Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Month That Was - November 2006: Sorry to be so late this month, but the football column has once again taken over my life and probably will own me through the end of the year. At least that's my excuse.

The end of the year. As I write this there is less than a month left in 2006. As you know, unlike many who blog, I scrupulously avoid delving into anything deeply personal (otherwise it wouldn't be personal -- see how that works?). If I did, however, you would probably understand why I will not miss 2006.

As you get older, years become a scarce commodity and that means the cost of a bad one is higher. Frankly, I think it's grotesquely unfair that years like 2006 count against the total. I call do-over.

Cruel Vegas
Au Revoir The Wire
That Book That Shall Not Be Named
Cruel, Cruel Vegas: Vegas was brutal this time around.

It started out when the cabbie felt so sorry for me being single, that he told me he would marry me if he was a girl. He had spent most to the trip to the hotel giving me stock investment advice. I congratulated him for being such a genius as to make some good investments in the middle of a bull market. He then asked me if I was married and next thing I know he was making the proposal. (I'm sure he thought he was complimenting me. They guy sounded like a relatively recent immigrant from Eastern Europe, which explains the malapropism.)

Thing is, I didn’t find it humorous. It just annoyed me. And it shouldn’t have. It was one of those comical things that always happens to me on the way to Vegas, but apparently I was not in the most positive frame of mind, which is weird for me going to Vegas. Maybe I had an inkling of what was to come.

I checked into “the T.I.” That is what they are calling Treasure Island now that it has been re-positioned for hip grown-ups. The T.I. is fine -- good quality, good location, good price. A prime spot for a winter weekend on a budget, but would not be my first choice if pool time was possible.

Spent the first day scouring the casinos for the best lines on the football games and made a few bets. In the intervening time until Sunday I hit the tables. Or rather, the tables hit me.

I have never had such a bad run of luck. I happened into Barbary Coast where I played Three Card Poker for the first time, and lost something like 12 hands in a row. It was not my playing. Three Card Poker has a dead simply optimum strategy and I knew it and played it. I just got reamed by the cards. So I switched back to blackjack where I proceeded to lose my stake in record time. Not good. That was enough for that day. I needed to back off. Things had to change tomorrow.

I took a walk on the Strip. The weather was actually pretty good; in the 70s for the most part. Not swimming weather, but I could at least walk around in my shirtsleeves. I had a couple of excellent meals. Dinner at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill -- always tasty and creative. Lunch the next day at my old stand-by, Olives -- as good as ever.

Satruday afternoon I caught the Deuce to the south end of the Strip. The Deuce is a double-decker bus service that trolls the Strip up to downtown and back. Not a bad foot saver. Less expensive than the somewhat inconvenient monorail. Anyway, I ended up at Tropicana playing at an infinitesimally low stakes blackjack table trying to recapture my mojo. I failed. The stakes were low so I was able to play a while, but it was still a steady stream of losers. Enough of that, then.

Over to the Luxor where I dove into an el-cheapo Hold ‘Em session and didn’t do too bad, but still came out behind. Just to give you some idea of how the weekend was going, I caught a flush on the Turn in one hand and not one but two of my opponents filled a full house on the River. Good grief. At least I got to play for few hours.

The next day was football day. I had bet on eight games. I lost five, including two at the last minute. It was like slow torture. At least I was smart enough to be spending the day in the brand new spa at Caesar’s, Qua, where I was snacking on healthy food and juice (instead of deep-fried grease rolls and lukewarm Bud Light) and drowning my sorrows in the whirlpool and cold plunge.

Fun story: Also visitng Qua was King Faruk, as I had come to call one nebbishy fellow who was fixed in a comfy arm chair in the tea room. He was making the most of having spa servants. In the span of about fifteen minutes he had pestered the spa staff to get him a new bathrobe because the one he had was wet; had about three different flavors of tea delivered to him until he found one he liked -- bear in mind the tea was on a counter not more than five feet away from him, but he was not going to move from his comfy chair; sent the attendant off to peel an orange for him; complained about noise coming from the showers (all that water splashing...); asked one of the attendants to turn the channel from football to basketball, quickly adding "at half-time" when I gave him the evil eye. Just hilarious. I kept waiting for him to ask for a cup to pee in so he didn't have to get up. The attendents took it all in stride -- I would've clocked the guy. There are people who remain children their whole lives; this guy remained an infant.

Anyway, like I was saying, I lost everything I tried, even in the non-serious stuff. Drop a twenty into the slots -- gone. Slap a ten on a roulette spin -- gone. There was nothing I could do to win. Brutal is the precise word.

My only luck came in getting out alive. I may write up the T.I. and Qua for Hotel Chatter, but at this point, I don’t even want to think about it.
Au Revoir, The Wire: Slate interviewed David Simon, the man behind The Wire, one of the two best pieces of drama created in my lifetime. He comes off as something of an angry crank and, like most artistic types, he is confused about politics and economics. He makes common mistakes of assuming his world is everybody's world (if I lived in Baltimore I might be an angry crank, too), and that everybody is blind to what is really going on, and blames "capitalism," and uses all the well-worn cliches of the class-struggle pessimist.

When he's in his element, though, which is the deep understanding drama, he has no peer. The other best piece of drama from my lifetime is Deadwood, which I have gone about at length in past. Here is Simon on the comparison between the two:

...the portrayals in Deadwood are in the Shakespearean model. On The Sopranos, there's an awful lot of Hamlet and Macbeth in Tony. But the guys we were stealing from in The Wire are the Greeks. In our heads we're writing a Greek tragedy, but instead of the gods being petulant and jealous Olympians hurling lightning bolts down at our protagonists, it's the Postmodern institutions that are the gods. And they are gods. And no one is bigger.

By the way: If at any point any character on the show ever talks as I'm talking right now, it would suck. It's crucial that the characters can't lecture us.

Great stuff. He should give lessons in how to shut off the didactic impulse. I am so looking forward to season five, but it's hard to imagine it will be more affecting and human that the season that just finished. I am hoping that more character focus goes back on the Major Crimes Unit. I found them to be more interesting characters than the politicos and bureaucrats. I also hope we will follow the set of four kids who were the fulcrum of this year’s story. They were absolutely real to me.

Actually, the character I most hope they cover is Lester Freamon. The guy is a total Sherlock Holmes but we know next to nothing about him except that he likes to carve miniature furniture. Maybe that's intentional. We know that the characters sometimes are designed to represent concepts rather than be specific individuals. Omar represents the man uncorrupted by institutions. The Greek represents capitalism in its purest form (as imagined by Simon). Maybe Freamon is intended to represent pure reason, or maybe the narrow, task-focused view of Everyman. Hmmm.

Lucky for me, capitalism has provided for me to keep subscribing to HBO, because I can’t get enough of this.
That Book With the Unspeakable Title: A while back, I started reading a book with a title that is pronounced Low Lee Ta. I’m describing it that way so as not to set off any hypersensitive content filters. This month I returned to it and am nearly though it.

It is certainly one of the most discussed and debated books ever written. And as someone who read any number of critical appraisals, I can happily say it is not what I expected. It is both worse and better. Better in that the writing is amazing. Every sentence is a complex structure loaded with meaning. Wordplay abounds. There are times when Nabokov seems a little too in love with this elaboration but the majority of it is gorgeous from a stylist's standpoint. However, because of that, it is best reserved for an experienced and patient reader. This is not an airplane or beach book; it is probably best to break it up into short, closely focused reading sessions.

Worse in that it does not spare you one iota of the creepiness of the protagonist Humbert Humbert. And yet it doesn’t entirely spare the title character either. It is a truly savage appraisal of the ways in which victim and victimizer manipulate each other. But unlike most such stories, it is not really morally ambivalent. Humbert is the adult, his manipulations are evil. The girl is 12, and she manipulates like any 12-year old, except the context of it is sexual depredation. It’s just a very disturbing thing to read, more so because most of the emotions and motivations are similar to what any human being experiences, but the context makes them appalling.

There are about a million angles one could take on the story, and I may try to pass along a few in the future. If you're interested in giving it a shot, I offer a qualified recommendation. You need to be ready to deal with the fairly complicated prose. You need to suspend your expectations of what a story about a lecherous pedophile is supposed to be. But you do not need to suspend your sense of right and wrong -- that alone puts it above most modern works.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Month That Was - October 2006: Not a lot of content here. I've been working steadily on the football column, the site is linked up to your left. Also, my Reno Round-up appeared over on Hotel Chatter (parts 1, 2, 3, 4) a couple of weeks ago. Same info as what was in the Reno/Tahoe trip report which I am going to replace with links.

Other than that it was a pretty slow month, taken up with decidedly uninteresting stuff like ordering a new bed, getting sofa cushions re-foamed, and refinancing my condo. Ain't I a regular Suzy Homemaker? Would you like to hear the details? Didn't think so.

TSA burn
DC Dash
Rods and Sods
Short-time TV
TSA Burn: OK, the terrorists have finally succeeded in annoying me. I had a two-nighter in Washington DC for work and it's really the first time I have gotten aggravated over airport security.

