Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Month That Was - November 2008

The Month That Was - November 2008: Little to say except that I continue to cross days off the calendar with no obvious end in sight. This droning on gets worse when the weather gets cold, and frankly, I think we are in for a blistering cold winter this year. I've seriously considered taking up cross-country skiing this year, if we get enough snow -- just to get out and stay fit.

All this is compounded by the fact that each year for the past three my company has reduced the amount of vacation time you can carry over from year to year. This year we are down to carrying a single week -- 40 hours -- which means that if I decide to make a January or February run for the sun I will have to be extra judicious in my plans for the remainder of the year. Long gone are the days when I would have five or six weeks banked and be able to head off into the wild as the feeling moved me.

Not that it will stop me. I will weasel whatever I need to get out of town -- leverage floating holidays, get "sick" at the right time, and so forth. But the travel time security blanket is gone.

I should mention that as I write this I am winging my way towards Vegas and points west for my traditional Thanksgiving trip. That write up will have to wait until next month. This month you get my Florida trip report, including pictures posted on my new Smugmug account (hooray!), which is like Flickr only classier. I'll work on getting some of my old stuff up there too. It's much easier to look at the galleries than clicking links through individually. Plus it gives me chance to tag them and for complete strangers to find them and point and laugh.

Remembering the Forgotten Coast
Inside the Glove
Pale Fire
Flick Notes
All Things Must Pass

Remembering the Forgotten Coast

Remembering the Forgotten Coast: An extra, extra long weekend gave me the opportunity to head down to Sarasota again, for a quick visit with family, then off to explore more of Florida. I should have the State just about covered by the time I die. This trip I was to head up into the Panhandle -- commonly known as the Redneck Riviera. Photos are on Smugmug.

An el cheapo flight from AirTran got me into Tampa (apropos of nothing, it was one of the final domestic flights that did not charge for checked baggage, which is a rant I have already howled), and to the Hertz check in desk where they didn't have the car I requested. I wanted a mid-sized car with Sirius since I was going to be on the road for a good bit of time. As expected they offered me an upgrade, but not to a full sized car. They offered me a Mustang GT, which counts as an upgrade even though it is stiflingly cramped because, presumably, it is really fast and tasteless bimbos will think you are a player. I really had no interest but the next grade up was a Ford Edge, which would have been fine, but they wouldn't give me that upgrade for free. So if I wanted Sirius, I had to take the cherry red Ford Mustang GT or pay more than I had intended. I took the Mustang and put Hertz on my ever growing list of bastards.

I will say this for the Mustang, it steers very precisely and it is exceedingly quick. The power would have been lost on me but the first time I pulled out on a two lane road to pass a semi and hit the accelerator -- whoa Nellie! You could get whiplash on that downshift.

Anyway, Sarasota remains Sarasota. It is a strikingly beautiful city. And the sun is always shining. And the trip across the bridge to the Longboat Key is worth the price of the trip. The other thing about Sarasota is that there is a ton of stuff to do there. I've spent a huge amount of time there over the years and I still find new experiences. This time it was Mote Aquarium. A great place to spend a couple of hours with the embalmed giant squid, the shark tank, the pool where you can pet the rays, the hands-on crustacean exhibit, educational movies, boat tours into the bay, even the old-time ice cream parlor on the premises. Manned by a volunteer staff (mostly retirees), it's the sort of place Sarasota specializes in: low-key but top quality attractions that don't claim to be anything more than they are.

Family visit over, I aimed the Mustang toward the Forgotten Coast. Generally when one thinks of the Florida Panhandle, one thinks of the spring break madness at Panama City and the massive condo and resort development over into Destin and Pensacola. But the coast between Tampa and Panama City, which is essentially the hard left turn where you shift from peninsular Florida in to the Panhandle proper, remains largely underdeveloped. Traffic arteries move north from Tampa inland to Tallahassee and west towards Gainesville then down into Panama City, bypassing the easternmost panhandle for the most part. As a result the coastal towns in that area have taken to referring to themselves as the Forgotten Coast, which from east to west, includes the towns of Eastpoint, Apalachicola, Port St. Joe, and Mexico City Beach.

Two quick observations about this being the Redneck Riviera: A) It is. B) But it's not what you think.

There are a decreasing number of uniform places in this country. Despite a political class that likes to paint counties and even entire states in red or blue, I doubt you find a state that is more the 55% or so one way or the other. That means if you took a random sample of ten people from the most partisan state you could find you would still only likely get six people who conformed. At the county level maybe you'd get seven once in while. Which is to say you rarely go anywhere in the country and get overwhelmed with the prevailing socio-political sentiment. This being a couple of days before elections, it was pretty clear that the place was majorly McCainiacs, but there were still a healthy number of O-bots to balance them.

The other thing is that these places, like everywhere else you go, are gentrifying. Apalachicola was my first stop, and the social changes of the last decade or so are written all over it. From time immemorial, it had been a fishing village populated with back-slapping bubbas, now suddenly there is a stylish Cuban restaurant on main street and a Starbucks knock off -- which by the way happened to have the very best breakfast sandwich ever; unbelievably fresh and flaky croissants -- where the bubbas now backslap over $4 lattes. Those picture perfect old houses in the historic district are now trophy homes for wealthy northerners with fishing boats. But they all seem to be doing OK with it, from what I could tell. Everyone I happened to make eye contact with was delighted to start up a conversation about anything and everything, usually ending up with a suggestion about what a good place it was to live. Smarmy, small-minded northerners would probably freak-out at the good ol' boy drawl and neighborly familiarity and sneer at the simple rubes, but I sure saw nothing but a lot of decent, freindly folks living lives that urban elites fanaticize about -- which is why they are down here overpaying for all those historic fixer-uppers and opening upscale coffee bars and boutiques.

The big to-do in Apalachicola was the Florida Seafood Festival, a celebration of, well, seafood. Thousands come in to the little town from far and wide. A carnival is set up. Oysters are shucked and beers are poured on every corner. The day starts off at sunrise with the Red Fish Run, a friendly foot race of 5k through the historic district with a whopping 60 or 70 participants, including Yours Truly. What comes next is a lengthy, joyous parade featuring all the usual suspects -- community groups, high school bands and beauty queens, car dealers and politicians, Shriners in their little cars and pirates on their boat floats, all flinging candy to children along the way. When the sun warms up, the gates are open on the festival proper where any local restaurant worth its salt has a food booth set up; there are carnival rides, crab races, oyster eating contests, and live entertainment featuring both Country and Western music. It's generally well done, and everybody seems to have a good time. But I must say this: The folks in the panhandle no doubt are expert fishermen, but they have no clue how to cook what they catch. It is all battered and sauced and spiced beyond recognition. It's as if they took some beautiful fresh catch and made very attempt to make it taste like chicken fried steak.

My big discovery of the Seafood Festival was the music of Jim Morris -- basically a Jimmy Buffett disciple who plays around Florida. He wasn't actually there, there were just playing a collection of his called, appropriately, Seafood Platter over the loudspeakers. It's now on my Amazon wish list.

I wasn't actually staying in Apalachicola, though. The hotels were all booked up for the festival. I was staying further west in Port St. Joe, home of the renown St. Joseph State Park, which the renown Dr. Beach named best beach in the U.S., back in 2002. If you peruse that site a bit, you'll note that the good Dr. has a predilection for Gulf beaches -- not that I disagree, the beach further south in Naples is my benchmark, but I can attest to the total serene beauty of the beach at St. Joseph State Park. Although you would be unlikely to find it as deserted as I did, the fact that it is in a State park, that facilities are sparse and basic, that there is nothing commercial (especially beach bars or t-shirt huts) for miles, and that lodging is limited to campgrounds and rustic cabins, generally means you won't find you big beach partiers here. I think crossed paths with exactly one couple, and everyone else I saw was pretty much a speck in the distance. Nor will you find any discarded cans or bottles or Big Mac wrappers and such. Which is good because anything that would mar the quality of this beach, with its talcum power sand and wholly organic feel, would be criminal.

My final evening I made the hour drive to Panama City Beach just to see what all the fuss was. Panama City is where all the Deep South types go on spring break, so naturally the beach road was lined with bars and crap shops and liquor stores and tacky motels. I pulled into a monster sports bar to catch some of the Sunday games, and actually got a decent muffaletta, but at half-time I decided to duck out and head back to a dockside restaurant at the Port St. Joe Marina because I really wanted to spend my last evening in the open air rather than inhaling the moldy beer smell endemic to virtually every sports bar in existence.

I should have stayed. I snagged a seat at the bar at the marina only to find that they had such a completely basic cable TV package that they didn't even get the broadcast channels, so I couldn't see the Fins game. Then I ordered a beer and it turns out that the city of Port St. Joe is dry on Sunday. Great. So I got a game I didn't want to see and a Diet Coke. Whatever the case, I still got the sunset as the pictures attest.

Drive back was ugly -- I held to the secondary coast roads instead of the freeway. After the turn south into the pneninnsula things go full-on suburban fast and don't stop; an endless row of Home Depots, WalMarts, Targets, Best Buys, Publix, Applebees, Chilis -- for over a hundred miles (literally) (no literally literally). At Clearwater you can turn off down the bay road, but even there the shore is hidden by huge resorts. St. Pete/Clearwater has some very nice aspects and the beaches are stellar, but the bits and pieces of beauty seem rather swamped by concrete. It seems a million miles from sweet Apalachicola.

Here's hoping the Forgotten Coast stays that way.

