Friday, December 07, 2007

The Month That Was - November 2007: When I left town at the end of October to head to the Islands, I noticed on the way to the airport how we were at the peak of fall colors in my neck of the woods and I vowed to run around with the camera when I got back to see what I could capture. By the time I got back the trees were mostly bare. Winter was just outsie the door. Now we are getting highs in the 20s and are under a winter storm watch as I write this. Can I go back to the Islands yet?

Actually, I did take my usual Thanksgiving trip to Vegas (and won, wee-hee), but this time it was just a bracket for three days in Death Valley. More on that next month. For now, you get the write up on last month's trip to St. John, USVI.

Sorry for being so late, and so brief, this month. I am currently bogged down with the football column as I will be through the next couple of months.

Inside the Glove
On the Road at 47
Inside the Glove: Here in my beloved home state, things are still screwed up and I am not just talking about the weather. Detroit was recently named the most dangerous city in America, with it weak sister to the north, Flint, coming in at number 3. As I have discussed before, whenever something like this surfaces, Detroiters, including the media, fly into a fits of indignation and denial. To wit:

"It really makes you wonder if the organization is truly concerned with evaluating crime or increasing their profit," said [Police Chief Ella] Bully-Cummings, who noted the complete report is available only by purchase. "With crime experts across the country routinely denouncing the findings, I believe the answer is clear."
That has to be one of the stupidest responses in history. Does she suppose that naming Detroit the most dangerous city was going to make them more money than naming, say, Baltimore or Pittsburgh the most dangerous? This is mentality of the chief of police of the city.

And we have:

"What I take exception to is the use of these statistics and the damage they inflict on a number of these cities," said Mayor Robert Duffy, chairman of the Criminal and Social Justice Committee for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
In other words, it may be true, but how dare they say it. Really, the mindset of the responders tells you pretty much all you need to know about why cities like Detroit and Flint are in the toilet. They believe it's all a matter of perception. It's nothing that a big marketing campaign or the proper spin in the press or just not saying anything about it can't fix. No doubt that they would just use the phase all defenders of Detroit have used for decades now: "It's not that bad." Sorry, it is.

While we are on the topic of quotes about Detroit, here's Jack Kerouac from On The Road describing a Detroit during a visit in the late '40s.

"If you sifted all Detroit in a wire basket the beater solid core of dregs couldn't be better gathered."
Some things never change.

And get this, over in the Wall Street Journal, Jake Halpern writes about Buffalo, NY, making some of the same arguments I have in the past about Detroit, specifically: the devotion to finding high-profile projects that generate good press is a detrimental distraction because the only thing that will really change things is when the environment for all businesses is attractive, not just the fancy ones who you've bribed with tax breaks and hold press conferences for. Anyway, it is obvious from reading this that Buffalo is in bad shape, but then there is this throwaway line:

"[Buffalo] is the second-poorest major urban area in the nation, just behind Detroit."
Yes, Detroit is even pitiable by the standards of Buffalo.

Statewide things are not much better. We still can't attract businesses here, but every once in a while the Governor bribes a high profile company to relocate here with egregious tax breaks, which she can do without disrupting the government revenue since she recently slapped a service tax (essentially a sales tax on services in addition to goods purchases) on the citizens. But at least she gets some good press and that's what counts.

Economically, Michigan is pretty much doomed. We are at the start of the "taxes chase business away/economic activity drops/government revenues fall/government raises taxes to make it up/more businesses leave" spiral; same one the killed Detroit. There will be a crisis -- it may take two or three more tax increases -- but it will happen. Only then will things start to change for the better.

Although to give credit where due, some Detroit suburbs actually made the top 30 for safest: Troy and Sterling Heights, for to name a couple. For those of you not interested in being employed here, that actually works out pretty well. Outside major metro areas, Michigan is one of the most beautiful places you can imagine. It can be full-on backwoods outdoorsy, there's as much shoreline as either coast, it's quite inexpensive, very safe and rarely crowded (and getting less crowded every day). I have pointed out how it's a perfect alternative to a family Disney trek.

In fact, speaking for the tiny minority of us who have a secure Michigan-based income, it's kind of nice not having to worry about sprawl or squalor affecting our upstate paradise. So do come visit, we need your money. But mind the deer.
On the Road at 47: Yes, I know On the Road was published 50 years ago. The "47" refers to me. I am that old and just read it for the first time. Is that sad? On the Road is, among other things, a book entirely possessed by the youthful spirit of its author. Could it possibly have any relevance for a man my age?

There is little plot in On the Road. Jack Kerouac, in the character of Sal Paradise, recounts his travels around the country, primarily in the company of Dean Moriarty (real name Neal Cassady). They barrel around the continent -- New York, Denver, California, and finally into Mexico -- with no real plan or specific intentions. They are just compelled to be in motion. They are searching for something spiritual, but what it is they do not know, nor can they describe it. Yet they dash about the country in beaters or borrowed cars, live hand to mouth, impose on friends and strangers, chase women, indulge in drink and tea (marijuana), all the while reveling in the world and the people they meet. As Dean Moriarty would put it, they are searching for "It."

Here's the famous quote that sets the tone:

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles..."
Now you tell me: Is Kerouac really searching for "It" or is he just looking to be entertained by the world?

This is, of course, what youth is all about. You have no idea what you are doing or why, but the compulsion to move and search is irresistible. And, as in most youthful endeavors, people get hurt in the process, generally wives and girlfriends, and innocent bystanders are usually left to clean up the mess. Such actions are shallowly acknowledged then almost immediately rationalized away in the standard manner of post-adolescence. For the middle-aged, this book is a sincere look back past 20 or 30 years of personal development; all the energy, madness, hubris, frustration and pain are there to see.

To anyone old enough to "look back" at youth, this is old news. But what I found most interesting about it was the sincerity and, to a lesser extent, the naivete. As Sal and Dean dart about the countryside, they truly open themselves to the people they encounter. Some of these are people who would eventually become that core of what was known as the Beat Generation. Others are standard workaday folks. A few are real low-lives. But in all cases they listen, watch, and speculate on these people -- their inner natures, their dreams -- all done with the expectation that there is something in there worth learning, something they don't already know.

One of the attractions of On the Road is nostalgia, although the American landscape described is not all that much different. Yes, things are more convenient and homogenized now, and no one hitchhikes anymore, but speaking as someone who has done a number of road trips out west, it's still easy to get off the beaten path. What is really lost from those times, and probably never to be retrieved, is the unaffectedness of the people. I know twelve-year olds who are more cynical than Sal and Dean. These guys sit and chat with drunkards, petty operators, and a variety of other marginal characters and try to intuit something from them, some sort of deeper understanding. Most of the young people I know are too affected by sensory overload and way too drenched in irony for any such thoughts. They would pass these people off with a disdainful "whatever" and some snidery. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. Although it seems cold, a natural skepticism protects those who aren't necessarily experienced enough to spot troubling circumstances reliably. The fact of the matter is, a lot of what Sal and Dean engage in is childish self-delusion and fantasy. On the Road could not be written today because we are too wise, too young.

In time, most of the real world counterparts to the characters in On the Road revealed themselves to be the lost causes that a middle-aged man like me would see them for. William Burroughs (Old Bull Lee) spent most of his life drugged and wasted, eventually accidentally murdering his wife while "playing William Tell." There is a section of the book where Dean and Sal bunk at the house of Old Bull Lee/Burroughs and his wife. It's very creepy to read this knowing her fate. Neal Cassady managed to inspire many fringe types well into the '60s eventually driving the bus for Ken Kesey and his band of freaks, although in his old age, he fretted over the life he'd led and the mess he had made of his children. Alan Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) faired pretty well. He gained fame (or perhaps infamy) for his poetry, eventually turning to activism, devoting his creative energy to the transient socio-political concerns which, given the scope of what Kerouac and Cassady dreamed of, seems a bit small.

Kerouac himself never fell for the infantile lunacies of the '60s counter-culture. If he was just hoping to be entertained, he eventually went beyond that. He continued writing, completing several more books. His quest for the spirit of things quite logically turned to Buddhism. It seems Keroauc was the only one who came to see that there was no "IT" to find, or that the journey was the "IT." He drank himself to death in 1969.

As with any book, what's left when you strip away the cultural baggage is the writing, and the writing is worth far more than the price of admission. Whatever you may have read about the energy and poetics are true. The book begs to read through in long intense stretches. What's even more remarkable is that when you step back and think about the events that transpire, they are often very prosaic -- an extended and uncomfortable car trip, a dingy job to come up with enough money to move on, a meal in a diner -- and yet it all becomes very compelling.

The Beats, and Kerouac especially, were probably the last real literary movement. Journalists like Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson took the style to heart and brought about the primacy of non-fiction we have had since. After them the world moved on to film and video as its primary source of cultural cohesion. Because of its powerful influence On the Road may not seem all that special, the effect having been diluted by decades of progeny, but it still stands out and still arrests your attention.

Even if you are a middle-aged, you should read it. I may have seemed a bit put off by its juvenile excesses, but I am very glad I did. It's all well and good to look with distaste on the shameful behavior of youth, but I can't help but acknowledge that 25 years ago, if Dean Moriarty pulled up in a beat up old car pointed west and asked me to get in, I'm sure I would have. Or regretted it if I didn't.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Month That Was - October 2007: October was not only busy as all get out, but it was especially busy at the very end, which made for some madness. At the tail end of the month I got simultaneous hammered at work (yes, I have a day job), and with the football column resuming full speed, and with the wedding of a good friend in St. John, USVI. A perfect storm of deadlines. As always, you can keep up on the football columns over at Blogcritics. The St. John write up is going to have to wait until next month.

This month we have a heavy focus on film and video. Next month I'll try to have more on the written word -- I should have finished On The Road and I'll have lots to say. Also, no technical difficulties this month. How cool is that?