Longtime readers know that in general I have had little problem with the post-911 security measures. Apart from the first few months after the attacks, when the wait time crested 60 minutes, I have been able to sail through with relative ease. Part of this is because TSA got more efficient; part of it is because I knew the rules and was able to speed everything up.

Then came the whole liquid explosive fiasco. For a while, pretty much all bags were getting checked, even for a short over nighter. If you were bringing any toiletries -- shaving cream, toothpaste, etc. -- you had to check the bag they were in. Well, if you are going to check one bag, you may as well check them all, right? So for a couple of months, the overhead bins were empty and bag-less folks were sailing through security screening to the point where I was comfortable getting to the airport as near as a half-hour to boarding.

Then TSA decided to lighten up and allow toiletries less than three ounces to be carried on, making carry-on only travel feasible again. What I didn't know was that you can just have them in your kit inside your carryon. In Detroit you are required to at least pull your kit out and open it up as you send it through the x-ray. Naturally I just sent everything though like I normally would have, so I got the pleasure of a bag check and some condescending words from a TSA agent.

With this in mind, on the way back from DC, I dutifully pulled out my kit and opened it up to send through the machine, only to be told that it was unacceptable. At Reagan National they want you to pull specific items out and place them in clear plastic bags. In fact they are so keen on this that they won't even send your items through until you do so. Luckily I happened to have a see through plastic baggie; I have no idea what they would have made me do if I didn't.

So here I am with my laptop case and a little carryon bag and I am sending the laptop case, the laptop (must be separate), my carry on, my baggie full of toiletries, my jacket and my shoes through. That is really obnoxious. I mean really, really obnoxious.

OK, if I was prepped for it maybe it wouldn't have been so bad, so I suppose it is partially my own fault for not being on top of the TSA rules. The problem is that, as usual, the rules and the level of enforcement are slightly different from airport to airport. This is typical of TSA, and all bureaucracies for that matter. They issue policies that are unclear, so everyone ends up interpreting it however they want.

But another issue is that they seem to have no conception that when they change the rules they need to change the system to allow people to adhere to them. I don't know how many lines have been held up because everybody is waiting until the very last minute to strip off their jackets and pull out their laptops because there is only the only little folding table in front of the screener. And how often have you had to grope around for a plastic tray. Is there a reason they can't expand these areas so you can use the time you normally spend just standing in line, to prep at a more leisurely pace?

I know most people believe that TSA does little to nothing to enhance security. I sometimes feel that way too, but I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt as long as things don't get too silly. Also, I accept that security is as much about perception as reality. But instead of just issue new policies, they need to give a lot more thought to facilitating adherence.

Whether they do good or ill, TSA continues to exist because they haven't pissed enough people to make them into a burning issue. But every new person they piss off pushes them closer and closer to the brink. And frankly, if you've pissed me off -- someone who is about as reasonable minded about TSA as is humanly possible -- you're taking a big step in the wrong direction.
DC Dash: But the misadventures on my tiny little trip to DC didn't stop with TSA.

Trying to get out of Detroit we sat at the gate for an hour because the co-pilot for the flight could not be located. The pilot was rather straightforward about this, telling us that that everything was ready to go but we were sitting there because the co-pilot was missing and no one knew where to find him. I was careful not to suggest they look for a trail of empty bottles of Scotch, lest TSA violate my personal body space. A replacement co-pilot showed up after about an hour.

I stayed at the L'Enfant Plaza hotel just off the Mall. I have stayed there before, back when it was under the control of corporate hotel giant Loews. It has not fared well over the years, whether this is because of the loss of Loews sponsorship I cannot say. The furnishings and paint are worn down, the amenities are the bare minimum (were talking a 21-inch TV set from the 1981), and the plumbing is a mess -- I had a toilet that barely flushed and a tub faucet that wouldn't shut off. The wi-fi is costly and doesn't work in the meeting rooms (although it works fine in the accommodations). It has a great location with a metro stop in the basement and a short walk to the Mall, but I can't think of any other reason to recommend it.

Of course, not all the screw-ups were the fault of the travel industry. I managed to forget a number of key documents I was supposed to bring. I also forgot the power cord to my iBook so I spent the days with only parsimonious access to my laptop.

I did manage to arrange for meet up with Misses Kate and Anna for one night to treat Kate to a birthday dinner. Even that was marred by incident. Cruising along the Georgetown Pike, Kate's Saab snapped its serpentine belt. We had a two hour wait for a tow truck. Serendipitously, we found ourselves stopped in a local wooded area comically named Difficult Run Park. It's a really nice little spot with a picturesque stream and hiking trials through the woods. If you are ever stranded with car trouble and have a two hour wait for a tow truck in Northern Virginia, I highly recommend it. When all was said and done, we did get to have a nice dinner and I got to catch up with them, which made the trip worthwhile.

At the moment I am writing this, I am sitting at the gate waiting for my flight home. The flight has just been delayed by a half-hour.

At the moment I am writing this, we have been sitting on the tarmac in Detroit for 20 minutes because another plane is in our gate.
Rods and Sods: I lost interest in Rod Stewart after Altantic Crossing (yes, I'm that old). He's been selling tons of records lately by recording Great American Songbook renditions which, from what I've heard, prove that vocal ability in one genre does not transfer to another. But it now seems he may have hit rock bottom.

I am sitting in Barnes and Noble, trying to get my next football column done and they are playing his latest record, which consists of retreads of "rock classics." Except they are not rock classics. They are among the most horrendous pseudo-ballads ever to come be played on FM radio. I don't know if he picked these out, but if he did he needs to be tested for brain damage. They are the most leaden, soulless songs every put on vinyl. The kind of stuff they might play in the waiting room at the geriatric ward, or possibly pump out the speakers in front of a suburban 7-11 to keep the skater boys away.

Here's the song list:
Have You Ever Seen The Rain
Fooled Around and Fell In Love
I'll Stand By You
Still The Same
It's A Heartache
Day After Day
Missing You
Father & Son
The Best Of My Love
If Not For You
Love Hurts
Everything I Own
Crazy Love

Apart from the Dylan throwaway, it is pure tripe.

Rod has become my generation's equivalent of Perry Como. They guy the old people have on in the background while they play canasta. Like Perry, he has a recognizable voice and sings the most inoffensive songs imaginable. Also like Perry he clearly has some talent, but dude, coming across on the Easy FM station in Buick Lucerne is no way to finish up a career for the guy who sang 'Stone Cold Sober' and 'Pool Hall Richard'. If Rod's taste now runs to these types of songs, it's easy to see how he got here.

Say what you want about Jagger, at least he's not crooning drivel to the early-bird buffet crowd. This as depressing as anything I've heard.

I need an iPod and some thick headphones.
Things That Make You Go Arrrgh!: Two species of idiots:

I have been trying to re-finance my condo. This has been among the most tedious processes I have ever been through. I'm not talking about the paper work; I'm talking about how there doesn't seem to be a single mortgage rep who is capable of using email. I understand that there are phone people and email people, but frankly, if you want my business you need to able to at least follow through on some basic communications via email. They seem to be able to fill my spam folder with offers.

The net result is that I end up play phone tag with all these people, and then when I finally do get a hold of them I end up hearing the same damn spiel about rates and points and have to politely listen as they try to personalize their service. Look, I don't want to be your friend, I want a quote from you. That's all. When did mortgage reps become the new car salesmen?

There is no reason for this. Why cannot I send a single email or web form and then get back a quote. I do not need anything more than that and they make me go through hours of nonsense for this. How stupid is it to spend half our day trying to catch up with people on the phone when a 5 minute email will provide certain communication? Idiots.

The mere idea that those inane political ads work is enough to turn someone into a misanthrope. I know nothing about the current issues of the day, but I can tell just from the tone and the wording that they are utterly manipulative and contain little more than fractional truths. How can anyone with an IQ greater than 4 take them at face value? Why not just vote based on bumper stickers? Or better yet, flip a coin.

And is there a reason I need to get thirty flyers in the mail every day, none of which has any purpose that I can see other than to encourage people to vote based on name recognition. If they didn't have to pay to level entire forests to send these out they could probably lower our taxes.

If it's this bad now, God help us in two years. Idiots.
Short But Happy Lives: Occasionally I am reminded of how much I hate TV. Actually I don't hate TV, I like TV, but I hate the decision makers behind TV. I have just stumbled on another of the endless litany of decent TV shows that got cancelled after a brief run because a time slot was needed for some miserable knockoff of a tawdry reality show or asinine action fantasy that was a hit on another channel.

This time it is Wonderfalls. I happened to stumble on this series while channel surfing and found it delightful. It's the story of a slacker girl who works in a Niagara Falls gift shop; she suddenly finds that animals are talking to her. Not real animals, fake ones: little figurines, stuffed toys, pink lawn flamingos, etc.

The show is loaded down with lighthearted ironies and affecting characters. Nice balance of comedy and weirdness, fateful action and random chance. Nothing dramatic or bombastic, just small clever stories filled with wit and served with a wink and a smile. To give you a sense for what is was like, two of the people behind it went on (separately) to do Malcolm in the Middle and Dead Like Me.