Inside the Glove

Inside the Glove: Things are getting dicey here in The Mitten. Actually, things have been dicey for quite a while. Now they are looking apocalyptic. Michigan, wracked with a contracting economy for years, now gets to feel the full force of the national recession as transmitted through the auto industry. An enormous number of jobs in Michigan are linked to cars and the ramifications of GM/Chrysler/Ford going belly up are huge. For the City of Detroit proper, it might be the end of the world.

That's not necessarily an argument for a bailout, though. If I were a narrow-minded political animal I would argue there is no option whatsoever and the loss of the U.S. auto industry would be dire for the nation. The fact that I have many, many friends facing real income consequences from this, and the ancillary affect it will have on everyone in these parts, means that I should feel that way. And I do, superficially. But, sadly, I have inflicted upon myself the habit of trying to see the big picture.

The number being tossed around is $34,000,000,000.00. Lots of zeros, there. Now let's say you're sitting in Ft. Lauderdale or Tucson or Eugene or Burlington. If the car oligopoly destructs, you're not going to see your friends trickle away in search of employment or see local strip malls abandoned. You probably drive a Toyota anyway. Why should you give those clowns shivering away in the Michigan winter any of your money, even if they call it a "loan" or a "bailout"? Didn't they get themselves in this predicament to begin with? Well, if that's how you feel, then were screwed (perhaps justly).

But suppose you do want to help out, the question then becomes what is the smartest way to spend your 34 billion. The auto industry wants you to give it to them, but what are you actually trying to achieve? Is the goal to keep the auto industry alive, or is it to assist the desperate people associated with it. Those are two very different things. What is magical about the auto industry that having it around means more than having that much more of some other industry? In other words, why is it better to prop up the auto industry rather than use the money to expand a different sector (or sectors) of the economy as a way to employ the ex-auto people?

This is why there is all the hemming and hawing about the future plans of the big-but-diminishing three. There is no point in providing 34 billion to the auto companies if it is going to go down the toilet for the UAW monopoly and the incompetent corporate bureaucracy, just so we can keep uncompetitive businesses going so folks don't have to adapt. That's not a loan or a bailout. That's welfare. If you give us the 34 big ones and we squander it trying to avoid adaptation, then the joke's on you.

On the other hand, if you give out the 34 billion to get us resituated in industries that are healthy and growing, thereby providing us security an avoiding us coming to you with our hands out again, you can declare victory. Yes, that massive proportion of the labor force all looking for employment would be traumatic, but 34 billion could sure help that along, couldn't it? Nobody wants their life turned upside down in relocation and have to assimilate in a new working environment, but I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.

The point is, it's not a simple binary choice: give the Big Three the money or the let everyone fend for themselves. There are options. There are outside the box strategies that may be better and may or may not include letting GM/Chrysler/Ford live on as they were.

Then there's the question of whether it is really good for Michigan to get the bailout at all. If the auto meltdown brings the reality of Detroit to the broader state, are we really better off getting 34 billion? What are the chances that we would be asking for another few billion in debt forgiveness every few years -- not competing in the market anymore but at the public trough, just so we can hang on a little while longer? Meanwhile, our taxes would shoot through the roof because fixing the roads and paying for the lousy school system would fall on a smaller and smaller number of people. The raise-taxes/lose-population death spiral would speed up (this death spiral has been present in Detroit for years). What, exactly, is the endgame and how do we get there so we can start over? I don't know. Perhaps it would never happen. Perhaps we would become wards of the federal government, like the District of Columbia. Perhaps we would end up burning the abandoned homes for heat and eating roadkill venison all winter. It's nice to think we are going to find a way to turn things around, but as much as I love Michigan, I see no evidence that there is that kind of foresight and ambition among the political leaders or the electorate. Whatever the endgame is, we will have to reach it before anything really changes.

Why am I so negative? Because I know what a lost cause looks like. I have seen Detroit "rebuilding" for the last half-century with less than nothing to show for it. Imagine the millions or billions of dollars that have been poured into that city over the past fifty years, all wasted in the name of trying to save the unsavable. Are the folks who appear in the pages of Detroit Blog really better off for having been caught the endlessly-fraying safety net for decades, rather than having bitten the bullet and started a new life in, say, Raleigh NC, 20 years ago?

Of course, I live in a sort of bubble. Ann Arbor has the insulation of University as its tax base, and I work as a software development manager for a company that serves the private financial and regulatory sector, so I have a very safe job. The only debt I have is on my condo and considering I would probably pay more in rent than I do in monthly mortgage and property taxes, I am in no trouble. Even the latest investment meltdown didn't alter my lifestyle. Now, I have had hard financial times in my past and I know very well what it's like to be out of work, but maybe I am far enough removed from such pain that I don't have sympathy anymore.

Yet, I do hope the money comes here. For me, personally, yes, I want the 34 billion. I don't want my friends to feel pain or move away. I'd rather have the option of shopping at Whole Foods and Macy's instead of Kroger's and Wal*Mart. I don't want my property takes to double because sales tax revenue has disappeared. Give me the money, keep stringing me along. In twenty years or so, I'll just slide off to Sarasota, hike my polyester pants up under my armpits, and spend my time bitching about everything over my senior coffee at McDonald's.

But looking at the big picture, 34 billion might be less of a loan or even a gift, and more of a curse.

Postscript: The death spiral begins with things like instructing traffic cops to write more tickets as a source of revenue and leads to cops writing thousands of tickets for personal gain. This is the on-ramp for the road to ruin, and there are no exits in sight.

Pale Fire

Pale Fire: Wow. What kind of mind does it take to conceptualize such a work as Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov? And can I replace my current, run of the mill version with such a mind?

It goes something like this. In the introduction we meet the narrator, Charles Kinbote, a pompous, arrogant, academic ass who is in possession of the final work of a famous poet, John Shade, with whom the narrator maintained a friendship. This final poem was unfinished at the time of Shade's death, with 999 of 1000 lines being completed. Shade it seems was murdered in some manner that involves Kinbote.

The second section of the book consists of the poem itself; all 999 lines. It's a fine poem, autobiographical, that shows Shade to be an aged, introspective, soulful fellow. There are sections on mortality and loss, delivered through the heart-rending story of his daughter who was apparently born with some disfigurement and became a suicide, his love for his wife, and his struggles with the creative process. It is a quite a work in and of itself, outside the context of the novel, and I say this as someone who is not warm to poetry in general.

The third part of the book is where all the action occurs. We're back to Kinbote's voice in what is supposed to be a detailed analysis of the poem. Kinbote, who's friendship with Shade was strongest during the time Shade was writing the poem, was under the impression that Shade was writing about the storyline that he (Kinbote) was feeding him (Shade) -- specifically, the story of Kinbote's homeland of Zembla, a monarchy that had its royalty deposed by communists in a revolution. It was a story that was close to Kinbote's heart and his ego seems to have deluded him into thinking that the poet had an equal interest. The poet did not. So in his "analysis", Kinbote rarely actually discusses the poem and simply uses the verse as a platform from which to launch his own narrative describing the life of the King of Zembla, the crisis of the communist revolution the King's flight to safety, and the timeline of an assassin sent to find and kill the King.

Kinbote can be infuriating, as when he takes a heartfelt passage about the tragedy of Shade's daughter's suicide and simply goes off on his Zemblan story with casual cold-heartedness. On the other hand, the Zemblan story is itself fascinating and Kinbote, despite his unmitigated self-regard, is not entirely unsympathetic. In time one is left with the stories of two seemingly disparate characters who's desires for understanding life, loss, and longing are intertwined with their ultimate fates.

It's Nabokov, so you can expect florid, exquisitely constructed sentences. The structure of the book into the intro, poem and "analysis" is utterly flawless. A slow and thoughtful reading of is required. Although I am sure people who are steeped in the history of literature will find precedents, it strikes me a something totally original. So much so that my ultimate reaction is not so much to the book extant but what sort of brilliant imagination could bring it into being.

(By the way, if you are an X-files aficionado, knowing the genesis of the name Kinbote should bring a smile to your face.)

Flick Notes

Flick Notes: As usual, I see movies once they are well past their box office peak; often not until they hit cable. Here are some quickie reviews of what I've seen of recently.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - the story of the end of the James Gang and the murder of Jesse James, along with the story of what followed on for his killer Robert Ford. Kind of slow moving, it is standard, gritty western stuff but the sharp angle on Ford, and how he is compelled to kill James is interesting. More interesting still is what happens after. He starts out heralded as a heroic figure, and makes a decent income re-enacting the assassination on stage, but in time, popular opinion turns and he is labeled a coward and James is elevated as the hero. It gets so bad that he finds himself consistently shamed in public and is eventually gunned down himself, by a Jack Ruby-esque character. A good lesson for anyone who believes fickle public opinion and mawkish celebrity are contemporary developments. There is little new under the sun. Excellent acting all around, including Brad Pitt as James who is showing himself to be more and more of an exceptional actor. It's making me look forward to Benjamin Button.

I Am Legend - Will Smith is also a excellent actor with a terrific presence and the first half of the movie is fascinating as he makes his way through empty streets of Manhattan with only his dog for a companion, hunting deer and dodging zombies. When the plot moves from his survival to his rescue it descends into the sci-fi grist mill. Clever in parts, but ultimately forgettable.