One last thing. If you are a user of a newsreader (which I am, they are super-convenient) note the Atom feed link available just under the site title. No need to keep checking each month for my updates anymore.

Florida Gulf trip
Tube Notes
Movie Round-up
In the Gulf: Early in the month I managed to squeeze in a short family visit down to Sarasota, including a not entirely planned stay slightly north in St. Petersburg. Sarasota remains quite lovely, and also quite busy. I stayed at a terrific place right out on Lido Beach called (not surprisingly) Lido Beach Resort. Big suites, two pools, koi garden, tiki bar, and walking distance to St. Armand's circle where they have my all time favorite chain restaurant, Tommy Bahamas.

I spent an interesting evening their in the thrall of a Rainman-type character who was amazing everyone at the bar with his ability to identify the day of the week of everyone's birthday in between pontificating about the need to apply probability curves to universal constants to resolve metaphysical dilemmas. He was faily entertaining until he got so drunk on chocolate martinis that the bartender had to cut him off and he staggered away.

Lido beach itself has a great reputation but I don't think it's all that. It's a bit seaweedy for my taste. The Gulf beaches are better further south, in Sanibel or Naples, but there is no arguing with the sunset views.

The "new adventure" for this trip was a lunchtime cruise around Sarasota Bay on the Marina Jack cruise boat. It's a bit of a disappointment food-wise, but Sarasota Bay is a sparklingly beautiful setting, and cruising along within about 20 yards of the super-expensive mansions on Bird Key and under the picturesque Ringling Causeway makes up for the bland fare.

Up north across the Sunshine Bridge live the sister cities of Tampa and St. Pete. Tampa is the serious sister; the serious commercial center. St. Pete is the prettier sister who gets all the longing looks. I had never been to St. Pete before and it's a decent place. There are bits of college town, bits of historic village, and bits of tourist center on display.

St. Pete is situated on a peninsula that reaches south, meaning one side of the city faces the Gulf and the other faces a Tampa Bay and looks across into the city of Tampa. Interestingly, most of the commercial area is on the bay side. St. Pete is quite large and very affected by its big city relationship with Tampa, so there are only hints of seaside community here. But the Mediterranean style architecture stands out, and there are sweet little touches, like the trolley that will take you throughout the city for a quarter, including narrated history.

The Pier is a center of tourist activity. Here you can sit by the bay and eat and drink to your heart's content. You can rent watersports equipment, you can feed the pelicans. There is unpretentious little public aquarium on the top that only costs $5 (and that price is about right). Nice place to hang out on a sunny day.

The artsy gem is the Dali Museum. Highly recommended should you be in the area. Dali is not always considered a serious artist, because of the commercial appeal and bombastic nature of his work. Dali was also refreshingly non-self-destructive and more than a little religious, which also probably kept him on the outs the elites of the salons. I think some of his work is absolutely mesmerizing. Specifically, the Hallucinogenic Toreador is one of my favorites. The displays are nicely done and correspond to Dali's life in roughly chronological order. Excellent doyens. Getting in on the (free) tour is worth it here.

St. Pete wouldn't be my first choice but I could certain hang there for a while and there is a good deal of exploring left to do there. Might be a nice gateway for an extended South Florida trip. As far as the Florida Gulf Coast goes, Sarasota remains my favorite city, but I prefer the beaches further south, Naples in particular, although that might change if I took some time to do some serious beach trolling on Siesta or Longboat Keys. Oh, well. It's not like I won't be back.

Oh, I almost forgot: pics.

Sunset on Lido Beach
Bridge over Sarasota Bay
Flower at Lido Beach Resort
Pelicans on the St. Pete Pier
Why they hang around
Architecture snippet
Get funky; get purple
Tube Notes: HBO is in the doldrums. The Wire doesn't start until January, but checl out the teaser at YouTube. More Deadwood is less likely every day. But there is new stuff coming.

True Blood, a series based on the Southern Vampire books written by Charlaine Harris, should work well with Alan Ball (Six Feet under) as the head cheese behind it. I read the first book in the series in anticipation. It was entertaining escapism, think of them as a wry, ironic take on Ann Rice themes. It should work well as an HBO series.

In Treatment, in from Mark Wahlberg, who was behind the fast failing Entourage. It's a riff on an Israeli series with stories told from varying points of view between therapists and patients. I'm dubious on this one. One wrong move and it turns in to a dramatic version of "Oprah." We'll see.

Anatomy of Hope is a series about cancer patients and their battles. It is going to have to tread a thin line to avoid becoming a sentimental weepfest. Strangely, this is coming from none other than J.J. Abrams of "Lost" and "Alias" fame. Maybe the cancer patients get involved in a conspiratorial organization far more secret than the CIA. Or something.

12 Miles of Bad Roads, about a large, wealthy, eccentric Dallas family has comedy potential, and star power. But a "portrait of eccentrics," while nice as a one shot deal, can't sustain a series. They'll need a direction and an ultimate goal to avoid going soapy.

Whitney is sad. A Sex and the City rehash with the four promiscuous women in Miami instead of NYC.

So of the known new series I am truly optimistic about one, and reservedly optimistic about another. Not good.

On the bright side, David Milch appears to be moving on from the mess that was John from Cincinnati back to the cop genre and is working on a show set in the 1970s about the Knapp Commission that looked into police corruption and begat Serpico. That could be cool. And David Simon is looking into setting his next series in New Orleans, focusing on musicians. So there is reason to hope.

One more HBO thing. The last word on The Sopranos comes from an interview with David Chase. He strongly indicates that Tony was killed in the diner and also said it doesn't matter, which I was right about. He is less pessimistic about the fate of Meadow and A.J. claiming that, while they are certainly messed up because of their father and his criminality, at least they didn't fall into it. They may suffer throughout their lives because of it, but at least they are out.

Over at AMC, Mad Men came to a close. The finale was a mixed bag. Don's uncertainty about the fate of his marriage worked well. Peggy's pregnancy did not. But I am extremely optimistic for next season. I really get the sense this show will hit its stride. The character of Don Draper is one of the most complex on TV. I also hope that they are already contemplating how to end the series because as I have pointed out before, having the end in mind is what stops you from meandering into mediocrity.

Meanwhile, in January AMC is going to give us Breaking Bad a dark comedy in which, "a high school chemistry teacher takes a match to his straight-laced existence - turning a used Winnebago into a rolling meth lab." Ha! Bring it!
Movie Roundup: More movies that I happened to see on the nine million movie channels I get.

Capote -- The buzz around this was Phillip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of the title character. He most certainly nailed it but that's not a surprise, the dude is unquestionably one of the best actors alive. His Capote is an effeminate, snooty troll who sticks out like a sore thumb anytime he steps outside his Manhattan milieu. Yet, Capote does not take offense or degrade the work-a-day types he engages in the course of his investigations for In Cold Blood, he unselfconsciously uses his alienation as a bridge to understanding the alienation of others, specifically the murderer Perry Edward Smith.

Over the course of research into the murders, we follow Capote as he gets himself more deeply intertwined with Smith. Capote is so overwhelmed by the emotional conflict of his sympathy for the regretful outsider Smith and his repulsion at the savage killing of a family of innocents and perhaps a bit of shame as the way he is going to benefit from the situation, that he suffers a breakdown. In real life, Capote did little else of value after In Cold Blood. He got involved in jet set celebrity jackassery and, of course, drugs.

If Capote has a failing, it is that it is too narrow a slice. It is a brief portrait of a particularly emotional time in the life a Truman Capote, but we lose the larger context. Hoffman portrays Capote's conflicts exceptionally, but the script allows us no insight into where they come from or what the personal consequences might take.

Brick -- Movie like this are one of the reasons I am glad I have nine million movie channels. Near as I can tell, this won a ton of festival awards but only had a limited theatrical release last year. But I guarantee you it is better than 97% of the clap trap you saw last year.

Brick is a real film noir, hard-boiled detective story -- the kind you would expect to star Humphrey Bogart -- but it is transposed to a modern day high school. The dialog is amazing and the young actors readily slip into the metre of the old school Raymond Chandler worthy script. Everything is pitch perfect form the camera angles to the pacing to the sound. Just a great movie.

It is not, however, High School Musical, there is a real darkness to it, and despite the youthful cast and the high school setting, it is more appropriate for adults. Do watch it. Its reputation can only grow in the upcoming years.

Gothic -- a Ken Russell psychotropic drugfest horror (horror as in the horror genre, not as in horrible). Ostensibly about a night of laudanum induced hallucinations with Lord Bryon, Percy Shelley, and Mary Godwin (who would become Mary Shelley) that eventually led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein. It also served as the germ of another horror story called The Vampyre to be written by one of the other guests, Dr. Pollodori. Thus this one extended acid trip had far reaching literary consequences.

(Interestingly, to me anyway, part of the impetus for this was the weather. This all occurred in "the year without a summer," 1816, when Mount Tambora erupted and filled the atmosphere with enough dust that there was frost and cold all through the summer in Europe. Since it was too cold to spend much time outside, this group hung around in indoors, bored, and thus turned to drugs for recreation.)

There is some good insight about creations of any sort reflecting the flaws and evil in their creator, but it is predominately about the hallucinations, petty cruelties and emotional games played among the characters. It also gives director Ken Russell a nice backdrop for all the freaky and salacious visuals he can think of. But the characters are utterly pretentious and a bit on the superficial side, and their portrayal is grotesquely overwrought. It's a better choice for a horror flick than any ten slasher films or formulaic serial killer flicks, so it might be worth a look for something different.

Eragon -- Fantasy epic tripe. A lame riff on Lord of the Rings or some such. Without heart or soul. I gave it 45 minutes, which was more than I should have.

