusual flavor. Residential areas and commercial areas are deeply intermixed.

Austin is, of course, a one-off. It's really a displaced coastal town with a western theme.

I once drove Carlsbad NM to Las Cruces NM on I-62 which is a stretch of freeway that runs through West Texas and El Paso. I stopped for a hike in the Guadalupe Mountains (lovely, and sparsely visited). I was stopped at a border patrol station and quickly scanned for illegals. And I was stunned by the endless strings of used car lots along the border.

This time I was in Houston, about which there is little to say. It seems like a decent place. Folks there are proud of their reaction to the recent hurricane and their resilience, and rightly so. I remember how the hand wringing in New Orleans went on for years. There was no such reaction from Houstonians. For the fourth largest city in the nation, it's remarkably unremarkable (that's a compliment). And it's growing enormously. Houston is growing at a rate of 9-ish percent since 2010, but that is obscuring the fact that the surrounding cities such as Pearland and College Station and are growing at rates beyond 20%. The area in what is probably a four hour drive radius including San Antonio, Austin, and Houston is just exploding. One suspects it will overshadow L.A. and D.C. given time. The country will be the better for it.

Texans have strong identity. It waxes and wanes in different parts of the state though. Houston and Dallas I saw little of it. I saw some in Austin, although there it is tinged by hipster irony. It is pretty prominent in San Antonio (notably, the seventh largest city in the U.S.), home of The Alamo, and the target of a side trip. The Alamo is a fine place to visit. It strikes a good balance of history and curiosity. It is one of the rare U.S. monuments that is clearly geared toward Red Staters; most such places hold the mainstream leftish-progressive line in their tone. It's just off the famous Riverwalk, which is also a fine place to visit and a unique social center. Luckily it was chilly and off-season, otherwise I it would have been packed to the gills, and rightly so. The bars and restaurants on the Riverwalk proper are not particularly outstanding, but it's the setting that counts. Well worth a visit.

Nowhere in Texas have I ever stayed long enough to get a real feel for the place. But, as is clear, it's not just one place. Visiting for a day or two here and there and then passing judgment on Texas is like visiting Hong Kong and Beijing and claiming you understand China. My guess is that it's just fine, and while I wouldn't go out of my way to live there, I would be disappointed if I found myself a resident. Judging from its population and economic growth, the market thinks it's one of the best places. That's a more valuable recommendation that my opinion.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Month That Was - December 2017

Wow is it cold. My latest heating bill was $333.00. The furnace is running pretty much non-stop these days, what with me having a house guest and all. We have had week long stretches on sub-zero lows, which terrifies me when I think of whether all the ridiculously expensive landscaping I have had done will survive.

Apart from the cold, everything is going fairly well. I need to start planning my 2018 adventures; they will be scaled back this year, since last year was pretty much spent spending, if you get my drift.

I have done no fresh writing but have worked on a revision of my existing partial manuscript in the hopes that it will kickstart me. The good news is I like what I've written so far, the bad news is I'm still stuck on how to proceed. This is not writer's block. I have plenty of possible paths to take it, but none of them cohere. Can only hope it will come eventually, as it always has in the past.

[Travel, Florida] Ave Anna Maria
[Rant, Tech] Homo Technologus
[Movies] Flick Check: Star Wars: The Last Jedi
[Books] Book mlook: Malice

[Travel, Florida] Ave Anna Maria

Every time I stay in a Florida Gulf beach town I think to myself, "Yeah, I could live here..." Anna Maria is no exception. But we start with an interesting AirBnB.

Normally, a trip to the Gulf means renting a room in a small beachside hotel. But as it turned out, for less than the price of a serviceable hotel room, I could get an entire house on AirBnB. Essentially I got a two bedroom/two bath home (part of a duplex), a five minute walk from the beach on the north end of Anna Maria, just around the corner from a string of shops and restaurants. Five star ratings from previous renters. All for about 70% of the price of a wee hotel room. I went for it.

This was not my first AirBnB. I rented one for my Idaho/Eclipse trip back in August, but that was managed by a rental house agency. This house was one of what I guess to be a set of three, owned by a guy and his two sisters. I think they list them all on AirBnB and just move around to stay whichever one isn't occupied for any given time. In any event, I met the fellow at his house -- nice, good natured guy -- he showed me around briefly and was about to be on his way when I asked, "What about keys?"

"Oh, I lost them a while back. Just leave the door unlocked. There's no crime here and the guy who lives downstairs is ex-Marine special ops."

Alrighty.