It is currently being rerun on Logo, the gay channel. Except half the time when I try to TIVO it I only end up with some silly gay show instead because apparently Logo can't manage to set a straight schedule. (Get it? A "straight" schedule? The gay channel can't keep a "straight" schedule. That's a joke, son.)

I could easily buy the series DVD but I don't want to. They only made 13 episodes before it was replaced, probably by some dire and dreary variation of Law and Order, and I would prefer to have the discovery last a while.

Networks should rerun these unjustly-treated short-time shows more often. Is there a reason Encore Western has to rerun tedious melodramas like Gunsmoke when they could fly through The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. in a couple of weeks? And why can't the Sci-fi Channel take a break from the 24/7 Star Trek inundation to show Eerie, Indiana.

But I'm now officially rambling. Your (correct) comment at this point is, "Quit yer whining and go out and buy the DVD. Now where's the next football column?" Touche.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Month That Was - September 2006: I guess we can consider this to pretty much demark the end of Summer. I managed a couple of trips, the main one being to Reno and Lake Tahoe. You can read the full write-up; beware, it's a long one.

That'll probably be it for my travel articles this year (well, maybe one more if I do any interesting holiday travel), now I have to get settled into the football column habit, which should start end of October and take me into 2007. Once that is done, like so many times before, I will attempt to get some fiction writing momentum going.

I'm really not looking forward to this winter; warmth and travel will be minimal and I am another year older. The world better do a good job of entertaining me over the next few months.

Opening the Golden Door
Rambin' and Gamblin'
Shallow Views of The Wire
Crescent City Blues
Opening the Golden Door: My minor trip this month came about because I got an email alert from one of my travel lists regarding the Boulders Resort and Golden Door Spa in Carefree, Arizona (slightly north of Phoenix). They had a dirt cheap post-Labor Day special so a snagged three nights.

The idea was to get in a little detox. Healthy food; outdoor exercise; writing and reading around the pool. No fast food. No days spent staring mindlessly at my computer, followed evenings spent mindlessly at my computer. No fretting over writing, but just doing some light reading instead. No alarm clock. No donuts for breakfast. Of course, in rebellion against this utterly healthy lifestyle, my first night there I caught a savage head/chest cold that I still haven't fully defeated. Just brutal.

The Golden Door Spa is top notch -- steam, sauna, whirlpool -- I worked in a couple of massages, including a service called Watsu, where the therapist whips you around and bends and twists you in a small pool with body temperature water. The supposed effect of being the water is weightlessness, allowing your body to be contorted in ways it normally couldn't. (My therapist happened to be from South Bend, Indiana; this just after the Wolverines trounced Notre Dame. I was lucky not to have been drowned in vengeance.)

I don't recommend Watsu for the massage novice. It requires a certain, um, openmindedness, but I will admit that I did not think it was possible for my body to twist and turn like that. You'll want to have a positive view of popping joints and crckling vertebrae before attempting this.

I can assure you that if you're going to have a head cold, Golden Door is a good place to be. You can spend the days baking in the desert sun (it was in the mid-90s each day I was there) and the evenings hydrating your poor sinuses in the steam room.

I won't trouble you with another extended spa exposition except to say Boulders/Golden Door is an exceptional spa. It's not up with Canyon Ranch or Mirival, but it's no disappoint in any way. Even including the head cold, it's a better experience than 99.999% of the people in the world will ever have.
Ramblin' and Gamblin': In the course of my various wanderings to the sacred land of Nevada I managed to place some sports bets. Every year I make futures bets and every year I regret it, but I just can't seem to stop myself. And this year is no exception.

First, you will note how the Tigers were dominating the baseball world for most of the year. Just completely trouncing everybody. Now, I almost never make homer bets. I might be rooting for the home team, but when it comes to laying down money, if I think it's smart to go against my sentimental favorite then I will go against them. Normally I am totally ruthless in that respect. Yet, here I was plopping down cash on the Tigers to win the Series, an event that I was not remotely confident in but, for whatever reason, I suddenly decided to make a homer bet.

Sure enough, starting at the precise second I handed my money to the nice man in the sports book at the Mirage the Tigers went on a potentially historic slide and managed to finally lose the division lead on the last day of the season, thus causing them to face the fearsome Yankees in the first playoff series.

Now, the book is not closed on this yet, but note two things: 1) they had to get swept in their final series against the horrendous Kansas City Royals to complete their crash, and they managed to do it, and 2) the 9th hitter in the Yankees lineup has a higher batting average than anyone on the Tigers. Let's just say I would have been better off buying lottery tickets. It's conceivable they can turn things around somehow, but if they don't, my apologies to Tiger fans everywhere who have been waiting so long for a post-season chance. I hammered the poor Cats with my foul juju.

Next, I kept minding the line of the Miami-Pittsburgh NFL season opener. It started with the Steelers -3.5, before Ben's appendix exploded. By the time I had arrived in Tahoe, Harrah's had it at even money. The Montbleu (where I was staying) had the Steelers -1.5. That a pretty big difference, which suggested to me that there was an opportunity there.

My big issue was that the Steelers were starting Charlie Batch at QB. Ex-Lion Charlie Batch. I couldn't get past that fact. Even though the Steelers were at home and even though they have a killer pass rush of the sort that Daunte Culpepper just can't comprehend, I couldn't get past Ex-Lion Charlie Batch. So I took the Fins +1.5 and from early on, even when they were seemed to be still in the game, they were as shaky as a refrigerated junky. But I didn't give up hope because I knew Ex-Lion Charlie Batch had the ability to hand the game over with a single throw. Sadly, so did Daunte Culpepper. And Nick Saban.

This was a painful one for me. Just a stupid gut level bet that I should have known better than to take. I never kick myself over a gambling loss when I made a good call based on the info available at the time. That happens to all gamblers as often as not. This wasn't one of those. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

But wait, it gets worse.

During my last Vegas trip, I noticed that the line on the Lions opener was Seattle -3.5. Unbelievable. That the reigning NFC champs could not come into Detroit and take the Lions by more than a field goal was unthinkable. This was Found Money, I'm telling you. As close to a sure thing as anything I have seen. And I was right -- at first. By game time, the line a rose to 8 points, meaning the Seahawks were expected to win by more than a touchdown and here I was with them giving up only 3.5.

Even better: a couple of days before the game the Lions D-line coach got caught ordering drive-thru at a local Wendy's apparently under the mistaken impression that it was clothing optional. Had he been a player it would have wiped Ron Mexico and the Vikings Love Boat off the sports comedy map. As it was, imagine a Lions defensive lineman having to come to practice the next day and take instruction from this guy. It had to mess with their heads, didn't it? Tell me the D-line wasn't giggling to itself when it should have been keyed up to kill the QB. The Lions were toast. I was sitting pretty.

So what happens? The Seahawks did win, but by only 3 points. What the hell? What kind of lame-ass performance was that? How could they do that to me? Now I have to hate the Seahawks. I hope they finish the season 8-8 and miss the playoffs. I hope Hasselbeck has an allergic reaction to Rogaine. I hope Shaun Alexander's ACL turns out to be a garbage bag twist-tie. I hope come midseason, they are like some kind of South Pacific cargo cult praying for Steve Hutchinson to come back, possibly including a sacrificial offering of Mike Holmgren's still beating heart. That was my money, you bastards.

So that really leaves me only one bet and of course, the outlook is not positive. I have money on the Steelers to repeat as Super Bowl champs. I got long-ish odds on that one, so if it comes through, that makes up for the rest. As I write this, they haven't even come close to being the team they were last year. There's still time and, like the Tigers, they may pull it all together (they started slow last year too). But I can't help but remember that Roethlisberger had one of the worst performances for a Super Bowl QB ever, he got hammered his face into a car in the off season, his appendix went south, and he hasn't put up a decent performance yet this year.

Why do I do this? Why can't I just wait for the season and make my regular picks? You'd think by my age I would have found a more fruitful self-destructive behavior to adopt.

I'll get to the next post after I take a moment to punch myself in the head about fifteen times.
Shallow Views of The Wire: HBO has announced that The Wire will get a season 5 due solely to critical raves (ratings suck). Interesting because, even though The Wire is as good as it gets, it's not any better than Deadwood, although I will admit that its quality is probably more accessible than Deadwood's, and Deadwood was denied a final season. (And yes I'm still bitter.)

HBO has been putting out episodes of The Wire a few days ahead of general release through their on-demand and I have been chomping at the bit to see each one the minute it is available -- meaning after midnight on Sunday evening. It's that good.

It's so good that most critics (and to a qualified extent, series creator David Simon himself), while sensing its undeniable quality, don't even have a clue how to describe it. They fall back on it being and "indictment of urban neglect" or a "cautionary tale of inner-city despair" or other such triteness drivel. They say the low ratings reveal how nobody wants to be reminded of the underclass. Bollocks.

The low ratings are because it is deeply complicated and slow. You cannot watch it casually and get anything out of it. It demands attention and patience. Whatever the subject matter, ratings are going to suck for such a show. Just ask the folks who produced Deadwood. To deem otherwise is to sell the show short.

