Sunday, September 04, 2016

The Month That Was - August 2016

August was dominated by swimming. I did my first long-ish open water swim towards the end of the month and spent a good deal evenings after work flopping around in a local lake in preparation. I successfully completed the swim -- 1.2 miles, or the distance of the swim leg in a half-ironman triathlon -- but not without getting a bit of a beatdown courtesy of a pair of leaky goggles and the talon-like fingernails of another swimmer. In any event, it's always good to do something new for the first time and continue to push boundaries. I have adopted the philosophy that if I don't let up on my body by using my age as an excuse, I'll at least get the most out of it over the course of my life. The downside is I might kill myself sooner. Hmmm.

I also made some steady progress on the latest book. Nothing to to be terribly proud of except that it is in contrast to previous months where I have slacked totally.

Overall August has been pretty chilled out; bits of yard work and slothful evenings watching the Olympics. The sort of thing you daydream about yet don't notice when it happens.

[Books] Book Look: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
[Rant] Thing I Have Missed Out On
[Rant] The Olympics
[Good Links] Link Dump

[Books] Book Look: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

Were anyone to find themselves turned off by Murakami's penchant for the fantastic, this book provides an alternative. It is primarily a character study; there are no "big questions" in play, no ponderings of existential mysteries. It is a personal tale.

Tsukuru Tazaki is one of a circle of five very close friends in high school. They even remain close even as their lives begin to separate when they graduate. They share experiences of growing up and early adulthood and are in fact very deeply connected to each other in a way only young people can be. Then one day, without warning or explanation, Tazaki is ostracized. Tazaki's self-image is already one of being nothing special -- colorless -- so this rejection sends him into a depressive spiral that pushes him toward suicide. In time, he survives this episode, but remains firmly entrenched in his idea of himself as an afterthought in the world. He socializes little, attempts nothing exceptional, and is more or less resigned to a humbly solemn existence. Throughout it all, he remains haunted by the treatment he received from the friends who meant so much to him years ago.

He begins a relationship with a woman who encourages him to contact his former friends to resolve the question once and for all. One by one he reconnects with his old circle, eventually understanding the events that so traumatised him. In the course of this journey he is also surprised to find that his self-image is not the image of him others carry. In the end, he inches towards a more positive and hopeful view of life.

And that's it, in a nutshell. Should you read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage? Yes, probably. As I said this is a restrained, intimate story. Those looking for the high drama and magic realism Murakami is known for might find it uninteresting. I did not. A good, relatable character study is a rare thing -- especially one that doesn't get bogged down in symbolism or social meaning. In some ways it is more reminiscent of short stories than a novel in that it is about sudden upheavals to the status quo. It will not be Haruki Murakami's most renown work, but those who read it will be touched.

[Rant] Things I Have Missed Out On

Snapchat -- I still don't get it. As far as I can tell it does nothing that other services don't do - Instagram in particular - except everything is ephemeral, disappearing after a few seconds, or 24 hours in the case of "stories". Although it's not really ephemeral, it just appears to be. The NSA can still see what you are doing, but I suppose short of a court order and a threat to National Security, it is ephemeral. I don't see any commercial use for it other than as an advertising conduit. So my image of Snapchat is that it is used by a bunch of folks who want to communicate with each other but don't want to be held accountable for the content -- which means it's heavy on images of bad behavior of one sort or another -- and a bunch of companies chasing their eyeballs. What am I missing?
Board Games -- Board games are huge, and according to most reports, more creative and imaginative than ever. This has been going on quietly for quite some time. At work there is a pack of guys who have been playing board games over lunch every day for well over a decade. I thought it was just one of those nerdy, Magic-Trolls-and-Dice sorts of games, but evidently these games are remarkably nuanced and diverse. Not that I would get involved; somewhere in the course of my life I lost interest in games almost completely -- this from a guy who used to play D&D all night and have multi-hour sessions with Sid Meier's original Civilization. Not sure what happened to me. Some of Popular Mechanics top games for 2016 sound fascinating. Evidently, video games are not where all the action is. Who knew?
Music since the early 80s -- Oh I know lots of songs that have come out since then, but I haven't followed performers or music trends in any way. Music was a driving passion for me from my early teen years until I was in my mid twenties, then nothing. Of course judging from what I hear in the background, not many other people have been following new music intently either, although that could just be the world catering to my demographic because it's the only one that has any disposable income anymore.

It's disturbing to continually have the music that I found so vital drift further and further into history. For example, the first album I ever bought with my own money was "Band on the Run": A true work of brilliance that has stood up over the years -- proving I had good taste even at age thirteen. But it is profoundly old. You know those vicious idiots who come up with the comparable time between events to show how old something is just to freak you out? Well, 2016 is to "Band on the Run" like -- I don't know -- some piece of music in the 1930s was to me when I first bought "Band on the Run" but I don't know any music from the '30s, nor did I when I was thirteen. Did they have recorded music back then or did everybody just listen to Aunt Millie play hymns on the upright piano in the parlor? By the same token the interval I have not paid close attention to music is equivalent to the interval between Singin' in the Rain and This is Spinal Tap. Yet, oddly, I don't feel like I've missed much. And plenty of kids know Band on the Run, and Paul McCartney is still touring. I hate to be the guy who talks about how better it was back in the day, but maybe in the case of music, it was.

[Rant] The Olympics

Since 2016 is the undeniably the most obnoxious year in recorded history, it's not strange that the Olympics were outright weird. It started with the run up during which we got persistent descriptions of the post-apocalyptic horror that is Rio de Janeiro -- roving cops, both real and fake, greeting tourists at the airport with "Welcome to Hell" signs then robbing them on the street. Water so polluted that sailors and rowers were advised to keep their mouths closed and rinse with anti-bacterial mouthwash between events. And, of course, Zika virus fears loomed large.

The scandals were, for the most part highly comical. The pool water turning green played into the pollution fears, even thought it was just algae. Are these pools not chlorinated, or was it bleach-resistant Brazilian super-algae? There were a couple of moments in wrestling that were stunningly stupid. One wrestler bit another one. And the coaches for Mongolia proceeded to strip to their underwear and throw their clothes at the judges over a controversial ruling. (Is that a cultural thing in Mongolia?) Honestly, you would have expected Hulk Hogan to rush in and attack someone with a chair.

The there was Ryan Lochte and some of his cohorts behaving like Zoolander come to life. He has assured himself eternal fame as the guy whose picture is next to "dumbass" in the dictionary. Just a gold-medal display of idiocy. It makes me so grateful that there were no camera trained on me when I was his age. I can pretend to be above it. It's going to be interesting to see how all this plays out for him. He can pretty much kiss any endorsements good-bye and his presence on the US Swim team in the future is going to have to be downplayed for the same reason. His youth suggests he still has another Olympics in him -- what will his situation be in four years? His image rehab plan apparently includes Dancing with the Stars. On the other hand, they say there is no such thing as bad publicity.

The games themselves were fun. The marquee athletes, for the most part, are genetic freaks but their youthful joy and awe at just being there makes them relatable. NBCs coverage was as parochial and retrograde as possible. The U.S. swimmers and women's gymnasts were the focus naturally, then there was some push on the U.S./Jamaica rivalry in sprinting, which should be more equitable in the future now that Usain Bolt has retired. There was little time for anything else what with all the commercials they had to wedge in every five minutes or so. Viewership was down, especially among the Millennials which was portrayed as another of their character flaws, but Millennials simply are not conditioned to tolerate endless commercial breaks and tape delays like us older folks. NBC's coverage was a disaster. It's as if in their mind folks were going to sit in front of the TV every evening with Swanson TV dinner and call their friends on their rotary phones to discuss what was going on.

Those of us with thousands of cable channels had it a bit better -- there were a couple of other options where you could get a broader look at the games, but you know what? They weren't that interesting. I caught a bit of ping-pong, and a bit of water polo, and after the curiosity wore off I changed the channel. I did watch the cycling when it came on because I follow cycling, but that's about it.

I'm conflicted about the Olympics. On the one hand, I think it's terrific that once every four years these folks who mostly compete in obscurity get some recognition and glory. But even that is for the marquee names. For most of the medallists, glory consists of a photo and an article in your hometown paper and maybe a visit to the local elementary school to tell the kids to stay in school. I suspect most of the audience is like me: I admire their skills and appreciate all the work they put in, but I've developed nothing like passion or fandom for them. Meanwhile, every cloying cliche in popular culture is leveraged to the hilt in up-close-and-personal segments and shallow op-eds and in-depth "investigations", while the host country spends itself into near bankruptcy for the sake of the corrupt few contractors who will benefit. If there were a ballot initiative to bring the Olympics to Michigan, that is probably one thing that might make me get involved in something political just to oppose it. It's nice to look at from afar, but not in my backyard.

And yet, my first thought when the games were over was that it might be a nice trip to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. I've always wanted to visit Japan, and you can be assured everything will be precise, clean, and efficient unlike the Rio shit-show. I'll be staring 60 in the teeth at that point so it could be a bucket list thing. For better or worse, the Olympics mark the years as much as the Super Bowl or the Tour de France. No point in fighting it.