Darjeeling Limited - Arch-typical Wes Anderson outing: three brothers, sullen, depressed, and eccentric, set out on a journey to sort out family issues. I admit to having a soft spot for his previous stuff - The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore, The Life Aquatic. They are quirky and indirect. They are loaded down with people staring into space or blankly gazing at the camera -- intended to be especially poignant. Characters intone so as to express meaning through often very bland dialogue. Maybe it's just the presence of Bill Murray in some of them, but I find it endearing in a soft-serve sort of way. But Darjeeling just didn't do it for me. I never really cared what these people were struggling with. In fact I was never entirely clear on it. Maybe it was the noticeable lack of Bill Murray.

No Country For Old Men - I get the feeling I should have liked this. The whole idea of the existential force of brutal chance cutting through a world of people trying to make decisions as if they were really in control of their lives, seems like something that would appeal to me. But it just struck me as inhuman and, frankly, a little academic. Yes, perhaps we just have the illusion of control while merciless random forces effect all our lives, often thwarting us or killing us. No Country tells us that by clubbing us over the head with it, but we already knew it. Art is telling me something new about it, not just yelling it louder.

Ironman - This was fun. Well crafted superhero fare, moved along especially well by Robert Downey Jr.'s ironic mastery. Some of his exchanges with Jeff Daniels had to be heavily improvised because they were clearly having a good time with them. As good as you will while watching it.

The Dark Knight - You have to at least give this movie splitsies with the first Spiderman on the best superhero movie ever. To me this one gets the nod for having the more operatic ending, where only a few understand how much the hero has sacrificed or that he is a hero at all, for that matter. He doesn't get cheers. He doesn't get the girl. He gets the short end of the stick and has to be content with having done the right thing. Another example of the malleability, power, and necessity of myth, kind of like The Assassination of Jesse James above. The praise for Heath Ledger was well earned, not just sympathetic. I am semi-hoping they make no sequel and just leave it sit where it is. Not bloody likely.

All Things Must Pass

All Things Must Pass: This list of "timeline twins" from identifies edgy cultural artifacts that you may have experience to when they first came out and finds comparable oldies to the current day. The one that got me: listening to Never Mind the Bollocks by the Sex Pistols (1977) today would be the equivalent of having listened to some old Doris Day or Perry Como in back 1977. Whoa.

It is yet further evidence the time from, say, 1955 to 1980 was a time of accelerated change. The difference between Johnny Rotten and Doris Day is vastly greater than the difference between, say, Jack White and Johnny Rotten. (Although when it comes right down to it, the difference between Johnny Rotten and Doris Day is greater than the difference between Jack White and Doris Day.)

Meanwhile, a friend of mine made the observation that her three year old daughter will never know a world where you cannot stop TV whenever you want. We are raising a generation of children with no bladder control.

But if you really want an artifact from the past, remember Battle of the Network Stars? Arguably it was the predecessor to shows like Surreal Life and Biggest Celebrity Loser. Check out the video of Gabe Kaplan smoking Robert Conrad in a 100-yard race. I remember seeing this first run and being blown away that Mr. Kotter was actually faster the James West. How could that be? I don't know if this is proof that the world is getting better or worse. It is proof that I'm getting old. As if I needed it.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Month That Was - October 2008

The Month That Was - October 2008: As I write this I am in the brand new “North Terminal” at Detroit Metro Airport, on the way to a family visit in Florida, with a hopefully interesting side trip that I will hopefully write about next month. The other eventful occurrence this month was the death of my friend Kate’s mom (and Miss Anna’s grandmother). I was lucky enough to be able to help out in a small way and the family handled the whole situation with grace and good humor, which was exactly what anyone who knows them would expect. It did leave me with some interesting feelings about the assorted rituals we perform to honor our dead, but it’s too soon for that.

Michigan is turning that brownish gray color that will be with us all through the winter. There is a malevolent sickness going around that apparently starts with a hellacious sore throat, followed by nausea and lassitude. So the Primordial Evil that is wintertime begins. I have found that assiduously washing my hands and frequent gargling are the best way to stay healthy -- gosh, just like Mom would tell you when you were a kid. I went all last season without being sick and I hope to do it again -- pretty big accomplishment for me, who spends regular time in writ large petri dishes such as airplanes and gyms. Healthy or no, the only cure for that brownish gray color is travel.

Lastly, some site notes. First, I signed up as an Amazon affiliate, so I will begin adding direct Amazon links to the various stuff I talk about -- look to your immediate left. Click through and buy from those links and I get a tiny fraction the sale. (You’ll notice also that links my novels are now directed at Amazon, instead of those preview pages I used to have.) I also removed all the old criticism I still had over to the left. I haven’t written much purposeful criticism in a while as I've been thinking I should spend more time on creation, and what was there was getting old anyway.

Emotional About Baggage
Southwest Passage
Swinging Empress
Men Going Mad
Mapping Reality
Reduction in Ugly

Next month, in addition to my Florida trip I expect to have a big ol’ movie round up.

Emotional About Baggage

Emotional About Baggage: The North Terminal at DTW is sparking clean, spacious, well designed, relatively quiet, and generally pleasant -- as you would expect of a state of the art airport terminal that just opened a month ago. Coupled with the enormous and quite lovely McNamara Terminal (the Northwest/Delta hub terminal) which is, I think, about five years old, Detroit Metro has become one of the nicest airports in the world.

But no matter how fine the airport, it can’t make the planes arrive on time. Right now my flight is delayed about 20 minutes, which cuts my transfer time in Atlanta down to about 20 minutes. Cutting it close -- but if I was checking bags they would certainly be lost.

I am not checking bags; I managed to wedge five days worth of clothes and all my gadgets into a couple of carry-ons. I anticipated this situation. I am not a frequent flyer for nothing. With sub-45 minute layovers, carry-on only is the way to go. However, even if I did have ample time, I still would have stuffed everything into carry-ons because of the insane policy virtually all airlines have adopted about adding fees for checked bags.

I’ve gone on about this before -- about how it completely buggers the boarding and deplaning process. In a somewhat naive article in the WSJ, a journalist proposes that if they wanted things to go more smoothly, they would charge for carry-ons rather than checked luggage. That is of course true, but completely misses the point. The charge is not intended to make things go smoothly. It is intended to generate revenue and whether the traveler experience is degraded or not means absolutely nothing to the airlines.

You could argue that charging for carry-ons instead of checked bags would generate similar revenue but would improve passenger experience so why is it not preferable even to airlines. Answer: It would degrade airline employee’s experience. Someone would have to decide when a purse was big enough to be called a carry-on, and then there’s all those extra checked bags -- there would be more pressure to actually have efficient and accurate baggage handling services and frankly why go to all that trouble when you can just charge for checked bags and let the traveler deal with the hassle.

My flight took off about thirty-five minutes late. I would have had about a 2% chance of making my connection but fortunately my plane was the connecting flight. Lucky.

Southwest Passage

Southwest Passage: For a better travel story, you can read my lengthy report on my recent trip out west. As special bonus, this one includes thumbnails of all the pics I took; just click on the thumbnail for the full-sized pic. I generated the thumbnails using a free program called IrfanView which I don’t know well so the thumbs are all sized with gray border on the top and bottom. I have some learning to do, but you’ll get the idea.

Swinging Empress

Swinging Empress: Of all the photos I have posted over the years the one that generates the most email is a photo of a painting. The title of the painting is Above Washington, D.C. It currently hangs in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington D.C. The only background I have found on it is from the hotel website:

"A large signature painting, 'Above Washington, D.C.', commissioned by Chinese/Canadian artist Zhong-Yang Huang, depicts the last empress of China, Empress Dowager, on a swing over D.C., blending Eastern and Western cultures. She lived in the 'Forbidden City' and had a fascination with the West. The artist has created a painting that is historical and metaphorical."

There are other works by the same artist at a gallery in Saskatchewan, Canada. I’ve also found other background on the artist.

Note to self: next time in DC get a better, higher res photo. It really is quite a stunning painting.

Men Going Mad

Men Going Mad: Mad Men finished another season leaving me anxious for more. Season 1 was filled with folks grasping for their dreams, working diligently to make real the image they had of The Way Their Lives Should Be. In Season 2, many of the main characters got what they wanted only to collide with disappointment. This is clearest in Don’s case, when the 20 year-old, free-thinking, California chippie he diddles asks him directly: Why deny yourself what you obviously want? Surrounded by the temptation of a life that is the exact opposite of his “real” one -- the one that is falling apart -- he searches his past and finds an answer. Or so it seems.

Pete Campbell got the fast-track-ad-exec/well-monied-Upper-East-Side-WASP lifestyle he wanted and finds out he may have blown his chance for a child and a woman who understands him with Peggy, who he passed off as a bangable secretary, and is stuck with a dissatisfied wife and financially manipulative in-laws. Peggy, for her part, played the game and got her groundbreaking career, at the cost of a certain sense of shame at abandoning her child. Roger got out of his marriage and found what he thinks is rebirth and happiness with his 20-something trophy mistress, but he’ll get taken to the cleaners by his ex-wife and his relationship with his daughter may never be repaired.

At the end, it looks like Don was the only one who may have put “want he obviously wants” in the proper perspective, but I suppose we’ll see since Mad Men has been renewed. Now the agonizing wait starts and we live once again in a TV world devoid of drama for the ages.

On last interesting note: Mattew Weiner, the series creator, made an comment during a recent interview about one similarity between Mad Men and The Sopranos, which he produced. He said in both cases what makes them unique is that the characters often find themselves in need a sweeping change in their lives, thoughts, needs, etc., but unlike most dramas, the people in their lives form barriers and act as a hindrance to their personal development. I find that fascinating, and quite true to life. People often view others as props in their own life and are deeply resistant to letting them change. Like the saying goes, the expectations of friends and family can hold you back more effectively than anything else. Which gives me the expectation that next season may concern itself with the question, “Do people ever really change?”

