Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Month That Was - April 2009

The Month That Was - April 2009: Well. First the good news. Business As Usual is now available for Kindle. The price is a whopping $4.84 (currently discounted to even less). Less than what you'd pay for a Starbucks. If you have a Kindle, please get it. If you don't, please buy a Kindle and get it. The other piece of good writing news is that the first draft of my next (and probably last, although I've said that before) novel is finished. Working title: Misspent Youth. It needs a lot of work, and it will get it, but the important thing now is that everything is rewriting, which is much easier that putting stuff on a blank page. It's also an excuse for me to set it aside and let in marinate I my brain for a few weeks and that is a relief for the moment.

The only travel I got in this month (also good news) was a weekend down in the Outer Banks, described below with pics at SmugMug.

On the bad news side, my all too brief return to regular running is on hiatus due to a profoundly annoying bout of tendonitis. This started at the end of last month, just before I left for NYC. I did 10K on the treadmill and came away particularly sore in my left ankle. Then I headed off to NYC, a trip that always involves a lot of walking. I came back and tried to limp through a few workouts, but it became clear that I was only making it worse. So now my running shoes are on the shelf for a few weeks in the hopes of being fully healed up for outdoor summer running. I would give anything to have the recovery ability I had when I was younger. I should find a way to start mainlining HGH.

Also bad: A was treated to a laptop break down, but more on that below also. Sigh.

Laptop Down
Breaking Great
Outer Banks Don't Fail
Travel Picks and Pans
Don't Know Where Don't Know When
Book Look: Inferno
Book Look: Heart of Darkness

Laptop Down

Laptop Down: (Warning: this is well over to the geeky side of the spectrum.) Ever since the days when DOS was king and config.sys was the Swiss army knife of computer control, I have been getting more and more separated from what is actually going on in my computer. The hard disk fires up and cranks away at random intervals with no clue as to why except the cryptic "system idle processes" in Task Manager. Hewlett-Packard pre-loads and ungodly amount of useless crap on the machine, most of which I have no use for whatsoever -- 93 different CD rippers, 420 DVD players, 847 game demos, etc.; at best it just sits there taking up space, at worst it's waiting to get hijacked to be used as a spam zombie for some greasy dirtbag in the Upper Slobovian mafia.

Most annoyingly, I'll be barreling away in Word, writing some gloriously poetic passage, when suddenly my cursor will turn into a circle and everything will grind to a halt so a little box can pop up to remind me that I can make really great home movies using HyperSuperCinemaEditor 3.0, just click here to start! Pissed off, I then go on a hunt to uninstall HyperSuperCinemaEditor 3.0 only to discover the HyperSuperCinemaEditor is listed in Control Panel under its company name of FlyByNight Software Inc., which has about six entrees in Control Panel and there is no telling which one is HyperSuperCinemaEditor 3.0 or whether I use any other products of theirs.

But it doesn't matter because my cursor is commandeered again as it seems there is a new Java Virtual Machine update that needs to be installed right away or else the internet might disintegrate before my very eyes, oh and by default it will also give you the Yahoo Toolbar because no one in their right mind would want the latest version of Java and not have the Yahoo Toolbar, silly.

But before that gets sorted out, HP wants me to know that it's time for me to check their site for any updated drivers, as it has done every couple of days for the past year, only once actually finding a driver that needs to be updated, which it seems they should know because it's their own website they are checking. Better I spend an hour or so trying to bring my laptop into conformity rather than complete my work, because of what value is art, science, commerce or any human accomplishment if your laptop isn't totally compliant?

Yes, we are so much more efficient now without that arcane config.sys file to edit.

I blame two groups of people for this: Hackers and Grandma. Hackers because they are the ones so anxious to steal your machine for fun or profit that there are constant security updates that need attention. Grandma because we all know that grandma needs to be told about everything she might want to do and hand led by little word balloons to do it. Arguably, Grandma is the bigger issue because if Grandma wouldn't do silly things like click on unverified email attachments we'd probably need less security. In all my years (at least 15) of using Windows I think I've gotten a virus exactly once and it did no damage whatsoever, and this is including Windows 98 and early XP which were known to be the playthings of every malicious, acne-scarred teenager who could write a PERL script. But in the interest of supporting the least common denominator, we all get to be treated like grandma.

Actually I also blame HP, and other PC makers for their idiotic habit of preloading all sorts of el cheapo applications and making you go hunting through the innards of the system to convince them that you really don't want them or need to be reminded that they exist.