[Good Links] Link Dump

Spanning the Web to bring you the constant variety of links; the thrill of memes and tropes, the agony of clickbait.
  • The robot revolution continues. Driveless cars are here, and it looks like Uber will be a the forefront, although the State of Michigan is making a bid to keep the auto research leadership. For their part, Vox is just now catching on to something I wrote about months ago. All the sound and fury in the election season has brought us no closer dealing with a world where there is no work for unskilled labor whatsoever.
  • Years ago I wrote a book called Misspent Youth where one of the underlying themes was the adult expectations placed on youth in the face of childish behavior from adults. This article seems to hit the same notes.
  • This exposition on the evolution of certain dog breeds was rather disturbing. The source of the problems with these breeds is essentially the same reason shelters are full of chihuahuas and pitbulls: The human narcissism. Stupid bimbos buy chihuahuas to project an image of trashy glamour, then dump them at the pound when it turns out that without proper training they pee in the glittery purses their carried in. Low IQ dirtbags raise pitbulls to signal their own fearsomeness, then dump them at the pound when they need more maintenance than an Ed Hardy t-shirt. The breeds in the articles have suffered in a different way, but for the same underlying reason -- using dogs as a lifestyle accessory without regard to their well-being. It's ugly because it hurts the dogs, yes, but also because it highlights a truly dark impulse of humanity.
  • The Chicago Tribune has a less snarky spin than I had about Ann Arbor last month. They even used the word "bubble" and they agree that it's a good bubble to be in.

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Month That Was - July 2016

Savage heat, to the point that I regularly ran my air conditioner.  See, I have nice cool basement where I keep a big screen TV (last of the plasmas) and my office is off to the side.  It stays cool down there pretty much all the time so I keep my thermostat set at about 82 on the main floor during the day (which unfortunately makes it in the 90s upstairs), but I don't care because I can hang comfortably in the chill of my basement.  Then before I hit the sheets I drop it down to 74-ish if it's still hot out when I hit the sheets, but usually I can just open the windows and turn on the fans and be cooled down in no time.  But this month required the a/c, and DTE were ruthless in notifying me via helpful emails that my energy usage was on the increase.  I know, guys.  It's a heat wave.

Unfortunately the heat wave hit just when I got all my new landscaping in so, since the summer has been as dry as it has been hot, I've been struggling to keep the soil moist even with a sprinkler system.  Suburban problems.

My dear houseguests have fled south, so things are more or less back to normal.  I miss them.  I was fun having a another kid around the house.

Just a couple of long rants this month -- really ranty rants at that.  They probably don't make much sense.  I have no idea what got into me.

[Ann Arbor] Life in a Bubble
[Tech]State of Tech

[Ann Arbor] Life in a Bubble

Ann Arbor, where I have lived in-and-around for roughly 2/3s of my life, is the bubbliest of bubbles. Honestly, people in Ann Arbor will gladly pontificate on the issues of the day, almost exclusive from a progressive/left as is the case with most bubbles, when in truth, no Ann Arborites -- including Yours Truly -- should pass any judgment on any real world issues because we just don't know. Our lives are nothing like theirs. Thanks to the cheaply available student loan money which has deeply enriched the University over the past couple of decades, we haven't felt a spot of economic distress in ages. That's right kids: here's some pay-later money to give the University of Michigan to prop up our bubble economy. When you graduate and can't find a job you'll have to leave town and move back in with your parents and be in debt for the next decade or so, but you can be proud that because of you the freshmen living in South Quad have a made-to-order sushi bar. Be sure to keep up on your Alumni Association dues.

The only people we are qualified to pass judgment on are folks in places like Madison WI, or Portland OR, or Austin TX. In other words, other bubble people. Yet, judging from my Facebook news feed, all my beloved friends would disagree. They love to share glib and shallow political posts all day long, and of course, always from stage left. Because bubbles are almost always on the left. I love my friends, but sometimes I'm tempted to start linking up posts from the DPRK News Service just to see what the reaction would be.

Here's a perfect example of a bubble controversy. There is a plot of land in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor -- about one square block -- called the Library Lot (because it's across the street from the library). For years there has been debate as to what to do with it and, Ann Arbor being Ann Arbor, it's gotten all tangled up with questions of social responsibility.

First some background. Despite being a wealthy bubble, Ann Arbor has a problem with the homeless. In the interest of social responsibility, Ann Arbor has constructed a homeless shelter on the edge of the downtown area. Naturally, it isn't just some repurposed warehouse or something, it's a high end homeless shelter, because the homeless deserve their fair share of bubble advantages, don't they? So naturally it attracts homeless from all around. Over the years, this has caused various "issues". There were times I recall back in the 80s where shopkeepers -- many of whom were hand-on-your-heart social activists -- ended up asking people not to give to panhandlers on the street because they were getting out of control. The city council passed complex ordinances which are regularly updated to strongly control when and where panhandling can occur so as to limit it severely but not violate state law which says you can't forbid panhandling.

So in the end we have this sort of compromise where there is a low level tension throughout downtown with the homeless. We want to help them because we are good people, but we don't really want them interfering with our bubble lives.

We do something similar with low-income housing (also called "section 8"). We have a couple of complexes around the city that are intended for low-income tenants. This is by design and by acts of city council and so forth. The supposition is that poor people deserve to live here too, and the hope is that by allowing them to do so they will have better lives than they could otherwise afford since most likely they'd end up in slum-ish sorts of places. It's a nice thought. I have to expect there are at least a handful of folks who have found their way out of poverty because they had options outside of ghetto life.

Like everything else in life there is a cost. Re-locating the poverty stricken to inside the bubble doesn't instantly change their habits. Areas around low-income housing complexes have elevated rates of violent crime, of which there is admittedly little in Ann Arbor. (By far the most common crime in Ann Arbor is larceny, mostly due to students being fairly lax about securing their laptops and such.) Perhaps more telling is that low income housing has a higher rate of police calls -- usually noise complaints over people having loud public domestic disputes at all hours, or over teeth rattling bass every time a car pulls in or out of the parking lot. The cost is in disruption of your peaceful life and loss of property value, and so low-income housing has gotten built in places which were not quite up to the upper-middle class standard of wider Ann Arbor in general -- near lower-middle class, and often senior, residents who aren't organized to fight city council find them as their neighbors. (They sure as hell aren't next door to any of the U of M doctors or professors.)

So back to the Library Lot. For years a group of involved citizens has tried to get the city to build a park on the library lot. Some of of their arguments are a little iffy, for instance they are argue that many cities benefit from a centralized park, citing New York City. Well, the library lot is about one square block -- Central Park it ain't. Still, who can argue against a park in the middle of town?

Lots of people. There is already a smallish little park right near the Library Lot and it is filled with homeless whiling away their days and causing a nuisance before they head back to their nice shelter for the evening. The library itself is dominated by vagrants sleeping in the chairs and smelling the place up. Why on earth would you encourage further chaos by adding more comfort for them Furthermore, money spent to build the park would reduce the subsidy money for low income housing.

So on the one hand we have folks wanting to increase the green quotient of downtown (it could use it) and encourage a sense of community. On the other hand, we have people who want to assure financing and availability of low-income housing. The unspoken corollaries are we have a group of folks trying to take funding away from low-income to use for a city park where they can sip their lattes and tell themselves how much they love trees, and another group who is using the support of low income housing as a justification for killing something that is going to mostly end up encouraging more homeless to settle in Ann Arbor. Such is the labyrinthine nature of bubble politics -- of making sure we indulge our better instincts as long as other people have to sacrifice. I'm sure these things are discussed with great sincerity across the organic vegetable counters at Whole Foods.

That may be too cynical, but my detachment allows it. You see, I make no apologies for loving my bubble. Everybody loves bubbles, but they only become moral liabilities if they become too large. For most people, their bubbles begin and end at their homes. Your home as a bubble has become more normal over time. As a child I recall it being perfectly natural and expected for a friend or acquaintance to ring your doorbell or call you on the pre-voicemail phone unannounced. Now I screen phone calls and would be mildly put out of someone knocked on my door without warning. That's bubblization. Few people have a problem with that.

If you get some money your neighborhood can be your next bubble. Living in a gated community, for example, is usually sneered at by the righteous. Even if it's not gated, your homeowners association or condo board will enforce rules that are not in place in the wider world to maintain the microculture of your neighborhood appropriately. The next step up is the bubble city or county, which requires a certain amount of macroeconomic insulation. As your bubble grows beyond your home, you get painted as having a sort of character flaw -- a snob, a 1%er, probably even a hateful racist at heart. You don't want people to think this, so you devote some of your wealth to building your bubble into an image of a good progressive community, while being careful not to push it to the point where your bubble bursts and the uglier world intrudes.

I have no idea if taking the homeless or poverty-stricken and transplanting them into rich enclaves is productive. I suspect it is for a small minority of them and whether it is worth the cost, again I don't know. Neither do you, although if you're from Ann Arbor you are certain that you do. To me, it's the social phenomena itself that is interesting. It's a clean example of the contradictions and conflicts we create so we can both claim to be good people but still serve ourselves. Robin Hanson makes reference (slightly tongue-in-cheek) to Homo Hypocritus, arguing that such behavior is deeply ingrainied in our make-up and is perhaps an evolutionary design so that we can forward personal interests while still maintaining strong social cohesion.

All that is probably true, but it's not such a bad thing. I don't see any problem living our lives trying to balance moral righteousness with self interest. Just because we do it in the most haphazard, inefficient, and delusional way imaginable, doesn't make it wrong. Bubbles are nice. If you get the chance to spend much your life in a bubble, as I do, I highly recommend it. But understand, the elevated quality of life should make your less secure in your opinions, not more.

A site called Wallet Hub (huh?) has named Ann Arbor the most educated city in the country. Meanwhile Travel+Leisure Magazine rates Ann Arbor the 10th rudest city in the country (even ruder than Detroit). I'll go out on limb and suggest these two findings may be related.

