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. Um...no. 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 and how 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

[Rant] Web Status: Recked

Well they've gone and done it. They've ruined the internet. How hard is it to just write words and post them on a website? Evidently, very. It's much easier to prop your camera up and make a poorly lit video of yourself sitting on your couch mumbling your message and post it on youtube. Or better to ramble on about your topic off the top of your head and call it a podcast. Or if your topic is easily divisible, work up a slideshow.

I have over recent years come to terms with the imminent death of the written word. Honestly, in day-to-day activities, writing is almost a lost art for anyone under 25. But look, you need to match your media to the type of communication you are doing. The most efficient way to inform of anything complicated is via writing. The best way to inform someone of options is writing. It may be appropriate to punctuate this writing with pictures or videos to illustrate points but the words are what organize your thoughts in such a way that your audience can zero in on the specific information I want.

For example, let's say you want to express a thorough opinion on some non-trivial topic -- you want to editorialize. The first thing you would probably do is give some background. Well, if I already know the background I can skip those paragraphs. If you put it in a video I either have to sit through it or try to find a good place to which to skip forward. If you're a good expository writer, I can see where you're going at any given point by reading the first couple of sentences of section to see if it's new to me or you're just treading old ground. I need to be able to focus on the key points to me, or you're going to lose me.

Even something like a how-to guide is better when text based and highlighted with short direct pictures or video clips demonstrating what is described. Example: I recently needed to do some scratch buffing and touch up painting on my car. I had a general idea of what to do but I wanted to know if there were any tips or tricks that would be of value, so I fired up youtube. I found a video on how to apply touch up paint. I was approximately 6 minutes long. The first minute was a short logo and intro since this was apparently meant to be part of a car maintenance series. The next two minutes was a man standing in front of his car explaining that touch up is for paint chips and giving examples of how paint chips happen and explaining the how using touch up not only improves the appearance of the car but helps prevent rust. Let's pause there. The target audience for this video is people wanting to do touch up on their own car. So they probably already know what touch up is and certainly already want to do it, why go through all this pageantry? As it turned out, there was nothing new to learn from this video for me. But had it been text based -- say a step by step description of the process with video clips as demos -- I could have seen that in about three seconds.

Perhaps it's just poor design. If you want to see how to do a how-to video, go to facebook and search on "video recipes". Sites like 12tomatoes and Delish understand that these are not V shows they are producing. They whip through everything you need to know in under three minutes. No narration. Very, very well thought out, Phone friendly. They figure their audience is in the kitchen and they just fire up the recipe vid on their phone. They can pause it, or just replay it if needed because it's short enough. That, my friends, is how you do design -- give your audience exactly what they need. Whoever came up with this format for how-to videos deserves a medal.

Another example: I recently found a link to an interview with an industry personality with whom I share interest. I really wasn't interested in much of the technical detail as I was in the more conceptual aspects of his work. Normally I would either be hunting and pecking through the video to find what I wanted, but in this case there was transcript posted along with the video. Joy! I found out what I wanted in about five minutes versus sitting through a 25 minute video. There's a rule for life: always include a transcript.

All this make me yearn for the old days when people wrote plain text in blogs and since you needed HTML skills to insert a picture, and even when you did the browser wouldn't render it right, few people did. But not any more. Writing and reading are too hard and you can't do them well on your phone. So we have taken the tremendous abilities of adaptation and problem solving our ancestors evolved over epochs to survive and dominate in the primal world and used them to rid ourselves of the need to write or read.

And now I find myself, once again, an old man yelling at clouds. Even in small ways text is gone. What's left is it is 140 characters -- grammar-less, unpunctuated, uncapitalized, and misspelled -- and the demographic for even that is aging. Young millennials have no need of such archaic devices as an alphabet. Perhaps they process images as effectively as I process text. They communicate in images via snapchat, and the future is theirs.

