Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Month That Was - November 2010

The Month That Was - November 2010: As I am writing this it is November 30th. I have never started my monthly entry so late. Even when I end up getting things posted a full week into the next month I have always started sooner and been making notes along the way. It's the last day of the month and I got nothing. I can only imagine how late this is going to be. (Answer: Dec. 8th)

Big long trip this month. Phoenix to Vegas to Sedona. Probably my last big trip for a while since the house purchase is well nigh locked in. After that, my posts will be all about domestic goings-on. On the bright side, it should give me a chance to get caught up on my photo galleries over at smugmug. I've uploaded the pics from my August trip Sanibel/Captiva. They are not tagged and titled yet; I have only the two hands. That only leaves me 4 months and 2 vacations behind.

It's cold: 25 degrees (in a couple of months that will be warm). I wake and drive to work in darkness and return home from my windowless office in darkness. Remind me to go on a rant about daylight savings time. Less than a month until the shortest day of the year. If I can survive that long, I'll be able to look forward to seeing another summer. I'll need to find a cheap way to get someplace warm this winter.

And here in front of me sits Misspent Youth, so close and yet so far...

[House and Home] Getting Real Estate
[Travel] Palazzo for the Win
[Health and Fitness]Climbing and Running
[TV] Short Seasons

[House and Home] Getting Real Estate

Getting Real Estate: You know the story: rates are down; prices are down. Will prices come back? Slowly -- will take years. But that's OK for me. Let's say it takes fifteen years to realize another significant gain in housing. In fifteen years I'll be 65 and seriously contemplating retirement, right? (Gawd, I hope not. Maybe from my day job, but not work in general -- but still...) All in all, it was the right time for me to make a major real estate investment. And yes, I am bravely putting this judgment in writing to live forever in the internet's time machine, so you everyone can point and laugh if my investment goes down the toilet.

The housing search took 2 or 3 months. I had a geographic area that I wanted to be in: specifically within about five miles from where I am now. I had a fairly set budget too at first, but when I figured in the inheritance from my father I was able to bump it up another level without impinging horribly on my savings and liquidity.

In the course of all this I encountered for the first time the concept of a short sale. A short sale is effectively a foreclosure that doesn't terribly damage on the credit of a seller. Like foreclosure, it happens when a house is "underwater" -- the value is lower than the amount owed on the mortgage. If you need to get out from under your mortgage at this point you either have to a) cough up the cash difference, or b) default on your loan let the bank foreclose and devastate your credit rating, or c) enter an agreement with the bank to sell for whatever they can get, the bank eats the loss (although it may be considered "income" to you for tax purposes), and you are less worse off credit wise than a foreclosure; generally you'll end up waiting a couple of years before you can get another mortgage, but as long as you don't screw up in the interim, you'll probably be OK. Theoretically, a short sale requires demonstration of hardship, but we all have hardship, don't we? Very strange, the official machinations we go through to save face.

Anyway, I had actually picked out two houses I was interested in, coincidentally right across the street from each other. My number one selection was on the high side as far as listing price. My number two selection was a short sale. So I low balled an offer for the short sale just to see what the bank was willing to sell it for. While that offer was in the price was dropped on my first choice. When I got the response from the bank, I proceeded to negotiate on the first choice knowing that I had short sale house to fall back on. There was some give and take, but we eventually agreed on a price. Then came inspections and approvals and a blizzard of paperwork, although all I really needed to do was copy some statements and sign my name like Colonel Henry Blake. We almost snagged when the inspection turned up some minor issues I wanted fixed or credited for, but we settled on them leaving me their fine John Deere lawn tractor and nearly brand new snow blower instead. Now, unless financing falls through, which it shouldn't, the deal will be closed mid-December.

Sorry for all the boring details.

It's a little scary. I still have to fix up and either sell or rent my condo. I will have a lawn and landscaping and large heating and water and insurance bills and all the evil stuff people are warning me about. But I will also have a big kitchen, and a deck, and a beautiful view of protected land outside my living room window, and an office, and a bar in the basement, and a ton of storage in the garage.

My skeptical friends sneer and say "you'll never make use of any of these things, you silly bachelor, but you will suffer the costs," but your friends are the biggest impediments to change. It's time for me to find a new way of living and cease the stagnant habits of old. There are experiences I still need to have rather than live my life out on the same template as the last ten or fifteen years. I am going to try to make a home of this place, a place I want to be in, rather than just have it be a place to sleep and watch HBO between work and travel. If I fail? Nothing good comes without failures.

First I need to buy a washer and dryer. And a flat panel for the basement.

And some furniture.

And I need to get the septic tank pumped.

In a while we'll all be nostalgic for a good travel rant.