The Wire is not an indictment or a caution at all. It is simply a cold-eyed view of reality. It does not follow the pathetic clichÇ of innocent ghetto dwellers victimized by whoever the fashionable evil demographic happens to be. As often as not, these downtrodden types have made the choices that got them where they are, whether something could have been done to change those choices remains an open issue, but no one here is remotely innocent.

Simon has stated that this season is about institutions and how all institutions end up corrupting individuals. That's probably not true in the gross and common sense of the word "corruption"; however in the more subtle sense of individuals having to compromise with institutions to maintain mutually beneficial relationships it is almost certainly true. Still, without institutions there wouldn't be any civilized people to corrupt.

All this is not the stuff of ratings or pithy critical descriptions. It is absolutely the stuff of phenomenal drama.

By the way, if you decide to get into The Wire don't just start watching this Sunday. If you have HBO On-Demand, start working through all the seasons from the first. Only then should you move into season 4. If you don't have On-Demand, get the DVDs for season 1, 2, and 3 and watch them first. Don't rush. After that, wait for HBO to replay season 4 from the beginning or just wait for the season 4 DVD.

I'm not sure what options are available for you downloaders, but the point is: Watch the entire series and watch in order.
Crescent City Blues: Do I seem particularly cynical this month? Well, I probably am.

I'm even pretty much fed up with the city of New Orleans. For the longest time I have been angling to get a weekend set-up down in the Quarter just to see how things are going first hand and to drop some cash to do my part, but at the moment I don't want anything to do with it. I can't imagine anything more unseemly than the self-indulgent, woe-is-me wankfest over the Katrina anniversary. Good God, people.

All this reached a pinnacle with the reopening of the Superdome for a Monday Night Saints game. We were treated to hours -- literally hours -- of heartfelt testimony and special interest segments on how meaningful a moment this was, how it was so much more than just a football game to the demoralized New Orleans residents. The folks at ESPN just live for this sort of tripe. They yearn, day in and day out, to turn sports events into stories of Great Social Relevance. (They must have some kind of serious inferiority complex about being grown-ups overly concerned with silly games to go to the lengths they do.)

Of course, you can't have Great Social Relevance without celebrities, and we had a seeming endless progression of them, either shots of them as spectators, or doing interviews in the booth and the on the sidelines all night long. Lucky they got to watch the game in person while some poor schmuck from the 9th Ward couldn't afford a ticket 'cause they had been bid up to $1000 a seat.

And you know you've reached the pinnacle of Great Social Relevance when that insufferable assclown Bono shows up. Yes, in celebration, the game was kicked off by live performances from U2, the professionally processed punk band Green Day, and the Goo-Goo Dolls. (I was so surprised to see The Goo-Goo Dolls I almost dropped my Sega Saturn.) It had to be one of the top 5 most tawdry moments in television history.

But then, that's the way of things, right? Disasters breed victims; victims are immediately granted high moral standing and Great Social Relevance. What follows is that famous personalities, who know in their hearts how superficial their wealth and glory is, try to buy into the high moral standing of the victims as a misguided way to find a sense of importance.

Just a pathetic display from start to finish. And pretty close to meaningless, too, but we do love our symbolism don't we?

This is not to decry charity. When Reggie Bush goes into the devastated areas and hands out supplies or just tells some kid everything is going to be all right, that has meaning. That is personal. That is real. But every camera crew, politician, b-list actor or pompous rock star who hitches along for a ride cheapens the act.

The other side of the coin from Katrina was that New Orleans had something resembling a fresh start. Semi-lost in the discussion is the fact that, outside the tourist centers, pre-Katrina New Orleans was crime-ridden, destitute and downright dirty. Well here is your opportunity to redo things right. Now is the time to think big. Why not lay grand plans? Why not see New Orleans as the next Orlando or Las Vegas? Somebody call Moe Green. It could happen. Why not?

I'll tell you why not. Because nobody with any authority in the bayou has that sort of vision. Nobody can think beyond glad-handing and backslapping and protecting their own paltry standing. That fresh start for New Orleans was pissed away when they promptly re-elected the same sort of small-minded, corrupt, and outright stupid officials that they had prior to Katrina. In America, one way or another, voters usually get what they want. Unfortunately, getting what you want goes hand in hand with getting what you deserve. (Although no one really deserves Bono.)

If I were Mayor Nagin, these anniversary displays would alarm me. Symbolic or not, all this hand-wringing is bringing about a sense of closure, which means he might start to lose some of his victimhood mojo in the broader world. More importantly, if I were a resident of New Orleans, I would realize that my city is only fractionally recovered and I may be facing some difficult times with only Hizzoner and his cronies to count on. Scary, that.

At this point I don't have any more sympathy for New Orleans. The Katrina disaster was unspeakably awful, but money is pouring in and goodwill is, for the moment, blooming. So what are you going to do with it, New Orleans? Are you going to define yourselves forever as Katrina victims or are you going to build a great city? Frankly, from what I've seen so far, I don't think you've got that greatness in you.

So let me know how it turns out because I've ceased to pay attention. For now, I just need you to keep a path clear from the airport to the French Quarter for me.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Month That Was - August 2006: Late as usual. But this time my excuse is all the articles that are now available for whiling away those long, boring afternoons at work, including the previously promised write up on Turks and Caicos. The rest are referenced in the posts or you can check the sidebar. On with the show...

Vegas Without A Second Thought
IKEA Invasion
Crystal Football
Lost Cargo, Found Doorstop
Adios Deadwood (Sort of)
HBO, No End in Sight
Vegas Without A Second Thought: I don't even think twice about going to Vegas anymore. This time it was for a couple of days, mostly because I had a winning football bet that I had to collect on from last year. (I had to head home before the bet resolved, and you only have a year from that time to collect your payout.)

I flew out midday on Sunday and back Tuesday. Took only a carry-on so I didn't have to wait the 45 minutes it often takes Northwest to get your bags to the carousel. Sunday afternoon there was no line for a cab, saving another possible 20 minutes. I even managed to secure sweet exit row seating both ways. Could not have been simpler.

I checked into a new property called Signature which is a luxury property associated with MGM Grand. As you no doubt expect, you can read a full review over at Hotel Chatter.

Like I was saying, a Vegas trip is dead easy for me now. I don't feel any need to investigate or explore too much, unless there is something new since my last visit. I know what I want to do and I know where I can go to do it.

This trip was about perfect. Sunday evening I snagged a quick bite to eat at Sensi in the Bellagio (since I could not get near Olives), followed by a profitable blackjack session at the Monte Carlo on the way back.

The next morning was spent at the MGM pool, then a late afternoon low-stakes poker session at Excalibur, which I ended in the red. I only really played three bad hands -- one was an outright bad beat when my opponent caught a straight on the river, one was because I was stupid enough to try to bluff someone who turned out to be the most aggressive player at the table, and the third was not really a mistake -- I played out a marginal hand because the pot was so fat I thought it was worth the extra risk.

After that I headed up to Caesar's to cash in my winning ticket. It was such an old ticket that it took them a while so I had to deal with a couple of drunken idiots who had bets on the Dodgers game and decided they were going to tell me how to bet the upcoming football season. They had "guaranteed winners" and were going to give them to me just because they "like me". They were also getting belligerent with the staff in the sports book, demanding free drinks. It was one of those borderline situations where they haven't quite gone far enough to get themselves kicked out, but security was hovering around anticipating a confrontation.

Luckily, I was able to get my winnings and disappear into Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill for some dinner before things got ugly.

After that, I did something that I have been meaning to do ever since I started going to Vegas: visit the downtown area. It's a cab ride to get there, about $17 each way, and I would have to judge that it is not worth it. Most of the activity is centered on a blocked off area of Fremont Street. It is, as you can imagine, casinos and crap shops up one end and down the other. With the exception of the Golden Nugget, most of the casinos are of the low end variety; the type that have been displaced on The Strip by all the ritzy properties.

The other main attraction downtown is something called the Fremont Street Experience, which is an enormous electric sign that acts as a canopy over Fremont Street covering several blocks. Every hour they play about a five minute animation on it that seems to cover the whole sky if you are standing on Fremont. Cute and impressive, but not worth $30+ in cab fare. It might be worth it to gamble downtown if you were looking for very advantageous blackjack rules (single-decks, bonus payouts, etc.) and probably very loose video poker. As it stands, though, I'll likely pass on a downtown visit in the future.

I checked out Tuesday morning and didn't have to leave for the airport until about 4PM. I thought about doing some more gaming, but instead, I chose to while away the afternoon at the spa in THEhotel, alternately soaking in the hot tub, reading, saunaing, writing, eating the tasty snacks they layout. A sweet place to chill for a few hours.

And that was it, a relatively low-key but superbly enjoyable weekend in Vegas. What could be better?
IKEA Invasion: Yes, that's right, I went to IKEA.