Worse though, and what can't be dismissed as a consequence of my grumpiness, is that all these wonderful tools we have for speedy interaction with our screens have been turned against us. Land on a page and try to scroll and, as likely as not, nothing happens because the site is hunting across several third-party ad providers to load up every corner the page with video ads and flash links, then once it downloads and presents them and returns your cursor to you the focus in the wrong place for you mouse wheel to work, so you manually adjust the scroll bar and try to click on what you want to read, but by then the page is reloading fresh ads and one of them shifts everything on the screen just enough to move your link out from under your mouse and place an ad there for you to unintentionally click, which pops open another page that asks you if you are willing to take a survey and you have to hunt around for the little "x" to kill the survey window and by then the original page is reloading yet another set of ads so you just kill the tab and abandon whole idea of reading what you wanted.

In the end, you wanted to read something like 5k of text information and instead end up downloading hundreds of megs of videos and ads and don't get to read it anyway. I cannot fathom how any of this works for the advertisers. Do you know anyone who has not immediately dismissed an ad when given the opportunity? How about anyone who hasn't closed a page rather than sit through a 15 second autoplay video commercial that can't be dismissed. And to answer your next question, yes, these are legitimate websites, not some clickbait trash.

It's just awful. They've ruined the internet. Just totally ruined it. I'm beginning to see the attraction of Murder She Wrote reruns.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Month That Was - February 2016

For the bulk of February I had a sort of low-level chest/head cold that I couldn't seem to shake. Toward the end of the month I was hit with a general nausea that also lingered for quite a few days. Not sure what is going on with me. All this didn't stop me from doing anything really, but it did stop me from enjoying it.

I have now taken the snow blower out four times. I don't remember taking it out more than that last year, but it remains a blissfully warm winter by comparison the last couple of years. I ran in shorts in early December and again at the end of February. We've had a handful of days here in February that lurched in the 50s. Thank you El Nino. Feel free to stay a while. Although I suspect the nice, mild, only-need-A/C-twice-all-season summers we've had the past couple fo years may be in danger. Could be a scorcher.

Progress remains slow in my latest book project. It's always slow though, isn't it? I keep going, however, and recently turned a corner on a tough chapter I've been struggling with for a while. This is really the first time I've tried to write entirely via keyboard and it's not really working too well. Previously I was the guy at the local library or coffee shop, slouched into a chair scribbling on a big yellow pad. Things got in the computer on first revision. I think I'm going to go back to that. Although, what I am writing now is new to me and heavily plot dependent. I'm learning how to weave a complicated plot, but it's rough work.

[TV] Ex-Files
[TV] Got Milch?
[Rant] Sore Sorority
[Tech] State of Tech

[TV] Ex-Files

Here's the thing about X-files. It's always been occasionally great but mostly feeble. I granted it historic significance as the first modern show to marry quality drama to imaginative fiction -- current attempts at which are too numerous to count. That is not intended to excuse the enormous amount of crap episodes -- and there were plenty of them that were manipulative, overwrought, and little more than the characters making dire, expositional speeches at each other. The great, groundbreaking ones usually had the names of Wong, Morgan, Spotnitz, or Gilligan associated with them. The others, the crap, usually had the mark of Chris Carter on them. The six-episode mini-series that just concluded is exactly the same.

First, let me say that I have no doubt that Chris Carter is a top tier showrunner. Folks who work for him seem to think highly of him and he can clearly spot talent and get out the way enough to let it flourish. But he should never be allowed to write another script for as long as he lives. Of the six episodes he wrote three, two of which bracketed the series and connected it to the wearyingly mindless mythology that was at the core of the old series. They are not just weak, they are truly -- even offensively -- awful. They are abominations of screenwriting. One weeps for the poor actors trying to make something of the soul-crushing dialogue.