[Travel] Palazzo for the Win

Palazzo for the Win: This was actually one of my favorite Vegas trips. I won't bore you with the details since you've read my ramblings about Vegas for years now, but the highlight was staying at The Palazzo -- the sister property to The Venetian. The huge suites are nearly as large as the ones in THEhotel. Palazzo and Venetian don't have the cache of the Wynn/Encore sisters next door, but they are just as good and probably a better choice for most people. The rooms are a bit larger and there is a broader array of stuff to do right on the property. The convenience of walking down to Piazza San Marco in the middle of the canal lined shopping mall, and having lunch at Mario Batali's Enoceta, and looking on as the faux renaissance performers fiddle about for the crowd is really a wonderful experience and something you wouldn't get at Wynn/Encore.

The Palazzo also has the best Sports Book in Vegas -- bar none. It's the only one that is more than a bunch of seats facing an odds board and a bank of TVs. There are beds, like you'd find in a high end ultra-lounge. Actual restaurants instead of a snack bar. Outdoor, strip-side seating. A great place to hang out. I'm amazed more Sports Books don't try to keep up.

Between Venetian/Palazzo and Wynn/Encore, you have about half of the best restaurants in Vegas, which is saying something because there are more great restaurants concentrated within a mile along the strip than anywhere else in the world. Recommended in Palazzo: B&B Ristorante (another Batali joint), Lavo (from the folks who brought you Tao).

Exceptional non-Palazzo meal experiences were Botero steakhouse at Encore -- sit outside by the pool, exceptional steaks done in trad, pepper, or Brazilian style; Bartolotta at Wynn -- probably the best and most genuine Italian on the strip; L'Altier -- a Roubochon gem at MGM, world's best (and most expensive) eat-at-the-bar experience; and lunch at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in Caesars, one of my stand-bys.

Palazzo also has its own Canyon Ranch spa, much bigger and nicer than the one in Venetian. Rivals the best of the spas on the strip -- although I still think Qua over at Caesars has the edge due to the awesome roman bath space with cold plunge and warm/hot whirlpools.

Anyway, big thumbs up for Palazzo. It becomes my go-to Vegas property and will likely remain so since development has slowed to a crawl. I was so comfortable there that I never even worked up the desire to walk through City Center -- so it remains unseen. Also missed, due to Palazzo induced lethargy, was the new zip-line down Fremont Street. Guess I'll just have to go back yet again, but I need to go in summer when I can get in some pool time. Haven't done that for years.

[Health and Fitness] Climbing and Running

Climbing and Running: For some reason, I took running to heart this year. I don't know why. I'm not a particularly good runner. And I don't actually enjoy it all that much -- well, there are moments; when my stride is smooth and easy, when it's just me and my running shoes and shorts, with the sun and the summer breeze on my back, when even running in a straight line feels like a dance. That's rare. Usually it's work. Sometimes it's torture. Sometimes each step is struggle and my knees howl with each impact. Sometimes it's bitter cold and I am lugging around an extra 10 lbs. in layering while trying to figure out how to wipe my nose on my sleeve as hygienically as possible.

The Six Tunnels to Hoover Dam Turkey Trot just outside of Las Vegas wasn't supposed to be torture. Look at the photos on that site and you will see shiny happy people running in their shorts in the desert morning sun. Um, no. It was 35 at the start of the race, but the killer thing with cold weather running is rarely the temp, but the wind. I'll take a calm 28 degree run over a windy 40 degree run any day. And it was windy on Thanksgivng.

The run starts about a half mile walk from the Hacienda Casino (an establishment whose official motto is "A fun place!" which gets points for succinctness) and goes along a dirt path, a former light rail line, along the coast of Lake Mead to the Hoover Dam where you turn around and retrace your steps back.

As I said it was cold and I wasn't expecting it to be cold, so the day before race featured a visit to Niketown at the Forum Shops to buy some cold weather gear, which was great because I wasn't spending enough money in Vegas as it was.

The race was a bad one for me -- a real struggle. In addition to the freeze-factor, I was fighting a head cold and could barely breathe. Plus, there were a number of hills, including one at the turnaround that nearly made me puke. But I can't complain about the views along Lake Mead; plenty of runners were stopping to pull out their phones and take some shots.

At 12k, it was the second longest race I have ever done and my time was pretty abysmal. I think I came in at right around 10 minute miles. I was just happy to have it over. I honestly felt so bad that I thought of sacking it entirely the night before. But I had already picked up the t-shirt and so not doing the race would have been a scam. Not only that, had I skipped it I would have spent the next few days chastising myself for being such a wuss.

Despite all that, I'll probably do it again next year. The reason: I am an idiot.

