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.