So I wasn't really sure what I was getting into here. A part of me felt like I was a character in an Elmore Leonard novel, about to find myself entangled with highly colorful kooks in some sort of shenanigans. But realistically, I had nothing all that valuable. Visits to Florida generally involve two pairs of cargo shorts, a couple of ratty old t-shirts, bathing suit, sandals, and sunglasses. My laptop wouldn't get me $50 on Craigslist, and its contents are backed-up. My phone is always with me, and I could lock the door from the inside so personal safety wasn't an issue. The former special ops Marine turned out to be a touch over 60 with a startup that was about to go Series A. So, yeah.

And it was fine. I never saw either the owner or the special ops guy again. I gave them 5 stars and they gave me five stars so my AirBnB cred is now perfect. And I gained a genuine affection for Anna Maria Island.

To get to Anna Maria Island from Sarasota you can do a lovely hour-plus drive at about 25 mph up through longboat key, or you can drive through the next city north, Bradenton, and save about half the time. Since I have driven the keys more times than I can count, I chose the short route.

Bradenton is downscale from Sarasota -- filed with weatherbeaten old strip malls and chain restaurants. It's not the best place to live in Florida but it may be one of the cheapest. There are a couple of areas in town that are coming along -- a historic downtown area that has some old, character-full buildings and commercial activity, like one those officially designated revitalization zones you see in struggling cities, and as you move west toward the water there a lot of nice looking gentrified gated communities for snowbirds and such. For the most part though, Bradenton is on the low end. They have a problem with opiates and crime/gangs associated with them, like every other working class city, although not so bad as to make it unliveable.

In my travels I have seen a large number of places like this. Cities that end up as the functional back rooms for primarily tourist enclaves. The people here constitute the underclass of the service industry. What, in less abiding times, we would have called menial labor. They wash dishes and bus tables, clean the grounds and the rooms, work the convenience store counters and souvenir shops, wash cars, haul trash. They have no job security and no growth opportunity but, as long as the tourists and retirees keep coming, they can generally stay employed with a couple of part-time jobs at a buck or two over minimum wage.

Cross the bridge from Bradenton to Anna Maria Island and things are different, of course. That said, Anna Maria isn't the tightly controlled environment of say a Sanibel or Boca Grande. It doesn't cost anything to get on the island and it's easily accessible to many Gulf-area cities so the tone of Anna Maria is somewhat different from the truly high end places. More commoners -- proles, if you will -- hit the island, so right at the point of crossing there is an ugly shopping center area right near the largest public beach, Holmes Beach, which like the whole island has that perfect baby powder sand that the Gulf is famous for. The beach is lovely, but on the the immediate area surrounding it is generically commercial and as such, an inexpensive area. That is to say, it fits the likely clientele.

Not surprisingly, as you move away from this area, either north or south on the key, things get more hoity-toity as the upstairs cushions itself from the downstairs. My AirBnB was in the farthest north neighborhood, entirely residential, just past a string of tastefully done shops and restaurants.

I know I sound awfully snooty as I write all this. I don't mean to. The proles who visit seem just as happy as the petty bourgeois in the upscale areas. I'm sure they are. But to pretend there are not clear class distinctions in some of these places is to ignore the obvious. Also to deny that I prefer luxury and exclusivity in my vacation locales is to ignore myself.

It startlingly easy to fall into an island rhythm. The house I was in was delightfully shaded, so it never got too hot and I didn't turn on the a/c, just had the windows open and breeze going 24 hours a day. Wake up mid-morning, slip on a pair of shorts, t-shirt, and sandals then walk down the street for something to eat. Or don my running shoes and go for a beach run. Come back, change into bathing suit for a swim in the Gulf. In the evening walk down to a restaurant on the pier on the sound side for the fresh catch, or a beach bar for some peel 'n' eats and a beer and watch the sunset.

I've been coming to this area for over 20 years and I've seen and done most everything touristy around the area, so the only significant excursion was to Mykella State Park, an interesting stretch of swampy wilderness -- plenty of wildlife and history (including gators, of course). A fine low-key day trip. But in truth, there is little new in these parts for me to see.

All Good Things... I returned north on Christmas day to record cold and had to get up the following day to run the snow-blower so I could get out of my garage. I love Michigan, I love the area where I live, but really need to be snow-bird. Bug out after Thanksgiving and not return until April. That would be perfect. Now I'm thinking of buying a place and just letting AirBnB rent it out when I'm up north. I'd make sure I had keys as special ops Marines are in short supply.