The previous weekend was in Phoenix where I did a little race warm up that was much more enjoyable. Of course, it wasn't actually a run, but a climb. Phoenix is an interesting city. Whereas we in the East tend to think of our municipal parks as oases of greenery, in Phoenix the parks are centered around smallish rocky mountains, the most notable of these being Camelback Mountain. It's not a trivial climb, but quite doable if you are in good shape. If you're not in good shape, you'll want to leave yourself a lot of rest time. The total length is a little over a mile, but the elevation gain is nearly 1300 feet. I would guess the split is about 30% trail and 70% scrambling up rocks. Give yourself about an hour for a steady climb. The route will be crowded with everything from families with their Golden Retrievers to fitness lunatics speeding up and down against the clock.

As an urban park, it's not surprising that one of the most daunting aspects of the process is parking. There is a small parking lot that will be full with a line of folks sitting and waiting by 6AM. There is a secondary trail that can be accessed from street parking, but even that fills up by midday when it's busy.

I lucked out with someone clearing out of aspace the instant I arrived. It was a perfect day for a climb. I was in my light jacket and my day hikers. The sun was shining. Everyone was quite friendly. Some of the dogs seemed to have astounding balance considering they lack opposable thumbs. There was the oddity of one group of people taking a smoke break just of the trail, presumably they had had too much fresh air. At the summit, everyone had their phones out taking snaps and emailing them. Amazing 360-degree views of Phoenix/Scottsdale and the desert beyond.

It's probably just my impression, but it seems to me there are endless fitness opportunities out west, with much more variation that back here in Michigan. Working in runs and hikes and bikes and climbs out west is a truly joyous late life discovery for me. Can't get enough of it.

[TV] Short Seasons

Short Seasons: Two critically well-received new shows just closed their first seasons.

By the way, since when did six episodes constitute a season? These shows are really just sequential mini-series. That's cool with me. Take your time, keep the quality up. It's better than hammering out 26 hours of video a year at any cost. TV seasons are like music albums: packaging fodder with gold to benefit producers at the expense of consumers. That these precepts are collapsing is one way in which the world has gotten better in my life. But I digress...

Boardwalk Empire on HBO and The Walking Dead on AMC have both been widely praised. They're good TV shows, but not great. They break no new ground. In fact, I would argue they are both little more than finely crafted cliches.

The Walking Dead is about a band of survivors coming to terms with a full-on zombie apocalypse. That's a premise that was mercilessly pounded flat by the time Charleton Heston was the last man on Earth, yet suddenly zombies are all the rage. It's hard for me to understand zombies. Most horror creatures represent some sort of primal, archetypal fear. Vampires feeding on humans, especially comely young girls, is a metaphor for the vulnerability inherent in humanity and the risk of self-destruction that accompanies it. Got it. Werewolves represent the sin within us all, the dark animalistic side that we so desperately need to control. Got that too. But what exactly do zombies represent? Dead people come back and eat our flesh. Could it be the sins of the father coming back to devour us? Could it be "survivor's guilt" writ large? Could it be that there are just no moral issues with dispatching animated dead bodies so you can go hog wild with the flame thrower and the railgun and chainsaw without worrying about the censor?

Anyway, the zombie background would be fine provided the human stories were sharp and compelling. They aren't. There is a formulaic ethnic diversity to the survivors, along with the requisite manufactured conflict -- fretting for the children and the helpless; evil racists and wife-abusers; poor misunderstood street punks; people shouting "Do it now!" and "I can't live if you don't go on!" and that sort of dialog.

I think I'm going to bail on future seasons. Maybe if I hear some good reviews I might look in on it, but I don't think they have it in 'em.

Boardwalk Empire held good deal of promise, mostly unfulfilled. I would be curious to know the actual extent of Scorcese's involvement in the process. I think it's probably significant simply because the show suffers from the same shortcomings of all Scorcese's later work. It is oddly cast, the characters are uninvolving, and it brings nothing new to the table either in either substance or style.

Oh, it's not "bad." I honestly don't think Scorcese is capable of "bad" at this point in his life or career. Points of quality and competence are simply habit for him. What's lacking is real inspiration. There are criminal power struggles and whackings. There are compromised and compromising women. Sex and violence are intertwined. Family complicates things. There is loyalty and betrayal. Power is pursued at costs well beyond its benefit. Honestly, story-wise there is nothing here that you haven't seen in hundreds of organized crime films and most of Scorcese's oeuvre. The setting is Atlantic City instead of Lower Manhattan. Name brand crooks are highlighted -- Capone, Luciano, Rothstien, Lansky. At least the window dressing is fresh, if the content is stale.