[Tech] State of Tech

When I heard Verizon was in going to buy Yahoo, my thoughts turned to Computer Shopper magazine. You're probably too young to remember Computer Shopper (it might still exist as an emaciated shadow of its former self), but it was an enormous computer oriented magazine -- and when I say enormous, I mean physically. Unlike most magazines which are roughly 8.5 x 11, it was 11x14. Apart from the glossy cover it was printed on pulp, and its 800-ish pages made it about two inches thick. Every single month. There were the requisite reviews and opinion pieces but the vast bulk of it was filled with ads for white-box PC compatibles (as desktop computers were then known) in various states of assembly, or parts for those who could roll their own. Back then, there were actual differences in the PC compatibles and which hardware/software combinations made the best machines was a matter of some debate among the nerdy set. Now there are maybe, what, 6 or 7 practical sources for PCs, almost exclusively of Chinese construction, and the only way to tell the differences is in measured testing and only obvious in edge cases.

Similarly, PC Magazine used to hold an annual Word Processor review. In their heydey, there were dozens of choices often with significant differences in features and performance and interface philosophy. Now there is MS Word and couple of minor others that do their best to copy MS Word on the cheap. But then, people don't generally produce "documents" such as they were. We complete forms and templates, write email or text messages, compose posts and tweets, and so forth. All these need a simple, specific interface, not the generalist tool of MS Word. The majority of my writing is done in Google Docs.

It has been a remarkable transformation in the technology market over the past quarter century from the wild west of garages and basements to the oligopoly we are settled into. The purchase of AOL and Yahoo is Verizon's attempt to stay relevant. I don't have much hope for them. Let's review the players.

Google has to be considered the top dog. Their fingers are in everything, and they seem to be pretty well positioned in most markets, although Facebook probably has the better social media presence -- Google has youtube; Google Plus seems dead in the water, but it's still valuable as platform waiting in the shadows for Facebook to screw up. Google has the best ad engine in history. They own search, which is now much more than search. In my discussion of snapchat in another post, I opened my browser and typed "what are the advantages of snapchat" and it guided me to a number of pages. That's a very powerful position to be in. Think of all the ways you used to try to find info on anything in the past -- now all you have to do is ask you browser and you'll get links and videos galore - the only price is an ad or two to look at and some stranger possibly tracking your preferences. That's not bad.

Google has a hardware brand without actually making the hardware. The Nexus line of phones and tablets, all of which are good enough, but nothing more. They own Android which I hate but, again, it works and it sells and is open for use in just about anything. They have an outside shot at an operating system/pc combo with chromebooks. As most everything moves to the cloud, a decent chromebook is probably all you need, right? We'll see. For content delivery they have Google Play (new, but promising) and the Chromecast stick device thing (meh).

Google also has an toe in pipes and tubes. They're rolling out Google Fiber at an agonizingly slow pace, but wherever it hits, it can put your cable company to shame for throughput. And now they have the Fi service to complete with cell providers, and frankly it's probably the overall best product in that space, unfortunately you need a Nexus device to use it. All in all, Google is in a terrifyingly good position.

Most people would say their biggest competitor is Apple, but I think it's Amazon. Amazon is the only store left standing in any non-niche sense. About the only thing you can't get from Amazon is products that are fairly specialized and can be purchased simply from the producer. Plane tickets comes to mind. Certain tech items you probably will buy direct from Microsoft or Apple or Dell. Amazon still doesn't do great with groceries, but nobody does. And of course eBay also counts as a competitor for sales. But generally if you have something to sell, you're better off setting up an Amazon storefront and taking advantage of all their tools rather than trying to roll your own. The power of Amazon's position is best illustrated by seeing what a weakling WalMart, one of the biggest retailers in history, looks like when they try to compete. The only potential competition they face is Chinese retailer Alibaba. It will be interesting to see how things progress forward as the two companies butt heads more and more. (A Jack Ma vs. Jeff Bezos throwdown would be epic.)

Although Amazon has eschewed tubes and pipes, they have yet another area where they are the 900 pound gorilla and that is cloud sourcing. Amazon Web Services is enormous and they have a huge leg up on anyone else when it comes to hosting cloud functions. This is really back-end/behind the scenes stuff, but one way to think about it is that cloud services are your personal computers when everything is on the cloud. That gives you a sense of how big this market is and Amazon already has a dominant position.

Another unique move for Amazon is in content, where they are leveraging their Prime service. Prime music can't compete with Spotify (yet) but it's improving and it has the advantage that it's already got a huge base of possible users. You still have to sign up for Spotify (and 30 million have) but there are more twice many Amazon Prime users. So let's say you are like me and you've had Amazon Prime for years mostly for the free shipping. Or let's say you're a Spotify user and you decide to get Amazon Prime for free shipping or for video content. In either case, as soon as Prime Music approaches Spotify in features and selection, I am either dropping or never considering Spotify -- it's superfluous. The same argument can be made for Prime Video vs. Netflix. Both Spotify and Netflix will be at a constant disadvantage because of how Amazon has brilliantly leveraged their retail strength.

Amazon has tried their hand at devices and it hasn't been encouraging. The standard Kindle line has been a great success, but the Fire tablets less so and the Fire phone was an outright flop. (Personal aside: I have a Fire phone a Fire tablet and a Fire stick. The phone has ceased to be able to charge. It doesn't even know it's plugged in. The tablet freaked out after the last OS update and now thinks it's ad supported when I paid for it to be ad-free. It was lousy tablet anyway. The Fire Stick is a solid streamer, but no more Fire things for me.) And then there's Alexa and those re-order buttons you can buy -- I suppose it's possible those will succeed, although I have heard nothing to suggest they will.

But that's a comparatively small concern. I don't see any lessening of Amazon's might in the upcoming years.

Apple has to be one of the most overrated companies. As near as I can tell they have one asset: the iOS ecosystem. That's huge, but beyond that I don't see anything. Apple Music (iTunes) is sizable but no longer the leader and were it not for it's deep integration with iOS, it would be an afterthought. Apple TV has made no inroads. Macs, like all personal computers, are flatlining at best. What is Apple's strategy for the future? They have no play in Pipes and Tubes. They have no play in Content. They have no play in the Cloud. iOS is, quite frankly, better than Android, but as we have seen, better is no guarantee of growth. Profits are still huge, as is market cap, but as I see it Apple is no longer an innovator and a tech leader. Their latest big product release was a essentially a copy of the Microsoft Surface. They are milking a cash cow now. Steve Jobs is spinning like a blender.

Microsoft is really the most interesting one of the bunch. Like Apple, they are milking a cash cow, but theirs is a little more broadly based: Office/Windows. They also have solid software positions in various development tool/back end markets. They have the IE/Edge browsers, the only value of which that I can see is that it can have Bing as the default search and hope you won't bother to change it to Google.

On the hardware side they have Xbox, which is a worthwhile thing to have as a potential platform unifying games and streaming entertainment. The Surface line of tablets and laptops has had some success, but to what end in the cloud future? Windows Phone/Mobile has cement boots, which is sad because it was the best phone interface ever made and the hardware was as good a iPhone. Microsoft has suffered this fate before with Zune, which was also quite wonderful and actually set software design standards for much of the current clean and flat styling you see in apps. Note: I was using my Fire Phone as a dedicated music player and when it died, I fired up my old Zune and it didn't miss a beat.

They bought Skype which conceivably would have put them in position to create a Google Fi type carrier service that switches between wi-fi and cell networks for calls and texts, but Google, not surprisingly, were the ones who made it a product.

Groove Music, their music service is another instance of Microsoft keeping its fingers in things with a market afterthought, like Bing and Windows Mobile. It's almost as if they are intending to keep these products around in the hopes of having technology ready if a unifying vision ever occurs to someone.

Right now that vision seems to be a focus away from the consumer to the business market which their purchase of LinkedIn seems to align with. They have a solid cloud strategy, called Azure, leveraging their Office products into a software-as-a-service offering and presumably offering very hardware/networking combinations with Surface as a managed point of entry and various remote services including Skype. Their vision messaging on this sucks but I could see businesses, and not just big corps, becoming "Microsoft shops" again, as many were back in the early 2000s.

On the other hand, Microsoft has a remarkable propensity for developing great products only to have them fail for one reason or another, so who knows. Like I said. The most interesting player right now.

The only other name that comes up in a Tech oligarchy discussion is Facebook, but Facebook is a one trick pony. You have to admire the eyeball count, but they are pure social media. They'll make tons of money, and what with the Instagram and Whatsapp purchases they will battle Google for the consumer profiling dollars. But as a prime influencer in tech, I don't see much.

So that's what makes Verizon look so lame. A solid old school carrier and couple of beatdown consumer profilers (AOL, Yahoo) do not relevancy make.

The long term oligopoly is shaping up with Google and Amazon as GM and Ford and the rest as a handful of smaller orbiters. The good news is that perhaps that means stability of some sort is coming and we won't have interfaces to re-learn and incompatibilities to struggle with. At least until the next revolution.

Friday, July 08, 2016

The Month That Was - July 2016

This month started with delightful race up on Mackinac Island. I'm not going to write it up since I've been there so many times you're probably thinking "Again? Go somewhere new for a change ya loser." And it was pretty much exactly the same as it has been for the -- oh, fifteen-ish years I've been going. I find that's part of the attraction. Because I'm old now I find myself appreciating stability.

I also had house guests all month. A dear friend of mine and her seven-year-old son were relocating to North Carolina and needed a place to stay so the boy could finish first grade without upheaval. They were a delight to have around. Childhood is simultaneously identical and completely different than I remember. That I may write about, but not this month.

[Movies] Flick Check - Round-Up
[TV] Toob Notes - Season End Round-Up
[Rant] The Death and Reanimation of Barnes and Noble

[Movies] Flick Check - Round-Up

Deadpool - Probably dethrones Guardians of the Galaxy as the outright funniest superhero movie, and it becomes only really good movie that is related to the X-Men. Now I'm going to reminisce about my tween-age comic book days.