[Rant, Tech] Homo Technologus

Well, well, well. There are so many possible angles to take on this assessment of facebook, by one of it's own (formerly). He points out that facebook fosters an inane form of communication. He also highlights instances where social media has been instrumental in horrific deaths and even genocide. He slaps down a culture in thrall to the quick dopamine hit from a "like" or a "mention".

He's right about all that, of course. On the other hand, the same can be said of 30-second sound bites and they've been around since the dawn of mass media, not social media. As far as the dopamine hit, for that we can blame evolution for giving us something called the Coalitional Instinct.

At some point in our evolution some humans developed a mutation wherein our brains released dopamine (feel good juice) when we bonded with others into a group. Groups were better at hunting and gathering and providing and also better at protecting themselves from the terrors of the primitive world, so people with this mutation thrived relative to loners, and pairs, and simple family units. Groups became clans became tribes became nations and so forth.

That biochemistry is so powerful that we will readily engage in terrible behavior in the service of our group. It can range from simple hypocrisy and little white lies to outright atrocity. And we will use every trick in the book to delude ourselves that we are acting nobly no matter what. This behavior is hard wired into us. We probably engage in this charade multiple times every day. And when I say "we" I mean you, me, and everyone else. Everytime you link to some news article that demonstrates how your side is right about some issue or another, and you convince yourself that it amounts to some sort of clear, objective fact, you are engaging in this activity. When we are in thrall to this Coalitional Instinct, we literally do not see or hear information that would result in cognitive dissonance, our brains erase it from perception.

This is what the internet and social media have unleashed. All the information in the world is at our fingertips, yet rationality and thoughtfulness are swamped by that ancient, primal dopamine hit from demonstrating a righteous, loyal connection with our tribe. And for all it's complicity in this, facebook is a poor second to Twitter in this game. Have you ever been on Twitter? Yikes.
Anyway, this is the generalization of what the facebook exec in the article, Chamath Palihapitiya, is talking about, although he loses sight of the core problem and decides it's really just that people aren't sufficiently devoted to the progressive issues that he thinks are important.

None of this is new, but like everything else in the world it is faster and easier than ever before, and the genie is out of the bottle. We'll never go back, we had better learn to deal.

Personally, I'd be happy if facebook would just stop presenting me ads for "male-enhancement pills" and "50+ dating" sites, although I understand them thinking that is my tribe. There are are worse tribes.

[Movies] Flick Check: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

(Spoiler Alert - as if you don't already know everything) I came out of the theatre kind of neutral on it, but upon reflection really disliked it. (Yes, I saw it in a theatre. Seeing a movie in a theatre has become a tradition on my visits to my brother down south. Otherwise, never would I.) That tells me that it had some at least some things going for it for me to not hate it at the outset. Considering it was 2.5 hours long, the pacing must have been pretty solid: lulls in action were tolerable, plot was easy to follow. Also solid was the acting -- especially Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, and Mark Hamill. The Rey-Kylo Ren connection was holding my attention and offers a good core theme for the trilogy.

But dear God was the secondary story, with Finn and Rose, inane. Honestly, it was after-school special bad. Let me say it: It was Phantom Menace bad. How do adults, even if they are writing for kids, come up with something so unrelentingly stupid?

Nearly as stupid was the Carrie-Fisher-and-Laura-Dern-teach-Poe-not-to-be-such-a-cowboy tertiary plot. At least this served the purpose of "prepping" Poe for leadership of the Resistance, but, wow, was it a cut-and-paste job.

The Force has always had a bit of deus-ex-machina feel about it, but here it's taken to absurd levels with mind control across vast reaches of space, along with Yoda reappearing in a truly ham-fisted turn of events, and when Carrie Fisher uses the force to survive unprotected in empty space and fly back to her ship -- well, that is a nuke-the-fridge moment if there ever was one.

So now Han and Luke are dead and Princess Leia is dead in real life so maybe they can let go of the fan service. The core storyline of Rey vs. Ren is still intact and serviceable. I suppose there is a thread of hope. The best of this generation so far has been the one-off Rogue One so maybe the upcoming early Han Solo movie will work well. But, hope or no, this trilogy is likely to go down as only marginally better than the prequels.

[Books] Book Look: Malice, by Keigo Higashino

Police Procedurals are such a well worn genre at this point that finding something new and different is very gratifying. Malice takes a lot of chances with form. There is a rather abrupt POV change early on, only later do we discover that there was a very good reason for it. More interestingly, the motive is one that is dangerously undramatic. That is to say, it is almost a "just because" sort of explanation, but the in the context of the story it plays alright. Also, a good deal of the plot revolves around writers and writing, and a writer writing about being a writer is usually the touch of death, but again, Kiego-san, manages to keep in relevant, primarily by making the detective into a sort of anti-writer and the story ending up by focusing on bullying in school not writing. (As described, bullying in Japanese middle schools sounds horrific, if this is an accurate depiction. Worse than anything I experienced in Southfield, Michigan.)