Mapping Reality

Mapping Reality: I have mentioned that I have reached a point in my life where I am letting new technologies pass me by, and am quite happy to do so. Any take on Social Networking is lost on me. Instant messaging…well I exchange texts on my cell, does that count? Facebook…I really have plenty of friends already, thanks. Twitter…you’ve got to be kidding me. MMOG…uh, what?

What all these things have in common is that they are enhancements to virtual life. I’ll pass on that, but there are occasional bits and pieces of tech that are of actual use for someone who isn’t looking to weave himself into the fabric of cyberspace, but exist more easily in the tactile world. Mapping software is one of them. In the past six months I have driven all around Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and Newfoundland with little more than printed out Google or Mapblast maps to guide me.

I am currently hunting around making plans for my next excursion almost exclusively by zeroing on one destination in Mapblast and simply moving the map around on screen to get ideas for side trips. A little while back I spent some time on Google Maps designing running routes of specific distances around the local neighborhoods.

When I had to get to a certain funeral home half way across the state, I only needed the name of the business and the city to get a turn-by-turn print out; no asking at gas stations for directions, no ball park guesses based on a poorly communicated phone call, no hoping I can read what I scribbled down or wondering if I am correctly oriented to tell north from south.

It’s like magic. I can guarantee you that whoever came up with mapping software and the intelligence behind it deserves a Nobel Prize more than anyone of this year’s winners, whoever they were.

Reduction in Ugly

Reduction in Ugly: By the time this gets posted the excruciating presidential campaign will be over. If there was anything heartening about it, it was that a majority of people in were as uninterested as I was and generally didn’t vote or at least put off their decision until the last minute. Can you blame us?

Statistically speaking, the probability that you encountered a political conversation that was anything more than people spewing venous op-eds at each other approached zero. Otherwise kind, good-natured people seemed ready to get behind a pogrom against their neighbors over a simple disagreement.

“McCain gives tax cuts to Exxon” and “Obama is a Socialist” are specious, scurrilous tactics designed specifically to appeal to people who have no capacity for critical thinking. Did you believe one and not the other? You qualify as a slovenly thinker. Your politician of choice holds you in contempt to manipulate you like that. He probably even felt ashamed to do it, but your ignorant vote still counted so he figured he had no choice.

All those bumper stickers and lawn signs -- have any of those ever changed anyone’s mind? No, they are an act of self-definition for people of shallow character. They are the Gucci bags and Red Sox caps for the morally self-righteous. The people behind them really don’t know the complex details about issues, they are responding to a brand. It is a mutant form of tribalism.

Every ugly aspect of humanity was out there on display and even celebrated, and so only the ugly got involved. It is a wonder we survive. Here’s to a three year reduction in ugly.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Month That Was - September 2008

The Month That Was - September 2008: Another year under the belt in my increasingly long life. Birthday 48 passed at about 6:15AM on the 13th. I am closing in all too fast on a half century. For what it's worth, I detect no special impartation of wisdom or peace so far. I did have a wonderful week in the Southwest, touring through New Mexico and eventually settling in for a few nights at a Tucson spa, each day a minor adventure. A full report will be forthcoming.

I am struggling with what to write in this update, primarily because I am very disconnected from most everything of common interest these days. The presidential campaign dominates everything, and I have zero interest. I have no doubt the nation will continue whatever the outcome and, more likely than not, anyone's expectations about the effect of a particular candidate on the world is probably wrong. The financial meltdown is somewhat troubling, but luckily I am not a struggling young man anymore and I have been fairly wise with my money so I am not in a position to be fiscally devastated by anything short of a depression.

My life pretty much revolves around going to work (which I never blog about on principle), staying healthy and fit (boring, and annoying to listeners), travelling, and consuming art. The last two dominate this site. Oh, and football, which I am not writing about for blogcritics for the first time in three years. (Maybe I should post stuff here instead?) I am doing a fair amount of writing on my top secret new project, which may never amount anything. And I am still working on Misspent Youth, which may never amount to anything.

I am not a hermit. I see friends regularly. Stay involved with family and my father's finances (he can no longer do so himself). I am not isolated, but I am disconnected. Maybe that's a by-product of aging: so much of the day-to-day of the world seems to be a rerun that it doesn't seem worth commenting on. Or maybe I am just in a funk over putting away my bike and getting out fall jackets and shutting up the windows and turning on the heat at night. It could be a long winter.

Tube Notes
The Life and Times of Frank Bascombe
Money Honey

Tube Notes

Tube Notes: Lots of interesting, if not necessarily good, TV these days.

True Blood - An exercise in heavy-handed irony, this is the story of a world where fake blood has been invented and, as such, vampires can come out of the crypt and try to "mainstream" with regular folk. The too-clever premise is to use this to look at human bigotry through a different lens. Throw out that gimmick and it's just another action/mystery style TV show but with vampires mixed in. From Alan Ball, the mind behind Six Feet Under, I expected more. It is arch and obvious and borderline lurid. The characters are all rather annoying, the plot is a garden-variety murder mystery, the dialog is banal.

Anna Paquin is a standout as the lead, but that's about all that is worth mentioning. So far. I'll see it through to the end of the season before final judgment is passed.

Entourage - Remains a wispy, pointless, mildly humorous little diversion. Hell, it's only a half hour -- that's not much a time waster. There's nothing to it, but because of the good natured chemistry of the characters, I still tune in. It goes without saying that the show is carried by The Piven, with an occasional over the top assist from Kevin Dillon. Interestingly, it has much less substance than True Blood yet I'm more interested in how Vince's career turns out than any vampire mischief. Best dialogue this year:

Q: "Where are we gonna get magic mushrooms?"
A: "Eric Roberts, of course."

Dexter - My favorite guilty pleasure just returned for season 3. Dexter remains creepy with just a touch of dark poetry. It attempts to shine a light on different behaviors by placing them in the extreme context of a murderer -- one who can and will take his desires, which are well-reasoned and noble, to the ultimate conclusion. Thoughtful concept, but it's still a guilty pleasure. Michael Hall is utterly amazing as the sweet, slightly nerdy, baby-faced monster.

Mad Men - The last great drama left on TV. To think that only a few years ago we had The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire all in active production. Now only Mad Men is left in the drama-for-the-ages category.

Things are falling apart in 1962. (I had this pegged erroneously as 1964 in a previous post.) And as things fall apart for Don he seems to grow more and more narcissistic. The interesting comparison to draw is between Don Draper and Tony Soprano (The creator of Mad Men was a producer of The Sopranos). Both of them could perform kind and even noble acts, but at their core they are nobody's heroes. Tony was of course, a vicious killer. Don is nothing like that, but he is simply not a good person.

Virtually every character is getting what they want this season and coming to have regrets. Who will learn what, is the question. Snap judgement: if anything Mad Men has improved from last year. Which is remarkable.

The Life and Times of Frank Bascombe

The Life and Times of Frank Bascombe: Frank Bascombe is the protagonist in a trio of books by author Richard Ford. He is a suburban everyman. Throughout the three books we follow Frank through a few select days of his life and effectively live inside his head. In the first book, The Sportswriter, we are introduced to him as a New jersey based fiction writer turned sports writer (as Ford once was, before resuming fiction) (oh, and, remind you in a small way of anyone else?). He is living a tenuous life in the shadow of the death of his 9-year old son and the subsequent divorce which may or may not have been due to grief over their lost son. In this book Frank is separated emotionally from everyone and everything -- trying desperately not to suffer any more pain. In the course of the book, he seems to accept that pain and tragedy are unavoidable byproducts of living.

Book 2, Independence Day, is at least partially about that re-engagement with the world. Frank has given up sports writing and become a realtor. His aim is to not find his place in the world but make it by attaching to his community and especially reconnecting with his wayward son whose is living with his mother and her new husband, and who may be half crazy (the son). The main theme is the complex relationship between independence and connectivity. In the end Frank seems to have moved from desiring mere engagement to desiring true connection.

Book 3 (and final, according to Ford) is The Lay of the Land wherein we find Frank in the third quarter of his life. His second wife has left him. His children are grown. He is a something of minor real estate mogul in seaside New Jersey. He has prostate cancer. Although he still finds himself fantasizing about all the things he's never done and he hasn't lost hope that at least some of them could happen, but they would have to come to him, he will not go to them. He believes he has achieved something he calls "permanence", but over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend all that changes. His attitude and situation take turns he couldn't have dreamed of. He faces death (somewhat improbably, and not from his prostate) and finally comes to terms with ancient relationships -- friends, children, ex-wives. Coming through it, he realizes permanence is perhaps not so permanent.

The preceding description is dry and dreary but that is not the impression to take of these books. That's just the high concept stuff. The real magic of these books for me was the treat of seeing everything through Frank's eyes. And I mean everything. You follow along with his days from start to finish, including all the boring mindless stuff people do every day. Like I said, for me, that's something special.

Most regular readers know that one of my hobby horses is the lack of fictional documentation of the normal life of the majority of us. Novelists, when they look at the typical middle-class life and the people that lead it, which is rarely, treat it with utter disdain. Mindless, soulless, shallow shells we are, with our selfish, amoral, even evil, tendencies rationalized and concealed (just ask Raymond Carver). Yet there's a reason a majority of us live that way, and a reason many who can't wish they could. It is a good, comfortable, secure life where dramatics are rare and there is time for reflection and examination. It's the best deal for raising a family by a long shot. Most of those who treat it with disdain can only do so because they already live it.