Microsoft bears some of the blame also. I am a big fan of their applications. I couldn't live without Word. I'm getting attached to OneNote. Outlook is pretty damn useful. At my day job we use Visual Studio which is peerless. But let's face it; the operating systems have been hit or miss. I thought highly of Windows 2000. Windows XP started out awful, and ended pretty great. Vista, though not as bad as it's made out to be, can't really be called a success. For example, Vista broke my laptop.

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I may have been one of the only people who hadn't had a complaint about Vista. Actually, I have had complaints but nothing debilitating. But then things started going bad. Specifically, coming out of hibernation or after a boot up the thing would just freeze on a blank screen. I would have to hard reset to get it going. It was sporadic at first. Then it started happening regularly. Then it sometimes took two or three hard resets to get it going. I could bring it to the local coffee house and I would be through two grande chai teas before I got to my logon screen.

There was no determining the cause. I ran all the diagnostics I could find and detected no problems. Then the last straw came. My backup process started failing. It would just stop dead and report a cryptic "catastrophic error". What's worse, every time I tried to reboot, the bios would detect some issue and immediately throw me into chkdsk which would itself freeze up good and tight when verifying indexes. (Although strangely, if I terminated the chkdsk it would eventually boot up without a problem.) I immediately suspected my hard disk was failing or about to fail.

Now, back in the old days, I would have handled this in an afternoon. First, since I had my data backed up, I would have reinstalled DOS. If that didn't work, I would have re-formatted the disk and then reinstalled DOS. Follow either with xcopying back my handful of applications and then my data and I'd be golden. If that didn't work, I knew it was time to invest in a new hard disk. Annoying, but at least I was in control.

Maybe if I was still keeping up on things I would have known how to do the equivalent in today's world. I have since discovered the contemporary version is to do a clean install of Windows from the HP recovery disks (provided you can find them), restore your latest backup indicating not to overwrite any existing files (the ones you just generated from the clean install). But I didn't know that. I don't understand how my computer works anymore. I don't have the file dependencies in my head. I don't know what will work with what. And I certainly don't know where everything needs to go in the folder structure. I can't even say for sure that my backups are actually of use since the software decides how to store and format the data. Why would I know such things? Everything came preconfigured and structured precisely so that it would work and in such a way that it could not be pirated by executing a simple copy command. Computers don't exist to be controlled by their users anymore.

Besides, I thought surely it was a hardware problem. Wrong. $200 to the local PC guru got me wise -- it wasn't hardware after all. That Vista managed to break my laptop to the point where chkdsk would not run amazes me. Just one more entry in the litany of things that my leftover '90s era geekiness cannot fathom. Nearly the price of a new netbook and a weekend of downloading and reconfiguring to get it all back to where it was. Maybe it would have been smarter to pitch the laptop and buy a fresh one instead. I swear, not a day goes by when I don't get a reminder that it is simply not my world anymore.

Three things need to be done to rectify this situation.

1) Vista has to be fixed, which by all accounts Microsoft is making great strides towards doing with Windows 7

2) PC makers have to stop pre-loading applications. Just stop. Or at least give us the option of a clean Windows install. Or provide the Windows OEM disks so we can wipe the thing and do our own clean install as soon as we get home. Or something. You can't imagine how depressed I was when I got my laptop back in functioning order only to discover all the crap I had managed to clean out over the past year reappeared with the fresh install.

3) We need a unified update utility. In other words all downloadable updates are handled through a single utility. You set the utility how you want (background installations vs. notifications of availability; pop up warnings vs. passive monitoring) and every program adheres to it. MS could build something like this, but enforcement might be difficult.

I'm sure some hipster-doofus out there is laughing at yelling "get a Mac." Well, Mr. hipster-doofus, I did have a Mac, and if you had been following my posts over the years instead of twittering your facebook, or whatever the hell it is you slouchers do, you would recall that my Mac didn't just cause me temporary grief, it ceased to function completely and forever, not long after the warranty was up.

The true blue geeks out there are suggesting I try Linux, which might actually be closer to the old total control days of DOS...if I had the time to learn Linux. I don't believe I have that much time left on this planet. And if I did, would not want to spend it learning an operating system.