The story centers around Enoch "Nucky" Thompson who controlled Atlantic City for decades from a behind the scenes position as Treasurer or some such unelected position. He is portrayed by character actor Steve Buscemi, who you probably know from his role as Tony B. on The Sopranos or as Carl Showalter from Fargo or as Shut the F-ck Up Donny from The Big Lebowski. He's a fine actor but it's not clear to me if he can carry a series like this. Although I am dubious about the long term strength of his portrayal of Thompson, I have to say, when he's not on the screen, the show slows to an absolute crawl. (Thanks to DVR technology this is not as excruciating as it could be). His protege, and potential betrayer, Jimmy, (cliche alert: he's tortured by memories of war service) seems like he'd fit in better modeling Gucci on the runway. His mistress is a one note samba of goodhearted dedication in the face of compromise (cliche alert: she's formerly a poor immigrant seamstress just trying to do right by her children). The FBI agent assigned to the case is a borderline psychotic Christian who indulges in the very vices he fights at times of weakness (I don't have to give you the cliche alert on that one, do I?). You get the idea.

Strangely, after all that criticism, I have to admit I'll probably give Boardwalk Empire another season to show what it can do. The reason is that watching TV is just something I do. TV fiction -- dramas, comedies -- not reality. I have done it my entire life and presuming to convince myself that I can or want to stop is delusion. For me, the trick is to find the best TV shows relative to all the others at any given time. For all of its flaws, Boardwalk Empire is objectively better than, say, Lie to Me or Grey's Anatomy or any flavor of Law and Order, or Walking Dead for that matter. I hope Scorcese can pull something out, or that the show gets turned over to someone who can. For now, the age of TV drama as high art continues to recede into the past. Boardwalk Empire will have to do.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The Month That Was - October 2010

The Month That Was - October 2010: Spent the month getting more and more frustrated with Misspent Youth. Seems like no matter how many time I pick through it I continue to find errors. Has to stop eventually, doesn't it? Still hoping to have it out by the end of the year, but getting a little worried.

On the upside, this month featured a visit to Miraval, the heavenly resort in the desert outside Tucson. I'll spare you a full write-up because I've done that before, but the place remains an astounding combination of play hard, rest easy, and eat well. I think I may have been one of three men there. The place is overload with groups of middle-aged, well-healed, health conscious women celebrating this event or that. The men who are here often get dragged against their will. Men mostly stay away because they think all you do at such a place is sit around in robes and get pedicures. Not exactly. This visit involved climbing a 45-foot pole to a zip line platform one day, and a (mere) 35-foot climb only to have to pull oneself to stand on top of another pole, and jump off, the next day. It was my third trip -- previous ones involved extended hiking and mountain biking. Anyway, if my brothers-in-testosterone want to stay away, that's fine with me. I get the men's steam room and whirlpool all to myself after a hard day's exertion in the desert.

Still no word on my house offer, so I am in a holding pattern. Nothing new and interesting has come on the market to tempt me away, either. So I'm sitting here with my feet growing slowly colder.

[TV] Got Your Back, Don
[Rant] Shiny Happy Addicts
[Cars] Autodestruct
[Health and Fitness] The Dork Factor

[TV] Got Your Back, Don

Got Your Back, Don: From the majority of what I read about the Mad Men finale, and the conversations I've had about it, it seems that conventional wisdom says that Don made a bad decision. Faye was the one who could save him; the mature woman who could help him face down his demons. Instead he chose the one who would provide the path of least resistance.

Well, sorry, but no. Or rather, yes and no. You see, there are just so many assumptions and biases built into that conclusion that it becomes suspicious.

The ideal future for Don is presumed to be something like: Don locks in with Faye. Under her guidance he faces his hidden past and deals with whatever consequences that entails, he learns that drinking and womanizing is empty and comes to appreciate fidelity and responsibility toward her, at some point in the future he will sit back in serenity and satisfaction, happy in the rewards of emotional maturity. Maybe he will even publish a memoir on becoming spiritually whole (in contrast to Sterling's Gold). In short, he should become the new man every new woman believes he should be.

The problem I have here is the planted assumption is that this road to self-realization is what's best for Don. On what basis, exactly, is that determination made? Here's an alternative. He weds Megan, his has an affair which stresses their marriage, but Megan eventually forgives him. Don settles down, but only as a natural result of aging. Meanwhile, he benefits day in and day out from Megan's feminine, matronly, warmth and love. Something he has never had in his life. Is there any reason to believe that Faye's plan for self-improvement will make him happier than Megan's emotional shelter? I can't see any.

Also, can anyone rationally argue that Faye is better for the kids than Megan? They already have a cold and hostile mother. A cold and therapeutic step-mother is a step up I suppose, but a tiny one. Megan can give both Don and his children something they desperately need but have never had: a loving home and the security of a mother. What is self-realization compared to that?

(And just so you know, I do comprehend that these people aren't real and whatever should or will happen to them is solely because Matt Weiner says so. But this is, after all, the point of art - to illuminate the world in interesting ways. The fact that such a complex discussion is happening about a popular piece of art, as opposed to some obscure niche product -- like a novel -- is very awesome.)