The Big Lebowski -- Yeah, yeah, I know. I've seen it a dozen times but it still holds up. There have been few better acting turns than the one Jeff Bridges took in this film. He should have won an Oscar. I'd like to see that happen, just once: someone get an Oscar for some absurd, farcical, comedic role, instead of some dire character that they had to gain fifty pounds to play. The Dude abides.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Month That Was - September 2007: Finally, the story of my Black Hills trip is up. Lots of photos in that one, including the one I'm currently using for my desktop background. I also updated my guided tour of upstate Michigan, Dodging Disney, which I re-read and hated and so decided to make it even longer.

This month is highlighted by more technological misadventures. Sorry if I went on about them, but I do permit myself a bit a catharsis now and then, and frankly, it's how I spent my month.

The End of Aubrey/Maturin
Movie Round-up
Everything is Broken
Comcast is on Crack
Bon Voyage Jack, Stephen, and Patrick: I am about to start the 20th, and final (except for a partial rough draft of 21 found after his death, which I doubt I will read), book in Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, and O'Brian clearly running out of steam. Or maybe I am. He had an excuse though: he was near the end of his life, and even if he wasn't, for God's sake, he had written 20 novels with these characters. He lost a lot of the beautiful subtlety and delicate dramatization that informed the earlier novels and was meandering into minutiae and irrelevant sidebars -- basically just taking the characters through the motions; motions we had seen before. Still the decline in quality is not so steep that I am going to stop. And the fact that the series was well into the teens before it started to tail off is amazing in and of itself.

Should you read these books? Maybe. Certainly anyone with a dedication to exceptional literature should. Until the last few, they are striking well written. They are certain to quicken the heart of anyone who really loves masterful writing. But the fact is, they are not remotely colloquial. The formal style may make you feel as though you are reading Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. Which is to say, they won't do as a casual read for most people.

And if you are looking for a nice, expository, linear narrative -- A does B that leads to C and makes D do E, and so forth -- you'll be frustrated. Passages, and whole books, are meant to be appreciated only when they are over. Often characters are introduced without fanfare, they hang around on the periphery of the attention of Aubrey or Maturin, and only many scenes later do we see their significance. Events, people, even inanimate objects must regularly be tracked by the reader until they are revealed in full. I found this to be an attraction once I got used to it. O'Brian trusted his readers to have patience and allow uncertainty to temper their assumptions about the nature of things for extended lengths without bailing. That takes guts in the modern world of congenital ADD. And talent.

Yet another thing that stands out against the modern world is that the way of the universe in these books is very much ancient Greek. For centuries now, we have been in the thrall of Shakespearean heroes and anti-heroes who guide events and set their own fates for better or worse through their own decisions. Although Aubrey and Maturin are certainly men of action who take stands and fight good fights, they are, at all times, dependent upon luck and providence. The gods of their time are not Zeus and Apollo, but the weather and the Royal Navy -- both are arbitrarily beneficial or detrimental, both are destroyers of design and granters of wishes, and both will not be denied by the puny acts of men.

Part of the reputation of these books is that O'Brian fills them with technical details of sailing in early 19th century. That, I'm afraid, is true. O'Brian knew his audience and there was a portion of them -- perhaps a large portion -- who were mavens of historical dramas of the Horatio Hornblower genre. You'll have to either get comfy with the language or get comfy skimming over the particulars of shipboard life. Either way, the stories will not suffer.

If you saw the movie and liked it, is that a good indicator? Uncharacteristically, I think yes. I found the movie to be excellent and true to the spirit of the books. You should be advised that the movie, complete title Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, is based on an amalgam of events from several books. Master and Commander (book 1) and The Far Side of the World (book 10) are just two of them.

Lastly, and in contrast to the majority of contemporary literature, these are books about, and for, men of a certain type. Courage, honor, and duty play major roles in the motivations of many characters, to an extent that is no longer seen on the 'new releases' shelf at Borders.

As a final warning, I reiterate that there are 20 novels, all fairly dense. If you get hooked, plan on partitioning off a healthy slice of your life for them.

As for me, I now find myself snickering at the people who are having Harry Potter withdrawal after a whopping six plainly written books. You have no idea. I have decided to move on by going in the opposite direction as a shock to my senses. I'm thinking of returning to some Peter DeVries satires. I have also been thinking about reading Kerouac's On The Road, since it would be about 180 degrees in contrast from Patrick O'Brian.
Movie Round-up: I managed to catch a number of movies on some of the five billion cable channels I now have.

  • The Departed -- The latest Scorcese gangster flick. It reminds me of Gangs of New York: flashes of brilliance, but poorly cast and it brings nothing new to the table. Jack Nicholson is only fair. Matt Damon is way off. Martin Sheen sticks out like a sore thumb. Dicaprio does well; I am actually getting to like his work. Alec Baldwin takes a great turn as well. He's found a niche as the arrogant, annoyed hard guy. In general, I get the impression they just decided to take a fair-to-middling mob script, make everyone talk in nearly indecipherable Boston accents instead of like Sicilian wise guys, let Scorsese bring in the big names, call it a movie, and bathe in the resulting money and Oscars. Can't blame 'em, I suppose.

  • Hollywoodland -- The story of the suicide of George Reeves (Superman from the old TV show). Excellent performances from Ben Affleck as the handsome and good humored, but ultimately bland, Reeves and Diane Lane as his desperately aging sugar mama. The story was sold as a murder mystery but there really isn't one. It's the story of a cynical man (Adrien Brody) who, for personal gain, trumps up a murder mystery where there was none and the consequences that follow. Nicely done.

  • Wonderland -- A harrowing, and a little gory, account of the Wonderland murders that were likely set up by a desperate and drug addicted John Holmes (pornstar Johnny Wadd) who may or may not have been involved in the actual murders. There's a presentation of differing views of the events, Rashomon-style, but in the end there is little doubt what happened. Like most films about low-lifes, it's probably more sympathetic to the characters than it should be, but Val Kilmer does a good job of capturing the combination of self-delusion, desperation, and naivet‚ that characterizes most pornstars and ultimately leads them to hell. The fall of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights was obviously heavily influenced by this story. It moves well and holds your attention thoroughly.

  • Superman Returns -- A handful of cute moments, but otherwise worthless. Half way through I was jumping back and forth with Seinfeld reruns.

  • Miami Vice -- Pathetic. I gave it twenty minutes, then I realized life was too short.
Everything Is Broken: What do you do when a piece of equipment fails shortly after the warranty is up? Case in point: my iBook. It is dead. When it first started going into Kernel Panics (see last month) I naturally did a web search to find out what steps to take and I took all of them. Still the Panics came. So I let the local Mac shop have it for a few days. After a while they claimed they had fixed it by doing exactly what I had already tried. Naturally I got it home and it immediately Panicked again. I could, and may still, bring it back to the Mac shop, but it's pretty clear that they do not have the ability to do anything I haven't already done. So, for all intents and purposes, my iBook is toast. (For the truly geeky out there, I am pretty sure the problem is with the PRAM. If you flash the PRAM the damn thing works for a few days before it goes back to persistent Panics.)

Now my iBook was getting obsolete pretty fast, and it never had really enough juice to do photo-editing other than at a glacial pace, so I decided that rather than pay whatever it would take to find and fix the issue, I may as well bite the bullet and get a new laptop. But how could I get another Mac?

I liked my iBook. The new Mac laptops are even better. But how can I go back and support a company that sold me a product that failed in less than 2 years? Isn't that like rewarding Apple for a bad experience? I know Apple has a stellar reputation when it comes to laptop quality, but wouldn't buying another one just make me a sap. I wanted another Mac but what kind of tool gets a smackdown like that and gives that company another chunk of profit? In such circumstances, you are pretty much compelled to go elsewhere. It's a shame, because you can't get a Mac anywhere except from Apple, so now I am back to Microsoft and Vista (which is more than a little flaky, btw) on an HP. Dell was out because they sold me a pile of crap laptop prior to the Apple. Sony has nice laptops, very cool looking too, but there's quite a premium over HP. Lenovo was another choice, but I got a discount on the HP through my day job.

Next in line for breakdown was my wireless router. As with laptops, I have been through three, abandoning manufacturers as they betray my trust. My first router was a Belkin. After about month of use it ceased to generate a signal stronger than one bar even when my iBook was right next to it. It was replaced with a Linksys which served me for about 14 months. Then it developed exactly the same problem, it just ceased to generate a strong enough signal to be read. It worked fine with a wired connection, but not wireless. I have two wireless devices -- my laptop and a Roku Soundbox -- neither could get a signal so I am sure it wasn't the wireless card. So now Linksys is on the feces list. I have ordered a new router, this one an SMC.

So for those of you scoring at home, the feces list now contains Dell, Apple, Belkin and Linksys. On the bubble are HP and SMC.

Oh, and my wireless mouse ceased to function. It's about 3 months old. Add Logitech to the feces list.
Re-Switcheroo: One good thing about re-switching back to Windows is the broader range of software available. Picture editors in particular. I use Adobe Photoshop Elements primarily. If I had the time, I'd master editing to the point of needing full-on Photoshop CS (although that may be in my future). Photoshop Elements, like its big bro, is available for Mac of course, but what is not is Google's Picasa which is not so much an editor but a viewer and manager and has become my new best friend. It's truly slick, even more so than the freely provided MS picture editor; even more so than the freely provided Mac picture editor iPhoto. Recommended.

Also not usable is OS X are many of the music sites, especially the subscription ones. I have been intrigued by subscription music services -- you know: $XX a month and play anything you want, but you don't have anything to keep. On the Mac, you pretty much only get iTunes, which has no subscription option. I've purchased stuff off iTunes Music Store, but I often wonder if I would use a subscription service more. I could probably figure out a way to have the subscription stream through the Roku Soundbridge, then, for a small monthly fee I would have literally hundreds of thousands of songs I could play through my stereo without having to manage a truckload of .mp3 files.

Another cool thing about Windows is the availability of better file manages. OS X has Finder which is pretty lame. Windows has Explorer, which is marginally better. But in OS X if you want something more capable you have to shell out money for Pathfinder. In Windows there are a ton of free options: Free Commander, ExplorerXP, File Ant, etc. All have different little bells and whistles.