Higashino has a steady, no-nonsense prose style. He wastes few words and doesn't bother with too much scene setting. That is very nice; an author who respects your time.

The mystery itself is well thought out. It starts out like it's going to be locked room murder, then goes off in one direction, does a complete reverse, and then angles off one last time, doing a good job of keeping you on your toes. There are bits and pieces of blatant manipulation along the way -- terminating dialogue just before the big reveal, hiding important details, etc., but nothing that is out of the ordinary for a police procedural.

Should you read Malice? Sure. It's a page turner of a mystery and a fresh take on an old genre. Higashino is the premier mystery writer in Japan and is highly regarded in Edgar Award circles. He deserves it.

Friday, December 08, 2017

The Month That Was - November 2017

November is a sigh of resignation. It appears I will survive yet another year. It appears I will have to endure another winter. I did have a fine break down to Vegas for Thanksgiving as usual. Also, my houseguest had her nieces (ages 6 and 11) over for a weekend and they are a good approximation of a hurricane. So the month was not without its action.

I seem to have lost a good deal of enthusiasm for the things that previously took my time. Working out has become a bit of a chore, travel doesn't really excite me, and I haven't written anything in awhile. Not sure if this is temporary or indicative of something else. I am also gaining weight. I am push 185 which is at 5-10 pounds too high. Something must be done about that.

Whatever the case, I continue to push on.

[Detroit, Rant] Detroit vs. Me
[Movies] Flick Check: Justice League
[Travel, Vegas] State of Vegas

[Detroit, Rant] Detroit vs. Me

Time was I used to regularly point and laugh at all the heartfelt stories of Detroit's rebirth and recovery, claiming that it was futile and Detroit was hopeless. Now that tangible evidence of that recovery is getting publicity everywhere you look, you'd think I'd be hiding my head in shame. Well, no. I'm still going to be the wet blanket on your happy feelies.

Two good things have happened. First, the State of Michigan took over management of Detroit when they went into bankruptcy. Until then, assorted powers on the city council along the mayor worked the city like the mafia bust out. The State taking over has at least allowed businesses to feel like they are not going to get shaken down and milked dry. That has led to the second good thing, which is some high profile businesses have opened up shop in the city. The cynic in me says these businesses are figuring out ways to use decaying Detroit as a benefit to branding, either to goose their Good Progressive Actor scores or elevate their authenticity status. (Authenticity is a holy grail for well-heeled, insecure hipsters and nothing makes you more real than being from Detroit. )

Along with these high profile businesses have come well-meaning white people who fancy themselves on the vanguard of culture and coolness. Getting a New York Times article about how cool you are gives them shivers of validation. I'd wager you get more cred these days for being from Detroit than you do being from Brooklyn; that's saying something.

This year, was the first election for mayor since the State has relinquished control back to local authorities. As of last August, four of the eight candidates for mayor were felons -- two of whom were charged with attempted murder. Now, the good news is that none of them were serious candidates, but old habits of die hard (just ask Marion Barry). Yet, remarkably, the new Mayor, Mike Duggan, is white -- which strongly suggests that one way or another the old power structure is on the ropes. I mean, he beat Coleman Young II, son of the long-time mayor Coleman Young who was the individual who did the most the destroy the city. His dad would never have lost to a white man, so something is going on.

So that's good. I'm happy for this. I really am. And I grudgingly have to say progress has been made. But what you have to understand is that all this positivity is confined to about one square mile around Hart Plaza. It's like a small window connecting the city to the functional world outside. The broader problems are far from over. Corruption is still deeply ingrained in the city's flesh. Check out this story on the cop implicated in a towing-auto theft scam. And there is still rampant incompetence, from the comic -- bands of undercover cops fighting each other -- to the tragic -- you may have read about to 600 neglected rape kits. Imagine being a rape victim and calling about the progress of your case only to dig your way through a litany of laconic functionaries to eventually discover they couldn't be bothered to to keep track of your rape kit. Detroit is still not a good place to live by any measure. It remains The Most Violent City in America.

But here we have, for the first time in my lifetime, a step in the right direction. The question is can the next step be taken. That's a harder step. The high profile businesses coming in can only go so far. To be of any real economic benefit they will need to house employees in the city -- and not just right-thinking white hipsters. We're talking middle-class families. We're talking good schools and secure streets. And for those you need two things: 1) public safety, which it is well documented that you don't have, and 2) a strong school system, which not only do you not have, but you have the educational bureaucracy actively working against you.