I was always a fan of supergroups; Avengers, Defenders, Fantastic Four etc. The interesting aspect to them was that they all had a different source of why they were together. FF was a family, literally for the most part. They did what they did because the Dad (Reed) was guiding them and while they occasionally defied and bickered there was the sense they were together because they were blood. The Defenders, who we have yet to see on the big or small screen (but are coming to Netflix) were a group of independent iconoclasts with their own personal motivations who came together when they had a shared interest. The Avengers were together to keep the world safe. They chose to be together and take on that responsibility, which was nice of them. The X-Men were together because, well they were born that way and they shared oppression by the wider world. I never really liked them. It was hard for me to imagine why such powerful beings would want to identify themselves as victims, but Marvel was always on the bleeding edge of progressive sentiment. Also, they lacked terribly interesting individual characteristics -- besides the shared oppression.

Back then, the Avengers were the kings. I would say FF was a close second and though I followed them, I didn't have great enthusiasm for them. The Defenders were my favorites and X-Men held no interest for me -- both were decidedly niche. But relevant to today, I would say in the comics themselves the relationship between The Avengers and X-Men was about the same as it is between the two movie franchises. The Avengers was the absolute pinnacle whereas the X-men were kind of "Meh".

A few years after I lost interest in comics I happened to check back in and I was surprised at what I found. The Defenders had drifted into oblivion. The Avengers and FF were still cruising along, but the X-Men were suddenly kings of the hill. The cool kids were all over Wolverine and heralding the X-Men as the supergroup of a new generation (a generation that is only slightly less old than me now). I wasn't interested enough to find out if the accolades were merited or not, but it does explain why the X-Men was the first of the Marvel supergroups franchise to make it to film.

The X-Men movies have varied in quality; none of them have been anything more than solid action films of the sort that were are churned out by the dozens every year in this Epoch of Blockbuster Action Films. They seem to have the same shortcomings as the old comic series. There is little definition to the characters and they all seem to live in pretty much the same two-dimensional personality space. The scripts lack the Feige/Whedon crackling wit, and even when they attempt to be lighthearted the timing is stiff. For all their obvious talent, guys like Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman just don't do droll repartee terribly well.

But, surprise, Ryan Reynolds absolutely does. This movie was a minefield of potential disaster; the nudity, the dark humor, the in-jokes, the breaking of the 4th wall. A little misstep with these devices and you find yourself in the midst of unintentional parody. Well that didn't happen here. They balanced it pretty much perfectly, enlisted actors with real comic chops, and just went for it. Success. Personally, I could have done with a little less potty humor. And the plot, such as it was, was pretty bland. Still, it must have been so joyfully imagined to have that sort of enthusiasm come through. It was everything the X-Men movies aren't. Where they go next I don't know. (I should point out I have not seen X-Men Apocalypse yet.) It's still a minefield if they don't get a good script and director for a sequel.

Deadpool arrived in print after my comic book phase, so if this is the sort of thing that made X-Men comics king of the hill, I now understand.

Mr.Holmes - An affecting rumination on facts and objectivity versus lying for the sake of human dignity . Ian Mckellen plays a very old Holmes who is facing the inevitable degradation of his mental capacity and memory. He is hoping some sort of homeopathic snake-oil will keep himself sharp -- royal jelly made with prickly ash -- but it's not working. In his senescence Holmes tends his bees, while he is in turn tended to by a good, but uneducated, woman and her tween aged son. The son has a bit of hero worship going for Holmes and his dedication to pure objectivity, which his mother finds threatening.

For his part, Holmes is facing his degradation with the same pure objectivity that he brought to his cases earlier in life. He is haunted, however, by a number of things: the account of his final case by Dr. Watson in which truth (but not in Watson's portrayal) led to tragedy; a recent encounter with man in Japan who believes his father had vanished from his life on the advice of Holmes; the cruel treatment of the son towards his uneducated mother.

In time a tragedy occurs and Holmes gets to exercise his skill for deduction one last time and in the course, begins to understand the need for artifice and kind delusions in preserving human dignity. Although everything ends OK, I wouldn't call it happy, just resigned. The tone of the movie is elegiac, as is existence for those whose lives are winding down. It would have served as a wonderful denouement for Ian McKellan (kind of like The Shootist was for John Wayne) if he wasn't still going strong. It was also nice to see a movie that eschewed bombast and great social themes and sought only to do a deeply personal character study. The sort of thing you usually can only find on TV.

[TV] Toob Notes - Season End Round-Up

Penny Dreadful - You probably didn't watch this show but you should have. It's gothic horror set in Victorian England populated by famous literary characters: Dr. Frankenstein and his "monster" and his "bride", Dracula, Dorian Gray, assorted werewolves and demons and such. By its description it should be utter tripe, but it exceptionally well done. It just does so many things right. The cinematography really aspires to the "every frame a painting" ideal. The dialogue has a florid beauty, especially that of Frankenstein's monster who spouts the poetry of John Clare -- you can tell the writing staff understands how to use the English language. Even more impressive is the acting. Eva Green is the centerpiece and gave a tour de force, but all the actors -- including Timothy Dalton, Billie Piper, and Rory Kinnear -- were uniformly magnificent from top to bottom. No scenery was left unchewed. The entire series of three seasons (and done) was a triumph of talent over a mundane and hackneyed premise. I predict Penny Dreadful builds a following post mortem, slow and steady via binge streaming over the next few years.

Game of Thrones -- Poor Hodor. For Game of Thrones this was the year it became conventional. Gone is the show that defied the primal dramatic need for comeuppance. The show where anyone could be killed, even the most beloved characters; where evil was just as likely to triumph as good, and without consequence. This year the characters of our sympathies got wins. Even the ones we didn't really like -- Cersei -- got wins over ones we hated even more -- the High Sparrow. The annoying Tommen, the pointless Margery, the guilty Red Woman, and the execrable Ramsay Bolton, other minor villains, were all dealt with satisfyingly. The only price we paid for this jamboree of righteous closure was the loss of a big, friendly dude with a severely limited vocabulary. My main fear is that now the forces coming to bear on Westros will be dealt with in a plot driven manner; that the characters will be puppeteered around to produce certain events that will give the audience the warm fuzzies. Perhaps it's better that way. It will keep ratings up and make everyone feel satisfied about the ending (notice I didn't say happy). As Ian McShane said, "It's just tits and dragons."

I, however, will miss the daring, almost nihilistic show that violated dramatic norms (and I am not speaking of the standard HBO lurid sexual displays for shock value). Perhaps they'll pull something off -- something truly outlandish or at least inconclusive. There is fodder for it. There is no telling what Cersei's state of mind is. The theme of how Arya and Sansa have survived and adapted since their father was beheaded in front them has promise. There are a couple of eunuchs scurrying about that may have some dramatic play. There is hope. And there's no point in griping about good entertainment. I think we can count on that in any case, especially the inevitable Dragons vs. the Zombies episodes.

Silicon Valley -- certain one of the best satires (as opposed to sitcoms) in history, it's a real pleasure to watch. Especially poignant for those of us working in technology as much of the satire is dead on accurate. The plot arcs move from between success and defeat and recovery and failure. Fates are reversed over and over again, as often at the capricious whim of fate versus personal effort and insight. That too rings true. Witheringly funny moments, mostly courtesy of T.J. Miller as Erlich Bachman, combine with deep irony and, sadly, a fair share of potty humor. Not the funniest show on TV -- that remains Archer even though it is not what it once was -- but the most sharply observed, a quality common to most comedy from Mike Judge (Idiocracy, Office Space, King of the Hill). If you're not up on Silicon Valley -- time to binge.

[Rant] The Death and Reanimation of Barnes and Noble

Good ol' Barnes and Noble. There is one left here in Ann Arbor (ironically, Border's home town). Back in the old days, they had these big comfy chairs you could lounge around in (they have since removed them in favor of hard wooden dining chairs) and I would suspect a solid percentage of my second and third books were written while slouched in one of them. B and N, having pretty much smothered the small independent bookstores is now shivering in the cold shower of reality that is Amazon. They have managed to outlast Border's but every attempt they have made to compete directly with Amazon has failed miserably -- their website, Nook, and so forth.

Over at New Republic there's a somewhat confused article lamenting B and N's potential inevitable demise for what appears to be two reasons.
  1. There are people who feel the need to see a book before they buy it as part of the discovery process. Out of kindness, we don't accuse them of buying it based on the cover. Without Barnes and Noble, these people will have no choice but to buy at Target or Walmart where the selection is stiflingly small. Well, I'd suggest that the market of people who require a tactile experience to "discover" any book beyond those on the bestseller lists is vanishingly small and which and Walmart and Target and various airports is good enough for them.
  2. B and N is responsible for making large orders of books which provide a financial cushion for publishers which they use to support taking risks on unknown authors or risky books. Restated, that's a lament for the current revenue model. Which is a disaster for unknown authors. It supposes the people pulling the strings are the ones who know the audience and what they value, but if they did, the industry would be getting its clock cleaned by Amazon. Furthermore, I cannot comprehend an argument that choice for readers will be minimized in anyway when Amazon pretty much takes the cost of publishing to near zero. The publishing industry is a broken mess with none of it having to do with losing big orders from B and N. The problem with the publishing industry is that nobody knows how to sell books in the new world.
For their part, B and N aren't braying about how unfair the worlds is being to their noble cause of hawking books old school style. They are evidently going to begin testing an entirely new experience for shoppers, involving access to digital content, restaurant style food service, and alcoholic beverages. I like it. The whole slouched-in-a-big-comfy-chair-with-a-yellow-legal-pad aesthetic is even more appealing to me if I do it with a glass of bourbon over ice. But bear in mind, the extent of that market might not go past my own skin. Look at it this way, digital access aside, if you have a profitable restaurant combined with an unprofitable bookstore, you really just have a restaurant with an added expense. That is to say, unless the bookstore/restaurant combo creates some sort of synergy where the bookstore gives the restaurant enough added business to cover its own losses, you're better off burning the books and opening a Chili's. On the other hand, the fact that Amazon is dipping its gargantuan toe into brick and mortar suggests there might be a model that works, but it's important to remember Amazon is a tech conglomerate, not just a bookstore, and they have many more potentially profitable tributaries to exploit.