Actually, if MS did just a couple of things with Windows, it would have no obvious shortcomings versus OS X.

• Fix the security model: this is not to say it's insecure (Vista is, I think, petty darn secure) but the OS X way of verifying actions is much better. On OS X, you just enter your login password anytime you are going to do something that a shady program might want to try to do without your knowledge. In Vista it's an are-you-sure verification message or two, or three, or four. I don't doubt that it keeps you functionally safe, but it is awkward, ungainly and annoying.

• Stop with the pop-up messages, suggestions, and bloatware. This is truly obnoxious. A lot of this you can turn off after you see it the first time, although sometimes it's not exactly clear how to do that. And not only does MS get to be a busy body, but the bloatware freebies that are pre-loaded get to annoy you too (although that may be HP's fault, not MS). I would pay a small premium to a notebook manufacturer who would ship a nice clean Vista install with all the intrusions shut off.

Clarity is not MS strong suit in their software design. The very best example I can give you of why people tend to appreciate OS X for its simplicity and elegance is the file overwrite warning message. On a Mac, in Finder, if you are about to copy a newer file over and existing one (an act I do almost daily in backing up my current work to a USB drive) you get a confirmation message along the lines of, "An older file with the name foobar.txt already exists, do you want to overwrite it?" which is just about perfect. You get a verification that the file you are about to wipe out is older than the one you are about to save, which is the key verification because lord knows I've had a file up in two different finder windows and have accidentally tried to copy the older over the newer more than once. You can either go ahead or cancel out of the action and figure out what it was you meant to do.

In Vista, the message is:
There is already a file with the same name in this location.
Click the file you want to keep

Copy and Replace
Replace the file in the destination folder with the file you are copying
Size 10k
Date Modified 9/30/07 (newer)

Don't Copy
No files will be changed leave this file in the destination folder.
Size 10k
Date Modified 9/28/07

Copy But Keep Both Files
The file you are copying will be renamed "Foobar.txt(2)"

Ye Gods! Let's make a simple task stunningly complicated, shall we? I'm sure it seemed to someone at MS that offering three options instead of just yes/no was very clever, but it's mostly just noise. In the exceedingly rare instances where you want multiple copies of a file, would you really think to do that by just dragging and dropping a copy into the same folder as the original? And the fact is, I don't need to know the size and the name of the file or even the date. We can assume, I think, that I knew what I was doing when I initiated the copy command. I just need some reassurance that I am replacing the correct file. Why do I need a paragraph on "Don't Copy" when I have a cancel button? The single piece on information I need in that text is "(newer)." If I see that I know I'm doing what I meant to. Instead, I have to read War and Peace to get there. Oh and by the way, you are not "clicking the file you want to keep" like the instruction says, you are clicking the action you want to take. Can Bill Gates not afford an editor?

Now, this is not an enormous deal. Once I know what is going on I can zero in on the information I need. And as a software development manager in my day job, it probably bothers me more than normal people. It's just one of those graceless, awkward things that keeps companies like Apple and Google in business.
Comcast is on Crack: Still speaking of techno-problems, I have documented my trials and tribulations with Comcast before. The latest has been over my DVR. It occasionally just stops working. The screen goes blank and it no longer responds to the remote or any of the buttons on the front panel. I have to unplug it, then re-plug it in, then once it powers up, the on-line guide takes about 15 minutes to rebuild.

So I called Comcast to ask what to do and they quickly arranged an appointment so that I could take a half day off work to wait for the cable guy. By the way, they no longer will call you when they are about to get to your place, you have to take a half day off and wait for them. Welcome to ten years ago.

The guy was supposed to appear between 9:30 and 12:30, and he showed up at about 10:45 -- not bad. I thought he would just swap out the DVR for a new one. I'd lose my TIVO'd stuff but at least I would constantly be jumping up to unplug the DVR.

I was wrong. He simply held two buttons on the front down (the 'power' and 'select' buttons) simultaneously while he unplugged the box and re-plugged it back in, which is apparently how you do a super-duper top-secret ultra-mega reset. Then he called for a signal to be sent from Comcast. Then he had me sign a paper. Then he set off a seven minute demo on how to use the DVR that they are required to do with every visit (one of the most monumentally stupidest policies in history). Then he left.

Apparently the folks at Comcast think I am incapable of holding down two buttons on the device while unplugging it, so they make me take a half-day off work rather than instructing me over the phone. Absolutely un-friggin'-believable. And naturally, the fix didn't last. I still have the same problem so now I am likely up for taking another half day off work to wait for the guy to come back and put in a new DVR, another task I could accomplish in my sleep. Words fail me in trying to fathom Comcast. I should register the domain I'd make millions.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Month That Was - August 2007: I have failed miserably, so you get a short shrift this month. I took a weeklong vacation in the South Dakota Black Hills region, but there is no way I'm going to have it written up for you very soon. As you'll see below, I have run into all sorts of technological snags when trying to get anything done this past couple of weeks, culminating in the purchase of a new laptop. But being computer-less, even for a few days, put a huge dent in my writing time, most of which had to go to my football column. (Yes, that is starting again. You can read the Pre-season review, AFC preview, and NFC preview, if you’d like.)

To top it all off, at one point I committed about three hours worth of writing to my flash drive and promptly found the file to be corrupted when I got back to it. There is little more disheartening than irretrievably losing hours of work.

So since I got so fouled up, and without my computer there is no way to edit the pictures I took, many of which are excellent, the trip report is delayed. If I finish it mid-month I may post a special update. Otherwise, next month for sure.

John from Cincy and HBO
Mad Men and Memory
SNAFU This month was an extended lesson in the origin and nature of screw-ups. To wit:

Comcast - For the past year and a half Comcast has been double billing me for internet service. You see, when I signed up for the Comcast digital cable/high-speed internet combo I got a deeply reduced rate for my first six months. I knew, in the back of my mind, that after six months my rate was going to go way up and it did. I just didn't bother to look at the itemized bill. It came every month for the same amount and I paid it.

Then, I went to the Comcast kiosk at the Mall to check out an offer for a new deal and the guy pulled up my bill and told me I was being charged for two high-speed internet connections. What followed was pure farce.

I called Comcast and got a message about there being extraordinary call volume and I should try to use the Comcast web site to resolve my problem. I got on the Comcast’s online chat room with a Internet Billing rep. After a while this rep confirmed that I was being double charged, but said the second internet charge was coming from the Cable TV department not from the Internet department so I would have to get in touch with Cable Billing to resolve it.

So I got on the phone to Comcast again and received a familiar automated message: that the phones were very busy and I should try using email support. So I used email support -- I sent in my rather lengthy explanation of the circumstances and I got a message back from Cable Billing the next day to tell me that they couldn’t resolve my issue over email and I would have to call.

So I called again and waited past the message telling me to use their web site and I got an offer to have a rep call me back as soon as one was free, so I left my number. Ten minutes later I got a voice mail. It was from Comcast, but not a rep. It was a recorded message telling me I should press some button if my problem was not resolved. Huh? In what way will press a button in response to a voice mail get any information back to Comcast? I'm not on the line with Comcast, it's my own voice mail.

So I called Comcast back and this time I actually waited on hold until I was actually talking to a real person.

Turned out to be a very helpful person who verified my story and said she’d call back. And she did, and got my account credited (let's just say I won't have a cable bill for a while). Advice: when dealing with Comcast it is worth the wait to talk to a live person. - is my hosting service for my two book sites (Read Apple Pie and Read Business As Usual). Now, I have touched neither of these sites in ages, although changes are coming Real Soon Now. Suddenly I am getting messages about being over my disk usage limit. The limit is 250 meg and what I have up there amounts to little more than a 5 meg. WTF?

So I send an email to Support asking the WTF? And they reply that I have over 250 meg of mail messages. I registered these sites many years ago and along with the site registration comes a free email account. But, I never used it. Never did anything to configure it. Never gave it out to anyone. Just pretty much forgot it ever existed. My status remains at WTF?

Well, despite it never being used or published spammers found it. And over the years they were loading up the inbox until they hit my storage limit. 250 meg of spam! Do you have any idea how many messages that is? I tried to clean out the messages but there were so many it took my whole system down. I finally had to ask to delete all the messages, then I promptly disabled the mail addresses. Sheesh.

Kernel Panic - Most people are familiar with the Blue Screen of Death in Windows. Basically the system just totally freaks out and tells you need to reboot and start over. It happened fairly regularly in early versions of Windows, although I have never seen one in later versions of XP or Vista. In the Mac world the equivalent experience is something called a Kernel Panic. I love the descriptiveness of that.

Anyway, after just shy of two years with my iBook, I started getting kernel panics. They were intermittent. Sometimes the thing would shut down before I could even log in. Other times I would get a day or more of up-time before the crash. Naturally, this all started when I was half way across the country, so I really didn't have many options for staying connected which was a pain since I really needed to be connected.

Upon my return I ran all the diagnostics and reparations I could find but to no avail. So I turned it over to a Mac repair shop and told them to have at it. As I write this, they are still having at it. I couldn't wait, however, and decided it was time for me to move up to a new laptop. If they fix it, fine, I'll have a spare -- maybe keep it permanently hooked up to my receiver to play iTunes. Other than that, I'm moving on.

My new friend is an HP Pavilion Verve Edition. With Vista. Yes, I now officially a re-switcher. The Mac was nice, and for a long time it was solid. But I never got used to the navigation, having spent so many years with Windows and still having to use Windows at work. Plus, there is software you miss out on with the Mac. In my case, I'm a heavy MS Office user and I found Office for OS/X to be a little eccentric. And I love Google's photo utility Picasa, which is not available for the Mac. (Picasa seriously rocks, and it's free. It's not comprehensive enough to replace a real photo editor, but it’s great for organizing and viewing photos.)