See, I have been ham-fistedly working on my bedroom. I managed to get it painted -- an experience which, by the way, I found greatly disappointing. After all the years of technological advancement we have seen, there is still, apparently, no better way to paint a room than move all the furniture, tape all the borders, cover everything with a tarp, pour paint into a tray and then apply it with a clumsy roller. Has this process changed in the last 50 years? Is there not a better way, or do people really enjoy doing it like that? If entire houses can be made modular, why can wall panels be made so that you can remove them one at a time, take them outside, spray them quickly and efficiently using high tech paint that dries in 15 minutes, then just snap them back into place. You could mess with the colors pretty much at will. Ah well, nobody listens.

But I digress.

I needed to pick up some new chests-of-drawers so I headed to the big new IKEA compound in Canton (probably 25-30 miles west of Detroit). The place is mind-blowingly large. It is roughly the size of a big casino in Vegas (this is how I measure size) and like a casino, you are guided on a path to make your way through the store, partly because you could get lost so easily, but mostly because they want to make sure you pass everything on display, just in case you see a slot machine you want to, I mean, you see some household item you didn't know you wanted to buy.

Stupidly I got there at about Noon on Saturday and it was a zoo. I drove around for a solid ten minutes to find a parking space. I eventually found the chests I wanted, but I realized I had to do some measurements before I could safely buy them. So I headed back home to get the measuring done, telling myself I'd go back that evening when there wouldn't be such a crowd. Wrong. The place was still packed at 7pm. Incredible -- especially for the worst economy in the nation.

The most interesting thing was to see all the solid middle-class families standing around and talking in the aisle and at the cafeteria (did I mention IKEA has it's own cafeteria?). If you are ever in the mood to people watch, find a comfy chair in an IKEA store. It's like the place instantly became the social hub suburbanite homeowners, kind of like a post-modern counterpart to Main Street U.S.A. I find that fascinating. I don't particularly ever want to go back, but I find it fascinating.
Crystal Football: I've been biting my nails over the prospect of restarting my football column come the last week of October-ish, but I am committed to doing it for one more year. To help get myself back in the swing I wrote up a two-part season preview (Part 1, Part 2). If you're a fan, do check it out.
Lost Cargo, Found Doorstop: I was subscribed to a magazine called Cargo. It was a decent rag. Pretty much wall to wall stuff. Any and all sorts of stuff. By "stuff" I mean toys, gadgets -- "kit" for those of you in the U.K. And clothes to some extent, but not the kind of stuff you would find in fashion magazines; the kind of clothes you actually wear. It was decent to flip through once a month, and worth the price, considering I only paid a couple of bucks for the subscription from Well, Cargo didn't make it, they ceased publication and in its place, subscribers are now getting the equivalent copies of GQ.

Have you ever looked at a GQ? It weighs about 15 pounds. The first 100 pages are ads (not exaggerating). In fact I would guess 70%-80% is ads. The photography is unabashedly soft core porn and is equally split between men and women, suggesting that their demographic skews exceptionally gay.

In contrast, the articles, such as they are, are designed to seem deep and important. To that end they are angled towards Timely and Relevant Issues; the kinds of issues that merit Capitalization. The political edge is uniformly, snarkily, and superciliously leftish, which is to say it's just like the rest of the magazine: fashionably correct.

I think I'll let this one expire. All I wanted was to read about some toys.
Adios, Deadwood (Sort Of): So Deadwood finally ends its run as a television series. If you haven't been following, creator David Milch had planned on a fourth season to complete the story of the town of Deadwood, moving from barbarism to civilization, and HBO smacked him down. The compromise was that Milch would be allowed two two-hour movies to finish up rather than an entire fourth season which would have amounted to between 10-11 hours.

That is a shame, but perhaps not the biggest shame possible. For the movies to work, Milch will obviously have to cut every last second of fat from the planned fourth season plot. We can only hope he doesn't have to cut anything absolutely critical. Maybe he can convince HBO to extend the movies to two-and-a-half hours thus giving himself almost half the time he was planning on. Maybe I'll just record both movies and watch them an hour at a time, for old time's sake.

Deadwood obviously didn't get the ratings it needed. That's to be expected. Do you really think people will flock to a TV show in which the characters do not speak in a constant stream of ironic snarkiness, instead speaking in complete and well formed sentences -- even poetic soliloquies? Not gonna happen. But as sad as it is that Milch couldn't finish his story on his own terms, you would have to have no sense of perspective not to appreciate that Deadwood was made at all. Never would have happened in the three network, pre-VCR world of my childhood.

The series (pseudo) finale was a triumph as excepted. In the end, George Hearst never got his comeuppance. The camp had pulled together and was close to reaching solid moral ground, even to the point of guilting Hearst about his murderous ways. Yet, to avoid probable destruction, they ended up coercing the widow of one of Hearst's victims into a compromise with Hearst himself and worse, even the law-upholding residents of the camp had to tacitly condone the murder of an innocent. Hearst left smiling at the impotence of the camp authorities and gleefully headed off to his next conquest. The camp had to settle for a simple survival as a salve for their blackened consciences.

The bad guy won. Not just a pyrrhic victory. He won and will suffer no ill consequences. As beautifully done as it was, how are you going to sell that to the general viewing audience?

An Emmy should have gone to Gerald McRaney for his portrayal of Hearst. It's a long way from Major Dad.
HBO, No End in Sight: With Deadwood ending, The Wire going into what will likely be it's last season, The Sopranos finishing up in early 2007, I though I might finally cut the cord with HBO. That's now doubtful.

First off, I would be remiss if I didn't admit to that I have come to like Entourage. I started watching it about half way through the season, mostly because it came on immediately after Deadwood, and I kind of got attached.

It is nothing special, just a decent light-and-fluffy sitcom. There have been many comparisons between Entourage and Sex and the City and they are apt for the most part. In this case you have four men instead of four women, and you have El Lay instead of The City. The sex obsessed men are in their twenties, whereas the sex obsessed women were closing in on forty. And the men aren't nearly as crude as the women were. What that says about the gender wars I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.

The big advantage Entourage has is The Piven. It features Jeremy Piven in a role he was born for, which is worth the price of admission. I also like the Kevin Dillon character, Johnny Drama.

Anyway, Entourage would not be enough to keep me subscribed to HBO on its own, but there are two upcoming projects that might end up being fascinating.

True Blood is a horror/fantasy project based on the "Southern Vampire" series of novels by Charlaine Harris. In this series, a blood substitute is discovered that eliminates the need for vampires to drink human blood. In turn they come out of the closet, so to speak, and try to integrate into modern society. The series is to be headed by Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under, who has apparently moved on from the dead to the undead.

According to Ball: "It's not Gothic...It's contemporary rural America, white trashy, very funny and really scary." Sounds like fun.

The other upcoming show of interest is John from Cincinnati, this one from Deadwood creator David Milch. Here's the canned description:

"The dysfunctional Yost family of Imperial Beach--patriarch Mitch, a former surfing star who can now levitate (slightly), married to the aggressively unhappy Cissy, parents of the drug-addicted, dissolute Butchie, also a former surfing champ and the father himself to the talented but resentful skateboarder Shaun--find their lives disrupted by the arrival of the dim but wealthy John From Cincinnati, a boarding savant who's come to take lessons from Butchie, and Barry Cunningham from Azusa, whose personal connection to the Yost family has him returning to Imperial Beach to avenge a wrong done to him, by them, 23 years ago."

I love the "levitate (slightly)" thing.

Looks like I'm gonna have to stick with HBO at least until I can get a good read on these two new series.

{Me looks back at the HBO graphic on the TV and says, "I wish I could quit you."}

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Month That Was - July 2006: Better late than never.

Bloody Robbers
Turks and Caicos
Up North
Head Butt
Passing Strategy
Floyd in France
Google is Coming
No Honor: Until just now I have been very lucky. I've never been a victim of any serious crime, cyber or otherwise. But when I opened my Mastercard statement I knew those days were over. Bloody robbers got my card number.

Interestingly, there were three charges of 39.95 to something called "People Search USA" all of which were credited a within a couple of days. The real killer came next with a $600.00 cash advance from Wells Fargo and the associated advance fee of $18.00. None of these did I have anything to do with.

More interestingly, these charges were to a card I use exclusively for tax deductible writing expenses, and considering the state of my writing career at the moment, this was the most activity the card had seen in a long, long time.

I'm not sure exactly what went on. It could be the bloody robbers were testing the waters with the People Search USA charges, then when it was clear I was not checking the charges regularly, they went for the $600 haul. The thing is, they stopped after that first $600. They had plenty of time to charge more before I saw a statement but they stopped. That makes me think this is some kind of professional outfit. Instead of doing high-risk multiple large transactions on a single card, they probably get thousands of card numbers from Russian hackers and scam them for a few hundred dollars each and hope that they don't attract a major investigation.

Anyway, I'm not liable for any of it. A call to Citibank got that sorted out very quickly. They issued me a new card number and told me they would send a fraud affidavit for me to sign. Presumably this will cause the Citibank fraud squad to get all Elliot Ness with the bloody robbers.