Which is why I am skeptical. It seems to me, a bookstore almost has to be a mom and pop shop to survive. It will never be big time profitable. It has to be a labor of love that makes enough money enough to keep mom and pop solvent. We have a couple of those in Ann Arbor; the owner/operators work their butts off out of love and pride and they just get by. B and N can't do that. They have shareholders who don't much value the image of the noble booksellers over, say, quarterly earnings. Best to leave the bookstores to mom and pop.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Month That Was - May 2016

I wrote no fiction this month and that bothers me immensely. I have to find a way to get myself in gear on this but I haven't yet. The month was dominated by preparations for my house guests and my trip to Bar Harbor. I continue to be at war with my phone. I got the bike out of storage and managed a couple of decent rides. Blah, blah, blah; yada-yada-yada. But another month of nothing but my pleasant life is something to celebrate. Except for the whole fiction thing. That's disturbing.

[Travel] Down East
[Tech] I Hate My Phone, Continued
[Cars, Rant] Sin Diesel
[Good Links] Hit the Links

[Travel] Down East

I wanted to get back to Maine. I had only been once before, a brief visit to Kennebunkport on a 4th of July. This may get me in a bit of trouble, but for the most part, the storybook Maine coastal towns are very similar. They all have the style of old New England seafaring communities: cozy attractiveness, no-nonsense, homey architecture, a harbor, a series of bars and restaurants, craft stores where you can buy Maine merchandise both authentic and inauthentic, and little inns and B&Bs. It's all very nice, if a bit boring. You can only see so many stark, rocky shorelines and eat so many lobster rolls before they lose their luster.

Bar Harbor (pronounced Bah Habah), the most northern of well-known Maine coastal towns, has an advantage. It is the gateway to Acadia National Park.

One key aspect of this trip was that it was pre-Memorial Day. This was a genius move, since one overwhelming impression I got everywhere I went was that, in season, this place must be swamped. To access Bar Harbor you typically fly into Bangor and take an hour-long, non-freeway drive to the coast. Judging from the roadside attractions and advertisements along the way, I gotta figure it's bumper to bumper in season and there's not that much parking in Bar Harbor, which has to be a nightmare if you're commuting in for a day-trip or your hotel is outside walking distance.

That said, Bar Harbor is as top notch resort town. The presence of the park gives it an added draw and it's response is to be overly full of restaurants and craps shops compared to other places on the Maine coast, but it's not distastefully done. It's still obviously Maine, not Ocean City or Myrtle Beach. Besides I'm not some bearded hipster searching for some sort of faux authenticity -- I'm a tourist, and proud of it.

Hanging in a Maine coastal town is something everyone should do. They are as genteel as they look, begging to be strolled through in khakis and boat shoes having genial conversations about how lovely everything is. I know I sound flip, but I'm sincere. But unless you're a dedicated souvenir shopper or are otherwise happy to center your day around drinking and eating, you need more. Often there are fine water excursions available -- anything from lobster fishing to sunset sails aboard old schooners. This being before season there was little of that in Bar Harbor. But Acadia National Park is alive and kicking.

Acadia, in the midst of it's 100th anniversary, was a delight. It's highest peak, Cadillac Mountain is an easy drive to the summit. The iconic thing to do is get up early to catch the 4:30 AM sunrise from the peak, as it is considered to be one of the first places you can see the morning sun from the U.S. I passed on dragging my ass out of bed at 4 AM -- I was on vacation after all -- but I did make the drive on a one of the sunny days (I had two sunny days, one just before leaving) and managed to take some excellent photos.

My time in Bar Harbor consisted primarily doing something active in the AM the hitting town for a late lunch followed by some wandering and/or drinkin about the town or coastline. This is about a perfect way to spend your entire life and if you can afford it I highly recommend it. There a number of fine hikes in Acadia. You can haul your ass by foot up to the top of Cadillac Mountain if you choose. I chose not. Most interestingly, there are what are referred to as "iron wrung" routes which take to up steep and treacherous mountain paths via the use of iron handholds or ladders (not for the faint of heart). I did none of these.

My first night I headed on foot towards town and took a turn off to walk to Bar Island. You can only walk to Bar Island at low tide, the land path will be underwater at high tide. True, it's something of a novelty to do this. It isn't strenuous and you are in no danger of the tide instantly washing you back in. It's really just a sort of pleasant promenade a short way across the bay to the island. Some people actually drove it, which I found marginally obnoxious. There also appeared to be a meeting of a local vintage moped society, which I found marginally endearing. Mostly it's a mix of folks -- tourists like me, locals walking their dogs, kids running and screaming. Once on to Bar Island there is a path to the top of the island (easy, about a mile round trip) from which you can look onto the Bar Harbor waterfront. It's not quite as nice as many in Maine, but it's still photoworthy.

The next day I hiked the length of Jordan Pond on suggestion of a ranger who said that if the water is still, you can get those perfect reflection nature photos that garner attention now and then. The water was not flat that day, but the hike itself was a fine walk in the woods along the shoreline of the pond (actually a small lake). At the south end of the pond stands Jordan Pond House which is a bit a destination given it's a sizeable restaurant with excellent views of the pond and its surroundings. I suspect your average day tripper comes into the park, drives to the top of Cadillac Mountain then comes here for lunch. I chose to find my meals in town.

Dinner highlight that night was Scotch Eggs at Leary's Pub which bills itself as the Easternmost Irish Pub in America. Probably true. It's a tiny little place tucked down a short alleyway. I only found because the folks on Yelp seem to think highly of it. It has a solid pubby vibe, friendly bartenders, I could do without the Irish music, but that's just me. Were I resident and not out to explore, I wouldn't hesitate to make it a usual stop.

I had an interesting conversation with the bartender there. I had noticed just about every shop in town had Help Wanted signs up. She explained that much of town hires in seasonal help from Jamaica. This is not unusual -- they do this on Mackinac Island also. Summer is off season in Jamaica. However, this year there had been some snafu with visas so here everybody was a couple of days from the Memorial Day slam and the Jamaicans were missing. Everyone was understaffed and undertrained. Glad I wasn't going to be around for the holiday. I don't know if they ever sorted out the visa issues but if you're a young adult looking for summer work, you could do a lot worse than slinging drinks in Bar Harbor for a few months.

The next morning I rented a bike. Acadia's main road is called the Park Road Loop and it is exactly what it sounds like -- a long scenic drive through the park; 27 miles to be exact. I chose to bike it, although I did shortcut about seven miles off toward the end. The Park Loop will bring you in shooting distance of most of the park's main attractions, with a challenge of riding up to the top of Cadillac Mountain. I paused at a few overlooks along the way, but my main stop was at a place called Sandy Beach -- can you guess what is there? The bulk of the Maine coast is rocky, but there are packets of sand peppered throughout. On a sunny day in the height of summer, you could delude yourself that you've found a hidden cove in Florida or California. That delusion would last until you sank a toe into the frigid water. Still even pre-Memorial day there were optimistic people in bathing suits plunked down in the sand like they were going to work on their tans and sip a hurricane. Sorry, it was a lovely beach for what it was, but I've spent too many days on the Florida Gulf not to be a beach snob.

That said, the rocky coast is quite dramatic, with the perpetually crashing waves and the always threatening weather. Gothic is how I would describe the typical Maine vista. (You remember that old TV show Dark Shadows? It looks like the opening of that show.) And gothic is what I got the next day: on-and-off chilly drizzle without a ray of sun. It was a good day to be in the car, so that's what I did -- trolled the coast south.

My target was Camden, which has the tagline of Maine's hidden jewel, but the real hidden jewel was Ft. Knox Observatory. About half-way to Camden you stumble upon a suspension bridge over the Penobscot River that looks as though it came out of The Jetsons. Even better, one of the bridge towers contains an observatory; you ride an exceedingly fast elevator up to the top and are greeted with views of the surrounding miles, typical Maine coast picture-postcard views but dramatically expanded by your elevation. The coastal town here is Bucksport, an eensy little place with a nice harborfront that unfortunately ends in a large factory of some sort. But you get a lengthwise look at the broad Penobscot as it winds past green islands and shorelines to the Atlantic. Back on the ground you are free to wander Ft. Knox proper with its eerie stone catacombs and spiral stairways. All in all just very cool place. I'm sure there are guidebooks that suggest it, but I just happened on it by accident. One of those lucky rolls of the dice that can make a vacation.

I did make Camden, and it's as nice as any Maine coastal town. Not of the scope of Bar Harbor but of the same flavor. I snagged lunch on the waterfront and did a quick loop of the village, but there was nothing new or interesting. Just outside town there is a peak, Mt. Battie, that I drove up to try to get some shots of Camden from above, but by the time I got up there a dense cloud was covering the peak and all that could be seen was a uniform, end-of-world gray in all directions.