Besides, I really don't want control over my PC. What I want is to not NEED control over my PC. I want the thing to be an appliance, a washing machine. But a washing machine that doesn't set off an alarm and make me press a button to initiate the spin cycle. Or doesn't pause my DVD to tell me about its wonderful new setting for delicates. How bloody hard can that be? Does Kenmore make laptops?

Breaking Great

Breaking Great: Most TV shows suffer in their sophomore season. The reason is that the first season is the result of plots and dialog bubbling around on scripts and in producers heads for years before they get the green light. By the time it gets to the screen it is thoroughly marinated and aged to excellence. Then season 2 deadlines are set and you have a few months to do it all over again. I think you could probably count the number of TV shows that actually improved significantly in their second season on one hand. Seinfeld comes to mind. Maybe some of the classic sitcoms -- Cheers, Taxi. But I don't remember any show kicking it up to a new level like Breaking Bad has so far. The characters have developed better shading, the plot web has gotten more tangled, and best of all, they are really taking some chances and the risks are paying off.

A couple of weeks ago the episode intro consisted of a Mexicali band singing a song that was essentially a recap of the plot of the season and foreshadowing the danger to come. Completely off the wall, but it worked. And they've introduced this farcical sleezebag lawyer named Saul Goodman, brilliantly portrayed by Bob Odenkirk, who could be either the salvation or the death our two ham-fisted, drug-dealing heroes. He has the potential for stealing the series outright.

Ballsy moves from a dramatic standpoint. It's great to see risks like that being taken, as opposed to pouring on the sex and violence for shock value which is what most shows do. If you haven't been following along, you may want to wait for the DVDs. Or spend time catching up on season one first. Killer stuff.

Outer Banks Don't Fail

Outer Banks Don't Fail: From Ocean City, MD down to Florida, the Atlantic Seaboard is peppered with seaside resort towns. They range from the dingy (Ocean City), to the suburb-by-the-seas (Myrtle Beach), to the upper crust (Hilton Head). The Outer Banks is well over to the nicer side of the spectrum for the most part, but it's also unique in many ways.

OBX, which is the cool kid's shorthand for Outer Banks, consists of a thin strip of land off the mainland of North Carolina from the Virginia border south the Cape Hatteras and Okracoke Island. That is to say, it is really not one single community. There are two main bridges across the sound on to the banks and they bracket the central core of OBX. Between these bridges lie the cities of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head. Awesome names. These are pretty much suburban level small cities with strip mall lined main drags and smallish two or three bedroom bungalows closer to the water. Here you get the standard coastal public beach access points and parks and recreation and goods and services. Heading south you encounter Cape Haterras National Seashore which extends all the way down to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, both of which contains small communities, the latter being an especially picturesque village.

Every time I have been to OBX though, we have turned north. Pretty much the instant you get north of the central core, you realize you are in a controlled community. Gaudy signs and advertising disappear, and for miles and miles you encounter very little beyond enormous vacation rentals, all painted in muted hues and of similar construction and gathered into labyrinthine developed neighborhoods. As a general, but imperfect, rule, the further north you go the more new and luxurious things get. Eventually you hit the border with Virginia where the road ends and a seaside wildlife protected area begins. You can get in with a four wheel drive vehicle and some courage. There is said to be one of the last herds of wild horses roaming about in this area.

Ten or twelve bedroom homes are fairly common, most in the four to six range. Thousands upon thousands of them. The first time you see this you can't help but be stunned by the scope of the development. As I said, though, it is very controlled as to style and coloring. There are no sore thumbs. These are pricey rentals with fees designed to be shared by multiple families or large amalgamations of friends and colleagues, but off season they can be more reasonable. That explains why in all my half dozen or so visits, I've never been there in high summer.

Rental homes have the advantage over hotels in that, well, they are actual homes. Full kitchens, stocked with appliances, cookware and utensils, three or four rooms with TVs, comfortable furniture, decks, grills, hot tubs, pools, game rooms, bikes and toys, etc. Plus, you are generally within a couple of hundred yards of the Atlantic Ocean and a beautiful wide beach (although swimming can be cold and dicey). The key thing here is that you can hang out and relax and let the kids run wild, a much nicer set-up than a hotel room. And you probably will hang out more in the house, because the Outer Banks is not exactly a hot bed of wild activity. Rent bikes, walk on the beach, hit some of the little shops, miniature golf -- that's what you got. If you're feeling particularly active, you could rent a kayak or charter a fishing boat, but mostly you are just relaxing and enjoying the beach house.