But the bottom line is that it is our life. It is the way we live today. It has unique contemporary, yet still primal, conflicts and resonance. Why not do what novelists are supposed to do and tell the story of it artfully? Ford does exactly that.

Frank Bascombe lives vaguely, full of day-to-day contradiction. He is an admirer of commerce, speaks and participates enthusiastically in it, but dislikes any development that may cause commerce to disrupt his comfortable world. He is a loyal Democrat, but it appears to be a tribal loyalty, rather than the result of serious political philosophy. He seeks comfort and certainty, but tells himself change is good and necessary. He takes half steps and quarter steps. He freely admits that he has lived a smaller life than he could have, but also a happier one. When one of his exs -- the one he cheated on -- offers an olive branch, he realizes he hates her. When the other -- the one who ran out on him for her first husband and may or may not have subsequently driven the first husband to suicide -- wants to come back, he's delighted. He prefers to keep an open mind, but hates his daughter's boyfriend at first sight. He loves is son, but can't tolerate him. Despite all his endless rumination and good intentions, his life is a confusing mess that he can barely understand, never mind explain. In short, he is exactly like you, me, and everyone we know.

We spend time with Frank and his thoughts as he goes about his days. We observe with him the malls and bars and roads and neighborhoods he passes through and we recognize it. He might describe the traffic jams he gets caught in; or the careful-not-to-sound-guilty conversations he has with cops; or having to urinate urgently behind a hardware store, getting caught by security, and garnering sympathy because of his prostate cancer; or of happening to encounter his dentist on the street and realizing half-way through the conversation that he wasn't been recognized -- all the kinds of mundane things that happen to all of us in one form or another. It's hard not to see this as a document of what we do through our days and how it intermingles seamlessly with our fears and dreams and hopes and failures.

Perhaps it's worthwhile to note that the primary criticism of these books is that they are overfull with observational minutiae, either geographical or philosophical. They move slowly, to seemingly trivial ends. The resolutions in Frank's development you do get are marginal and likely to be discarded in the next chapter. All that may be, but Ford's intent, it seems to me, is to simply lay it out there as it actually is. Here is contemporary life. Do you find it dull? Do you find it fascinating? Empty? Rich? Small? Scary? Brave? Sad? Comic? The spiritual precedents here are Updike's Rabbit Angstrom and Walker Percy's Binx Bollinger, but it is even a step closer to naked, tedious reality. These books serve as the finest fictional documents of the way of our lives at the turn of the millennium. It's likely that future generations will look at them for understanding of our hour-to-hour existence. Might be worth seeing what they'll see.

Money Honey

Money Honey: As I mentioned the financial meltdown has not adversely affected my life so far. Yes, it's a down year for my 401k and IRA. And my regular stock trading has taken about the same hit as everyone else's, but I was not counting on that money so what I'll probably do is sell off a bunch for the tax benefit and immediate buy up some index funds and wait for the next bull market. Actually, with prices so depressed I should probably buy a new house and a new car.

Housing is obviously cheap now. Judging from recent nearby sales, I think I'm still ahead on my condo. Of course, I've been here quite a few years (is it already 10?) so even the real estate crash couldn't entirely wipe out my gains. I am a creditor's dream, so getting financing wouldn't be a problem. Of course, there is the hassle of moving; the hassle of finding a place and completing a sale; the potential that the real estate market may not recover in my lifetime, or at least not in Michigan. Couple all that with the fact that I am fine living where I am. My condo fees are higher than I would like, but I have quiet, non-nosy neighbors, a safe, low-traffic neighborhood, and I am five minutes drive from anything I need (including work) and about twenty minutes to Ann Arbor for anything I want. Suffice to say, my motivation is low.

A car is a more interesting proposition. In the past 24 years I have owned exactly three cars, all of them Toyotas. I had an '84 Celica that I drove for 9 years, a '93 Camry that I drove for 9 years, and my current '02 Camry (well into 6 years). If I stay true to form, my next car will be a '11 Toyota of some sort, but cars are awfully cheap right now. Especially American cars. You can get enormous discounts on SUVs and Minivans since nobody wants them, and though I hate SUVs (driven by cretinous view-blockers) and have little use for a minivan (not generally associated with bachelors), I love a good deal. They are not particularly fuel efficient, but gas prices are coming back down a bit and the money you save goes a long way to paying for gas.

My choice at the moment would be a Jeep Patriot, with a (relatively) easy on fuel four-cylinder engine. Modern four-cylinder engines easily out-perform many V-8 models from back in the day. Yes, there are other, nicer rides to tempt me, but it's so much car for the money it would be hard to resist.

But we run into the fact that I am happy with my current, paid-for Camry. It hasn't been as trouble free as my previous Toyotas, but whenever I get back into it after a few days in a rental, I realize how quiet and smooth it really is. Once again, motivation to change is insufficient.

I'll probably be kicking myself when it comes time to upgrade (either house or ride) and whining that I should have bought when things were cheap. On the other hand, if I did buy now would I regret spending money on something I don't need instead of, say, flying off to Hawaii sometime soon? Not to decide is to decide.


Quotables: Smart sentences and clever comments I've encountered.

Stephen Fry on travel -- "Travel is about two things, and two things only. Bowels and laundry." (source)

Haruki Murakami on fitness -- "I think that one...condition for being a gentleman would be keeping quiet about what you do to stay healthy. A gentleman shouldn't go on and on about what he does to stay fit." (source: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running)

P.J. O'Rourke on his encounter with cancer -- "I have, of all things, a malignant hemorrhoid. What color bracelet does one wear for that?" (source)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Month That Was - August 2008

The Month That Was - August 2008: As I get older the months get shorter. Remember when summer vacation was, like, forever? Now I look around and all I see is stuff I had planned on doing but didn't get done. I hereby officially extend summer to include September, because I need another thirty days.

I let the summer pass without putting together an off-season review and conference preview columns for the 2008 NFL season. I suppose that pretty much means I am not going to do the column this year, although I could still hop in mid-season and reboot my usual shtick. A lot of changes took place at The sports editor, who I liked and liked working with, moved on. Then got sold to, not that it really changes anything. I guess the big thing was that it was a lot of work and I didn't see anything really coming from it. It was at the point where I had to decide if I was going to quit it or really start pushing on it and making something of myself as a sportswriter.

For the time being, it's one less excuse for not keeping up the excruciatingly slow progress on my novel, or the ongoing work on other writing project (top secret, still). Of course every time I read predictions or comments about the upcoming season or see some player acting like an idiot my desire to editorialize nearly overcomes me, so I guess the real test will come around week 7.

No travel again this month. The fact is, my day job has been a bit of bear lately -- lots of scary deadlines and so forth. Getting away for any extended length has been tricky. That will certainly be different come September.

Alien Olympics
Running Man
Detroit Follies


Readings: No major works read this month, but still much of interest.

Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson -- There have been about 4 movies made based on this long-ish short story and probably a dozen others that borrowed heavily. A psychic investigator gathers a group of folks in a haunted house. Spooky things occur. Personal inter-dynamics mash-up with the psyches of the group. In time, one of them falls under control of the house or is lost to insanity, your call. Tragic ending (in the story anyway -- the movies tend to have Hollywood endings).

Jackson is all about dialogue as a tool. She is exceptionally skilled at moving the plot along and developing the characters simply by letting the conversations do the heavy work. Much of the dialogue is unadorned with adjectives, leaving the reader to fix the voice, it's a tricky task if you are trying to portray madness and it takes some getting used to.

Though a ghost story on the surface, the pleasure in reading this comes not from any suspense or action but in the sharply drawn characters and how they react to each other in the ambiguity of their situation. It goes without saying that it is not about the ghost.

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Juis Borges -- A real jaw dropper, this short story. A man stumbles across an obscure reference to a long defunct country in central Asia called Uqbar, from whence came an encyclopedia called Orbis Tertius. Orbis Terius is the sum of the efforts of the finest minds of Uqbar to create a fictional world called Tlon.

In the worldview of imaginary Tlon, reality itself is denied. Everything exists only in so far as it affects one through one's senses. For example, in one of Tlon's languages there are no nouns. Instead of "The moon rose over the water" you would have "Upward beyond the onstreaming it mooned." More such examples of the strange epistemology of Tlon are described.
Eventually, it is revealed that Uqbar as well as Tlon, is an invented place, devised sometime in the 17th century by a secret society of intellectuals. By the mid 1800s it had fallen into the hands of a wealthy industrialist who was financing the completion of the encyclopedia, under orders that it have no moral underpinnings (this is related in the form of the project having "no truck with that impostor, Jesus Christ"). By contemporary times (the story was first published in 1940) the encyclopedia was well known and the precepts of the unrealism practiced in fictional Tlon were rapidly subsuming the real world.

This is certainly the best short story I have ever read, and certainly one of the finest pieces of literature of any genre. Borges prose is constructed with the greatest care, as one would suspect of an old master, but the real mind blower is the depth of imagination. Fiction and non-fiction is blended. Levels of reality are created, destroyed, then re-created. It's a detective story. It's an alternate history. Top it all off with the underlying critique of relative morality and post-modernism in general and you can't help but wonder how it all can be done in a little under 6000 words.

You can read it here in translation, side by side with the original Spanish, provided you can put up with white letters on a purple background. Probably better to pick up hard copy somewhere.