Of course, I was promptly reminded what a mess a fresh MS based system is -- all the pop-up tips, the warnings, the reminders, the intrusive demo software. Ugh. And the MS approach to security is silly. On a Mac, whenever new software is being installed, the system asks for your login password. Makes perfect sense. That stops unwanted software from getting installed maliciously from the web, and from strangers who may find your laptop unattended, and from friends and family who just want to check their email. In Vista, you don’t have to enter a password but you do need to click through about four or five "Are you sure?" type messages. That is poor design. Oh well, at least the keystroke navigation that I have burned into my brain cells works again.

Anyway, they key thing is that I am up and running again and can continue to get work done. At least until the next SNAFU.
Back to Cincinnati With You: John from Cincinnati finished up and left people who watched the whole series more confused that the Sopranos ending. HBO is not renewing it, so we'll never know if it would have become clearer to us. At the end, David Milch gave an interview to a blogger at Variety about what he was trying to achieve.

"Each character has the opportunity to generate God by his or her behavior. All of us are the mother and father of God, to the extent we accept the limits of our humanity."


"My understanding of the way the mechanism of storytelling works is...whether or not the audience is conscious of the process, apart from the audience awareness that there is a process, any story is constantly appending specific values to the meanings of words, and of the actions of characters. And the fact that story uses as its building blocks words or characters that the audience believes it has some prior recognition or understanding of, is really simply the beginning of the story, but not its end.”

To which, like the Geico Caveman, I can only respond, "Uh...What?"

J from C was, then, a story about how the characters defined their personal view of God from within their own experiences. To emphasize this self-definition, Milch attempted to divorce the words and actions of the characters from their meaning allowing the audience to self-define the entire show, giving them latitude to allow the characters to define their view of God based on the viewer's personal view of the characters. At least, I think that might be it.

A curious experiment. It may have worked if we (the viewers) were prepped to go into it with that mindset. But we weren’t, we were told it would be another great David Milch drama. I am half tempted to re-watch the entire ten episodes with the knowledge that I am supposed to self-define the narrative, but I just don't have time. I am reminded of James Joyce, who believed his readers should devote their lives to understanding his work.

I certainly wouldn't call J from C a failure. I would have probably continued to watch ad infinitum just because I so admire the fact that someone has the guts to use the English language in something other than a utilitarian way. I also thought it was drop dead funny in parts, which, to me, is worth more than all the philosophical experimenting in the world. But many of the characters were not very complete or consistent and a lot of their "conflicts" were on the cliched and contrived side. Gotta let this one pass and call it a learning experience.

At least now Milch can get back to finishing up Deadwood, although it sounds like Ian McShane is holding up the stagecoach.

Entourage and Flight of the Concords finished up last week, but Curb Your Enthusiasm begins so we'll have our comedy fix. The final season of The Wire doesn't start until January so drama-wise we are left with something new called Tell Me You Love Me which looks absolutely excruciating. Without seeing anything but the trailers, my guess is that it is essentially Thirtysomething (What about myyyy needs!!!!!) with lots of lurid sex and shock talk which gets pumped as "groundbreaking." Ugh. But that’s just a guess...
The Times Aren't a-Changin': The best show on TV at the moment is probably Mad Men, AMC's original series about the personal and professional goings-on of execs in a high-powered ad agency in 1960. I'm pleased that, now that the whole period-piece culture shock has been covered, they are really digging into the characters, some of whom are remarkably well shaded. The acting, in some instances, leaves a bit to be desired, but the stories come through and even though it's already a fine show, I have the sense that they have yet to really hit their stride.

One thing that must strike anyone who sees it is how much things have changed since that time. In and of itself, that's no big deal. But to someone like me, who still has memories of those days (not 1960 strictly speaking -- I was only just born in 1960, but I remember the way of life described in the series vividly) it's a bit of a shock to see them again, this time as a historical representation.

The changes are almost certainly for the better, I believe. Of course, the basics remain in place -- they always do; humans are still humans -- but the spin and surface are very, very different. (I described a bit of this last month's Tube Notes.) My first reaction to the magnitude of change is to not see it as something out of the ordinary. My instinct tells me that, although the full effect of it can only be seen after-the-fact, social change proceeds at a pretty much constant pace. It's going on right now, but we just don't have the perspective to realize it, and if we try to distance ourselves enough to see it, we usually get it wrong because of our contemporary prejudices.

But then I read this observation from Gregg Easterbrook about the movie American Graffiti:

It's haunting to think American Graffiti, which surely depicts the perfect high-school-days summer night that [director George] Lucas never actually had -- was made in 1973 and portrays small-town California of 1962. Just 11 years had passed, yet American Graffiti was received as a nostalgic trip into a bygone era of music and social mores that could never return. Think if you made a movie today that was intended to be a wistful voyage 11 years into the past: to 1996. Hardly anything would seem different, except for the lack of cell phones, and there'd be no haunting sense of a simpler lost era. Is there even one single person who would pay $8 for cinematic nostalgia about 1996?

Haunting is right. Maybe the second half of the 20th century really was a time of accelerated social change. Or maybe the contemporary times stand out for their lack of social change. I don't know, but I certainly need to rethink the idea of social change at a constant pace.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Month That Was - July 2007: Well, I finally got through the re-editing process on Business As Usual and it should be settled and available from the new publisher soon. It was quite a chore since I don't think the editor had a good grasp of the informal, idiomatic style I was going for, so I ended up reversing most of the edits. I also have some quirks that are at odds with most writers. For instance, I believe most contemporary American fiction is overloaded with unnecessary commas. I also think it's best to let dialogue flow without any "he saids" that aren't absolutely necessary. To an editor inclined to more prosaic prose (heh-heh), it must have looked in need of work.

The good news is that in the course of reading through the whole book under a close eye -- something I haven't done in years -- I came away very happy with it. I think it's a good bit of writing. Royalties have dwindled to virtually nothing and will likely remain that way forever, but I'm satisfied with it. That made me feel good.

First up this week are some comments, of a sort, on current events, which is uncharacteristic (and will remain so, I hope). Then a good bit of rambling about TV and movies. But first, we have a travel report on this year's trip Up North, all the way to the U.P., appropriately titled To Yooperville and Back. Do read it.

Gas Prices
Michael Vick
Tube Notes
Flick Notes
Green at Home
All Gassed Up: This month's Yooperville trip report features no travel industry complaints. The lodging arrangements worked out well and it was a road trip through Northern Michigan, so there was no interaction with the airline industry. Apart from the minor issue of a bit of construction now and then, the only real problem was gas prices.

Now I am not one to complain about gas prices, generally speaking. I don't believe that Big Oil executives sit in a board room lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills and twirling their mustaches like Snidely Whiplash while colluding to screw the honest working man out of his hard earned cash. Market forces set the price of gas, prices rise because demand is increasing faster than supply. Much of that increasing demand is coming from economic booms in China and India. Much of the lack of supply comes not because of the scarcity of oil, but the scarcity of refineries. Besides, the fact of the matter is that even at their current levels, gas prices have not kept up with long term inflation rates. If they did they would be well over $5.00/gal. No, sir: I am not at all exorcised by gas prices, generally speaking.

What I don't understand is why here in Michigan, where we are pretty much mired in constant recession, our gas prices should be higher than everywhere else. Other things equal, a lousy economy compared to the rest of the nation should reduce demand and therefore lead to relatively lower prices. Of course, other things are never equal. But I have not seen nor heard of a plausible explanation of what things are unequal. I am not asking why they are so high; I am asking why they are so high relative to the rest of the country.

As usual, everyone just gripes but no one bothers to understand and explain. Feh.

By the way, I don't think I have encountered a dumber idea in my life than a one-day boycott of gas purchases as a method of getting lower prices. That's not just garden-variety shoddy thinking. If you cannot see how totally useless such an undertaking is, you really need to take some time to evaluate whether your understanding of the world is not as shallow Paris Hilton.
Sick of Vick - Validated: He's been called Ron Mexico. He's been called Ookie. Now we can call him Toast. Barring some amazing turn of events wherein he is totally exonerated and every piece of speculation proves wrong, it is quite possible that Mike Vick will never be a serious football player again. Short of outright exoneration, what possible outcome would cause you to be a fan or go and cheer for him? What team would to sign him to a leading role, especially in this era of bad behavior crackdowns? Like I said: Toast.

His reputation, such as it was, is gone. And soon, his money will be gone, too. Needless to say, endorsements will not be forthcoming, probably not even for Valtrex. Nike has already dumped him and his product plans. There are reports that sporting goods stores like Dick's have his jersey on fire sale. So he will have little or no income, lots of legal bills, and just for good measure, if there is testimony about him dropping $10,000 bets on dog fights, I'm guessing the IRS is going to want to have a look at his checking account. To paraphrase the great Walter Sobchak: Ookie, you're entering a world of pain.

As a player, Vick was flashy and charismatic, but not all that great. Defenses can adapt to a running QB no matter how fast he is. A QB needs to pass to be a winner; and pass accurately and wisely. It is possible that this was the year we'd have found out that Vick could do that -- there was mention of letting him audible and giving him freer rein -- but kiss that goodbye. I envision approximately zero probability that he plays in 2007. Can you imagine how many renditions of "Who Let the Dogs Out" he will hear at opposing stadiums? Even the fans in Atlanta would probably boo him.

The best thing he can do is apologize, go on Oprah and cry, beg for forgiveness in the most mewling way possible, donate an enormous sum to the Humane Society, and play the sentimental public like a bass fiddle; plea bargain for a short sentence (I bet he could get away with a few months in a minimum security); accept a year suspension for the NFL and re-sign with some desperate team as a low profile back-up QB/receiver just to get back on the field. Then hope for a long term re-habilitation of his rep.