Kudos to Citibank customer service, by the way. I got a real English speaking rep on the line in a matter of a few seconds and he knew exactly how to go about getting things set right. Nice. I may have to look into a card from them that I would use more than once in a blue moon.

Still, there is a question of how they got my card number in the first place. I never used it for casual purchases. I can think of two possible outfits that might have had my number sitting on a transaction server, and in neither case would it surprise me that security was lax.

If the bloody robbers are really pros, it's unlikely they'll be caught, I'm sure. But if they do I would gladly pay that $600 for a chance to turn the thumbscrews myself.
Back to the Islands: Turks and Caicos is an island group just south of the Bahamas and just north of Haiti. It is certainly the most awkwardly named nation in the world. But they have a lovely beach that goes by the very appropriate name of Grace Bay. I managed to swoop in for a few tropical days there. A full report (including travel rant) is coming; the usual hotel review is available over at Hotel Chatter.

For now, I do have some pics:

The Palms courtyard (~610k)
The Palms landscaping (~660k)
The croquet lawn (~1M)
The pool (~725k)
The pool again (~725k)
Not me at the swimup bar (~700k)
The pond at the spa (~700k)
The beach before the sun (~410k)
A slow day at the beach (~380k)
Really fresh fish (~320k)
Thanks Ameritrade (sarcastic?) (~240k)
It can get windy (~640k)
A hazy sunset (~460k)
Up North: Not content with a tropical paradise, I also made two trips Up North. To Michiganders, Up North means the northern part of the Lower Peninsula. The Upper Peninsula is certainly up north, but generally, I believe if you are going to the Upper Peninsula you are going to 'The U.P.' (Da You-Pee), and it is subtly differentiated from simply "Up North". While we did go briefly across the Mackinac Bridge into The U.P., for the most part we were just Up North. By 'we' I mean Miss Kate and H.R.H. Miss Anna. There were two separate trips, one to drop Miss Anna off at her summer camp in Cheboygan, and another to pick her up.

The kickoff was an evening in Beulah, one of the myriad little resort towns peppered along the coast of Lake Michigan. Every summer families from southern Michigan, northern Indiana and Ohio, and the Chicago area fill the cars with luggage and troll Up North to little towns like Beulah. Why? Primarily outdoor activities -- camping, hunting and fishing for the self-sufficient types; the rest of us are content with canoeing, hiking, biking, or just hanging on the beach (yes, there are beautiful beaches -- not necessarily in Beulah, but you can find beaches along Lake Michigan that rival the best in the world). The evenings are filled with Norman Rockwell style activities such as walks through town at dusk to get a soft serve and watching the sunset over the lake. Up North is beautiful in a verdant woodsy kind of way. There is really no downside for a family trip, except possibly the traffic on holiday weekends. As usual, there is a reason places get to be recurring vacation destinations.

In Beulah, we did exactly what you should do. Canoeing on the Platte River in the afternoon, followed by dinner at a precious small town diner called...are you it comes...The Hungry Tummy. The evening was capped with a visit to the Cherry Bowl -- a not-to-be-missed genuine 1950s style drive-in theatre where we saw Pirates of the Caribbean 2. Miss Anna insisted we get there about two-and-a-half hours before dark (roughly 10pm) to make sure we got the absolute perfect spot for our car. We did, which resulted in this (~710k). But we filled the time with miniature golf and wandering around the playground until dark. This is a great place to bring kids who desperately need to understand what it was like in the pre-On-Demand world. Guess what? There is no remote, no pause, no rewind, and you have to wait for the movie; just like when we lived in caves.

Next up we went yet further back in time for a couple of nights on Mackinac Island, a sweet little semi-Victorian kind of place (Is it necessary to point out that it is pronounced mack-i-naw, as if the terminating c was a w?); no motorized vehicles allowed, so you get around on bikes or horse drawn carriages -- hope you enjoy the smell of horses and their, ahem, droppings.

You get to Mackinac Island from Mackinac City via one of three ferry lines. Nothing complicated about it: park you car, buy tickets ($20 round trip if you don't have a discount coupon), load up your bags and go. Ferries leave and return roughly every half hour. Lots of people bed down in budget hotels in Mackinac City and scurry over to the island for the day, thus avoiding the premium prices for on island lodging at the expense of some inconvenience.

For those enamored of spending exorbitantly, Mackinac is the home of The Grand Hotel most famous for being the shooting location of the enduring chick-flick, Somewhere in Time wherein Superman time travels in search of some Medicine Woman booty from Dr. Quinn.

The Grand Hotel is formal and elitist and unashamed of it. Gentlemen will wear jackets after 6 and women will dress comparably. They even have their own private horse and buggy service. Non-guests are held at bay outside the lobby, although on an earlier trip, Miss Anna and I managed to slip past and wander about for a while -- it's not so hot.

We stayed in a bed and breakfast closer to town called The Metivier Inn. Highly recommended. Very friendly and helpful staff. Decent breakfast. The rooms are clean and tastefully done, if a bit snug. A comfy living room, big shaded porch and beautifully landscaped grounds. Free wireless. Coffee, lemonade and snacks throughout the day. They will pick up and drop off your luggage at the ferry dock. I can't imagine anyone being disappointed. (Unless you come to the island to watch TV. There are no TVs in the rooms, just a communal one downstairs.) It is what people think of when they think of a sweet little B&B.

There is really only one village on the island, maybe ten square blocks. There are five kinds of businesses: 1) Inns, 2) Restaurants, 3) Gift Shops, 4) Bike Rental shops, 5) Fudge shops. Other services are limited. The island is eight miles in circumference (about an hour's bike ride). There are a number of natural areas and a slew of historical structures such as forts and so forth. All of this is very much worth seeing, but the larger point is that you really don't want to spend more than three or four days.

Our days were filled with multiple bike rides around the island, including one which required a flat tire rescue and a couple wherein we took the strenuous route up and over the middle of the island -- great scenery, great views, cool stuff to see, but the ride is not for the faint of heart or weak of leg.

We managed to get in a swim off a very rocky beach. There is no sandy beach on Mackinac so water access can be painful without surf shoes, but once you get out in the water, floating around is a bracing, refreshing experience. The northern Great Lakes are clean and clear.

Another option for getting out on the water is the Mackinac Breeze, a cruising catamaran that will take you (and other guests) on a brief tour around the island, but be prepared for some, well, let's call it risque commentary from the deck hand. (We found out what a 'Hot Carl' is. We wished we didn't, and so will you.) Good times.

Mackinac is a great long weekend destination. In fact, just about anywhere Up North is.

Now, there's a good project: Sketch out an itinerary for a family week or two in Michigan. For out-staters, I would fly into Grand Rapids, rent a car and head for a two nights in Saugatuck area. Then up the Lake Michigan coast to Muskegon for an overnighter and a visit to Michigan's Adventure. Another night or two in the Crystal Lake area for some canoeing and a visit to the Cherry Bowl and hike across Sleeping Bear Dunes if you have the fortitude. Continue on to Charlevoix for a night and maybe take a day trip to Beaver Island, then on up Mackinac Island and settle in at a nice B&B for three nights.

Probably more interesting and fun than a week at Disneyworld. And way, way cheaper.

I should expand on that. It would be a great travel document. Hmmmm...

BTW, here are some pics from Mackinac:

Shore view from the ferry (~590k)
Another shore view from the ferry (~600k)
Yet another shore view from the ferry (~560k)
Mackinac bridge from the ferry (~200k)
Up one side of the village (~720)
And down the other (~620k)
The rocky shores make uncomfortable beaches (~680k)
Hunting for jet skiers? (~660k)
Arch Rock (~470k)
Fort Mackinac (~660)
View from the island high point (~550k)
Another view from the island high point (~700k)
A lighthouse, because I was feeling rustic (~370k)
The lawn in front of Mission Point resort (~1M)
Butting Heads: I actually watched the end of the Metric Football World Cup Final and saw the now infamous Zidane headbutt live. Has to be one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Original reports suggested the Italian guy, Materazzi, said something about Zidane's mother or, possibly, even called him a terrorist (Oh, the horror!). Materazzi admits he insulted him, but said he didn't call him a terrorist because, "I'm not cultured and I don't even know what an Islamic terrorist is." FIFA, the Federation Internationale de [Metric] Football Association, investigated the incident -- it's not clear if they also investigated whether Materazzi is, in fact, some kind of retard -- and decided to suspend both players even though Zidane has retired and is therefore suspended from games he doesn't have. Makes perfect sense.

As for Zidane, two things: 1) Sticks and stones, dude. Sticks and stones. 2) Where the hell did you come up with a headbutt, of all things? Why not just coldcock the guy? Did you think because it is Soccer you wouldn't get in trouble if you didn't use your hands? Look, if you're going to go down, go down in flames -- go for a full-on Ron Artest level meltdown. A headbutt? To the chest? What a butthead.
I'll Take a Pass: Meanwhile back in the normal football world, Football Outsiders has published a four part guide to understanding the pass offense. If you are a football nerd, this is truly great stuff.

Enjoy (parts 1, 2, 3, 4).

