Sunday, September 18, 2005

Status Memo: Two major technological changes have occurred. First, I am now a Mac person. Yes, my new laptop is a 12" ibook. I'm posting from it now. It's taking some getting used to (there is no backspace key; there is a delete key that works like a backspace key but no key that functions as a delete key in Windows, at least not that I have discovered yet), but so far it seems pretty sweet. Of course, I will admit I am comparing it to my old Dell which weighs 12 pounds, holds a charge for about 15 minutes, and has a broken CD burner. I am slowly converting over, finding Mac versions of this application or that, etc. Hopefully, it won't be to long a journey. The good news is that I will be much less hesitant to bring my laptop on my travels -- or maybe that's bad news.

Second, I now have broadband. Yep. Comcast high-speed internet. Hard to believe, considering everything I do on the web, that I have been on dial-up until now. This is not entirely a luxury though. The plan is to give this a little time to make sure it works as advertised, then ditch my land line and dial-up ISP. Once the promo deal is over, the broadband goes up to ~45.00/month. Considering I spend close to 70.00/month for landline and dial-up, and I can't remember the last time I made heavy use of my land line, this is actually going to save me money in the long run. In fact, I could probably sign up for Skype or Vonage and still break even, and have broadband to boot.

Of course, the wireless router I am going to buy is a luxury...

Speaking of tech motivated changes, one of the strangest aspects of my life lately has been the near complete elimination of commercials. The DVR that came with my digital cable service completely insulates me from commercials during those rare occasions when I'm watching commercial television (I stick to HBO, Showtime, Encore, and the other non-commercial channels), and Sirius saves me from commercials while driving. As I think about it, I realize that never before in my life have I been commercial free. It's a very strange sensation to me when I encounter a commercial now -- which I do during football games -- I press fast forward and nothing happens. I'm not entirely sure how this is going to affect my understanding of a world where commercials can become shared cultural experiences. I like it a lot. But still, it's a strange sensation.

Lastly, you can read about my recent trip to Grand Cayman.
What to Read: Since I am not writing much web stuff these days I want to share a couple of journalists who maintain frequently updated sites that I have become very attached to, for you to visit if you need some stimulating reading.

First there is Terry Teachout who keeps a blog called About Last Night over at Arts Journal. Terry is probably the most eminent critic alive at the moment. He sits on the National Council for the Arts and covers just about every form of art -- films, books, music, TV, you-name-it; high, low and middle brow -- for a number of publications, not the least of which being a weekly column in the (dead tree only) Wall Street Journal. Though a critic by strict definition, Terry often refers to himself as an enthusiast; someone who enjoys writing about what he enjoys. The key, I think, to his success is that he assumes a role beyond sharing an opinion and suggesting what you should and should not consume art-wise. He understands that the critic should be an encouraging voice in civilization's never-ending conversation about the arts.

I'm also quite jealous of how well and frequently he writes. I delude myself that I could do that if I didn't have a day job.

Second, we have the best sportswriter alive, Bill Simmons, who writes for Truly, deeply, hysterically funny at times. Simmons is Boston native, currently displaced in LA, and as you can guess, he was in rare form last year what with his home teams winning both the Super Bowl and the World Series.

It's a fairly obvious fact that sports journalists generally have an inferiority complex. They think that they are not a significant as 'real news' journalists so they are always attempting to make sports into something societally momentous or deeply symbolic. Simmons is one of the tiny minority who understand that sports is simply a form of entertainment (that you happen to be able to bet on).

You see, Barry Bonds steroid usage or Terrell Owens flagrant inanity are not things to take to heart and analyze for what they say about the world at large. They are roughly the equivalent of a Russell Crowe phone assault or anything that comes out of Tara Reid's mouth. They are just absurdities that God put on this earth to entertain us. Simmons knows this (perhaps especially well since he did a stint in Hollywood as a writer for Jimmy Kimmel) and peppers his writing with all sorts of sarcastic pop culture references.

He is, at this point in time, the most entertaining journalist around in any genre.