Beyond that, you need an ecosystem of small, unglamorous businesses - plumbers, convenience stores, child care centers, dull office-fillers, etc. -- because one of the benefits of having big name companies in your town is the further business growth needed to service both the companies and the employees that they can bring in. That's how functional cities grow. But in Detroit, the entrenched, hyperactive regulatory policies and enforcement institutions seem dedicated to stifling any business that isn't well funded enough to locate in Detroit on principle alone. Read this for a good description of the conditions. In short, businesses seeking profit as opposed to goodwill, will look elsewhere.

We're still a long way from a Detroit that is functional in any way beyond symbolism. Detroit has a problem with Rule of Law. It has too little is some circumstances and too much in others. There is a word: Anarcho-tyranny, which is a government that cannot control real criminals so it controls the innocent to demonstrate its authority. Detroit has flirted with that for the last 50 years and that hasn't changed.

But however tiny, there is an upswing, something I never expected. What comes next, in the absence of strong State oversight, will be interesting to see. I honestly hope the day comes when I have to eat crow. But I doubt it. My sneer remains intact.

[Movies] Flick Check: Justice League

Question: Can Joss Whedon save DC? Answer: Not really. After the dreadful Batman vs, Superman and Wonder Woman, Justice League isn't that bad. It succeeds because Whedon knows how to do good action sequences, he also knows how to do comedy (although his casting director doesn't), and he knew enough to basically make a cut rate Marvel film (reluctant heroes joining forces to beat a bad guy with cubes of power -- yeah, that's original) rather than hold to DC traditions. Also, Flash and Aquaman weren't totally lame. But really all you end up with is a film that would still be one of the worst Marvel movies ever made. Each successive DC release is another beat down. The best they could come up with is this luke-warm derivation and it had to go up against Ragnarok and the Infinity War trailer. Honestly, I'm at the point where I am embarrassed for them.

[Travel, Vegas] State of Vegas

I now have 16 or 17 years of regular visits to Las Vegas. Much has changed. If you ask most longtime Vegas visitors, these changes have been for the worse. I don't know. I try to be careful not to be an old man yelling at clouds when it comes to change. I'll just say it is definitely different. About 15 years ago, sports-writer Bill Simmons made the keen observation that there were three places in the U.S. where you felt like you were in a movie just by being there. One was Manhattan. Another was the French Quarter in New Orleans. And the third was the Vegas Strip. I agree with Simmons; back then it was true that those places made you feel special.

It's probably still true of Manhattan. Although I haven't been in several years -- mostly due to it costing an arm and a leg to get a hotel room or even a cab from the airport -- it's hard to imagine it changing so thoroughly as to be any less exciting. The French Quarter is probably even better than it used to be since it is cleaner and perhaps a bit less scary since Katrina, without a corresponding drop in party madness.

Vegas, on the other hand, just doesn't give me that feeling any more. I will acknowledge up front that it could simply be familiarity that's causing that. But I remember on my first trip, around the turn of the century, I was standing in the sports book at Bellagio and a pretty waitress brought me a complimentary beer, just because I was standing in the sports book. I hadn't even placed a bet yet, I was just watching a game. There was nary a Resort Fee to be found. Anywhere I went I could park free, or valet if I was willing to tip -- which I always was. I'm no high roller, but little things like that made me feel special. It made me feel like the town was happy I was there and they just wanted me to have some good, maybe not-so-clean fun while not having to sweat the small stuff. It made me feel like the leading man in a movie.

You can still get free drinks in the sports book, but they do it by giving you drink tickets only if you wager enough money and even then, only if you are bold enough to ask. Resort fees, our old enemy, are everywhere and can almost double the cost of a mid-week room at times. Parking fees, our new enemy, are the most recent degradation -- almost all the major properties charge for parking now. Of course, you can get some nice perks by signing up for M-life or Total Rewards and such, because we all go to Vegas for that sweet Costco-type experience. Nobody ever handed Danny Ocean an M-life application.

And if I hadn't sworn off table games years ago, I probably would today over the state of blackjack.

None of this is monumental. I still have fun every trip and I still look forward to my visits, but that old feeling is gone. I used to feel like Vegas was there to have a great time and I needn't worry about the nickel-and-dime details -- park wherever you want, score a free drink now and then; it's cool, you're the leading man. Now I feel like Vegas is trying to see how much it can squeeze out of me to get that same great time. I have to be on guard or they will take me to the cleaners faster than a used car salesman.