The series brought in big enough audiences that we'll likely get more, but in reality it was a disappointment. Beyond Carter's writing, the productions themselves were anachronistically staid. Did they think to experiment with camera angles, mood, lighting, pacing, or anything at all? Production was pure cookie cutter -- have they not seen an episode of Daredevil? Redemption came in the form of a couple of typically sharp scripts from James Wong and Glen Morgan, and a standout from the divine Darin Morgan -- though his script was the weakest he's submitted for X-files it was still a cut above, with his signature melancholy irony and humor.

Cliche of cliches, Carter ended it on a cliffhanger of a plotline no one cares about. Honestly, back in the day you had to crank out 20+ episodes a year so hack work was expected, but you had 14 years to generate six hours of quality and you got three; that's a sorry effort. The real cliffhanger is whether Carter will get a clue for the next set of episodes and turn all the writing over to others.

The sad state of the X-files dramatics is further emphasized by their most successful alum, Vince Gilligan, head cheese behind Breaking Bad, who just kicked off the second season of his prequel follow-up Better Call Saul and it's really turning into a Mad Men level character study. We are really getting ever deeper look at the demons and forces that push the essentially good-hearted attorney Jimmy McGill into the crooked drug lawyer Saul Goodman and then into a manager at Cinnabon. If you're not on to this yet, get there.

[TV] Got Milch?

In the wake of this report the David Milch appears to have gambled away an unimaginable sum of money and as a result is pushing hard to get a Deadwood movie going. I binged his two lightly watched follow ups to Deadwood, John from Cincinnati and Luck, to see if they held up. The answer is yes they do, provided you are attracted to Milchian drama to begin with.

This is my third viewing of John from Cincinnati and, if anything, I am even more impressed at the vision behind it. Milch always seems to start with the highest of concepts and John... was the highest of the high. Set amongst a severely dysfunctional family damaged by a chain of cruelties committed against one another, an oddball who calls himself "John" appears. He's a naive, autistic-seeming, nonsense-talker who turns out to be a Christ-like figure who impels the players to face and unravel the cruelties that lead them to where they are. I can't imagine understanding the purpose of this show other than through repeated watchings and close listening. It is dense, oblique, and utterly wonderful. It is also loaded with good humor. The acting can be atrocious -- Milch is famous for employing non-actors with a connection to the plot to have sizable roles. That's a mistake. On the other hand Ed O'Neill should have won an Emmy; Rebecca DeMornay, too. And of course, it featured that delightful Milchian dialogue. People mostly with low-end scrubs and hardcases, I remember at one point during a conversation one character was pacing about and the other tells him to "alight." Not "chill out," not "sit your ass down" -- "alight." Beautiful.

The long term plan for John... was to follow this theme of redemption to a point where John would avert a genocide, or something of the sort, through his work at healing. As with Deadwood, Milch was following the ways in which society organizes itself under unusual circumstances. Only Milch could turn that into a quality adult drama. Only Milch would even think to try something like that.

Of course, it died on the vine, as would any TV show that takes multiple viewings to "get". To me however, it was heroic.

Luck in contrast was a good deal more conventional. Centered in and around the Santa Anita horse racing track, it was certainly close to Milch's racehorse gambling, and racehorse owning, heart. On this one he shared credit with none other than Michael Mann, he of the terse, highly-styled, crime dramas (Miami Vice, for one) fame. What we have here are a whole slew of interlocking characters and themes -- too many to go through individually. Lots of star power also, as might be expected with the drawn of a Milch/Mann creation.

Two of the threads were notable for the scenery chewing actors. Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Farina as a pair of aging, shady businessmen trying to settle an old score. This was one of Farina's last works and he just plays his standard Dennis Farina role which is great to watch. Another thread featured Nick Nolte, about as grizzled as a human can be, playing an aging horse trainer with a final shot at redemption.