Anyway, just a couple of places for you to visit when you curse me for not having anything new posted. Which would be always...
Nawlins, Soon Rather Than Later?: I just wanted to point out this article (update: the article appears to be no longer on line) on the state of The French Quarter down in the Crescent City. It seems they are driving like bulldogs to get things back up and running. Some great quotes:

New Orleans has always been a strange location for a tourist mecca, plopped between a lake you can't drink and a river you can't swim. Know where the city gets its drinking water? The septic end of the Mississippi. It's a hearty populace that can drink the silt and insecticide flushed from nine agricultural states. It's a hearty horse that can slurp such stuff, then pull a carriage full of tourists through the sweaty brick streets.

A walk down Bourbon suggested that the party street prepared well for the storm. (Apparently, strippers are used to fleeing town quickly.) The Unisexxx Club's sign still teased/threatened tourists with "World Famous Love Acts by Men and Women."

At Big Daddy's lounge, one of the street's biggest and most-raucous strip clubs, a generator was keeping the iconic mechanical swing, featuring a fake pair of showgirl legs, dancing in and out of a window.

Finis Shelnutt, owner of the building that houses Alex Patout's Cajun restaurant - think crab cakes, crawfish ÇtouffÇe - was sweeping debris from the sidewalk and hosing it down on a recent sweltering morning. He kept the place open during the storm, serving reporters and police officers who happened by. Food was scarce, and the ice was going quickly.

Preservation Hall, tabernacle of traditional jazz, is closed indefinitely but appears undamaged. The CafÇ du Monde looked in need of nothing more than a leaf blower before it could begin serving its powdery beignets again. Assuming the roof's fine, Pat O'Brien's popular courtyard bar could reopen quickly.

Among the holdouts, there is no self-pity, only optimism and - perhaps most important of all - the city's trademark sense of merriment. When they were done cleaning, they hooked a sign to the wrought iron gate. "Jesus swept," it said.

This makes me very happy. I vow to be one of the first visitors back to The Quarter. But my favorite quote is this one:

"Honestly, the French Quarter is cleaner than it's ever been in 22 years," said resident Mike Howell, who has a doctorate in political science and tells fortunes for a living in Jackson Square, the bustling core of the city.

He gets the Golden Waiter Award for best use of an advanced education. I'm sure he ends each of his readings with the words, "You can trust me, I'm a doctor."

Friday, September 02, 2005

Spoke Too Soon: OK, I couldn't wait until after Labor Day. I missed you too much.

I have been in Grand Cayman -- a full write-up is coming -- and Las Vegas (again) -- a full write-up is probably not coming, but I will regale you with snippets below. Cayman was about 95 degrees and 140% humidity everyday. There wasn't a day in Vegas where we didn't see 105 degrees. Needless to say, I am properly bronzed.

But the students started filing back to their hovels here in Ann Arbor, and this Saturday is the first Football Saturday. I think I may have to declare the summer officially gone. Alas. I'm glad I didn't waste it.
Vegas Notes: I doubt I'll write up this last trip. Maybe. I've written so much on Vegas I'd likely be repeating myself. Instead, I'll just share some quick observations.
  • I stayed at Caesars, which I had written off as grotesquely overrated based on my previous time there, but it truly rocked this time. All pools open, good service all around -- just the opposite of last time. I'm still high on THEhotel as the top summer place to stay, but Caesars gives it a good run at (usually) a lower price.

  • Poolside cabanas are the bomb.

  • There is Elvis, there is fat Elvis, then there is drunken fat Elvis. The latter does a fine wedding ceremony, but the bride risks getting felt up.

  • Everything in Vegas is far away. Even on the strip. The properties are so large that unless you are staying in your hotel or going to one immediately across the street or next door, you're in for a hike. I'm pretty sure they could hold a leg of the Tour Du France completely within Caesars or MGM. The system of monorails and trams is severely limited. There is no city in more dire need of a good quality mass transit system than Vegas. But then where would we get Taxicab Confessions?

  • The TI (Treasure Island) has done a good job repositioning itself from it's obnoxious pirate days. Fun bar called Kahunaville with the flare bartenders, and a great dance club/burlesque theatre called Tangerine. Definitely in the running for a winter stay. (Summerwise, the pool is not worth a damn, but you can use the nice one next door at Mirage.)