The thing is, I suspect Vick is not the type to play that game. Judging by the behavior of his equally distasteful brother Marcus, who once stomped on an opposing player in the middle of a college game badly enough to get kicked out of school, the Vicks are not ones to regret and apologize. They no doubt see it as a sign of weakness, or their arrogance simply won't allow it. Whatever bodies are left in their wake have no significance to them, they just step over them without a second thought.

Well, Michael is about to get his introduction to the concept of comeuppance. The next body to be stepped over is his own.
Up, Up and Away, with TSA: Longtime readers know that I have not been a TSA basher. It's very common among pundits and editorialists to mercilessly hammer TSA as anything from a useless annoyance to a pack of fascist lapdogs. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, folks I know who fly frequently seem less likely to be so negative. As for me, I simply don't know if TSA is effective or not. Certainly, there has been no major airline terrorism in the U.S. in the past few years; that should count for something. On the other hand, there's a reason Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc is referred to as a common fallacy.

Recently a TSA admin named Kip Hawley submitted to a five part interview with a fellow named Bruce Schneider, who is apparently a big critic of TSA. The interview was civil (although many of the comments from readers are not) and rather informative. My impressions:
  • The point of screening is not to catch everyone with a contraband item. That's acknowledged as impossible. So if someone sneaks something through, that is not indicative of a failure of the process. The point is to make it risky enough that it is not worthwhile to attempt anything.
  • Much is made of how the many of the current security policies are ineffective. Shoe removal and limiting carry-on liquids foremost among them. The TSA admin tries to justify them and doesn't do to well. I agree that those are pretty ineffective measures but the fact of the matter is that we have no one to blame for them but ourselves. When that bridge collapsed in Minneapolis they hadn't even pulled the bodies out before people were casting around for someone to blame, and by extension, someone to sue. Can you imagine if they stopped checking shoes and some plane got shoe bombed? How many people complaining about it being ineffective would change their tune and start casting around for someone to blame? How big would the lawsuits be? We'd need a tax increase just to cover the government payments to the survivor's families. This is the bed we've made with litigation. Not TSA's fault.
  • I didn't know this, but TSA does not maintain the no-fly list. No one is ever stopped at security because they are on the no-fly list. If you got a boarding pass you are not on the no-fly list. People are stopped at security either because an agent has a suspicion or they are selected by a mathematically random process for extra screening. Also, there are apparently some very reliable methods for identifying guilty parties through their behavior. (I'm should professional poker players have known this for years.) I'm curious as to what they are.
  • TSA abuses of authority do happen. Of course, anytime anyone has authority, there is the potential for abuse. A cop had a fight with his wife so he writes you up even though you were only going 7 mph over the limit. A health inspector wakes up constipated and so your restaurant is shut down for a week. That kind of thing happens all the time, the question is whether it is more common when TSA is involved. I don't know the answer and I don't know that anyone else does either.
Bottom line, as usual, is that there is more to the story than the knee-jerk rants you read.
Tube Notes: Well, I continue to hold faith with David Milch -- for the time being. I'm still twirling John from Cincinnati in my mind. Some things have become more clear. We now know that there is something religious -- even quasi-Christian -- going on. The upshot now seems to be that God has decided to speak to this exceedingly dysfunctional family of surfers and their circle. The title character (John from Cincinnati), presumably God's messenger, is a bizarre creature: cannot be harmed or feel pain; manifests to the other characters sometimes in reality, sometimes in hallucination; and speaks either in inscrutably cryptic comments or mocking parroting of what is said to him, or both. Slowly the other characters realize something freaky is going on. Now what? I don't know, but if Milch pulls it off -- the story of a modern day visitation by a prophet -- it will be amazing.

I will continue to watch John just because I so love the way Milch and his writers use the English language. To me it is refreshing to hear people speak in a florid colorful manner -- as opposed to naturalistic utilitarian dialog. I think it takes a lot of guts to do that on a TV show. A couple of the actors involved are taking quality turns, prime among them is Ed O'Neill who is perfect as a retired cop and a bit of a head case who is psychically connected to his pet bird. His comic timing is even better than when he was Al Bundy.

But, overall, I can't recommend John to the general public just yet. It is mesmerizing, but it still needs to find a clearer purpose. And it is not something that can be watched casually. I am pretty much committed to the season, so I'll be sure to let you know if it's worth your time once all is said and done. Then you can rent the DVD.

The other show that caught my eye is Mad Men on AMC. Essentially a period piece set in 1960 about the corporate and personal lives of execs at a high-powered ad agency. There are two keys to Mad Men. The lesser key is the reproduction of the style and substance of life in 1960: everyone smokes, women are mere supplicants, and so forth. Having been a sentient child at the tail end of this era (mid-'60s), I can verify that they hit the nail on the head with a lot of this stuff. The salarymen don't think twice about pouring each other a scotch on the rocks at work. Kids leap about in a moving car without seatbelts. Divorce, psychiatry, and birth control are taboo.

Some of this stuff is delightfully dramatized: parents don't mind if their kids play with plastic dry-cleaning bags over their heads; a black busboy garners suspicious looks when a white business man engages him in conversation at a nice restaurant; a fellow proclaiming "It's not like there is a magic machine that can make exact duplicates of documents"; a phone and intercom are scary high technology; children are given a swat for spilling their milk.

While this is fun, it must be tempered. It would be too easy to take the contrast in mores and taboos and use them to make fun of the poor savages of a bygone era while extolling our brave, new, progressive world. That would be lazy. And not entirely accurate. While I certainly wouldn't trade the contemporary world for 1960 I found myself looking at some of the lifestyle with a little twinge of nostalgia, specifically with respect to certain freedoms of behavior regarding children. Certainly it was a time before the safety Nazis sucked a lot of the fun out of childhood. But short of that, I can see very little that was preferable back then. Although there are plenty of times I would like to have liquor on hand at work, that's for sure.

Still, it's a work of drama and it needs to be about people. That's the greater of the two keys and on that front they are doing well. The lead character is utterly fascinating -- a seemingly perfect family man (for the '60s), but at his core cynical and negative, given to emotionally checking out. By extension his marriage is unfulfilling, his wife is clearly unhappy possibly due to her inability to keep connected to her husband. Of course, this being 1960, it is never discussed openly. In 2007 they would all be prattling on like Woody Allen in therapy and mainlining Xanax.

I think Mad Men is going to do fine. My guess is that they will use the retro environment wisely, as a highlight for the humanity of their characters instead of making it the point of the show. This show I can recommend you catch up on. (AMC seems to be running it about 8 times a day so it should be easy to catch.)

Lastly, under the heading of Man Does Not Live By Great Drama Alone, we have the USA Network that has been cranking our enjoyable, wispy police procedurals. These are based on wholly contrived situations and plots built around shallow, but eminently likeable, characters. The writers often have their tongues wedged firmly in their cheeks; they know how silly what they are doing is, and they don't pretend otherwise. This started with Monk and continued with Psych. The latest is Burn Notice which strikes me as potentially the new Magnum P.I. in the same way Monk is the new Columbo.

I wouldn't go out of my way to watch these, but if they are on and I'm vegging, I'll happily tune in for the distraction. That is not a backhanded compliment; these shows are excellent examples of their genre. I suspect they will all have a long and happy life in syndication for decades to come.
Flick Notes: Accidentally, I found myself having a little impromptu Mafia-fest due to some coincidental scheduling on the 937 movie channels I have on Comcast Digital. It offered some interesting contrasts so...

The first was The Godfather Saga, a recut of Godfather 1 and 2 into chronological order - the Boy Vito flashbacks comes first, followed by the remainder of Godfather 2, followed by the entirety of Godfather 1. In and of itself, that's no big deal, but they also add back a sizeable amount of footage that was cut from the originals, making them more of a "Director's Cut." The GFs are one of the few instances where re-adding cut sequences really makes for a better movie. In this case, the motivations of Fredo and Tom and much clearer, and a good bit of the new material fills in some blanks. I have always been of the opinion that, while undeniably great filmmaking, the Godfather movies are overrated by public opinion. The added footage makes me feel somewhat less strongly about that.

Ironically, I am of the belief that Godfather 3 is underrated. It is not the ham-fisted disaster it is often described as. There are some very effective scenes, and Pacino is vastly superior compared to his wooden portrayal of the young Michael C. It contains my single favorite scene in all three movies: Connie Corleone (Micheal's sister) convinces Michael he needs to do something drastic. Michael agrees and starts to walk away. She calls to him and says (homaging their father), "Now they will fear you." Michael replies ironically, "Maybe they should fear you." It perfectly sums up the change in Michael, and the world, since the end of the second movie.

Mean Streets might rightly be thought of as the launch pad of DeNiro and Scorcese. I had never seen it in its entirety before and whereas so many people herald it as a work of authentic genius, I'm not so sure (no surprise there, right?). Though, no one could fail to see the immeasurable potential of both DeNiro and Scorcese, the film also lacks polish and professionalism. It is all raw emotion, searing energy, and explosive talent -- it is, simply put, a movie possessed by its passion as opposed to the reverse.

In nearly perfect contrast to Godfathers, there is no idealizing anything. You have a two-bit thug (Harvey Keitel) hovering on the verge of entering the lowest echelon's on the proper mob. He maintains an unwarranted loyalty to another two-bit hood who lives entirely by impulse (DeNiro) and is obviously going to drive things to an ultimately violent end. No doubt it is an entirely realistic portrayal of folks living on the outskirts of organized crime. DeNiro is utterly riveting in his portrayal of a borderline sociopath whose friendship with the other hood is all that's keeping him alive and tethered to reality.

I recall seeing a TV interview with a guy who was once part of the FBI's organized crime unit. It seems that once a year he and his colleagues would get together for a movie night. They would vote on which movie to watch each year and virtually every year it was Mean Streets. In fact, he said there was only on year where something else was selected and that was Goodfellas. This was intended to highlight the realism of Mean Streets in the eyes of the guys who would know. Fair enough, but Mean Streets isn't anywhere near the movie Goodfellas is, which came about after Scorcese had mastered the craft and had upgraded from Harvey Keitel to Joe Pesci.