And in that setting OBX is a terrific place. It is prototypical easy going beach culture. I remember the first time I ever visited being stunned by how folks could quite literally spend an entire day on the beach. I walked down to the water in the AM noticed families setting up chairs and such, then walked back down just before dark to find them still there. That would drive me crazy, but it gives you an idea of how you can take it slow. You don't have to worry about entertaining the kids, just leave them in game room or front of one of the four TVs. Get some bikes. Visit Heritage Park (see photo link below). It's kind of hard to describe other than to say it's just plain easy.

There is one major caveat, though: It's not all that easy to get to. The closest major airport is Norfolk, 2.5 hours north. In fact, considering that you'll probably end up with an indirect flight to Norfolk, you're better off with a direct flight (probably cheaper) into one of the DC airports and taking the five hour drive down. (This is especially true if you are flying on Mesa Airlines, the demon carrier of the skies. See next post.)

I would love to spend a full week down there in a big luxurious house up by the Corolla Light area, with a rented jeep to take me out into the dunes, my road bike to explore around through the toney neighborhoods, and my camera to catch the sunset. Apart from that, no agenda and nothing to prove.

I'm a big fan of the southeast seaboard -- OBX and Hilton Head in particular. It all seems very unpretentious to me, like it's not even trying to be a "destination," it just sort f happened that way. Nice.

Photos on SmugMug.

Travel Picks and Pans

Travel Picks and Pans:Arising from the dead like a great phoenix, Travelocity leaps back into good standing. Here's the deal: Last month I reposted an old New York travel write-up from 2004. In it, I pretty much got hosed by Travelocity and I said so in no uncertain terms, declaring them dead to me to that very day (5 years later). Well, what should happen but a few days after I publish that post than I get a friendly and conciliatory email from Travelocity customer service department offering me a $250 credit voucher for my trouble if I book a vacation through them.

There are two observations of special importance here. First, even though the bad experience was nearly five years ago, they still made the effort to make restitution; despite that it was a recent repost, they indicated in their email that they did know it was a very old story. Second, and more importantly, they noticed a random post on this blog. I did not log any special complaint with Travelocity or any of the other places where bad reviews can cause a company pain. I suppose it's possible that one of my dozen or so regular readers works for Travelocity and thus brought it to their attention, but it's much more likely that they have taken the step of actively monitoring the web for such posts as a matter of policy. That is smart, dedicated, proactive, ass-kickingly good customer service. In an industry where the little things can make all the difference in the world, that's huge.

Oh, and I have already used my $250 credit. Travelocity is not only resurrected but leapfrogs Expedia and Orbitz as my one-stop travel planner of choice. I guess in the travel industry, sometimes things do change for the better.

On the flip side, sometimes they don't. I have long history of total disgust with Mesa Airlines. On several occasions I have had the misfortune of flying with them -- US Airways, Untied, America West, and probably others, all contract with them to handle their "Express" regional service. For example, your boarding pass might indicate the airline as US Airways Express operated by Mesa Airlines. I have never once had an on-time flight with them, nor have I ever witnessed them managing their operation with anything other than consummate incompetence. Again, going back to old travel writings, I'd like to quote myself from back in 2004. I won't subject you to the complete 500-word rant but my summation was:

At Mesa Airlines, the only thing they care about is that you go away and not make them think. If your plane is late you don't need to know why or how or even when you can expect to leave, you don't need to be considered in any way. You just need to accept that they will eventually get you to your destination because they really just want to make you go away. That's enough for you; thank you for flying Mesa.

So imagine my revulsion when, on my way to the Outer Banks, I glanced at my boarding pass for the connecting flight from Charlotte to Norfolk read "US Airways Express operated by Mesa Airlines." Noooooo!!!

Sure enough, with no hope of making our 1:00 departure, they finally got around to updating the board at about 1:10, changing the expected departure time to 1:20. Now, even a lobotomized hamster could have told them that there was no way they were going to make a 1:20 departure time because even a lobotomized hamster could look out the window and see that there was no plane at the gate. If it's 1:10 and your plane is not at the gate, you are not going to depart by 1:20. Trust me. But why bother being accurate and informative when you can so easily confuse and frustrate your customers just for giggles?