Lay of the Land (preview) by Richard Ford -- This is the third in the multi-decade trilogy (The Sportswriter and Independence Day are the first and second) of the life of Frank Bascombe, regular guy. I am only about a third of the way through this but when I picked it up at the tail end of August I dropped everything else I was reading at the time. Often thought of as a more contemporary counterpart to John Updike's Rabbit books, there is nothing in these books but a quiet suburban life, richly told. As such, many people dismiss these as boring. But they were no small inspiration to me when I was writing novels about the absurd shenanigans of normal people, without belittling them or the drama of their lives. Anyone can take a dump on normalcy. Few people can see the beauty in it.

Anyway, I'll have more to say about this next month when I'm finished.


Viewings: Caught three interesting films, all good and all foreign.

Kontroll is a Hungarian dark comedy about life among a team of subway ticket inspectors. They are, generally, slackers in various shapes and sizes, and are essentially charged with ensuring everyone riding the train has a ticket. Of course they have no real power to enforce the rules, other than threats, and they are defied at every turn by moronic commuters of all sorts. They form cliques to guard against the disdain of the world. They engage in shadowy after-hours shenanigans. Essentially, it is a comic window on an undistinguished little subculture built on a pointless dead end service job. Set the scene, add a love interest, a serial killer, and stir vigorously. A nicely done take on the genre. Funny, engaging and entertaining. It's also a cute novelty to see another country's take on honoring their unambitious serving class.

President Last Bang is another black comedy, this time Korean and dramatizing the final day of President Park Chung Hee who was assassinated by the head of the Korean CIA in 1979. Park is portrayed as a letch and his cronies are ass-kissing cretins. The decision to kill the president is spur of the moment. The head of the KCIA makes noises about a goal of preserving democracy, but it is clear he is simply annoyed and disgusted from serving with these idiots and, frankly, he's having a bad day. The act itself as an exercise in bungled confusion and only succeeds because the security forces more confused and inept than the assassins. Comedy is mixed with chaos and violence. The effect is almost surreal.

The film works especially well because no characters are shown as irredeemable. The KCIA head seems like a decent person who is wounded by the shameful duties of his job, but also a deep cynic. His aid is a first class douchebag, but he has had to suffer constant physical and mental abuse from his superiors. The president is a dirtbag, but at the moment he is about to be killed he looks into his assassin's face not with cowardice or defiance, but befuddlement. I don't know how factual this portrayal actually is, but it strikes me as the sort of film that will define the event going forward in the popular mind.

Lives of Others is a German thriller set in East Berlin before the fall of the Wall. No comedy here. This is the story of a Gerd Wiesler, a Stasi agent assigned to monitor the activities of a dissident playwright and his actress wife. Wiesler is a dour, lonely man leading an empty, loveless life. As he listens in and follows the couple he is assigned to, he becomes more and more attached to them and sympathetic to their lives. Events lead to him being ordered to destroy the lives and work of the couple he now cares for. He does everything in his power to avoid doing so. He lies and falsifies documents to the extent he feels safe doing so. He manipulates events to whatever extent he can, but in the end he has no choice but to break the actress during an interrogation under the eye of his superior. Still, he makes one last desperate and futile act to prevent their total destruction.

In the end he succeeds, marginally, but for his trouble he becomes suspect himself and gets assigned to the Stasi mailroom doing pointless unimportant tasks. Redemption only comes some years later after the Wall comes down.

William F. Buckley declared this film to be the greatest ever made, which is overstating the case a bit. But it is certainly a profound piece of work. For most people, the picture of resistance to the East German regime probably contains a picture of an earnest Solzhenitsyn-esque protestor diligently and famously fighting the good fight, getting imprisoned and tortured but never giving in, sacrificing all liberty and life itself for a higher cause. But the majority of people in the world are not of that stripe. The majority are not ready or brave or unselfish enough to completely sacrifice the one life they have to a cause, however worthy. But maybe they would make the safe compromises and take the small risks to save someone here or there. Were I to be caught in a similar situation, I have no illusion that I would be a Solzhenitsyn, but I hope I would at least be a Wiesler.

Running Man

Running Man: You may recall my adventures getting a bike from a couple of months back. It's worked out well. I've spent more than a few afternoons tooling around on it in addition to taking a number of more serious rides. But summer is winding down, and that means I need to turn to something else. Luckily running has re-emerged as a viable alternative thanks to some wonderful new shoes from Nike.

I used to run a fair amount. Even did some 5k and 5 mile races. But the years took their toll on my poor feet and legs. Technically speaking, I have high arches and I suppinate (tend to walk or run with too much emphasis on the out edges of my feet). Non-technically, that means I am simply not well constructed for bearing weight or absorbing impact. The fact is I never in my life got beyond five miles and the fact that my legs are on the short side meant that I never really increased my speed all that much.

So decades went by and the only running I did was a brief warm ups and maybe some interval drills in a boot camp class -- never much over a mile, and even then I felt the impact pretty seriously. But I was thinking I probably should give running longer distances one last shot before I get to old, so on a recommendation from a friend I tried a pair of Nike Vomeros. Easily the most comfortable shoe I have ever put on. They feel like you have pillows on your feet.

First test: I hop on treadmill figuring I'll knock off a mile or so just to see how I feel. Next thing I know I've covered 5k without a stitch of pain. I had to make myself stop. Next test: I tell myself I'll burn off another 5k this time out on the road and see how they do. Zoom, I ripped off four miles just because I was having such a good and easy run. Imagine that: no running for many, many years and suddenly I can knock off three or four miles without a second thought. That's incredible. I would have thought I would be working my way back up to my previous five mile limit but I can get there almost instantly.

If you run and your feet are like mine, or you just want a nice comfy cushioned shoe, you need Nike Vomeros. They list for about $125 but I have found them at Nike Outlet stores for $89. I bought two pair, just in case. Seriously, go out and buy them now. They're that good. You can thank me later.

Alien Olympics

Alien Olympics: I was entirely unmoved by the Olympics. Olympians are, by and large, inhuman. 12-year old Chinese gymnasts aside, even the older gymnasts are outliers. Grow much higher than five feet, or find that your spine doesn't quite curve into a perfect semi-circle? You're better off trying out as a Cirque du Soleil extra. Swimming, volleyball, basketball? If you're under 6'4", you're a dwarf. The skills and talents they display are impressive, but it can be like watching science fiction about a race of superior aliens.

There are some holdout sports. Certainly the ones that don't specialize so heavily -- decathletes are fairly normally structured because they can't afford to be to freakily specialized for one thing. Boxers are still boxers (I would argue that boxing is the most physically challenging sport) and their weight classes keep them looking fairly pretty normal. Sports that require rackets or more complex machines such as archery, rowing, or sailing are still accessible folks of normal dimensions, but those aren't big ticket events. The glory events are the domain of those in the 99.999th percentile of certain genetic predispositions. I realize that they put enormous effort into training and they wouldn't be there without all the hard work, but the freak-of-nature aspect makes it a spectacle rather than something to identify with.

But that's hypocritical of me. I am a huge NFL fan, and those guys are not exactly everyday ordinary specimens are they? So what is it? Why don't I care about the Olympics? Maybe because it seems so manufactured. Maybe because of all the treacley superlatives that emanate from every corner. Maybe simply because the whole mess seems like a multi-year PR campaign to make everyone stand up and shout "This is a beautiful and important thing!!!" and actually believe it. Then at the very end, we set the stage for the next one in four years by making Jimmy Page look like a doofus.

I do hope that Dexter, MI never wins an Olympic bid.

Detroit Follies

Detroit Follies: Documenting the ultimate demise of the city of my birth...

•The dead are fleeing Detroit along with everybody else. No, zombification has not occurred, but people are moving their deceased loved ones out to the suburbs mostly so they don't have to go into Detroit to visit their graves. That is how desperate people around here are to never have to set foot in Detroit.

•Our black-Irish mayor Kwame Kilpatrick finally got tossed into the pokey for real. He admitted to lying under oath, which is probably the least of his actual crimes, got a 120-day sentence, and resigned as Mayor, claiming that he was now set up for a comeback. Despite destroying the careers of numerous people and wasting tens of millions in public money, I have no doubt the people of Detroit will re-elect him in the next election. They deserve him.

•Every NFL season comes along with a healthy dose of unintentional comedy, but it's entirely possible that this season has peaked early. Rudi Johnson signed as a running back with the Lions just before the start of the season. So he shows up at camp, drops his bag outside GM Matt Millen's office and goes inside to meet with the boss. He comes out and his bag is missing. Well, the place is watched by surveillance cameras so they just go to the tape to see what happened. It turns out the guy he was replacing, one Tatum Bell, stole his bag. So they get in contact with him and explain that they have him on tape taking the bag and he claims it was a mistake, he thought it was someone else's and he dropped it as his girlfriends house. They retrieve the bag, minus Rudi's ID, Credit Cards, Cash and "some undergarments." Bell makes a public statement in response: "I ain't no thief!" but the double negative speaks volumes. You can't make this stuff up.

•One bit of good news. Detroit Metro Airport is getting a new terminal. Detroit Metro (DTW) is a Northwest hub and a few years back to built a brand new terminal for them, which turned things around 180 degrees. The previous terminal was horrendous -- like some kind of third world hell hole transplanted into the Midwest. The new terminal in contrast was a stunner. Really one of the finest airport terminals I've been in, and I've been in a few. Now they have new one for the non-hub airlines set to open mid-September. This is great news for all travelers around these parts, which includes me.