Lastly, I stumbled on Analyze This, a pointless but really quite funny movie where DeNiro got to parody himself. I laughed a lot. I bet DeNiro had a lot of fun with it. The in-jokes for mob movie watchers were fun. But it was also sad in a way because it was the final nail in the coffin of DeNiro as the paradigmatic mafia tough guy. Not surprisingly it arrived in the same time frame as The Sopranos, which was the last word in mob drama.

DeNiro has descended into shlock, or at least into throwaway farces. That's fair. He's put out a wonderful body of work and he deserves the right to coast a bit. Pacino isn't burning up the screen anymore, although he still does an interesting role now and then. He was excellent as Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. Scorcese has been uneven in the past few years. I loved The Aviator, but Gangs of New York wasn't terribly good. I've heard mixed things about The Departed. Interestingly 1999's Bringing Out the Dead came and went so fast I don't even recall hearing of it, never mind seeing it. I suspect Scorcese still has his chops. He has three known projects that sound reasonably vital (a documentary on the Rolling Stones, a film about 17th century Jesuits who traveled to Japan, and a project concerning Teddy Roosevelt). But, there is also a rumor about a project he has with DeNiro about a retired hit man lured back by his old Don. I hope it's just a rumor. Mob flicks are dead. They were whacked by David Chase. Time to let 'em go.
The Green, Green Grass of Home: While I was trolling around Up North it occurred to me how nice it would be to live amidst all that outdoor goodness. Then I remembered, I already do, sort of. Early in the month I took and afternoon to stroll through Nichols Arboretum, a large wooded commons down by campus. It's no slouch when it comes to beauty and it's just about 20 minutes down the road from Dexter. People who have never been beyond the Detroit area simply cannot imagine how green and lush Michigan is (in the summer).

The standard green
More greenness
Even more greenness - zoom in real close you can see folks playing Frisbee. Gives you a good idea of the size of the place.
Take a seat. Enjoy the view - it's green.
Stairway into the dark unknown woods
Bridge over the river - the Arb is bounded by the Huron River. I include this pic because many, many years ago, I lived in that building on the other side of the river.
Apparently there is no kissing in the Arb - I hop the folks in that row boat under the railway bridge realize that.
Rocks looking like a Zen garden in the water - and single-word graffiti on the bridge. Is that a message.
Can you canoe?
Another river view - if I was better with Photoshop I would make this look like an impressionist painting.
This St. Bernard has the right idea

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Month That Was - June 2007: I'm busily struggling to finish up the repositioning of Business As Usual with its new publisher, which has been an adventure (of a sort) that I may recall here once it's over.

Also, I am wrestling with a particularly insidious, frustrating and painful bout of tendonitis. Any suggested cures are welcome, however bizarre.

Harrisburg Hell
Chicago Heaven
Last Word on The Sopranos
John from Cincy Begins
Summer Photo Slop
How may we disserve you?: I had to get to Harrisburg, PA for work. That meant a foray into the organized asshattery that is the air travel industry. The itinerary was: Detroit to Harrisburg via Dulles in DC, a night at the Crowne Plaza, and then reverse the trip the following day.

Just during the first leg, Detroit to Dulles, we were treated to:
• 20 minute delay for a mechanical repair in Detroit
• 10 minute delay at the gate to wait for paperwork on the mechanical repair
• 15 minute delay on the tarmac in Detroit because the air corridor to Dulles was too busy
• 10 minute delay waiting in Dulles for another plane to vacate our gate
• 15 minute travel time to the connecting flight because Dulles has a midfield terminal so you must take a shuttle to other terminals

All this added up to a missed connection. That meant a trip to the customer service desk where approximately 40 people were waiting for one of two customer service clerks, although for some reason every customer was treated as a team effort so there wass really only one clerk for everybody. Didn't matter if you needed a quick seat assignment on a later flight (like me) or you were trying to reschedule a multi-day itinerary and you wanted to debate the cost of every possible route and discuss it with your spouse for an extended amount of time before you made any decision (the people in front of me). Everybody got to wait for the same team of clerks.

What's worse, United's 800-number for reservations was hosed -- it kept cycling me back to the same voice response system -- so there was no alternative.

It is annoying and disheartening to miss your flight, but then to have to stand in line completely uncertain of your future and worry whether you were missing another flight while you were in line, or wonder whether you might as well just head to a hotel for the evening, or be terrified of losing your place in line even though your bladder is bursting -- that is strictly third-world level service. Shame on United Airlines in Dulles.

I was one of the lucky ones. I was able to get on the line to my corporate American Express travel agent, and although she couldn't perform all the magic paperwork, she was able to reserve a seat for me on the next Harrisburg flight. I just had to complete my wait in line to get my boarding pass, but at least I had a (relatively) certain future.

Still, I was facing sitting around the airport for 4 hours until the next flight, but luckily, Kate and Anna saved the day. They managed to break away to make it out to the airport and we got to share a quick dinner at the airport Marriott which, incidentally, turned out to be where Miss Anna's upcoming prom was to be held. It's a nice enough hotel (a standard-issue Marriott), but Anna deemed it to be too "ghetto" for a prom.

Back to Dulles for the short jump to Harrisburg. The plane appeared to be a reworked Greyhound bus from the '70s with wings welded to either side. I was in the very last row, my chin resting on my knees, and I had a rather too intimate aural relationship with anyone using the lavatory across from me. Then, we sat for a while at the gate because someone had parked a plane behind us and we couldn't pull out. I am not making that up. Our pilots wanted to pull away and fly but they had been parked in. It took at least 35 minutes to find the keys and move the blocking plane. Thirty-five minutes sitting at the gate for a twenty-two minute flight. The Dulles airport authorities are consummately incompetent. Between the design of that airport and people who run it, we'd all be better off if it was burnt to the ground. (Note to TSA monitors: That last sentence was hyperbole. I am not intending to, nor do I advocate, setting Dulles airport ablaze. Please do not strip search me next time through.)

Also, for some reason, the pilots we unable to turn the engines on so we could have air conditioning. It got seriously hot sitting at the gate -- not that the outside temp was that high, but it was a humid evening and this very cramped plane was absolutely packed. I was damp with sweat. The fat guy next to me was sweating profusely and popping some kind of serious looking pill.

Now, this was a United Express flight operated by Mesa Airlines. Mesa Airlines is the regional operator that farms itself out to United and USAir and America West and so forth. This is the second time I have spent an extended period sitting at the gate in sweltering heat with no a/c on a Mesa airlines flight. (The previous time was a few years ago in Phoenix.) If the pilots are forbidden to turn on the engines, thus providing a/c, because they don't want to waste fuel, Mesa should be sued out of existence immediately. If they are forbidden by airport or FAA policy, they should let people deplane back into the air-conditioned terminal until they get it sorted out.

If your reservation ever says United (or USAir, or America West) Express operated by Mesa Airlines, you are in for Hell -- be forewarned. Bluntly stated: I absolutely loathe Mesa Airlines.

Bottom line on getting to Harrisburg: 3.5 hours of planned travel became 9 hours. It would have been a 7-hour drive.

Oh, and when I arrived, the wireless in the Crowne Plaza was not working. Perfect.

The next day, I had planned to be in seminars and conference meetings until 5 and so had set up my flight out for 7:20pm. To my surprise, my duties were over by Noon. No problem, just get to the airport and get on standby for an earlier flight. I shamelessly copped a free ride on the Hilton airport shuttle even though I wasn't staying there. (The Hilton is right next door to the Crowne Plaza.)

Well, at the airport my first standby option had just closed the doors. It wouldn't have mattered anyway because a) it was overbooked to begin with and more importantly b) I had left my portfolio on the shuttle. Brilliant.

In my portfolio were my boarding passes, which were no problem because it's trivial to reprint them; my meeting notes, also no problem because I had already transcribed them into a Word doc; and a copy of my latest manuscript of Misspent Youth with scribbled edits over the first eight or so chapters. The manuscript itself was not a problem because it is ALWAYS backed up in a couple different places, but the scribbled edits, some extensive, were irreplaceable. After a couple of desperate phone calls to make sure the driver didn't throw it away, I was back in a cab heading back to the Hilton to retrieve it. Lucky I saved all that money by scamming an early ride to the airport, eh? At this point I didn't dare ask if things could get any worse.

The folks at the Hilton found and saved my notebook, and even tried to get it drive it back to me at the airport but we crossed paths. Excellent work from the Hilton. I'd feel guilty for scamming a free ride on their shuttle if I wasn't a regular at Hiltons for many years. Since I am screaming and yelling about some horrible service in this rant, it's only right to give equal time to the good experiences. Hilton has come through for me a number of times in my travel life; that's why I keep piling up Hilton Honors points. They are like the Toyota of hotels, nothing flashy but dead reliable.

Similarly, back at the Harrisburg airport, the United guys at the ticket counter got me re-routed on an earlier flight through O'Hare to cut a couple of hours off my travel time, and not only that, at the gate they changed my assigned coach-class middle seat to an Economy Plus (more legroom!) aisle seat. No charge. Those guys rule. A hundred and eighty degrees different from United in Dulles. Small airports rock.

But then things went quickly back to normal: about a fifteen minutes delay getting out of O'Hare to Detroit. At my arrival in Detroit I hopped a shuttle to the parking lot. The previous day I was happy when I assigned a parking space that was so close to the exit gate. Usually that means you will be the first one off the shuttle. But for some reason, the driver decided to start dropping folks at the far end first. I was dead last to get off. Then, coming home on I-94 I was stopped dead by night construction. It was knife twist upon knife twist.