On the way back I made another stop, Southwest Harbor, which is yet another picturesque harbor and shops and restaurant town. The thing about Southwest Harbor is that it seems a little snootier than the other towns. The houses were definitely a step up, and there were a couple of restaurants that could be accurately described as high-end dining. I entered one took a seat at the bar and was completely ignored for a solid five or six minutes. So I left and tried to grab a sandwich at a deli but it was so crowded I couldn't get anyone's attention. So I abandoned ship and got dinner back in Bar Harbor.

My last day I decided to go for a run. Near my hotel, but in the park, there is a trail called the Witch Hole Pond route. It was identified by Runner's World magazine as one of the 10 can't miss running adventures. The loop is a bit over three miles and it was about a mile-and-a-half from my hotel so my plan was to run there, run the loop, then run back. 6-ish miles, easy peasy. First, the park is enormously hilly, so not easy. Second, as long-time readers will expect, I got lost on my way there. It took me two or three wrong turns and a couple of conversations with people who were smart enough to have park maps with them to find Witch Hole Pond. It also took me an extra three miles out of my way, so we were up to a 9-miler total. I did find the route eventually and it is a lovely run, enough that I had to stop a couple of times just to appreciate (not to catch breath, mind you).

So that was Bah Habah. As I look this post over, the tone seems a little unenthusiastic. That's real, but it's not the fault of Maine. Maine was exactly as promised and if you have an image of a coastal Maine vacation, Bar Harbor is the place you want to go. In fact, if the opportunity presented itself to go in season where I could partake of some of the water activities I might just do it. But I have traveled much and seen more. The Down East vibe of Maine, while a delight, can't hold a candle to Newfoundland. There is no place more Down East than Newfoundland. Literally. Hiking through mountainous regions -- well I 've spent my share of time in the Rockies and the various ranges in the Southwest. And as for waterside resort towns, all along the west coast of my state are the beach towns of your dreams. In fact, even one of the ten great running adventures, the loop around Witch Hole Pond, while beautiful, was no more beautiful than the runs on the Potowatami Trail a few miles from my house. And let's face it, these days you can fresh lobster in North Dakota.

So yes, Bar Harbor was a fine trip. I'm glad I did it and enjoyed myself. I can understand couples and families making an annual summer pilgrimage, especially families -- it would be a perfect week long summer vacation for a troop of kids. But set your expectations properly and reconsider if you're looking to step out of the box or for something that can't be had elsewhere.

[Tech] I Hate My Phone, Continued

I swear, everything with this phone is a chore (Nexus 5x - my first encounter with pure Android). I tried to figure out how to make it read text messages to me in the car. Turns out you need an app to do that. I downloaded one, spent a frustrating half hour trying to figure out which options to set to make it work. I sort of got it working, but the sound quality is awful, and it has a bad habit of reading the texts twice. I suppose it would be gratuitous to mention that my Windows Phone just did this perfectly out of the box.

The camera is mediocre and the photo editor is lame. Another app to download and another entity to have access to my info.

Transferring files to my laptop is a stupidly complicated. Why doesn't it just appear in Explorer like any other device.

I tried to set myself up an alternative lock screen to make use of all those wonderful customization options Android is so famous for and it turns out the Nexus doesn't allow you to turn off the native password protection so if you want to use an alternative lock screen you have to sign in twice.

Every app has different requirements, every app behaves differently. I get a message from someone on facebook and a circle with their picture appears and hovers in the way of everything until I dismiss it. Some icons show valuable info on the icon others you have to click through. It's as if the last 20 years of user interface design advancement have all been for nothing. It's like using DOS again.

No complaints about the Google Fi service. So far it's been exemplary and I'm coming in under $30 a month, but I just don't know if it's worth putting up with the bloody mayhem of Android. If I had it to do over I would probably go back to pick up an iPhone SE and go with TMobile service, or even back to Verizon (no complaints about Verizon except expense). I may still end up there. I plan to give my current set up through the summer then re-assess, but at this point I think its days are numbered.

I hate the world for not buying Windows Phone.

[Car, Rant] Sin Diesel

I've been casually following the Volkswagen Diesel gate developments and I'm fascinated by how it could happen from an organizational standpoint. The naive narrative is that these greedy corporate interests happily polluted the world for profit. That's good enough if your goal is to work up the warm glow of indignation in your chest, but it's not reality. I strongly suspect that in reality, no person in the decision chain that led to this thought they were doing anything wrong.

My experience in a management in a big multi-national corporation is that nobody has any malice or duplicity in intent, it's just that systems and incentives are mis-designed to allow or encourage it. When I first read about Dieselgate, I wrote, but did not publish, this as an expected analysis: A much more likely possibility is that everyone thought that within their purview they were doing what they should. Worker A is preparing a checklist for a car that's going into testing. Worker B gives worker a list of setting or equipment that he knows will pass inspection because he got the list from Worker C who didn't realize what he was submitting was not how shipping cars would be set because Worker D sent him an ambiguous email that read "These settings will pass the test but the final settings are not known" and Worker C assumed passing the test was the goal while Worker D meant for him to wait for the final specs before initiating the test. The Worker D got transferred and Worker E who took his place didn't realize anything was amiss and just thought the test was passed and years later heads are rolling and VW is fighting for its life.

That was way off. As it turns out, algorithms were created with the specific intent to pass emissions tests knowing full well they would never be used in the real world. A whole lot of people had to know of this and approve. What possible excuse could there be other than an outright company-wide endorsement of fraud? Again, given my first hand knowledge of corporate functioning, I would observe that if your conclusion leads to a bunch of avuncular old men sitting around a table exploring ways to lie, cheat, and steal to bolster next quarter's profit, then you have been watching too much bad TV.

It looks to me like the cheating the test was really just a baby step over the line from accepted practice. Here's a long, but telling description of the testing environment from Kapersky:
The biggest issue of emissions tests is that they are always performed with some standard model, like the so-called NEDC (New European Driving Cycle). This model consists of a few pretty short acceleration-braking cycles and one long cycle with higher speed, which represent city and highway traffic respectively. In real life nobody drives like this, and definitely nobody drives exactly like this.

But for emissions measurement they use this very model, thus engineers at car companies can do tricks to improve measurement results. Why do they do it? Plain and simple: it's way cheaper than to do real improvements. If an enterprise could do something in a cheaper way, it definitely would prefer this way to any other as the bottom line is important to company performance.

"Trickery on that tests is very common," says Lange. "What tricks people are doing to drive down the emissions? For example they blow up the tires by 3 bars more than you could actually use them on the road. The bottom of the tire looks like this, so that means that you only have that very small portion of the tire that still touches the ground, your resistance gets reduced."

"They put diesel into the oil, because diesel is lighter than the oil, so friction gets reduced. They take off the mirror on a passenger side, because that is not legally required to exist. So resistance gets away with it. They tape close all the openings of the vehicle. Obviously, when the wind goes over it, it goes much smoother once you have everything taped. All of these things are either Ok, or they kind of borderline grey area. And they do this. This is how actually emissions are tested."

The results of this trickery are very simple: measured values have pretty much nothing to do with what is going on in the real world. The whole auto industry knows this very well. Perhaps every car manufacturer uses software tweaks, just like Volkswagen did. As a matter of fact, 15 years ago BMW was actually caught on using a similar trick with software of its motorcycle.
So this stuff is known to occur even by the testers. With this as the accepted state of emissions testing it's not surprising (note: did not say "it's OK") that somebody pushed the envelope to the breaking point.

There is a also the effect of historical reputation. VW cars have dismally lagged the market in quality both in cars and service for many years. There is little goodwill to draw on. On the other hand, imagine if this happened to Toyota, makers of our beloved Camry and Priii. Toyota has been devoted to giving us cars that last a lifetime and beyond for a reasonable price as long as I have been alive. If I heard of this scandal at Toyota I would immediately assume it was an honest mistake and feel confident that they would do everything in their power to sort things out. In contrast, I would assume VW would deflect, defend, dodge, duck, dive, dip, and dodge (as they in fact did).

Heads have rolled at VW and more may yet. They are not exactly playing the PR game very well. Their stock price has crashed and sales in the U.S. have tanked (although not so much elsewhere). Enormous fines will be levied and it's entirely possible VW will be struggling to survive when all is said and done.

But should we not also hold the government agencies, who created such environments to get away unscathed. How did these tests get to the point where they were so divorced from the real world that there was an acceptable level of cheating. What was the reasoning behind not simply buying production models and testing them as is? That would seem a lot more logical. The system allowed automakers to game it, and even tacitly encouraged them. The cynic in me asks, Who profits? Well, the auto companies do obviously, from being able to save money by gaming the system. But to allow such a system to be set up in the first place, I can't escape the notion that lobbyists greased the correct palms to shepherd this convoluted and corruptible system into place.

Now look at me, doing exactly what I chastised others for doing: Assuming there was a cadre of greedy cartoon villains at the heart of the matter. The fact is there is nothing surprising in any of this. It is the nature of institutions, either multi-national corporations or government agencies, that they veer off into dubious activity now and then. They get caught, punished, and either correct themselves or disappear.

So thinking it through, it's hard to wax indignant about this. In fact, if I was in the market, I would be shopping for a VW. I have to figure there are some serious discounts available while they try to dig themselves out. Maybe they'll pull it of. The difference between VW and the government agencies is that VW will adapt or die, the government agencies have no reason to change.

[Good Links] Hit the Links

It's been a while since I dumped some interesting links on you, so have fun with these.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Month That Was - April 2016

I am in the midst of Spring preparations. I have decided to have a good bit of landscaping done, by professionals because experience has taught me that I am pretty much incapable of doing anything on any scale without wasting hundreds of dollars and untold weekends making stupid mistakes that professionals have already made and so don't need to learn again. The sad thing is that professionals are in high demand and are not always on your timetable. I know we have all heard about how awful it is for anyone looking for work as unskilled labor. But skilled labor -- tradesmen -- is in short supply. (There's probably a post in that.) Anyway, my yard looks like hell at the moment and it's going to be a couple of weeks at the soonest until they get to it. I think I am also going to try to get my house painted this year, but we'll see about that -- at this point it sounds like it might just turn out to be some fresh hell.