I still visit Vegas regularly and will likely continue to do so until the day I die. It's a world class destination, not to be missed. But I certainly don't feel like I'm in a movie anymore. Maybe I should try Macau.

Anyway. Highlights:

Prestige level at Palazzo is pretty sweet. Free breakfast and free booze for happy hour in the exclusive lounge. Huge, opulent room. Worth the money, I think.

Dinner at Carson Kitchen. The menu, mostly small plates, is very creative. Which is to say it's hit or miss. Some of it is "meh" -- the veal meatballs, the watermelon & feta salad. The good stuff -- Devil's Eggs, Flatbreads -- is very, very good. And the signature dessert -- Glazed Donut Bread Pudding -- is without peer.

Fremont Street is the most fun area in Vegas. I'm still not sold on it for a multi-day stay because I prefer a at least a bit of luxury in my life and Golden Nugget doesn't count. But for an evening or two of revelry, it's the best.

The High Roller happy hour is a sweet deal. It looks to get crowded at night, but a good strategy is to try to catch sunset from on high. You may have the bar pod to yourself.

"O" is quite a spectacle and is immensely impressive from a technical standpoint, but the actual performances left me a bit cold. This is the second time I have seen it -- the first was nearly 15 years ago and it left the same impression then.

Peter, the barber at Palazzo spa, is an ace with the straight razor. I say this as someone who has occasionally been butchered by the random Sweeny Todds at Art of Shaving. That said, the Canyon Ranch spa doesn't measure up to Qua at Caesars, or the Encore spa.

I'm on the fence about Bouchon Bistro (possibly because I am on the fence about French food in general). The food is impeccable, of course, but I don't feel comfortable there for some reason and the noise level prevents quiet conversation, which seems a bit at odds with the reputation of the place. That's for dinner; maybe the famous breakfast would be different.

A weekend bug out to Red Rock Resort in Summerlin. It's a great place; it really does have everything and it's remarkably easy on the wallet by comparison to the Strip. Strong restaurant selection, above average rooms, good gambling facilities with reasonable blackjack, an active poker room, even bingo (I didn't check the VP payouts). If you're the type to just stay in one the property your whole trip it would be hard to imagine anything better. If you must bring kids, it would be good choice, unless you are keen on getting them the advanced education they would get from a walk on the Strip or Fremont.

Managed a couple of forays into State parks, including hikes at Valley of Fire and Mt. Charleston. Both are true gems and less than an hour's drive away. Highly recommended when you need a break from a VP beatdown and your Verbena buzz turns sour.

So like I said, despite my above gripes, it was a good time. It always is.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Month That Was - October 2017

The days grow short. I am driving home in the dark. Jacket is now required. I'm thinking of pulling the potted plants in and planning Thanksgiving in Vegas and a long weekend in Florida in December. They say we are in for a cold and snowy winter, and I believe them. We have had a couple of mild ones in a row.

Ah well, I suppose I will survive as always.

[TV] Toob Notes: Halt and Catch Fire
[Travel] Western Swing
[Movies] Flick Check: Spider Man: Homecoming
[Tech] [Rant] Amazon, You're (a little) Dead to Me

[TV] Toob Notes: Halt and Catch Fire

Very nicely done. I'm giving it Pantheon status. After a misguided first season the final three were just spot on beautiful. Part of its beauty is the way it stood out against literally every other show on television. It was one of only two character driven shows of it's time (along with Better Call Saul), and it was the only one that didn't lean on criminality as a milieu. It took the business of business seriously, one of only two fictional TV shows I know of ever to do that (along with Mad Men).

The thoughtfulness with which the characters were handled became plain in the arcs. All four main characters went through growth arcs, but in the end they were still themselves.

Joe -- always searching for the next big thing came to see the next big thing was only of importance in how it affected humanity. "The thing that gets us to the thing" is what he was all about and he came to realize both things are us.

Gordon -- the pure engineer. The non-logical nuances often escaped him but he would always come around. And if he was never quick at personality assessment, he came to accept that about himself and move cautiously in that arena. In one of the most perfect developments in all fiction, he got to spend his final day successfully fixing something.

Cameron -- never got over her need to rebel. Her hatred of depending on anyone else for anything was given a source in her family. Like Gordon she had to accept her limitations but in this case it was not a happy acceptance. She seems doomed to forever kill anything that would keep her connected. The horrible ironic twist for her is that her extreme independence means that in the end she will always be dependent on people like...