Once again, what should have been a quick air trip took me as long as it would have to drive -- except in the car I could have stopped whenever, not worried about having my little bottle of mouthwash in a baggie, not been scrounging for elbow room on the plastic seats in the terminal, and been soothed by Sirius the whole way. How many hours wasted? I am too old to be wasting any of the time I have left on Earth. Probably the most infuriating and annoying bit of travel I have ever had. Ugh.
My Kind of Town: Most people identify with a certain big city. Generally, it's the big city nearest your home. You use it as shorthand to say where you are from when you are from a town nobody outside your circle could place. Often you maintain a loyalty to the sports teams and familiarity with the local geography. For me it is Detroit, but I don't want it to be Detroit anymore. Detroit is pathetic. I want it to be Chicago. (I suppose, technically, it could be Ann Arbor, since Ann Arbor is reasonably widely known. But Ann Arbor is hardly a big city.)

Problem is, I can't really justify it. Chicago is within driving distance, but it's four times further than Detroit. My only history with Chicago is a few long weekends, as opposed to being born and raised in or near Detroit. If someone asked me where Dexter, MI was I could say "Oh, about four hours east of Chicago," but that's way too contrived. I could wear a Cubs cap and prattle on about Da Bears, but there's nothing worse than manufactured team loyalty. No sir. I can't do it, and that saddens me.

Still, at least I could consol myself with a spur of the moment weekend in Chi-town. One of my faves, The Fairmont, was running a special via Expedia. Amtrak tickets were available. (I even got business class on the way back.) And most importantly, I looked at my Outlook calendar and I saw no free days for weeks, except for the upcoming Friday; it was perhaps my last chance for spontaneous travel. Plans were laid and triggers were pulled.

As I have almost certainly mentioned before, when it makes sense time-wise, Amtrak is vastly superior to air travel, and I don't just say that because of the metaphorical impaling I took at the hands of the airline industry trying to get to and from Harrisburg (above).

You can arrive five minutes before the train leaves if you want to cut it that close. No one will check your bag for hidden 4oz liquids, ask you to take off your shoes, require picture ID; for that matter, they don't even check to see if you have a ticket until the train is underway. Even the tightest coach seat on the train has plenty of legroom. There are no seat belts; you can get up anytime you want, even during takeoff. There is no turning off of unapproved electronic devices. In fact, there are a/c plugs in next to the seats for recharging your phone or hooking up your laptop. The lavatories are about four times the size of those in a plane and there are two in each car. No one is blocking the aisle with a beverage cart -- there is a caf‚ car with lots of food and drink choices and it even has it's own seating so it doesn't feel like eating at the drive-thru.

The only thing they need to do to make it perfect is have assigned seats. That and speed up the trains so I could take it even when my destination was far off. If we had a lattice of high-speed train lines, say 200-300 mph, I would be done with the airline industry for good.

Oh, and have Hooter's girls as conductors. That too.

You arrive at Union Station in Chicago, which is utter bedlam. (By the way, why is it that virtually all big city train stations are either "Union Station" or "Penn Station"? Is there a reason for this apart from total lack of imagination?) From there it's about a $10 cab ride to your hotel, as opposed to a $50 ride from O'Hare.

My hotel, the Fairmont, is not the most luxurious hotel in the city, nor is it the trendiest. But I have settled on it for a few reasons. First, as always, excellent service. Second, location: in this case that means a shot at an excellent view of either the waterfront or the cityscape, but more importantly, you are on the north edge of The Loop giving you ready foot access to virtually anywhere in the downtown area you'd want to go. Millennium Park is just around the corner, the Art Institute is a block or so further. It's twenty minutes to the River North area or all the way up the Magnificent Mile. Lastly, for the workout junkie, the Fairmont is attached to the Lakeshore Athletic Club which is one of the finest health clubs I have ever been in, and I've been in a few, plus it's free if you are a member of Fairmont's President Club which, in itself, is free to join. The Fairmont Chicago makes me happy.

View from my room at the Fairmont (342K)

One unusual aspect of this trip was the bad food. After my mid-afternoon check-in I was hungry for lunch so a slid a few blocks over to Ada's, a place I remembered as being a top notch Jewish deli. (I once had to watch the season final of The Sopranos there because my hotel at the time did not have HBO.) Let's just say it did not measure up to my memory this time. I recall delicious potato-pancake style bread and nicely stacked meats. This time I got unfresh corned beef on what must have been store-bought rye. I was also a bit queasy the rest of night for which the sandwich may or may not have been at fault.

The other disappointment was Lou Malnati's. I wanted some real Chicago style deep dish and was wondering what the current sentiment was for the top joint. A friend of mine insisted Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. was not to be beat, but that was a cab ride away and too much trouble.'s editor's choice was Lou Malnati's which is in River North. So at lunchtime on a rainy Saturday I trolled on over and snagged a seat at the bar. The verdict: good stuff, but really no better than your basic Uno's or Giordano's. I guess it's wrong to call it a bad food experience. It was ace Chicago Dish, and that is always good, but it was disappointing in that I was hoping for something special. Kick-ass spinach bread, however.

By the way, although it may be heresy not to pick a Chicago or New York joint for the top slot, the very best pizza I have ever had was at Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle, Washington D.C. It's not deep, but they use the same fresh ingredients and semi-sweet tangy sauce that the better Chicago joints use, except they don't drown it in molten mozzarella. They use feta with a light touch. As good as it gets. But I digress.

About Millennium Park: The City of Chicago really nailed this one cold. Of the unending number of urban renewal and upgrading projects that go on around the country most are boondoggles and white elephants. Most city administrations are so unimaginative, out-of-touch, and downright corrupt that these things become laughable slapstick before ground is broken. Millennium Park, in contrast, is a triumph.

Firstly, there is an open air amphitheatre designed by Frank Gehry. It is a substantial and strikingly contemporary piece of sculpture in and of itself, looking like an unfolding aluminum cloud. Emerging from it is a lattice of metal tubes that extend out over the lawn and somehow seem to amplify the skyline. Just a very cool place to be.

The amphitheatre and lattice (280K)
The Chicago skyline through the lattice (329K)

During my visit they were running free concerts (classical mostly) under the guise of the Grant Park Music Festival. (Why the Grant Park Music Festival is held in Millennium Park as opposed to Grant Park, I don't know.) People were picnicking and bottles of wine were in evidence all across the lawn as folks reclined lazily and enjoyed the music. I plopped myself down and joined them briefly. I was not enamored with the music that night -- I think it was an orchestra from Mexico City, there in honor of Mexico/USA gold cup soccer final being played down the road at Soldier Field. They were obviously very talented, just not to my taste. But I was quite happy to chill there in the cool green grass.

Equally sweet are the other dramatic sculptures. At the forefront of the park stands what is affectionately referred to as The Bean: a large metallic, well...bean -- an oversized elliptical shape made of highly reflective stainless steel. Like the lattice over the lawn in front of the amphitheater, it offers and altered perspective of the city's skyline in reflection. Nifty.

The Chicago skyline in the Bean (231K)
Self-portrait in the Bean (226K)

Then there are the two brick monoliths. But they are not monoliths, they are fountains and video screens. That is to say the inside facing monolith walls are filled with LEDs of some sort that project the video image of a face. It's difficult to describe, but exceedingly clever. The wall displays the face of a seemingly average person, one suspects it could have been one of the locals picked up off the street, just subtly changing expression until at one point, the image's lips are pursed and water spews out of its "mouth". Very fun. Kids love it and scurry around in the water. Again, it seems perfectly integrated with the city itself, spraying water to counteract the sweltering city heat while displaying the faces of the perfectly average folks who look like the same sort of people walking by at any given moment.

Face in the Monolith (431K)
Spitting Monolith (424K)

In addition to the sculptures, there is a decent open air restaurant/bar which is always crowded and seems like a happening hangout. There's a lot more too; you could probably spend an entire day exploring Millennium Park at a leisurely pace. It has instantly moved into the upper echelon of my favorite places list.

Just to the immediate south of Millennium Park is another of my favorite places: the Art Institute. I suspect I have written about it before, but if I haven't let's just say it remains one of the best and brightest lights of the museum world, comparable to anything NYC has to offer and a perfect place to spend a couple of hours, which I did.

And while we are on the topic of recommended cultural activities, I give top recommendation for the architecture boat tours that are run by the CAF (Chicago Architecture Foundation). You can really get a sense of the sort of thought and creativity that has gone into much of Chicago's development. There's a contrast for you: the "hog butcher to the world" turns out to be long time hotbed of artistic enterprise. It's very easy to see the skyline as just another city skyline, but this tour does a good job of highlighting the decision making process that went into a number of the buildings and how it was balanced with aesthetics. (Interesting note: the doyen's suggestion that the famed Chicago fire that destroyed much of the city actually provided a hidden blessing in that it let them rebuild from a clean slate. Would that contemporary New Orleans took the same attitude.)

A number of tour operators run architecture tours up the Chicago River, but to be on the safe side, I would stick with the ones run by the CAF.

A beautiful city on an ugly day (504K)
Bridge abutments near the Wrigley Building (443K)
The Sears building soars into the clouds (483K)
It's lonely at the top (311K)
Condos for sardines (479K)

There was also a touch of the absurd in store for me. The morning before I left, I headed down to Navy Pier and happened on to a speedboat tour of the lake on a boat called the Sea Dog. I was hoping for a roller-coasterish ride along the Lake Michigan shore, but it was disappointingly gentle. It got even more gentle when the motor overheated and we found ourselves adrift. The crew handled the situation with aplomb, as if they had dealt with it a hundred times before (hmmm...). Another Sea Dog speedboat was called on to tow us in. So onlookers were treated to the sight of two ultra high performance watercraft limping back into port at a snail's pace.

Just another day at Navy Pier (390K)
The garden at Navy Pier (421K)

The entire trip was a mixed bag of fun and disappointment. After most such trips, I would be left feeling lukewarm or mildly frustrated. But somehow, Chicago makes me feel like it was great. I sure wish it was my city.