[Rant] Shiny Happy Addicts

Shiny Happy Addicts: For non-addictive people, addiction can be a struggle to understand. "If you're so miserable, why don't you just stop?" is the na‹ve, unanswerable question. The fact is that the addictive activity brings tremendous pleasure. Heroin addicts describe the sensation of getting a fix as better than any sex you could imagine. I am not a broadly addictive person but I have certainly done my share of drinking -- especially when writing -- and I've used alcohol as more than a social lubricant. The consolation and bliss from surrendering to the careless ease that comes from anesthetizing your nervous system is very enticing. I have never passed the point of no return, but I can see why people do, especially if they are to blame for their own misery.

I do allow myself the twee addiction of caffeine. Even if it's just a little, I need it every day. I used to periodically wrench myself out of its clutches on principle, but I don't even bother anymore. I don't have that much -- I bet average the equivalent of two or three cups of coffee per day and would certainly have no trouble with say, a cup of tea in the AM and slug of Diet Pepsi in the afternoon. In fact, it's entirely possible it's only psychological at this point. Still I don't quit because the benefits outweigh the costs to me. I didn't really feel that much better when I was off caffeine and do love that nice hit of energy.

That's kind of the thing that falls out of much of the talk about addiction. Looking beyond the physiology of it, there is a real risk that breaking your addiction doesn't make you any happier. It would be interesting to find out what percentage of reformed alcoholics are truly happier now that they are sober. Let's say you've already destroyed your relationships with your family and friends; you used to spend all day at a dive bar sailing in semi-conscious euphoria with a bunch of other friendly drunks, now you have a dreary paper pushing job in some cubicle farm. You didn't used to worry about anything -- except where your next drink was coming from and that wasn't a big problem -- now everything is stern and serious and stressful and you can never let your guard down. For the sober, the world is a hard place, no? Are you happier now? You are certainly healthier, and probably wealthier (addiction can get expensive), and will likely live longer, but are you really happier?

I suppose that opens the can of worms of defining happiness. But in terms balancing pleasure against pain, I'm not so sure it's clear addition is the short end of the stick. Cognitively, you probably better off unaddicted. But is that really much of an argument against addiction? It would go something like, "Overall, the world will be a more painful place to you, but in most normal functional circumstances you will be vastly better off so, on balance, you should sober up." That's a tough sell.

All this came to mind when I read this astoundingly well written piece about what it's like to be a gambling addict. I have never gambled enough to cause me any distress, but I have won and I have lost and resulting feelings from those are quite different. Winning is instant gratification, then nothing. Losing sticks with you. You'll rethink your losses quite possibly for the rest of your life. But it's the kind of hurt that is has a comforting value to it. It's proof of life. My stories can't compare to the ones in the article, but I have had horrendous weekends in Vegas where I couldn't win. Just couldn't. Where everything I played and every move I made cost me. I would lie in bed those nights and replay everything in my mind to figure out if I did anything wrong. (If I didn't, it just made it more frustrating.)

On the other hand, I would end up those evenings sitting in the lobby bar at Bellagio or Parasol Down at Wynn, muttering to myself and rehashing my problems with a world weary bartender and watching the hum of activity from a storied vantage point. I may be down some cash, but I'm a walking, talking, Frank Sinatra-noir tragedy. What are you, sitting on your living room couch watching a CSI rerun in your underwear? I'm feeling the suffering of the living. It's addictive. Are you happier than me?

[Cars] Autodestruct

Autodestruct: Via the very best auto website in the world, The Truth About Cars, this quote from the Honda CEO nails it: "During the 10 or so years (until the collapse of General Motors), the automobile industry was in a sort of bubble. In that period, carmakers could enjoy sales growth even if they only kept doing the same old things unthinkingly."

It's an oblique way of saying that year-to-year improvements are so small that, when coupled with broadly superior quality and reduced free capital, there is a severely reduced compulsion to buy a new car. When I bought my Camry nine years ago, I bitched about a couple of rattles (which were barely perceptible to others) and how it really wasn't any more fantastic than my previous nine year old Camry. Yet now, nine years on, it has exactly the same two rattles and no others. In fact, apart from the wear and tear on the driver's side foot well, a missing coin cup, and new wheel bearings (ouchie in the wallet), it is exactly the car I bought new, 130,000 miles on. It is still quiet, to the point that I notice it when I have spent a week in a rental. It always starts and stops and heats and cools, with aplomb. Zero electrical issues. Key fob still works. I don't think I have ever opened the hood (not that I'd know what to do if I did). What exactly would I get at this point by buying a new Camry? 15 extra horsepower that I wouldn't notice? Perhaps a bit more quiet, but not that much. For this I should pony up 25 large?