By the way, DTW is not even near the city; it's a good 20 miles west so even if you fly into Detroit Metro, you still don't have to go into Detroit. So we got that going for us.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Month That Was - July 2008

The Month That Was - July 2008: A couple of short trips this month. NYC is described below. I also assisted in the annual ritual of dropping Miss Anna off at camp in Cheboygan, MI with the requisite trip to Mackinac Island which I probably won't describe since it was a very short and relatively uneventful trip. It's amazing how efficient we have become at the annual Mac Island trips. We know which ferry to take, we know where to stay, we know what to do on the island, we know where to stop for last minute camp supplies, it's really become a no brainer. Kind of a shame this could be the last year for it.

More importantly you can finally read about my Newfoundland adventure. Some of the pics are great.

Lastly, check out this (somewhat slow loading) picture of a moth that spent a couple of days on the wall just outside my door. It's freaky looking, yes, but the real kicker is that the thing was enormous. Wingspan of 7 inches easily. It took up residence in that spot and literally didn't move for two days. I took to calling it Mothra and offering a friendly greeting as I passed. After a couple of days, it just disappeared in the dark of night, never to be seen again. Vaya con Dios, Mothra.

Chelsea Schmelsea (an NYC 4th)
Quickie Reviews
It's Not Happening in Detroit
The Return of the Little Black Book (or The Horror of Motorola Phone Tools)

Chelsea Schmelsea (an NYC 4th)

Chelsea Schmelsea (an NYC 4th): It had been a couple of years since I was in Manhattan so I went back for the 4th. Rather than my usual midtown locale, I stayed in Chelsea -- dirty and smelly, like NYC from the 70s, I can only assume. Back to midtown next time.

I didn't really have much of a plan. I wanted to see the Waterfalls. I had hoped to catch the fireworks. Beyond that, I figured a bit of time in Central Park, a visit to one or two museums, and some foodie stuff.

I started with a mistake: The Empire State Building. As soon as I checked in I hit the street and got all excited about being in Manhattan again so I went in the ESB on impulse. I should have known better. It's a ridiculous wait (45 minutes in my case, which is relatively short) for a few minutes of a pretty view among a thick crowd of people. Totally annoying -- like waiting an hour for a two minute roller coaster ride, only not as exciting. I would have been better off finding a jazz club.

The next morning I cabbed it to the Seaport early for a harbor boat tour on the Zephyr. A+. Highly recommended. A full measure of local history and it passes all the Waterfalls. The boat is big and comfy with plenty of room. (I have heard plenty of good things from a number of sources about the various boat tours around Manhattan. Just FYI.)

From then on, it was one head-slapper after another as I tried to find some lunch. You see, on the rare occasions I am in Manhattan, I like my meals to be something special. Not necessarily expensive or fancy. Just something I can't do elsewhere. In my head I have a litany of places I have liked in the past and a few I have heard of to try. These experiences are key to an NYC visit for me.

From the Seaport I walked back to Chinatown hoping to get a Bahn Mi at Saigon Bakery. It was closed for the 4th. Since when are Vietnamese restaurants closed on the 4th? Every other place in Chinatown was open. Fine. Screw the Bahn Mi. I hopped the subway to midtown for my traditional greasy lunch at the Hidden Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridien. The line was out the door and into the lobby -- not so hidden after all. All right, forget the cheap eats. Over to the MOMA and get something high-end at The Moderne. Sorry sir, we're closed for the afternoon, open again at 5:30. OK, well, I'll just go in the MOMA at troll around for a couple of hours until you're open. Can't do that either because it's just turned 4 o'clock and the MOMA is free on Fridays from 4-8 and the line is literally (yes, literally) around the block.

By this time lunch has turned into dinner and I am getting really cranky. What I should have done was hit the falafel cart across the street for some lamb and rice. Instead, I darted over to Columbus Circle and the Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar and Grill. Finally. I got a nice glass of wine and some delicious, if seriously expensive, Korean Fried Chicken. I spent an entire afternoon ping-ponging around Manhattan looking for the right grub. There's something very wrong with me.

Then I headed back to MOMA, with the crowd thinned out I was able to get to the Dali exhibit, which was only so-so, although I may have been spoiled by the Dali Museum in St. Pete, FL. Otherwise the MOMA remains the MOMA.

Lastly back in the subway and down to the South Pier in the hopes of catching the fireworks. Crowd was ridiculous -- millions and millions. Then it started to rain. I watched about 15 minutes then beat a hasty retreat and called it a night -- exhausted. A full day, if frustrating.

The next day I wanted to rent a bike and ride though Central Park, but it was raining of course. It has rained, or threatened to rain so as to alter my plans, during all of my travels this summer (Newfoundland, Chicago, NY, Mackinac). Next vacation will have to be the desert. Sheesh.

I stopped for a bagel and lox breakfast at Lindy's, but it was clear the rain was not going to let up so I subwayed over to the Met Museum. There is a rather well-publicized Jeffery Koons exhibit on the rooftop. Naturally, it was closed thanks to the weather. So I wandered around a bit -- there was a cute exhibit on superhero costumes: interesting and fun, but not exactly art. I spent some time in the Contemporary Asian galleries, mostly because fewer people were there. I kept checking for a break in the rain so I could at least hang in Central Park for a while, but no.

At this point I was frustrated as hell because I couldn't seem to get done anything that I wanted to do. Worse, every failure was starting to grind on my poor feet as I ended up standing around and walking from subway stop to stop. So I decide to treat myself to a straight razor shave and a little pampering. There was a new high-end barber shop/spa-for-men, called Spiff, that had just opened this year so I made the hoof over to 3rd avenue to see if they'd take a walk in. Guess what? They were closed. Their hours on the door said they were open on Saturday until 4. It was Saturday and well before 4, yet the place was closed. This was getting ridiculous. Art of Shaving was just around the corner, so I checked with them: Sorry, no openings until Monday. We'd gone beyond ridiculous to absurd.

Now I was hungry again, so I walked a couple blocks further and hit Zenburger for a burger fix since since I couldn't get near the Hidden Burger joint the previous day. Closed. They decided to close July 4th and 5th. I swore an oath never to visit NYC on a holiday again. Un-freakin'-believable.

It so happens that right next door to Zenburger is a place called Homme Spa, a very nice looking day spa. It had to be a sign. Instantly, I decided that I deserved a massage. Dammit, I did.

Homme Spa was, well, interesting -- an Asian-run very stylish space, with extremely attentive staff. Unlike most spas where you are handed a robe slippers and given a few minutes to undress and shower, an attendant (a nice middle aged Asian fellow) undresses you, and drys you off after the shower (fortunately he does not soap you up or scrub you down). The massage was excellent, best Swedish style massage I have ever had. I was going use the sauna and shower again afterwards but suddenly the place became coed -- there was only one set of showers and lockers -- and the nice middle-aged Asian fellow was trying to arrange activities so me and a female guest were not exposed to each other. I decided to leave -- good massage, but very strange place. (By the way, in case you are wondering, I got no vibe that is was the sort of place you could get a "happy ending".)

Feeling somewhat better I made my way over to Columbus Circle and snagged a delicious dinner at Robuchon Bakery -- a casual alternative to Joel Robuchon's 8-star (or whatever) restaurant. I had a cheesesteak knockoff -- a Panini made with Waygu - which was awesome. I finished the evening with a Jamba Juice nightcap in Times Square on the way back and got my evening's entertainment by watching the baristas try to fend off a pigeon that decided to roost inside the shop.

The next day I had to fly out around dinner time so I took the opportunity for a visit to the JCC gym on the Upper West Side for a class called "Melting." Melting involves using hard plastic foam rollers to apply serious, even painful, pressure to the connective tissue (ligaments and tendons and such). The theory is that this stuff can get loosened up through what is effectively a form of massage and that leads to generally improved flexibility and ease of movement. If you have ever heard of something called Rolfing, it is essentially a poor man's version of that. It was worth a try. I am always looking for things that will stop me from becoming a hunched up old man, and this definite goes into the bag of tricks. In truth, it was just nice to be off my feet for a while.

With only a couple hours left, and sunny skies at last, I took a quick walk through Central Park, snagged a pretzel, and chilled out for a while on the lawn outside Tavern on the Green.

And that was that. I stupidly scheduled my flight out from Newark and so faced an hour long, $70 cab ride to get out. A good weekend in retrospect, but frustrating. But New York isn't supposed to be easy is it?

A smattering of pics:
Waterfall under the Brooklyn Bridge
Same waterfall up close
The Manhattan skyline beyond the Brooklyn Bridge
The Staten Island Ferry
Ellis Island
A classic schooner sailing under the Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty
The Manhattan skyline from the southwest
I found this light fixture to be oddly fascinating
Little Italy in full swing (no sign of Don Fanucci)
For some reason, the Chinatown Starbucks makes me smile

Quickie Reviews

Quickie Reviews: Just some short comments on recently consumed art.

Superbad: There is raunch -- which I usually hate, for instance I didn't much care for Something about Mary or American Pie -- and there is Superbad which is brilliant. Seriously, one of the few teen comedies worth watching in the long and pathetic history of teen comedies. Funny, but with a purpose. Great nerd performances. The awkward raunch and profanity is sourced from adolescent pain, not from pointless toilet humor. Please do NOT make a sequel.