But the most Milchian thread is the story of four broken down losers suddenly hitting a big score. It runs nearly counter to every narrative you have ever seen in that nothing bad happens and things just get better. They start out at the bottom of the barrel, make a big win, parlay it into something bigger, make sure they are loyal and helpful to everyone who's been in their corner, and by the end of the season the were virtually fully integrated members of society, with girlfriends and thoughts of moving into a nicer place with a lawn. It is very affecting but it only jumps out at you when you think about the arc. I repeat: nothing bad happened to them. Name another narrative on TV, or the movies for that matter, where you entered at the low point and everything was up from there -- nobody got a cynical beatdown, no hopes and dreams were dashed. I've never seen anything like it and it strikes me, once again, as the sort of thing only Milch would think to do.

Anyway, Luck was killed after two horses died on the set. There were no allegations of mistreatment and it was obvious to anyone who saw the show that everyone involved with the production had a complete reverence for horses. But HBO took the coward's way out and cancelled the series.

So now we're looking at finally getting those Deadwood movies we were promised upon the cancellation of the series. And Milch is onboard, perhaps pushed to make some money lost gambling. The difficulty is rounding everyone else up. Tim Olyphant might find enough free time, but Ian McShane is a seriously busy dude with a new series starting up.

Find a way. Twist arms, grease palms; do whatever you have to. Bring back that lusciously profane, quasi-metered dialogue. I'll eat up every second of it.

[Rant] Sore Sorority

Another one bites the dust. I previously wrote of the problems at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Alpha Mu fraternities that I had minor interaction with during my college days, now The Kappa Alpha Theta sorority at Michigan has just gotten disbanded over allegations of hazing (so I guess something worse than pillow fights in nighties?) and under-aged drinking (I'm shocked, I tell you). This caught my eye because back when I was in a fraternity a few blocks down the street from them, they were considered the creme de la creme. They regularly pledged a high percentage cheerleaders and pom-pom girls and the favored daughters of Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe. They were always thin and fresh and perfectly prepared. Envious girls seethed at them and frustrated boys sneered at them, but tunes would change were they to be favored with a pledge bid or a smile and a wink.

That was -- oh, let's see -- 30 years ago, so I have no idea whether their status on campus was still the same. Evidently they had been under scrutiny since 2011 -- double secret probation, I daresay -- and the impetus came from their national office so it was a matter of self-policing more than anything else, although the University forces were also involved. I can't help but be curious about what happened that would have degraded the poised debutantes of my youth into Kardashians gone wild. Of course, I don't really have to ask. Decades of increasing cultural crudity happened, just like it happened to everyone and everything else.

Still looking at a recent recruitment video, they appear little different from virtually every 20-something millennial girl I've ever met. They seem uniformly white, which in itself would probably incur the wrath of most institutions, yet insufficient ethnic vibrancy does not seem to be a formal charge. There is talk of hazing but no details, however an accusation of hazing from 16 years ago against KAT at the University of Cincinnati describes:
Kappa Alpha Theta members also shouted at new members while making them lie on the floor. In another instance, new members made animal noises until told to stop.
Am I creepy for wishing it had been something more juicy?

In the end, this looks pretty much like a win-win. I'm sure the ex-sisters of Kappa Alpha Theta will come out alright. After 30 years, they look to be the same sort of pretty, social, chippy, upper-middle-class, 20-year-old girls who have ruled popular culture since time immemorial. They'll share apartments and rented condos and have gatherings off campus where they are still the center of attention and where noble institutions won't make a fuss about their vodka and Red Bull. And the school-marms of academia will be able to pat themselves on the back and sleep easy with the righteous knowledge that they have made the world safer from the scourge of happy little girls of privilege.

[Tech] State of Tech

It's time for a new phone. I gave it my all with Windows Phone and have nothing but admiration for the work they have done. It's really a great interface and platform. But there's no denying that it's the walking dead. The lack of app support can no longer be tolerated. I can't get Lyft; I can't get Instagram; I can't get the nifty mobile app from my bank that will let me snap a photo of a check and deposit it right there. It's time to move on and wish Windows Phone the best.

