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.