  • And there are more hotels going up. George Clooney and Brad Pitt are partners in a new place called Las Ramblas. (A truly ugly name; why not call it Ocean's 13?) You can see the plans on their website. It looks to be a block or so off strip, which in Vegas may translate to a mile or two, and impresses me as a bit antiseptic. Then there is Starwood hotels which will be launching a 1.4 billion dollar W hotel that they claim will be the new creme de la creme. Poor Steve Wynn; his spotlight wasn't very long, was it? At some point this hotel building has to turn sour.

  • Zumanity, the "erotic side of Cirque du Soliel," is something of a let down. More over to the bawdy side of the spectrum than I thought it would be. With couple of exceptions, the acts are unspectacular by Cirque standards. And if you are an audience member sitting front and center, be ready to be put in a potentially embarrassing situation. I don't care what the concept, one should never request an audience member simulate a sex act on stage. That's like pornographic karaoke {{shudder}}. You're probably better off sticking to the traditional Cirques.

  • It can be embarrassing to try to get seated in a restaurant if you aren't wearing pants. This principle, however, may not be limited to Vegas.
Odds On: For the record I have six active sports bets going. The regular football picks don't start for me until half way through the season when things shake out a bit, but I do indulge myself in some pre-season futures bets.

Last Thanksgiving, I got 8 to 1 on Minnesota taking the American League championship. I thought that was a great bet; at the start of the season Minnesota was the pick by many prominent baseball writers to win it all. Of course, now they are not even going to make the playoffs. I also got 3 to 1 on the Cardinals taking the NL. That one is looking good.

This time I allowed myself some Football total wins over-unders, specifically:
  • Pittsburgh over 10 wins, +110

  • Jacksonville under 8.5 wins, +110

  • Cincinnati under 8 wins, +130
(+110 means I win $1.10 for every dollar I bet, +130 means $1.30)

I also got 6 to 1 on the Eagles winning the Superbowl. I don't think they are the best team, but they are clearly the best in the NFC which means they are in the best position to get to the game, then anything can happen. Right? RIGHT?
Way Down Under in New Orleans: There's not much left to say about New Orleans. The only question is when, or if, the city recovers.

Unlike most opinions I have read, it's not immediately obvious to me that they can rebuild what was. I have visited New Orleans twice, both rollicking good times. But I stuck to the French Quarter where all the activity is (and I'm pleased to see the Quarter was spared the worst of the flood). The city proper leaves much to be desired, and as a vital economic area it has been on a downward trend for many decades. It is rife with crime. The politicians are consummately corrupt. There will be masses of businesses that will collect their insurance money and head elsewhere to set up shop -- probably Vegas. People will have to follow.

Perhaps I'm being too pessimistic. It's remotely possible that this becomes the opportunity to straighten the city out. Property values plunge; rents drop in synch; new development moves in; a fresh start. Even if businesses don't return, there's always the possibility of going the Savannah route and turning the place into a piece of living history; kind of a Mardi Gras theme park. I'd go so far as to call it probable that the Quarter comes back -- there is still money to be made there.

But if it's gone for good, will it will be a real loss? For the folks with roots in the area, of course it will, but for others, I don't know. It will be a loss to the convention business (and a gain for Vegas, a city that needs no more gains). It will be a loss to the culinary world, for sure. It will be a loss in that it was one of the last places that truly embraced a certain form of hedonism, and thereby celebrated an aspect of humanity that normally (and properly) gets repressed. But for the residents and businesses that relocate and continue their lives elsewhere, it may not be such a loss in the long run.

It will be a loss for you if you never saw New Orleans. The Crescent City of my memory was a place to dazzle all five senses from dusk 'til dawn. I can easily picture myself as an old man, sitting in my rocking chair, affecting a Louisiana drawl and telling all the youngins, "Chillun, if you never saw N'Awlins, you never saw a party."

My favorite sports columnist, Bill Simmons, says it this way:

Walking around Bourbon Street my first night there, I remember being legitimately blown away -- it was like showing up at somebody's messy frat house after a keg party, only for miles on end. But it was a functional craziness. Everyone wanted to walk around, get plastered, throw some beads, have fun and cross a few lines. Debauchery ruled the day. As I wrote at the time, New Orleans was one of the rare cities that made you feel like you were appearing in a movie scene, even if you were just walking down a street or making a pay phone call.

Speaking of which, if it does come back I'm guessing they'll throw a party. Oh my, will they throw a party.