The Honda guy has it right. Cars are now durable goods not consumables, at least with respect to Toyota, Honda, Ford, GM, and maybe a couple of others. Those firms need to rethink everything from market positioning to customer support to revenue models.

As dispassionate and mildly disappointed I was with my Camry when I bought it, it has come to grow on me. I fully expect to keep it another five years, and I'm happy with that. Any longer and it may turn out to be the last car I ever buy, which is a sobering thought.

[Health and Fitness] The Dork Factor

The Dork Factor: I rarely wear a bike helmet when riding on the road (always on the trail) except when riding with my friend Darcy, the bike helmet Nazi. She vocally maintains that I must have some special bias in favor of brain damage. I maintain that I rode my three speed spider bike all around the neighborhood at age ten and never had an issue, plus it makes me look like a dork.

Well, now we have a study:

[Legislating a] new helmet law reduces bicycle deaths among [children] by about 19%. It doesn't affect older riders. Since serious bicycle accidents are rare, however, the absolute numbers are still small, about eight fewer deaths a year among kids 5 to 15 than would otherwise occur in the states with helmet laws. "It's not a ton of lives when you compare it to something like wearing your seat belt," says Prof. Stehr.

One reason for the drop is, of course, that more kids [are wearing] helmets when they get into accidents. But another is that many give up cycling altogether. Using surveys of parents, the professors find that about 650,000 fewer children ride bikes each year after helmet laws go into effect. That's about 81,000 fewer riders for every life saved. Helmets may save lives, but the dork factor also takes its toll."
I have to say, I feel vindicated. Statistically, the helmet won't make me less likely to die, yet it will make me look like a dork. I gotta continue to go with the bare head (except when Darcy is looking).

Note 1: This battle is being waged full tilt over in the Netherlands, where helmet advocates are pulling out all the stops to get kids to strap them on. It doesn't seem to be working as helmeted cyclists are getting odd looks and are getting accused of being friggin' Germans.

Note 2: As we all know, for every problem there is a technological solution: The invisible bicycle airbag. With a video.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The Month That Was - September 2010

The Month That Was - September 2010: Happy Birthday to me. Monday 9/13 was the big one. (As Jerry Pournelle would say, Friday the 13th fell on a Monday.) Half a century of banging about this world. Like everything else in life that is supposedly momentous, it passed without any great revelation or drama. The only actual celebration came two days prior when I was up on Mackinac for a 8-mile race around the island. More on all this below.

More exciting was getting the cover art for Misspent Youth completed, designed and executed by an exceedingly talented local artist named Ken Blaznek. I highly recommend him to anyone in the Ann Arbor area (or beyond for that matter). He was conscientious, creative, and a good listener and, as I said, quite adept at his work. You can see the cover graphic here. It's a 2 meg pdf so give it a chance to load. Comments welcome. Still some work to get the actual book out, but seeing the cover makes it seem awfully real.

[Rant] 50
[Movies] Flick Check: Movie Round-Up
[TV] Toob Notes: Knocking on The Pantheon Door
[Detroit] Selling Detroit - Style Over Substance

[Rant] 50

50: Fifty doesn't exactly sneak up and bite you in the ass. It's a slow train coming that you first see about four years earlier, when you can no longer claim to be in your early forties. It's just a number, right? That what you're supposed to say. But surprisingly, that's how it feels -- physically anyway.

I was thinking about running and fitness. Two days before my birthday I was up on Mackinac Island running in an 8-mile race. (The circumference of Mackinac is 8-miles so it's one loop of the island.) Eight miles is a long distance for me. I'm no great runner -- not even a very good runner. I would guess 8-10 miles is about where running turns from a fitness challenge to a pain endurance challenge. For me it's about fitness, so I'll stick to the middle distances. You couple this with my weekly mile swim and a 30-mile bike ride in good weather, then throw in that I weigh less now than any time since I was in college, and I can honestly say the cliche applies to me: I'm in the best shape of my life (although I should probably get a doctor to confirm that).

Still, healthy or not, it is impossible to be fifty years old and not face the likely fact that you have more years behind you than ahead. Again, this is not a bomb dropped from out of nowhere. It's just something that builds up over time. It presents itself by causing you great consternation over life changes that you previously took in stride. For example: Someone I care about very deeply recently moved away to New York -- really it was just the most recent and most heart-breaking of many friends who have moved on. When you are younger you don't have the fear that the good things in your life are gone forever. You always feel like there is a chance to recapture them, to experience more. It was similar when my beloved Miss Anna moved off to college. I have had some truly joyous times with her and her mother, traveling around, meeting up with them all over the country and beyond. Even though we all knew the time would come when it would end, it's still a sorrowful thing to face.

The question that manifests: "Is that all there is?" Not asked in the sense of disappointment and disillusionment with how life has turned out. Just the opposite, in fact. Said out of fear that the best times may be gone, never to return. You just don't see anything like those cherished moments of real joy in the future. "Is that it? Don't I get more?"