1:20 rolls around, then 1:25, then 1:30. At this point, General Relativity dictates that we are going to have to board the plane faster than the speed of light to make our advertised 1:20 departure. I would have paid about $500 to have had Joe Pesci as one of the passengers just so he could flip out on the numb-nuts gate agent. At some point around 1:30 we got a new departure time updated to 1:50. The plane didn't arrive until 1:50 and were actually in the air by 2:15.

You can always count on Mesa Airlines to gleefully rob you at least an hour or two of your vacation, and your life, and rub it in by taking the opportunity to really angry up your blood in any way it is convenient. It doesn't matter how well you plan or what prayers you recite, it WILL happen. I so hate Mesa Airlines.

And if anyone from Mesa is reading this, I will reconsider my judgment for a credit voucher. But it's going to have to be a lot more than $250 to get me on another one of your planes.

Don't Know Where, Don't Know When

Don't Know Where, Don't Know When: Last year about this time I came up with a set of travel possibilities, ending with, "If I knock off two of these (three including NYC), I'll declare victory." Well, I guess I can declare victory, just barely. I got to Newfoundland and I got to the Spa and, of course, NYC. I also got to New Mexico, which you could consider a stand in for the California road trip I described.

It's time again to reassess possible travel plans. Things are a bit tricky this year because I sort of have tentative plans for some things already (kind of...maybe...possibly) that I won't bother discussing unless they come to fruition. But let's make a list anyway and see what gives. Start with some holdovers:

• Pacific Northwest. Or possibly Alaska proper. I have a temptation to road trip from Vancouver to Anchorage which would be awesome but very long. Not only that, I would also want to see the coast line including Juneau and Sitka. I could do a one-way rental car up and then take the ferries back down, but we are looking at two weeks easy for that, if not more, and that would put a serious crimp in any other plans I wanted to make. Let's just leave it at the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver then a train to Banff would be good enough.

• Southeast Asia. The triumvirate of Hong Kong/Singapore/Bangkok is still waiting for me, though Bangkok seems to be having a bit of strife. (I doubt it is anything for a tourist to fret over, and it makes things dirt cheap.) And there is the travel time involved still. It's sad that I can't find it in myself to take long stretches of time in one place. The sacrifice of a single 14/20-day trip being my only serious vacation of the year just seems costly to me.

• Mexico. The travel advisories suggest it's too dangerous. Probably nonsense. I'm betting in the high summer off-seaons, with drug wars and swine flu beating them down, things get really cheap -- possibly even free. This may be the year for Playa Del Carmen to be my first taste of Mexico.

• Unusual Caribbean. Last year I mentioned Saba, Montserrat, Dominica, and Grenada as possibilities. Everything I read about suggest Dominica might be the place. Lots of outdoorsy stuff.

• Hawaii is still a fallback if I get into September and need to do something serious with minimal planning. Big Island, mostly, maybe add in north shore Kauai.

New for this year:

• The Azores. Theoretically an up and coming destination. You can get direct flights from Boston. Not too distant. Thought to be exceptional in the spring. However, flights are pricey. Very pricey, since there is only really the one airline to get there. Keeping my eye out for low fares.

• London and Paris. I admit to being strange in that I feel little attraction to bopping about in Europe. But a dash to London with a cross channel expedition to Paris might actually fit the bill. I can get there reasonably easily. I can wheel and deal with travel planning to not spend an arm and a leg. I can get plenty of photos, that's for sure. Should a person not see these cities at least once in his life?

• Croatia. The Adriatic coast has been up for a bit of discussion. Supposedly this is the new Riviera. Friends speak highly of it. Looks very appealing for island hopping.

• Moab. I never get tired of going out west. Moab has Canyonlands and Arches National Parks right next door, and Mesa Verde in Colorado is within a doable drive. Could try some mountain biking in addition to hiking.

The fact is, I will probably end up defaulting to my stand-bys: Florida and Out West mostly. At some point I am going to have to break down and take an extended journey, but for this year, if I knock off one of the above or something else significant, hit my stand-bys a couple of times, and Vegas at Thanksgiving of course, I'll declare victory again.

Book Look: Inferno

Book Look: Inferno by Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy of Dante is frequently mentioned as a poetry on the level of Shakespeare, at least when read in the original Italian. I don't speak Italian, nor am I very skilled at reading poetry even in translation so any sheer artistry is lost on me. There are about nine-million translations that have been published over the centuries; some try to hold closely to the meter of the original, others resort to straight prose; some keep to the flowery vocabulary of old, other are more colloquial. One of the first tasks for a potential reader is to pick a translation.