Football's popularity continues to amaze. Now that training camps are open, they are packing stadiums for scrimmages. Not real games, not even pre-season games: scrimmages. Wow.
Flaked Out Tour: Another event I watched a bit of was the Tour de France. The first Lance-free TdF was likely a huge ratings let down, but since it was broadcast on OLN it couldn't have had very high expectations to begin with. It was won by an American rider named Floyd Landis who is, quite clearly, an out and out flake.

There was a good bit of drama. After being in contention from the beginning, on one particularly bad day Landis hit an agonizing wall and slipped 8 minutes behind the leaders causing what little press there was to write him off as toast. The following day he retrieved nearly the entire 8 minutes in what has been termed the greatest single day ride in TdF history (I wouldn't know how hyperbolic that statement is), and was in the driver's seat for the victory. It was a remarkable thing to see. And, though no one was watching, OLN did a great job of covering it.

Despite that, there were only minor mentions in the broader press. Sports news outlets really missed a good story in the TdF this year, I thought. The two big favorites get kicked out before the race due to doping scandals, a flaky American puts up the ride of his life for a victory, and it turns out that now that the race is over he has to undergo a complete hip replacement (for a pre-existing condition) and may not be able to ride competitively again, providing the obligatory sentimental Oprah-esque angle everything seems to need these days. How could ESPN or Fox Sports not get at least an hour-long special out of this?

But Wait! A few days after the race it is reported that Floyd has a suspicious drug test. Now, finally, everyone is paying attention. Floyd denies it, says there is no way he was juiced -- too much testosterone? there must be a mistake. A few days later, his 'back-up sample' shows the same results. What's more damning, the samples were taken after the 'greatest single day ride ever!' As of this writing, Floyd looks to be completely disgraced, although he still maintains his innocence. And the sport of cycling goes yet deeper into the toilet.

In a way, this strengthens Lance Armstrong's legend. If dopers and druggies are getting caught left and right, including Lance's primary competition, but Lance, the most drug tested man in the history of the world, never turned up positive, just imagine how much better he must have been than everyone else.
Shakespeare in the West: Deadwood is in the meat of its season now and continues to blow me away. The addition of the character of George Hearst -- expertly portrayed by Gerald McRaney -- has moved everything into Shakespearean territory. Hearst is a malevolent force of chaos and destruction: irrational and inscrutable. The entire town has, for the moment, united in their joint interest in resisting the outsider. Sworn enemies are playing kissy face. Blood feuds are set aside. The common enemy becomes another step in the move to civilization. The greater evil causes the town to contemplate the moral aspect of the conflict and, thereby, examine their own moral scores with respect to each other. Remarkable. Deadwood will never be popular, but I am convinced that, in the fullness of time, it will be seriously appreciated as a work of dramatic art.

Sadly, we still are not going to get a fourth season, because HBO can't seem to come to its senses. David Milch (Deadwood's creator) has stated that he wanted one more season to complete his story, but all HBO has offered is two 2-hour movies instead. I haven't heard if he has accepted that or not. I am deeply pissed off at HBO for not letting Milch finish his story. In fact, with no more Deadwood, the (most likely) last season of The Wire coming up and The Sopranos winding up its run in early 2007, I think my days as an HBO subscriber are numbered. I've been watching HBO since back in the Larry Sanders days, but it may have outlived its utility. Rome is uninspiring, Entourage is lukewarm, what is left?

All the better, I suppose, since I give Comcast enough money as it is.
Google is Forgiven: Google is coming to Ann Arbor. Good choice. Ann Arbor is a great place, although there are those who feel it is overrated.

Ann Arbor has picked up a ton of jobs from the Toyota Design Center. Hyundai is following hot on their heels. Pfizer can't manage to leave (although some suspect they would like to). And of course, the University sucks cash out of unsuspecting parents from around the globe and provides an influx of 100,000 football fans a half dozen times a year. Even when the kids are gone for summer tens of thousands more come in for come for Art Fair(s). Great restaurants have been popping up steadily. Housing is tight in the city but booming in the surrounding towns to the north and west -- such as Dexter, my adopted hometown -- which are transitioning from Norman Rockwell rural to upscale bedroom communities.

Unemployment in Michigan is horrendous and Detroit and its suburbs are artless places. Outside of metro Detroit, Michigan as a whole is exquisitely beautiful but not much better off economically. Except Ann Arbor, which is like an island of coolness and prosperity. It's a good place to be.

So I have forgiven Google for last month's map fiasco and it is now my default search engine again. I know they were worried about that.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Month That Was - June 2006:

~The new plan
~New York Weekend
~The Sopranos Ends
~Deadwood Begins
~Google Maps Evilness
~Mac Switch Eval
~Women's Football Camp
Going Forward: I think I have it. I think I know how to structure this going forward. I will stay on blogger and continue to make monthly updates. Each section will be a separate post to facilitate linking, but there will be an introductory "Month That Was" Index to delineate the monthly diary style I have adopted. See above for a case in point.

Still need to rework the page design, though.

Like all other decisions I make, this one will stay in effect until I change my mind.
Fool For The City: I took a quick weekend in NYC, early in the month just to try to shake some blues.

Because of weather in NYC, my flight to LGA was delayed an hour and twenty minutes from taking off in Detroit. Blah. So I cleverly went a few gates down and got myself on a flight to JFK which was leaving at exactly the same time as my LGA flight and was, strangely, not delayed. Of course, instead of waiting in the terminal for my original delayed flight, I got to spend the equivalent time circling JFK with my tray table lifted and my seat back in an upright and locked position. Bad weather is bad weather, you're either going wait to take off and know you can land on time, or you're going to take off on time and circle before you can land. I should have realized...

Combine that with the fact that the cab ride from JFK to Midtown took is about 30 minutes longer than it would have from LGA because of construction, the result of my brilliant adaptation was that instead of spending the delay in the relative comfort of McNamara Terminal in Detroit (one of the nicest airline terminals you will ever see, no kidding), I got to spend it wedged into a coach seat on a packed plane and in the back of a cab slogging through construction delays in Queens. Who's a clever boy, eh?

I stayed at the famed Waldorf=Astoria, which was something of a let down, as you can tell from my review.

Still, whenever I hit the Manhattan streets, I always feel like everything will be OK. And once again, it was. I wandered down to this top notch tapas restaurant, Solera (real Spanish tapas, made by real Spaniards, not Puerto Ricans from the Lower East Side), because that is the kind of thing you do in The City, you wander down the street to get tapas. Then I hopped on the E train over towards the Theatre District and caught the early set at Birdland because that is also the kind of thing you can do in The City, you hop the subway to catch some live jazz.

The next day, a Jamba Juice Mango Madness for breakfast, then up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to check out a fairly minor display on Tibet, which has special relevance for a certain project I'm working on, then a walk across Central Park, with a stop for a pretzel and a nap on the Great Lawn. Then over to the American Museum of Natural History to see the Darwin exhibit. While there I also took some snaps of the nature displays, like Sugimoto (see last month), to see if I could turn them into beautiful photographs. Sadly, I don't think mine turned out as well (Ostriches (350k), Birds (410k), Rhinos (390k)). But it's a fair bet Sugimoto was working with something a bit more sophisticated than a 4MP Kodak point-and-shoot and Photoshop Elements.

Back down town to Le Parker Meridian hotel, where there were people lined up out front in anticipation of some celebrity or other, which was fine with me because I wanted to hit the Hidden Burger Joint, which is something of a tradition for me. I had ordered, been served, and completed my meal and the celeb still hadn't arrived. Never found out who it was.

Another Jamba Juice breakfast the next morning, this time Pineapple-a-Go-Go (Is there a valid reason we cannot have a Jamba Juice in Ann Arbor? Or better yet, Dexter?), then some time for writing and all that was left was to hop a cab to LGA for a thankfully uneventful flight home.

A great weekend getaway. I should do it more often, but New York is as expensive as everyone says.

I have three favorite urban places that I like to visit once a year: Manhattan, the Vegas Strip, and the French Quarter. Two to go for 2006.
Sopranos Ends: The Sopranos wrapped up a fine season. Like everyone else, I got a little sick of the Vito-is-gay-and-will-be-whacked storyline, but it did serve as a good springboard for the upcoming battle with Phil "the Shah of Iran" Leotardo.

Also, it was a counter example of my favorite aspect of this season, watching the characters come to terms with their own personal limitations. Some did it in a small way: Silvio came to see that he was not cut out to be the boss; Paulie came to terms with his Mom's "betrayal"; Meadow disappeared to the West Coast, perhaps coming to terms with separating from her family.

Others had larger epiphanies: Carmela now accepts Tony's philandering and, in one of the most telling scenes in the series, the tacit complicity of her children in Tony's life, provided she can sufficiently distract herself with her real estate project; Christopher seems to have closed the book on his movie career -- finding himself no match for Ben Kingsley -- he may also be accepting that drugs are part of his life that needs to be controlled not avoided; and biggest of all, A.J. now sees that he is not player on the social scene, nor a street tough wiseguy like his Dad -- he may end up as a decent working class guy, taking compromised victories wherever he can.