Fortunately your intellect, your sense of reason, guides you to keep such fears under control. Giving in to despair makes it self-fulfilling. Life is still happening even if you don't see it going on. Really, there is no alternative but to continue working your way through the world and hope for more.

You also have perspective on your side. Twenty-five years ago, I was a bartender at a marginal chain restaurant. All my friends were starting to get real grown up careers, settling themselves into corporations and marriages and mortgages. I was staying up until all hours, carousing with my coworkers, and generally being a complete wastrel. I would run into my friends and feel somewhat embarrassed about the state of my life and how I had no design or was making no progress.

Of course, my life subsequently unfolded in such a way to make me feel phenomenally lucky, and as I look back on those years of slackerdom, I don't really regret them at all. In fact, for all the subliminal pain and worry, I certainly wouldn't trade them for five more years on my career now. I can't imagine why I wasn't reveling in the uncomplicated pleasures of life at the time. But when living it, I felt like a pathetic failure. So with that perspective, I can anticipate myself at age 75 thinking back to that wonderful time of my life when I was fifty, and healthy enough, and wealthy enough, and wise enough to appreciate what I had, even while pining over my losses.

Bottom line: I'm 50. It hurts a bit, but I'll live.

[Movies] Flick Check: Movie Round-Up

Flick Check: Movie Round-Up: It must have been ten years since I had a remotely positive outlook about movies. And it gets worse every year. I am decidedly not one of those who goes around complaining that things aren't what they used to be. I know full well the change is mostly in me (and perhaps in the entertainment industry in general) not in the movies themselves. Still, there you are.

Every year movies come out that win awards and praise and are generally raved about, but whenever I get around to seeing them, they just seem utterly inconsequential and contrived. Not bad, you understand, just mere entertainment. The movies don?t tell me or show me anything new anymore--they don't even try. There are only so many formulas that can fit into two and half hours, and I've seen them all. This is, like I said, me, not the movies. Anyway, here are a few impressions of what I've seen recently.

Inglorious Basterds -- I'm afraid I found this dumb and bit dull. The characters were just silly. The concepts were juvenile. The dialogue over-wrought. None of this would be bad had it contained the insane violent artistry of say Kill Bill. But it didn't. It was just sort of "meh." Although Brad Pitt did a good and showed he has some impressive range.

The Informant -- Clever, fun, a little over the top on the dark comic irony. Truthy story of an Archer-Daniels-Midland corporate golden boy who began snitching to the FBI with the ulterior motive of advancing in the company once his enemies are disgraced. Only it turns out he was as corrupt as the rest of them and ended up sabotaging the case and doing more jail time than those he snitched on. Kind of lost as to whether it wanted to be a farce or a morality tale, but well paced and sharply written. Matt Damon is a total stitch.

Sherlock Holmes -- Impeccable combo of action and comic timing, not surprising coming from Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels). Great chemistry between Jude Law and the legend that is Robert Downey Jr. For the Holmes purist in me (I read and internalized the entire canon back in the day) it is a complete travesty, but how can you not like this movie? Probably the only one on of these three that I would stop and watch while flipping channels. Looking forward to the sequel which will star Stephen Fry as Mycroft and Jared Harris (Lane Pryce from Mad Men) as Moriarty.

And to draw final contrast, there were a couple of articles the popped up in honor of the 20th anniversary of Goodfellas. When pressed for what I think is the best of all movies, I usually throw out Goodfellas, although I am not one to give much thought to what my personal hierarchy of likes are. There's a fabulous "making of" piece at GQ. Wonderful info and reminiscences. And you can test your Goodfellas knowledge by taking a quiz over at Mental Floss (I got 18 out of 20). Then you can weep for the late Martin Scorcese when you compare Goodfellas to Boardwalk Empire

[TV] Tube Notes - Knocking on The Pantheon Door

Tube Notes - Knocking on The Pantheon Door: In contrast to movies, TV continues to kick out bits and pieces of real art. The current triumvirate of Mad Men (season 4 almost over), Dexter (season 5 just starting), and Breaking Bad (between seasons) are generating some remarkable drama. Interestingly, and instructively, all of them are variations on a single theme: the destructive affect of secrets.

Dexter Morgan is a serial killer secretly pretending to be a normal schmoe. Walter White is a meth cooker secretly pretending to be a normal schmoe. Don Draper is just secretly pretending to be Don Draper. In each case, a big secret wends it way through the character arcs and plotlines wreaking death and destruction to all who encounter it, whether they are innocent or guilty, loved or hated. Dexter's wife was murdered and children traumatized. Walter's wife is now complicit and his brother-in-law crippled. Don's marriage and family and business are in shambles while he has panic attacks. Lump in plenty of anguish for ancillary characters and the point gets hammered home.