The translation I selected is one by Elio Zappulla. It uses colloquial language and vernacular but is structured as something called "free verse". To quote Wikipedia, "Free a term describing various styles of poetry that are written without using strict meter or rhyme, but still recognizable as poetry by virtue of complex patterns of one sort or another that readers will perceive to be part of a coherent whole." Again, I am so poor with poetry that I can discern no difference between free verse and prose that has superfluous carriage returns. Perhaps I should have gone with a straight prose translation, but this one was quite readable and, I am guessing, on the explicit side when it comes to describing Hell's horrors.

Thumbnail of Inferno: Dante, at age 35, finds himself unable to find "the right path", meaning he is losing or has lost his faith. He awakens in a dark woodland where he is trapped by three creatures -- a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. He encounters the long dead Roman poet Virgil who leads him on a journey through Hell, filled with horrific sights and a final encounter with the Devil, to find his way back. The Divine Comedy includes two further epics -- Purgatorio and Paradiso -- which follow Dante through Purgatory and Heaven to his ultimate goal of communing with God. None of this is news to you. There is little about the Divine Comedy that hasn't been said and the concept of passing through the rings of Hell is thoroughly assimilated into the stream of Western conciousness.

Still, Inferno is the sort of book that causes undergrads to groan when it appears on a syllabus. There are likely many reasons for this but I suspect the main one is that it is so far removed from contemporary experience and mores that it simply will not register in the 21st century mind.

For example, the planted philosophy is that of Catholicism -- hard, unforgiving, psycho-Mother Superior, old-school Catholicism. Confronted with the suffering of the tortured souls in Hell, Dante, at one juncture, pities them. His guide, Virgil, rebukes him and reminds him that feeling sorry for them is in itself an offending act. We just don't get that in the contemporary world where our morality is relative to a fault, and the line between religion and psychotherapy has been blurred. It's the sort of thing one would hear from some lunatic imam.

It warrants mentioning that although Catholicism is the reigning way, specific Catholics are not spared over heretics. Anyone who believes the doctrine of papal infallibility ever carried any weight should read Dante ripping Pope Boniface a new one. Which leads me to another problem. Inferno is seriously axe-grindy. Axe-grindy on the level of season five of The Wire. If you were a political enemy of Dante's you can pretty much figure you'll be burning along with common criminals and other species of dirtbags. In fact, much of the epic is given over to naming names or at least hinting at names of notorious Florentines from 'round about 1300. These names are meaningless to most everyone short of the faculties of Medieval and Renaissance Studies departments.

Perhaps the most glaring difference with contemporary times is the hierarchy of sins. In Dante's Hell, the violent are less severely punished than the fraudulent and traitorous. Here are the various levels of Dante's Inferno:

• Circle One -- Limbo for decent unbelievers
• Circle Two -- The lustful
• Circle Three -- The gluttonous
• Circle Four -- The hoarders
• Circle Five -- The wrathful
• Circle Six -- The heretics
• Circle Seven -- The Violent
          Ring 1: Murderers/Robbers
          Ring 2: Suicides
          Ring 3: Those harmful against God/nature and usurers
• Circle Eight -- The Fraudulent
          Trench 1: Panderers and Seducers
          Trench 2: Flatterers
          Trench 3: Those who buy religious favor
          Trench 4: Sorcerers
          Trench 5: Cheaters
          Trench 6: Hypocrites
          Trench 7: Thieves
          Trench 8. Those who give evil counsel
          Trench 9: Instigators (think Eddie Haskel)
          Trench 10: Falsifiers
• Circle Nine -- The Traitorous
          Region 1: Traitors to their kindred
          Region 2: Traitors to their country
          Region 3: Traitors to their guests
          Region 4: Traitors to their lords

Lots of gray areas and overlaps in there. First note that by this formulation, in the hereafter, pretty much our entire political class will be worse off than your standard axe-murder. That's kinda cool.

Seriously, this does not jive at all with the modern way of thinking. To us, with a few exceptions, most of Circles Eight and Nine are torts -- stuff that gets sorted out by vampiric lawyers. Circle Seven is where the criminals lie, broadly speaking. One can't help but look at this as if it were from some alien culture dreamed up for an episode Star Trek that, however weird, needs to be respected under the Prime Directive.