That leaves an open question of where to go next. I don't really want a giant phablet sort of thing. A five inch screen is all I need; my current phone is 4.6" and that's just fine. There is an outside chance that, given a big-ass phone, I would start to do things like read Kindle on it, although I doubt I would ever watch video. But honestly, checking texts and facebook messages, maps and reviews when I travel, and the occasional dedicated app are all I do. I thought I might start using Spotify, but it's not ready for me yet (more below). I think it's more important to me that a phone fit in my pocket.

Actually my perfect phone fits in my pocket, has a SD card slot, has a replaceable battery, a great camera, and a fairly long battery life. I do not believe there is any phone that fits all my criteria. The smart thing to do is probably either get a Samsung Galaxy or an iPhone of some sort and then at least my problems will be the same as everybody's. Google's Nexus is also appealing. I would prefer to go android; I have never been for of the Apple ecosystem, but Apple's upcoming small sized iPhone might be a winner. My current plan is to wait until that's out and the early adopters pass judgement, then decide.

Meanwhile my Dell XPS 13 laptop is showing signs of being on its last legs. It has always had curious power management issues, I even replaced a battery on my own at one point, in violation I am sure of whatever warranty might have been left over. Now it's taken to dropping wifi connections -- a restart sorts it out. I'm hoping it will last me a while longer -- and I'm sure it will, but what's to follow? I have been very attracted to the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book for a while. They seem to have had some power management issues themselves, but they are now sorted. That said, the newest generation of Dell XPS 13 is getting rave reviews.

Lastly: about my brief encounter with Spotify and music streaming. There are a number of music streaming services. In the past I have used the free versions of these, but I have come to find the commercials intrusive and low quality intolerable. At first I keyed in on Pandora, but Pandora's problem is that it has a fairly small library. Like most services you can pick an artist and it will create a station of works by that artist and similar ones, but after a while I found their algorithm to be repetitive. Either that or it occasionally drifted far afield from the sound of the chosen artist.

Spotify is different. The largest of the services library-wise it depends primarily on users building playlists and sharing them. You can create artists targeted streams like Pandora, but the benefit of shared playlists is that someone one with similar tastes has already set up a nice playlist for you. You can then follow that playlist and many list authors keep actively editing and expanding their lists which keeps things fresh. I was so intrigued by this that I actually signed up for their free 30 day trial.

It didn't go so well. First despite their enormous library a couple of artists of interest to me were not available (yet oddly they were on Pandora). Secondly I ran into a fairly common bug in that occasionally playlists would just stop playing at the end of a song. It would need a manual pause/start to start playing again. Annoying as hell. Turns out it is a common complaint, but no word from Spotify even acknowledging it. So I'm pretty sure I'm going to kill my subscription before my trial is up.

I still have Amazon for streaming, which comes free with Prime, but the selection is truly lame, as are the playlists. They might improve with time. Microsoft, Google, and Apple all have streaming options, so I may start experimenting with those.

I have a closet in my basement office where I dump all my old, discarded technology. It will soon be overflowing. I have no explanation for why I hoard my obsolete technology like that. It just feels weird throwing these things out -- they must have some value, I mean, who am I, Bill Gates that I can just toss usable stuff away. Also, maybe someday Pawn Stars will give me top dollar for it.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Month That Was - January 2016

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

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

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

[Rant] The Opposite of Righteous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I'm depressed again.

[Movies] Mad Max: Fury Road

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

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

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

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

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

[Rant] 2016 Plans

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

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

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

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

But the house comes first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Sports] Cheater's Code

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 09, 2016

The Month That Was - December 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[TV] Fargo, OK Then

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

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

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

[TV] The Truth Will Be Out There

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Month That Was - November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

[Travel] SoCal, Better and Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Travel] Vegas and Utah as Usual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Rant] Half of Life is Showing Up

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

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

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

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

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

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