Donna -- the manager, the compromiser. The one who masters the rules. The one who perhaps sees others the most clearly. The one who reminds the others that their dreams only exist in the real world because of people like her which leads to the inevitable subtext of hostility that creates. And like everyone else, she never quit being who she is, she just realizes it and works with it to live better. Her key revelation is her regretful remembrance of Gordon: "He did so many thing wrong. And I told him about every one."

That is beautiful. That, my friends, is how you do fiction. I'm gonna miss this show and these characters.

We are left with Better Call Saul as the sole remaining quality drama on TV, although there are so many shows getting made these days, between Netflix and Amazon and YouTube etc., that I can't keep up. It's possible there is another gem out there that I don't know about. I like my silly comedies and action shows as much as the next guy, but I do fear for the continued existence of quality drama on TV. I guess we'll see.

BTW - the Pantheon consists of The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Halt and Catch Fire, and almost certainly Better Call Saul. I'm open to suggestions to anything else, new or old, but the bar is awfully high.

[Travel] Western Swing

Happily, as I am shopping for a new car, my rental car was a hybrid -- a Ford Fusion -- very nice, amazingly efficient, no drivability issues, but there were some alarming sounds from the brakes at a couple of points. Still I wouldn't hesitate to go hybrid; it left a good taste in my mouth. Maybe a RAV4 hybrid -- or a CMax. The rental spec Fusion left a lot to be desired in the infotainment department. It connected to my tablet but would only play songs on any given album in alphabetical order and then only after a solid five minutes of "indexing". It was XM capable but no one had bothered to activate it. I should have tried myself. Still I'm sure that was just the low end rental version. I suspect Ford's actual infotainment options are significantly better.

But I was travelling Out West, which is what this post is about. This time for a half marathon in and around the city of Page, AZ and Lake Powell. It was shaping up to be unpleasant; cold (about 40) and windy (wind is worse that cold) and dark start. I had to get there at 5:30 AM to pick up my packet and race didn't start until 6:30 AM. Sunrise was going to be after 7 AM. As a result, I was not in the best frame of mind waiting in my car to stay warm for the start. But the glow of sunrise had begun at gun time and the wind had died considerably and race adrenaline kicked in. After about 3 miles through the town of Page, the sun rose and we were treated to jaw dropping views of Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon dam and the majestic red rock mesas and surrounding mountains. And it wasn't just a brief glimpse, the views surrounded us the rest of the way the rest of the way. I have run quite of number of scenic races out west and this was easily the most beautiful of all.

The next day, in contrast, the temps were touching 80. I made a visit to Lee's ferry and a brief hike along the Colorado river. There is quite an interesting beach there, of all things, I'm confused why in the hot weather there wasn't anyone else there. It seems tailor-made for an afternoon dip in the cool water.

About Page: it's a small town -- not poor, but there are no luxuries to be found. You will find no meals beyond sports bar level and no lodgings superior to, say, a Hampton Inn. It has a dominant Navajo population and a preponderance of Christian churches of various denominations. There appears to be little industry besides tourism, which is steady, although there is a large factory of some sort just outside town. There also appear to be sections of upper middle class housing that I would guess are rental homes. Some of these homes would have views out their living room windows that would make an acrophobic blanche.

I stayed a bit longer in Page because the following day I made a mad dash in the morning to Kanab Utah, about an hour away. You see there is a hiking destination called the Wave that is a dream hike for many. The undulating layered red rock is iconic, but there is a catch. Only about 20 people a day are given permits to hike there. You can get in a lottery for one of ten permits months in advance -- I tried and was not selected, or you can show up the day before and get in a lottery for one of another ten permits the next day. That's why I headed to Kanab -- that's where the lottery is held. For next-day permits, the process is to show up by 9. You are led into a room with everyone else and you fill in an application and given a number (1 per group). Then, like bingo, the ranger draws numbers and if your number comes up your group can go provided there are enough permits left to cover your group. If chosen you have to hike the next day or not at all. If not chosen, you go home muttering about the unfairness of it all. There were about 35 groups vying for 10 permits. I ended up going home muttering. Some people had been showing up multiple days in row and had been rebuffed multiple days in a row. On the one hand, it is really annoying and inconvenient, and the randomness makes trip planning a real crap shoot, he muttered. On the other hand, it makes for a story and raises the status of having hiked to the Wave and make you an object of envy if you get there. I'm sure I'll try again some day.