Mad Men: The new season just started and it could be awesome. Clearly this season is going to be about change and age vs. youth. As much as I loathe sentimental '60s hippie worship, it was a time of great change (not all for the better). As Gregg Easterbrook once pointed out, American Grafitti was made in 1971 out of nostalgia for 1960 (11 years in the past). Would anyone notice much different between today and 1997, never mind have nostalgia about it? At this point, it looks like we are going to get a take on that change from Mad Men. I hope this season moves me enough to write about it in full when it's over.

Burn Notice: Nothing but lightweight entertainment coolness. A throwback to '80s shows like Magnum, P.I. -- vacuous pseudo-action/detective-style plots, but perfect paced and executed with good humor. The shows are contrived especially to not require any thought (and if you did think about them, they probably wouldn't make any sense). It gets by on the good natured charisma and chemistry of the lead actors, including the redoubtable Bruce Campbell and the insanely hot Gabrielle Anwar. It's good to eat healthy, but sometimes you just need some ice cream. Burn Notice is perfect Pecan Praline.

Devil May Care: This book has been heralded as the return of "literary" James Bond. Sebastian Faulks, a well respected mainstream novelist, took up the mantle of Ian Fleming in an attempt to reboot the book series as Casino Royale did for the movie series. It works, to a point. First off, having read a number of Fleming's Bond novels I don't know that I would consider them "literary". They are exceedingly well crafted thrillers -- there isn't a thriller writer alive who couldn't benefit from Fleming's economy and sentence craftsmanship -- but it's a stretch, I think to call the "literary" if the implication of literary is something like "artistic insight into humanity". Anyway, what Faulks has done is write a Bond novel that Fleming would be proud of, in the style of Fleming himself. (In fact the cover says "Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming," which is precisely what is going on.) It is set in 1967, just after the last Fleming novel. It makes use of all the trappings of Fleming -- in fact, many of the events can be thought of as variations on Fleming-penned scenes -- without stepping into the cartoonism that so few can resist with Bond (although the pat ending where the arch villain returns to get his revenge for Bond foiling his plan plays out very over-the-top). Worth reading if you like the original Bond series. Not a reason to start if you don't.

Beautiful Jazz: Written in the Stars and Live from the Village Vanguard from the unbelievable Bill Charlap, are perhaps the most beautiful piano performances I have ever heard. Throw in Hey, Look Me Over by the Harry Allen-Joe Cohn Quartet for some exquisite saxophone and guitar work and it adds up to some of wonderful jazz listening. The thing about these two performers is that they have not forsaken beauty as the ultimate goal of music. So much music (especially jazz) seems to exist just to prove how far out of the mainstream it can go. Aesthetics are sacrificed for boundary pushing or technical flash, mopstly for the sake of self-definition. Both these performers find ways to be creative within the context of making beautiful melodious music and being true to the soul of the standards they play. The song comes first. Awesome. I hope it becomes a trend.

It's Not Happening in Detroit

It's Not Happening in Detroit: It's been awhile since we looked in on Detroit's black Irish mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick. As if he wasn't in enough trouble already for perjury, corruption, and generally modeling himself after Robert Mugabe, he has now (allegedly) assaulted a state trooper who was in the course of delivering a subpoena. Most interesting to me is that in the story the cop is trying to serve a warrant to some clown named Bobby Ferguson who is a friend of the Mayor (distantly related through marriage) and a big time city contractor. He is also a felon. So outside of the assault charges, we have a felon who just happens to be a close to the mayor, getting major city contracts. And that is not even the issue everyone is concerned with. Apparently, that's par for the course.

Detroit is a lost cause. Its ultimate destruction is inevitable now, partially because no force for good governance could possibly resist the degenerate culture of the city administration. Oh you may get a brief respite occasionally, but then it will start sliding down the side of toilet bowl again in short order. Detroit's ultimate fate will come when the city consists of a couple dozen loin-clothed inhabitants waging war on each other with stone knives and clubs only to find there are not enough of them left to form a viable gene pool.

I can sit back and say that with a certain bemusement because, despite Detroit being the place of my birth, I got out before any emotional attachment was formed. Others can't do that. Detroit Blog, for example, is dedicated to telling stories of the city out of affection. They are fine little vignettes of the city from the beautiful architecture in the abandoned buildings to the people left desperately clinging to hope and memory. The fellow behind Detroit Blog clearly has a love for the city and is a talented writer. But I can't help but see Detroit Blog as a deathbed memoir. Try this one, for example.

If you don't see the connection between Kwame Kilpatrick feeding taxpayer money to his felon friends and these folks barely breathing on Michigan Avenue, you need to clean your glasses.

Return of the Little Black Book? (or The Horror of Motorola Phone Tools)

The Return of the Little Black Book?: (This is a long cathartic rant. Consider yourself warned.) Just in case any search engines are paying attention, let me say this: Motorola Phone Tools is a festering pile of crap. Here's the story.

I have a Motorola RAZR V3. All I wanted to do was back up my phone book. I don't use the phone for any other nonsense except to make calls and text, and I have a bunch of numbers in there that I have nowhere else. If I dropped the thing in the lake or something, I would be days trying to round up all the numbers I'd lost. Doesn't seem like an unreasonable request. I can't imagine everyone not wanting to do this. I'm not looking for anything special, just a dump to a text file would be fine. So how does one back-up a RAZR?

Well, you have to buy a copy of Motorola Phone Tools (MPT) which costs in excess of $30. That will give you everything you need to sync your contacts, manage you MP3 library, and fiddle with your ringtones. Oh and it will backup your phone book too, if that's the sort of thing you're into.

Now the phone itself cost me $99 so essentially we are talking about a 30% premium just to back up the phone numbers I have stored. I'd take the time to write them out by hand before I'd pay that. Fortunately, MPT is selling for a couple of bucks on eBay (which says something right there), so I ordered a copy.

It arrives. I load up the CD and do the install. Fire up the program and it asks if I want to get any updates. I do. So it downloads the updates. I now have the latest verison of MPT. So far so good. But no farther.

Now I fire it up and it tells me to plug in the phone so it can configure it. I do so, but after a minute it tells me it can't identify the phone, and asks if I want to check for updates to the software. Since it's either that or nothing, I tell it to check for the software updates. It comes back and tells me I am up to date, which I already know, and then asks me if I would like to try to set my phone up manually. Now, the RAZR V3 has to be one of the most common, if not the most common, phones in existence, but the Motorola's own phone tools cannot identify it. OK, fine. I'll try to configure it manually. Except any attempt to do so causes the app to simply crash. Sheesh.

So I do the usual: uninstall, reintstall, reboot, etc. No good: it still doesn't recognize the phone, still makes me check for updates, and still crashes on any attempt to manually configure.

So it's out to the Motorola site for support where I find Motorola has outsourced the creation of MPT to a company called Avanquest. So I hit the Avanquest site. Avanquest doesn't seem to reference its affiliation with MPT and simply offers a completely useless FAQ.

Great. Next up: Google. I start trolling the various page results from Google and I begin to piece together the situation from a variety of different pages on a variety of different internet forums filled with MPT complaints.

The first thing to do is to get the latest handset drivers from Motorola. So I go back to the Motorola site and stagger through pages until I find the driver downloads. Except you can't download the drivers unless you are registered as a Motorola Developer. I have no idea what it means to be a Motorola Developer and I certainly never will be one in my life, but registration is free so I register, meaning Motorola gets to send me some sort of spam now I suppose. In a few minutes, the registration information arrives via email and I go back to the Motorola site with my login credentials and download the latest handset driver.

Sadly, no change in my results when trying to run the app. Still doesn't identify the phone, still crashes when I try to configure manually. So, more forum trolling. I find one sharp-eyed poster has discovered that the Avanquest software installation omits downloading two essential files. You have to go to the CD and copy them over to your installation folder yourself. So I do that. Still no change.

Yet more trolling turns up the suggestion that instead of just running the app, right-click it and "Run as Administrator". Bingo! It doesn't blow up. It still doesn't recognize the phone still (the most common freakin' phone in the world) but at least it's allowing me to do a manual configuration. The manual configuration requires me to identify the phone model by some sort of model number designations that I don't understand. Luckily I manage to guess the right answer. I now have the actual MPT software up and running.

The software itself is abysmal. The interface is inscrutable. It is slow. The messages are cryptic. Fortunately, I just need to do the one task, back-up my phone book entries, and then I can pretend it doesn't exist until I build up some new phone numbers to save.

Finally, I have my phone book entries in a file (.csv) so I can reconstruction them in case of disaster.

Speaking as someone who is a 15-year professional software developer, I am absolutely stunned that this situation can exist in this day and age. 1) I understand the charging your customers for bells and whistles and extras, but a simple back up of your sim card should not cost any money. This is just responsible computing 101. Managing Mp3s mixing ringtones, syncing contacts, sure -- but simply backing up data? What kind of business expects its users to pay extra for the ability to back up their data? 2) The utter lack attention to user experience blows my mind. That anyone would think that Motorola Phone Tools is useable piece of software is unthinkable. If I tried to release software like this I would be cleaning toilets in McDonalds in about two seconds flat. 3) The complete lack of anything resembling support is outright negligence, plain and simple.

It took me a couple of hours to get software running for the simple purpose of backing up phone data. Never, even in the darkest days of MS-DOS config.sys files, did I ever have such an experience before. They made me, their customer, feel like an idiot for using their product instead of just taking the twenty minutes or so it would have taken to copy the numbers into a little black book.

Imagine what this would have been like for someone who payed the $30+ dollars to Motorola for this. Or even for someone without the experience and resources I have. Motorola should be deeply, deeply ashamed of themselves. I will remember this experience whenever I see the Motorola name on any product in the future.