I am also about to have house guests for a month or so. I am considering hiring a housekeeper to come in every couple of weeks, but like most people, I want the house to be clean before I show it to the potential housekeeper which is truly silly, but undeniable.

Writing has slacked in the face of all this activity. It will pick up again. I am currently writing fiction at about the slowest rate I ever have. I'm lucky to get a couple of hours a week in at this point. Don't know when that will change, but it must. Maybe when I retire.

[Ann Arbor] Burrito Guidance
[Tech] Windows Phone, Vaya Con Dios
[Rant] Maybe It's Better
[Movies] Weak Force

[Ann Arbor] Burrito Guidance

This post will mean nothing to you unless you live in or around Ann Arbor. Non-homies can move along.

As a public service I thought I would provide the definitive rankings of fast burritos in town, since I know many people are paralyzed by the uncertainty where they should get their burritos. You're welcome.

  1. Chipotle -- Locations at Briarwood, on campus on State St., Washtenaw near Platt. Yes, the most common and popular is also the best. There is just something about the meat here. (No, not the bacteria, smart ass.) Great and powerful meat flavors mean you should probably get a bowl instead of a tortilla, since the tortillas are only average. And you should go easy on the fixin's. But, oh, that combination of Carnitas with Salsa Verde! I am convinced there is a secret ingredient in there. Probably crack.
  2. Pancheros -- Location in the new shops in front of Ann Arbor-Saline Meijers. A close second, but you must get the tortilla; a bowl would defeat the purpose. They grill them up upon your order and you can taste the difference. The stuffings are good quality, although crack-free. Fajita veggies can be added to any burrito for a buck. You should always add fajita veggies to your burrito as they are known to cancel out some of the fat calories.
  3. Qdoba -- Locations on Main and Ann Arbor Saline, North Campus on Plymouth Rd., Washtenaw in front of Barnes and Noble. Qdoba has some slightly different flavors that are a nice change, like ancho chile BBQ and spicy queso. Because of that, Qdoba is a good place for some non-burrito stuff - the tortilla soup comes to mind. Unless I'm mistaken, guac and fajita veggies are free which makes this a good budget choice.
  4. Moe's -- Location in the Colonnade, corner of Eisenhower and Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. -- The food is just meh, but there is a salsa bar, with including one with a nice garlicky flavor called Kaiser Salsa, so if you get a bowl or are OK with ripping open your burrito you can have some fun with flavors. Also they'll give you all the tortilla chips you can eat for free, so if you are are coming off a fast or a juice cleanse or a kale detox or some such, this is the place.
I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention Taco Bell. I know, I know. Listen you can get a couple variations of burritos off the dollar menu. Thrown in a drink and you're out the door for around four-fiddy. This is a remarkable humanitarian service. Honestly, I don't know why we send food assistance to third-world countries when we could just set up Taco Bells. Besides, Taco Bell is kind of like White Castle. There is no point in rationalizing it. There are times when it simply must be done.

Note I haven't touched on tacos here, only burritos. For tacos you are better off hitting one of the more genuine Mexican shops: Chela's, Taco King, Tmaz, El Manantial. But that's for a different post.

[Tech] Windows Phone, Vaya Con Dios

Took me a long time, but I finally said goodbye to Windows Phone. I was not happy to do it, but I was compelled by happenstance and reality. Verizon, my former carrier, has made it clear that they are no longer interested in supporting Windows Phone. It took us well over a year after its release to upgrade us to version 8. Version 10 has been out for a while and there was no word from Verizon on an expected update -- I suspect they never will, hoping Windows Phone will just die out of their line up.

The larger reason, and one that I am sure would not go away, is the legendary app gap. Windows Phone has less than 2% of the market. No one is going to write any more apps for it and the existing apps will likely never get updated.

So I was facing a choice between Android and Apple. I am not an Apple fan. My few interactions with them in the laptop arena were a disaster. Years ago I regularly tried to buy music from iTunes and found it unusable. And you can always count on iAnything to be overpriced. It was going to be Android for me.

The upside of that is that I was able to kill Verizon and get on the nascent Google Fi carrier service. Google Fi is both cheap and interesting. First, it does a very clever thing whereby it uses either the Sprint network, the T-Mobile network, or Wi-fi, whichever signal is strongest, for all functions, including talk and text. That's pretty cool. It's also very innovative (and inexpensive) with respect to data: You are billed for a certain amount of data per month -- in my case 1GB which, along with unlimited talk and text, costs me $30 per month. But the cool thing is after the month is over they adjust your next month's bill to match the amount of data you actually used: up or down. That's right, they actually credit you for unused data, in real money, on the next bill. That is astounding.

To get this service you have to buy a Google Nexus phone, which I did -- a Nexus 5x. The knock on the Nexus 5x is battery life and while I had an early scare on that front, I think it was mostly because I needed to update the system multiple times and about 20 apps to get them current. Since then, it's been on par with my previous Nokia, still that only puts it on par with a 4 year old phone.

The real downside is the fact that the Android operating system is a usability dumpster fire. The elegant and beautifully simple tile interface of Windows Phone is forever gone, replaced with a haphazard stew of icons and notifications of varying shapes and sizes, none of which are consistent or discoverable. It is abysmal. I'm sure given the abundance of apps and services around Android I will eventually be able to get my phone to be as convenient as Windows Phone. But it's gonna take a while until I figure it all out.

As an interface, Android is a big step backwards and it's kind of sad that it is everyone's default experience through sheer numbers. Something tells me it's going to be many years before someone puts a coherent face on it. Maybe Microsoft?

[Rant] Maybe It's Better

I spend a fair amount of time on here making wry commentary about the direction of culture and its absurdities and how everyone should get off my lawn. But it's always important to try to put yourself in the shoes of those you can't understand so, as an exercise, I shall try to make positive arguments for the bizarre world our contemporary culture is building.

Maybe it's better they live in mortal terror of offending anyone. As some commentators have pointed out, it's pretty much impossible to fine-tune social interaction to the exactly correct balance of freedom of expression versus freedom from offense. Maybe the past was too far to one direction. Maybe political correctness, while leaning decidedly in the other direction, is somewhat better overall.

Maybe it's better their cars will drive themselves. The time will come when your grandchild looks at you incredulously and says, "You mean you aimed the car yourself and just went around crashing into each other?" That is to say perhaps the lives saved are worth the loss of the driving experience, however elemental it seems to us old folks.

Maybe it's better that every topic is open for public discussion. Being able to openly use the most profane language and freely discuss your sexual proclivities and bodily fluids in public, and see accurate fictional portrayals on screen as family entertainment, well, it's not for me. Perhaps, though, life is less stressful and more honest with fewer personal secrets to keep and mysteries to maintain. Who says reticence is a virtue?

Maybe it's better they are never out of sight of their parents until they go to college. They'll struggle with things like how to size up a stranger quickly, how to defuse a threatening situation when you are at a disadvantage, and generally how to gauge and evaluate danger. But isn't it better to learn self-sufficiency later in life than to be scarred or dead because you couldn't learn quickly enough as a child.

Maybe it's better that they don't bother reading unless it's a caption for something visual. Is there any non-prejudiced reason that written communication is better than visual. I mean, the Egyptians were all pictures and they lasted for thousands of years.

Maybe it's better to have an alphabet of genders. It's conveivable that being able to align your innate sexualtiy with 51 choices instead of just boy or girl could alleviate some behavioral compromises and make you more comfortable in your own skin.

Maybe it's better that politicians are unashamed of their behavior. We spent years with lawyers as politicians doing terrible things in private, how do we know shameless celebrities will be any worse?

Maybe it's better that every action is recorded for all time. Perhaps the New Golden Rule -- "Never do anything in public you wouldn't want to see on YouTube" -- will be more effective than the old one.

Maybe it's better that popular music entirely consists of assembly-line pop, R&B divas howling about empowerment, and illiterate, obscene, hateful rappers. Sorry Millennials, there's no redeeming this one. You've ruined music. Full stop.

Whew. I can now pat myself on the back for being so open-minded. The world as it's currently constituted is certainly not to my taste, and it's only going to get worse. But then it's not my world to say how it should be and whining is no virtue for an old man. The world is like a rip tide. There is no point in fighting it, just swim athwart it until somehow you can escape.

To keep perspective, just think: In a couple hundred years somebody will create a mind-downloadable editorial entitled Maybe it's Better to be a Brain in a Jar.

[Movies] Weak Force

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is as bad as the reviews say. Well, it's not bad so much as it is just not there. There's nothing to it. It is, as most people have pointed out, A New Hope mildly re-arranged, with a touch of Empire... here and there. The is no snap to the dialogue, no compelling technical achievement. The new female Luke is bland as hell. The new black Han is a bit of a doofus. The new Darth is dweeb. The old Leia gets nothing to do that let's her have the fire of the old Leia. The old Han is about the only saving grace. After all the years, Harrison Ford can still pull off the role and frankly, when he's not on the screen the film becomes background noise.

Aside: J.J. Abrams needs a win desperately. Let's face it, it's been a decade since Alias and Lost, and the trend line of his movie production career has been on a slow decline. His work on the Mission Impossible films has been solid, but Star Trek has been spotty and I have heard nothing encouraging about the upcoming one. He's in danger of falling into Michael Bay territory.