Of course there are some things that transcend temporal boundaries. Horrific tortures, mutations and mutilations, and unspeakable pain and suffering for instance. Some of the scenes described here are worthy of George Romero or Wes Craven or any of the more deeply disturbed contemporary horror filmmakers. Some of the imagery in Inferno clearly demonstrates that twisted, sadistic imaginations have endured throughout the ages, although Dante does it thoughtfully; souls are tortured and degraded in ways that correspond to their earthly sins. No shock for shocks sake, there is method to this madness.

The trouble with Inferno is that, divorced of the beauty of the poetry -- which is lost on me, through my own linguistic limitations and my taste and experience as a reader -- you are left with needing to be fully immersed in the milieu of Florence in 1300 to really appreciate the content. I doubt there is enough time left before my own afterlife for me to get to that point. I'm going to have to pass on Purgatorio and Paradiso. I'm sure Dante will survive without me, as long as there are frumpy academics and people who can speak Italian. I'm better off losing myself in Rex Stout again before tackling another work of significance.

Book Look: Heart of Darkness

Book Look: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: Another try at books on tape (if you will) from the good folks at The recordings at Librivox seem to be hit or miss. I tried Murders of the Rue Morgue but the cadence of the reading was very strange, loaded with mid-sentence pauses that were too distracting. I also tried Inferno but it was read in a metered poetry and read very fast, or at least too fast for me to keep track of. I say without the intent to complain. Librivox costs nothing and the readers are clearly dedicated volunteers who are to be appreciated.

Heart of Darkness is very well read, and a stunner it is. If you are like me, you're only exposure to this story had been the variation that is called Apocalypse Now. Great cinema, for sure, but having read -- or more properly, heard -- Heart of Darkness, the movie doesn't hold a candle to the book.

The schoolbook analysis of Heart of Darkness is that it is a story of a man discovering the fact that we all have a darkness within us and that give the right circumstances we all fall back to primitive cruelty. Standard study questions might be "Are we nothing more than a thin layer of civilization over a savage and empty heart?" or "Is civilization even a thin layer, or is it just a variation on savagery as basic as any other?" Through Marlow's description, we know that Kurtz found those circumstances and turned away from morality. We also know that in his journey to find Kurtz, Marlow was pushed to a similar brink but returned (maybe).

I suppose that is correct as far as it goes, but then what. If the point is really that given the right circumstances, everyone could turn savage the story would be nothing more than fodder for a freshman-level Survey of Western Literature. I suspect Conrad had something deeper on his mind.

If it is true that our hearts are dark and we are little more than savages ourselves, then what does that say about value, knowledge, and reason itself? If in the end there is nothing more than primal instincts and cruelty, then there is nothing at all. All of our beliefs are false constructs to delude ourselves that there is meaning beyond our animalistic existence. In contemporary parlance, we are nothing except a bundle of ancient developments in evolutionary psychology. The dark heart comes not from the potential for savagery, but what the savagery implies about our own existence. (It should be noted that Conrad was Russian, and all this strikes me as very Russian.)

Marlow does escape surrendering to cruelty, but he is haunted by the possibility that it is to no purpose. Early on in the story Marlow makes a stark claim that he detests a lie. Yet in the end, he lies to Kurtz's fianc‚ to ease her pain. From this act, it would seem Marlow hasn't given in to the uncaring emptiness, although he cannot explain why. He appears to have reconciled his vision of existential futility with the need to live in the world as it is; something Kurtz could never do. From the final line of the story, Conrad seems to be saying that life goes on with these answers, but the darkness is still everywhere, waiting.

Disturbing philosophical observations aside, Heart of Darkness is beautifully written. The gloomy and dire atmospherics are mesmerizing. From a historical point of view, Conrad was one of the early post-Victorians. At a time when the standard fiction involved florid, formally constructed prose filled with detailed documentation, Conrad wrote almost colloquially. He was unconcerned with details other than to the extent they moved the story along or contributed to the tone he was trying to achieve. He forewent direct description for hints and allusions. His focus was the internal journey of his character, in keeping with the rise of the concepts of conscious and unconscious psychology that were gaining prevalence at the turn of the last century.

As Francis Ford Coppolla realized, Heart of Darkness transcends time. Marlow even notes at the beginning that a similar story could have occurred at any point in history. Reading it is a both a disturbing and rewarding experience. Which begs a question: If existence is truly empty and the heart of everything is dark, how could a work like this exist?