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.