But back to The Force Awakens. The main problem is we don't feel any affinity for the new characters. They are pretty much cardboard. We know their motivations because we have been told, but we don't believe them because, well, we've only been told, not shown. I have some sympathy; we have been spoiled by years of quality TV where you can take nearly a full season to develop characters. You need incredibly talented writers who can genuinely define and motivate a character in about two scenes and five minutes for a movie to work. (Note 1: Say what you want about George Lucas (he probably deserves it) but halfway through A New Hope we were fully invested emotionally in Luke, Han and Leia. Note 2: Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man had stand-alones to create themselves and connect with the audience so the ensemble opera could begin at full speed.) Instead we get about three minutes of the flimsiest background on Finn, Rey, and Poe which is somehow supposed to justify their strong loyalty and friendship with each other. The net result is that these characters aren't real or appealing, they don't respond to motivation so much as get just puppeteered around to generate set action sequences. (Han and Leia come off better because we already know them.)

And it's worse than just the shallow characters. As with the other recent disappointing come-back, Jurassic World, this was not so much a sequel as a remake. Not just in plot, but in concept and production. From tropes to camera angles to effects, there is nothing we haven't seen thousand times in the previous decades. What would make anyone think that a 20th century-style blockbuster will make it today? Have they not seen The Avengers?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Month That Was - March 2016

Holy crap! I didn't write anything. I literally looked up at the end of March and had nothing written in the whole month, so if what's below is a bit slapdash you have my apologies. Just a couple of long winded post this month. I'll try to stay on top of things next month.

[Travel] The Keys to Key West
[Rant] Web Status: Recked

[Travel] The Keys to Key West

I think this was my fifth visit to Key West and it remains a wonderful place. It's interesting that despite being one of the great bar and sunshine capitals of the world, it doesn't get a lot of college spring break madness. I assume for two reasons: 1) It is too difficult to get to cheaply - a four hour drive from Miami or an expensive connecting flight into Key West airport. 2) It ain't cheap. Major hotels near the water are going to run you in the neighborhood of $500 a night during spring break season, even at the cheapest. The upshot is that Key West, while being party mad, is a bit more adult.

While flyng that extra leg into Key West can be appealing. There are pluses to driving the length of the Keys. The path from mainland Florida onto the first key -- Key Largo -- is a well worn stretch of US 1, but there is an alternative. You can take Card Sound Road which parallels U.S. 1 about fifteen minutes to the East. There is nothing on Card Sound Road except a toll bridge ($1) and a remarkable swamp-side dive called Alabama Jack's.

There are approximately 9,327,438 waterside fried-fish-and-cold-beer restaurants in Florida, but Alabama Jack's stands out for a few reasons: 1) It's off the beaten path yet quite crowded suggesting folks go out of their way to get there. 2) It is old -- like, my age -- with roots well back in the heart of the previous century. The rustic kitsch you see here is genuine. 3) It has a broad cross-section of clientele, from families on vacation to bikers on the road to fisherman tying their boats up to local swamp rats. At 2pm on the weekends a country band plays -- the Card Sound Machine, they've had this gig for decades -- and sweet old ladies dressed up in their homey western swing skirts twirl around the dance floor. Just a good natured place all around. Worth going the 20 minutes out of your way.

The drive along the Keys is often described as beautiful, but most of it really isn't. It's crap shops, low-end shopping centers, cheap motels, and harborside facilities, and fried-fish-dives/tiki bars in places where the waters comes in close. The first two thirds of the drive is like this and can be very frustrating -- this is not a freeway. You're talking 40-45 mph with stops all the way through Key Largo and nothing to look at except the aforementioned crap shops. When you reach the next Key, Islamorada (pronounced I'll-am-or-ah'-dah) you will slow to a crawl with no passing lanes. It's tough when you have your sights set on Key West, still two and a half hours away -- but you must chill; there's no choice. The good news is once you get through Islamorada things loosen up a bit -- you might get some nice stretches at 50 mph along with relief from the crap shops and sweet views of the Gulf on one side and the Sea on the other. About 2/3 of the way through you'll hit the famous Seven Mile Bridge which is as lovely as described, and from there you're in the home stretch to your final destination. In Key West the smart thing to do is park and not get in your car again until you leave.

There is a lot to do in the Non-Key West Keys. Fishing is huge in Islamorada and Marathon, eco-kayak-watersports tours are everywhere, and there are a couple of excellent but crowded state parks, but apart from the occasional isolated lodge where isolation is the selling point, most of the stuff on the pre-Key West Keys is single purpose. The impression I get is that it's for families driving down for a brief, inexpensive weekend, or perhaps dedicated fishing trips. If you're going to hang for any amount of time you need to go all the way to the end of the road.

Having driven US 1 to Key West many times, I have no particular interest in doing it again. The added time is too meaningful to me now. I'd prefer to fly into Key West directly and take a ten minute cab ride to my hotel. But the drive is something you should do at least once.

There is another way into Key West, and that is via a ferry from Ft. Myers or Marco Island. It's about a four hour ferry ride so it really doesn't save you any time over driving and it departs for Key West early in the morning, returning late afternoon so it doesn't really work well as a commuter since you would have to fly into Ft. Myers the evening before, get a hotel room for the evening, then a cab to the dock early the next morning. It could be an interesting as an option for a multi-point road trip, though. Visiting other parts of the Gulf coast, use the ferry to swing down to Key West for two or three nights. That could work.

In any event, Key West is worth the effort to get there. The days can be as languorous or as hectic as you want them to be. One thing I have found is that when I am in the tropics I do tend to slip into island time. I may have a whole list of activities in my head but when I get there, that umbrella drink makes the lounge chair in the sun hard to escape.

A leisurely bike ride is a good way to get familiar with the island. Key West has many areas with distinct personalities. Duval Street is where the madness is -- the quieter southern end terminates right near the Southernmost Point. Here masses of tourist self-organize into a line to take selfies in front of a large buoy-shaped marker. The busier north end terminates at Mallory Square where people gather along the water to watch the sunset and the street entertainers. Quick note: All along the Florida Gulf coast watching the sunset is a big deal. Folks gather on the beach, or at least the beachside tiki bars, and drink and chit-chat and enjoy the final moments of Florida sunshine.

In the north, to the west of Duval is a lovely area called the Truman Annex -- it strikes me as the closest thing to an old money neighborhood. Row houses/duplexes on well-shaded, lightly traveled side streets. I suspect most of the units are rentals so it is almost certainly not old money, although I'm sure the larger houses in the area are.

Move south next and you get to Old Town, which as I understand it was a Cuban enclave up until a few years ago. It may still be as there a hints of latin vibrancy, but over the years I've been visiting it seems to be gentrifying. Some of the ramshackle spots seem cleaned up and higher end business are sliding in, such as the most popular restaurant on Key West, the Blue Heaven. I have tried multiple time to eat there but I refuse to wait an 90 minutes for a table off-hours on a Tuesday. No restaurant is that good.

You next step south is actually public housing projects. It's probably the worst area economically on Key West and probably the place you'd go to score illicit chemicals. But to be accurate I should point out the Key West is light on crime. In fact, the last time I looked at a Key West crime map, it turned out that most violent crime occurred on the northern part of Duval and along the waterfront. This tells me that violent crime is mostly assaults either on or by drunken tourists. And even that wasn't all that common.

Moving north from "the projects," such as they are, you come to a Naval Station -- no admittance. But adjacent to the Naval Station is Fort Zachary State Park -- a real gem.

There are no great beaches on Key West. This might come as a surprise. The largest beach is Smathers Beach that runs along the southern end of the island. As a public beach, it gets a lot of activity but it's usually filled with seaweed and the facilities are not well maintained. It's also very windy and so works better for kite-boarders and such. I suppose it's fine to throw down a blanket and get some sun on the days when the seaweed stench is not too bad, but if I arranged my trip with the expectation of a lot of beach time and a was thrust on to this beach, I would be furious. There are mid-range hotels here that do just that. Beware of any properties on the southeast side of the island.

In contrast, the beach at Fort Zack ($2.50 admittance for foot or bike) is clean and well maintained and quite picturesque amid rocky outcrops. In the water the bottom is rocky, so it lacks the gentle appeal of the beaches on the Sun Coast, but it's still a terrific place for a swim or a cookout. Apart from the small, privately maintained strips of beach at some of the high-end resorts, this is the best spot on the island to enjoy the sand and sun.

There's more to Fort Zack State Park than the beach, however. There are a number of nature trails that are popular with bird watchers, and then of course, there is the fort. It is exactly what you would think an old fort would look like: An enormous trapezoidal structure of thick concrete and brick walls, with turrets and a courtyard (more correctly: parade grounds) and cannons and all that stuff out of 19th century war films. It a nice little bit of history and a pleasant little bit of exploration. The turrets themselves are accessible via old stone spiral staircases and provide sweeping views of the point where "the green of the Gulf meets the blue of the Sea" as Jimmy Buffet says.

As far as this trip goes, on a more personal level, I drank a lot. I never got drunk, but a bellini at brunch, a couple of cocktails poolside in the afternoon, wine with dinner, and nightcap or two before bed, was not unusual. I have written before about how I am generally happier person when I drink, but I don't allow myself because of expense and calories. But what the hell, I was on vacation. And so was everyone else in Key West. What lingers from a vacation at the end of road is just that: Casual slices of happiness; carefree moments of sunsets and sea breezes; al fresco cocktails and friendly fellow tourists; lizards at the pool and roosters on the road; disappointment that it has to end and gratitude for the time you had. We go back to Jimmy Buffett:

It's flashback kind of crowd
It's a cabaret sound
There's still some magic left
In this tourist town