In any event, I consoled myself with a visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The snooty, outdoorsy types will tell you the the North Rim is preferable to the South as it is less crowded and less touristy. True. There is a single lodge, a spare couple of retail outlets, and a herd of Bison. It's also a solid hour to anything remotely considered a town. It also, I think, contains more visual drama in an accessible dose. The South Rim is so sprawling that it's really hard to grasp in a single view. That said, if I was travelling with a family, I would take the fun, amusement park style South Rim with all of it's commercial ventures.

Page is a great base of operations for exploring Northern Arizona. It is central and reasonably priced and with great infrastructure. I could easily see settling in there for two or three weeks and just racking up the explorations and experiences. But I didn't have two or three weeks so I moved on, leaving much undone.

Next came relocation to Sedona. Whether approaching heading south or leaving heading north I highly recommend taking route 179 rather than the more indirect but faster freeway route. It winds and climbs through something approaching a thick alpine forest -- just a stunningly beautiful drive. I'm not sure if it is technically alpine forest or not, but it is as richly and thickly wooded as any place you would call the north woods. Coming in from the north you climb through the woods and then descend into a more traditional red rock area, but you are still at a much higher elevation than Page or the low desert around Phoenix, so the red rock vistas infused by patches of evergreen forest.

Sedona itself is remarkably wealthy. Enormous mesas and mountains loom in every direction as a backdrop to the town, and many people have built modernist mansions in the foothills. You can see them peppered about looking precisely positioned to maximize their views.

Sedona is also the global leader in new-age-ism. They speak of vortexes where the world energy is focused and there are numerous psychics in town and they must do a decent business because I have seen them in business for many years now, often in posh diggings that cannot be cheap to rent.

Hippies aside, judging from the crowd the big demographic, tourist and otherwise, is retirees. There's a lot of gray wandering about the red rocks. And good for them. When I'm in my seventies (which is sooner than I like to admit) I hope to still be plowing through the red rock trails. It beats the hell out of mall walking or shuffleboard.

Unexpectedly for such a high end town, dining options aren't that great. There is a lot of Southwest cuisine, plenty of American Bistros (often cowboy themed), but surprisingly little that stands out as high quality and interesting. About the best place in town is called The Hudson which is on the chic side, but with a friendly happy hour and an emphasis on the fresh and creative. Apart from that, the best food I had was actually at my hotel, The Hilton Sedona at Bell Rock. I think it goes back the retirees again. They might be more inclined toward standard and reliably good, as opposed to the creative and, let's face it, probably overpriced.

Snooty griping about luxuries aside, Sedona is a top notch outdoor destination. You can, and I have, easily fall into a rhythm of a hike in the morning and afternoon drinks by the pool. My first full day included a hike of Brin's Mesa, in which I only got lost once so...victory, followed by some work on my tan.

The next and final day my thought was to rent a mountain bike and hit the trails, but I am not a young man anymore and frankly, after a week of solid activity I decided to chill. I took some time in the morning to wander around the Chapel of the Holy Cross, an iconic landmark just south of town. Architecturally fascinating, it appears to emerge directly from the red rock perch on which is sits. It is a Roman Catholic chapel, though not a church as there are no regular services -- though there appears to be a weekly prayer group led by a local priest. It would serve well as a quiet place for meditation and prayer -- very appropriate for Sedona -- although it seems more used as a stop for tourists to get some photos of the startling views. I certainly took my share of photos.

After that I headed into town for a quick lunch and to remind myself of what a beautiful little spot Sedona is, pretentiousness aside. It's as if the town in the possession of, or perhaps under the protection of, the surrounding imposing mountains. It's easy to see how the hippies came to believe this spot had a special connection to the world. For my part I took a walk along Oak Creek -- a river that runs behind the row of shops and high end resorts on the east side of town. A day tripper would never know of it's existence, but a crooked, patchwork walkway can be followed a for half a mile or so. It's just a lovely peaceful stroll from the north end of town ending at roughly the ultra high-end L'auberge de Sedona resort.

It was a terrific way to spend my final day. That evening I gave in to the call of reality and began packing my clothes and checking email and generally prepping for life back home. Throughout this trip I was getting the urge to stay longer -- that is to say, I have never been away from home for more than two weeks in my life. I'm beginning to wonder if it would be a good experience to try to arrange something longer -- a full month, say. Not on the move the whole time, but actually settle in somewhere for a month and see how it feels and what new experiences I would have. Somewhere in the southwest might be a likely spot for that -- given my familiarity. Worth contemplating.

For now, I'm just glad I completed a half-marathon and therefore haven't aged beyond the ability to do that. I've also confirmed my impressions of northern Arizona as pretty much road trip heaven. I doubt I have seen the last of it.

Apropos - My previous trip to this area.