Vito, on the other hand, could not be a good citizen in a gay friendly New England town, so he tried to return to the homophobic mob. Accept thyself or be whacked. That seems to be the moral of the story.

And all this soul-searching has its roots in Tony's near-death experience. Oddly though, Tony seemed to get nothing out of it except to appreciate every day of life. Banal. But then, I think Tony had already achieved self-acceptance. Perhaps he is advancing from acceptance to appreciation. I really hope not. He is, after all, a vicious, violent criminal who deserves to suffer.

Nicely done. I'm looking forward to the final eight episodes come January.
Deadwood Begins: The Sopranos end signified the start of Deadwood. As with the opening episode of last season, the first show was a masterpiece.

Anybody who appreciates words can not help but be completely blown away by the dialogue in Deadwood. A visual comparison would be if you were frozen in the fifties having known nothing more than a black-and-white Philco then somebody sat you in front of a 60-inch high-def plasma. Quick, catch your jaw before it hits. Actually it may even be more stunning than that; there has simply never been anything like it.

But it's clear that there is not a big audience for history making teleplay dialogue since the Deadwood actors have been released from their contracts for a 4th season, an act that can be interpreted to mean the show won't last past this season. There is still the possibility of renewal, but it's not looking good as of this writing. That is a particular shame since the creator, David Milch, had planned on four seasons to tell the complete story he wanted to tell, adhering to Mazzotta's 2nd Law of Great TV Drama: "Thou shalt not create a storyline without knowing the end." (See this essay at Blogcritics for more details.)

HBO needs to let Milch finish his story, for the sake of posterity. While it is certainly true that a network survives on ratings, history doesn't care about ratings, only artistic merit. A wise network will balance the two and sacrifice ratings now and then for the sake of great drama. One more season of Deadwood is a good tradeoff for HBO to make. Just run a bit more late night soft core or adult reality shows to make up for the loss.

For the minority of us who crave quality, throw us a bone, wouldja?
I'm Not Ready For Some Football: The march towards a new football season continues, which also means the march towards the return of my Thoughtful Fool column come mid/late October. It's a brutal thing, and will undoubtedly take over my life again. (Seriously, unless I can get it syndicated and get paid for it, I think this will be my last year writing about picks.)

For now I have been slowly getting back into the swing of things. I have decided to change and enhance some of the gambling aspects of the column -- specifically, I am going to start using on-line odds makers to get betting lines instead of waiting for the lines to be published in Vegas, and I am going to enhance the spreadsheets I use to present data.

But the real difficulty in writing the column is that it is writing on a deadline, which can be best described as having a horrible empty feeling in the pit of your stomach as you stare a blank page hoping words come to you; words that must be clever or witty or informative.

No point in getting ahead of myself though, I'm not there quite yet this year.

For those of you who are weird like me, that is to say fascinated by probability in sports, I recommend a series of articles over at Football Reference where in the writer, making some assumptions about certain probabilities he simulates 10,000 NFL seasons to see how often truly odd outcomes come along. Interesting stuff: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

In one season, the worst team in the league actually stumbles into not just making the playoffs, but winning the Super Bowl (so the expectation is that this would happen once in every 10,000 seasons -- that a long time). Another discovery, the best team in the league actually wins the Super Bowl only about 24% of the time. Good stuff if you are as geeky as me, and you'll know if you are after you try to read this.
Evil Is As Evil Does: You want to know what's evil? Google. Specifically, Google Maps. I believe, for the second time, I printed out directions for a specific business only to discover I have been led on a wild goose chase through some labyrinthine side streets to a dead end cul-de-sac where I was supposed to find a bustling retail center.

Google Maps, and its father Mapquest, make it all seem so simple. You don't need an atlas, you don't need to call for directions, you just print this out and you're golden. Except when they send you to the wrong place. (This has happened to me in the past with Mapquest, which is why I started using Google Maps.)

The least they could do is point out when they are randomly assigning you directions because they don't know what you are looking for. They could put a disclaimer on the print out: "We have know idea if this is where the business you want is, but we think we got you in the right city at least, and it's as likely to be here as anywhere else."

As a result of this misadventure, I did discover that I have lost none of my ability to unleash a startling torrent of profanity despite a general mellowing with age. So I guess that's a silver lining.

But I have changed my default search engine to Yahoo in protest. That oughta sting 'em.
Post Switch Era: I am now many months into my life as a switcher (PC to Mac), and have even come to terms with Mac at home and PC at work dual mindset. I like my little iBook a lot, and I like OS X, and in general all the areas where people say the Mac is superior are true. Stuff really does just work. Keeping anti-virus and spyware products up to date is a non-issue. It is a very pleasant environment to work in. But there are some caveats for those of you who are thinking of switching to bear in mind:

(1) You lose certain keyboarding abilities. I miss accelerator keys badly. Accelerator keys are the ones underlined in the menu of Windows apps. These keys let you cruise through the menus without reaching for your mouse by holding the alt key and hitting the letter. Mac has none of this. The most of the important menu functions have hot keys, but they are not visible unless you have accessed the menu, you have to remember them. This has been a difficult adjustment.

Along the same lines, maneuvering through dialog boxes is trickier. Let's say you have a dialog box with three buttons, Add, Edit and Cancel. And let's say the system is designed with Add as the default. In windows you can use the arrow keys or tab to move around to different controls, and most will have accelerators which is even better. In the Mac you get the tab key, that's it. And I have yet to figure out how to use the keyboard to drop a list from a dropdown control or to mark a. All of which were second nature with the keyboard in Windows.

And while we are on a keyboard rant. My iBook has no backspace key. The delete key behaves like a backspace key in Windows and if you want to delete a letter to the right of the cursor (a 'delete' in Windows) you have to hit fn-Delete (a key combination). That is the single most consternating thing I have encountered so far.

(2) Limited on-line music options. iTunes (the Mac music player) and iTMS (iTunes music store) are second to none when it comes to building a library of music, whether it is ripped mp3s from your CDs or downloaded ones from the store. It's really great stuff. But the problem is that if you are going to use iTunes you are very much limited to iTMS. iTunes is great. I have a Roku sound box -- a wonderful little device that connects to my home stereo and which, through my home wireless connection, can take the output from iTunes and play it through my nice sounding stereo, instead of requiring me some how hook up iBook directly to the stereo to it's own set of speakers. It's pretty sweet.

But I don't want to have a big old library of mp3s. Broadly speaking, I don't want to own any media at all. I want an on demand subscription service. I want to pay $xx.xx dollars a month and be able to construct various playlists of music. Then I can just pick which ever of my playlists I want to listen to and have it streamed to me. Or better yet, I would like to be able to pick a detailed genre (say 'female jazz vocalists' or '90s Japanese pop' or whatever) and have the service compile a playlist for me. Such subscription services exist, but they are only for the Windows world. The best I can do is store up streams and play them through iTunes. Not really a bad solution as there is tons of stuff at live365, but not a match for what would be available in Windows.

Actually the perfect solution would be for to play through iTunes.

(3) The one button mouse. It is really quite silly and deeply annoying. It's an easy fix on a desktop machine, but you can't replace the integrated device on a laptop.

I have focused on the negative, but balance I am a happy switcher. In fact, I can even see that most of the problems I have mentioned may go away. OS X is clearly going in a direction that will allow you to run Windows applications, which means I will be able to run Windows Office (which I like better than Mac Office) and will likely solve some of my keyboard issues.

Somebody already has a beta product that allows to play through iTunes. And I am really hoping that Apple will implement a similar service themselves. This is the future of radio, so to speak.

If somebody would come up with a two-button integrated touch pad replacement I'd be all set.

I figure I have another year, if not two, with my iBook, then I will re-evaluate. For now, I'm cool with my Mac. If you're tempted to switch -- do not fear.
Sign 'Em Up Lloyd: Mid-month brought dear friends up from Reston, VA for the Michigan Women's Football Academy. This is an annual event to benefit cancer research, administered by the Coach Carr Fund. That would be Coach Lloyd Carr of the University of Michigan Wolverines.

It goes like this: As with most charity events, you (if you are a woman - no boys allowed) register for the academy and gather donations from you friends, relatives, total strangers, etc. In return you get to spend a day learning how to play football and running scrimmages. So what's the big deal? Well, you do all this under the tutelage of the actual Michigan Wolverines coaching staff and players. You are picking up the finer points of football from some of the best. Plus, if you are a fan of the Wolverines, you get to meet some of the players you have been following.

Yes, they work hard, but lest you be afraid, the scrimmages are two-hand touch (nobody gets clotheslined) and there are no ringers that I can see. Although ages run the gamut, I would guess the average is late 30s/early 40s. Athletic ability is not required.

The big bonus is that the scrimmages are played in the Big House, Michigan Stadium. The women come charging out of the tunnel just like in a regular game and the action is shown on the big screens on the scoreboards at either end of the stadium. Bottom line: These chicks have a blast.

Highly recommended for any woman looking for a charity event to participate in, especially if you have connections to the University of Michigan.

More info and registration: Coach Carr Women's Football Academy.