Mad Men does the best of these three because 1) It's much more realistic and 2) it's the only one where the supporting characters can carry a scene, never mind an episode. This season of Mad Men has been riveting; probably the best yet. Matt Weiner has done astounding work developing these characters. Very few missteps (I'm not sold on the Joan/Roger plotline) and the temptation to go whole hog into sneering at the poor pre-sexual revolution Neanderthals has been ably resisted. There is a renewed sense of purpose that was absent last season, so I assume Weiner has a good grip on how he's going to eventually resolve this, but I have absolutely no idea where all this is leading.

Dexter and Breaking Bad found wonderful new twists and turns in their storylines, but didn't break any new conceptual ground. Still wonderful entertainment. A cut above most everything else.

That said, I can't let any of these, even Mad Men into the pantheon yet. (The pantheon is Deadwood, The Sopranos, and The Wire -- in that order.) Mad Men is oh so close, though. The problem is that "secrets = destruction," no matter how artfully done, is not enough of a human insight to bust through the pantheon's steel reinforced doors. We know the deal with tangled webs and innocent victims. We live it and see it every day. It is entertaining to watch and identify with, but it really doesn't take an angle we haven't already internalized.

Let me explain further with an example. The Sopranos. There were certainly secrets in the Sopranos but the show wasn't really about secrets, it was about self-delusion. (You could argue that amounts to secrets kept from yourself, but you'd be overly semantic.) It was portrayed in a very full robust way. Everyone deluded themselves, and these delusions brought them pain and suffering and destruction, but they also allowed them to survive. Without her delusion, Carmella would have been living in a low-rent hovel with no hope for her children. The trade off is being a housewife-whore but her daughter is going to Columbia and her half-wit son has a shot at supporting himself. In which life would she have been better off? If Christopher didn't delude himself that he was really just a soldier and Tony earned his loyalty, he would have been the hopeless white trash, which is what he saw at the gas station when Adrianna told him of her betrayal. The point of the show wasn't just that everyone deludes themselves and suffers for it, it was also pointing out that self-delusion is inherently human and necessary and helpful at times in leading a net positive life. That's the insight into humanity raises it above the crowd. And while the personal conflicts are resolved, the conceptual ones are left open.

Translated to the current crop of shows, we would look for some indication that secrets have their purpose, they are a necessary fact of human civilization, and that they may do as much good as bad, that there is no clear resolution to the conflict between the inner and outer lives of these people. As I said, Mad Men is close -- you could argue it's there and I am just missing it and I wouldn't be quick to dispute you. Both Dexter and Breaking Bad seem to make the case, but only in the purpose of refuting it, not just letting it rest unsettled.

Regardless, my overwhelming evaluation of all this is that Television is the most vibrant contemporary art form. Not even movies match its vitality. Certainly nothing else comes close (including novels and pop music and anything else).

That's not to say there aren't stinkers and disappointments. The late Martin Scorcese's Boardwalk Empire, for example. In contrast to Goodfellas (referenced above), I don't think anyone will be reminiscing about Boardwalk Empire in 20 years. It may not last 20 weeks. It's formulaic organized crime stuff, poorly cast (Scorcese's casting in his last few crime films has been dumbfounding), dispassionately acted, and stuffily written. I'll watch the full season for a turnaround, but I don't have high hopes. Sad. I guess David Milch is our last best hope for a return to HBO's former glory.

[Detroit] Selling Detroit - Style Over Substance

Selling Detroit - Style Over Substance: It's been a awhile since I busted on the city of my birth, but a recent article in the WSJ irritated my pet peeve. At first glance it seems like one of those optimistic takes on a supposed turnaround in Detroit, a city which has been poised for a turnaround for the entire half-century of my life. But credit the WSJ for not completely falling for the happy camper story.

Centering on the massive influx of filmmaking projects in Detroit (and all of Michigan) since the implementation of a 42% tax rebate on any instate expenses incurred by production companies, the usual sunny but shallow comments abound:
So far, the entertainment industry has produced 7,000 production jobs, though many of those are part-time and without benefits.
[S]ays Mikey Eckstein, whom producers hired to help relocate actors-a job that includes everything from finding a math tutor and trumpet instructor for Mr. Imperioli's children to finding an apartment that can accommodate large dogs. "I paid off my mortgage before they even started shooting."
Well, that's one mortgage paid.

Let's think about this, though. If that 42% tax credit is actually a net financial positive for the state wouldn't it make more sense to broaden it? Why not extend it to, oh I don't know, say, the auto parts industry? How about tech? Offer the same credit to any electronics company that will relocate from Taiwan. Or any sneaker-maker who will relocate from Vietnam. See where I'm going with this? If a lower effective tax rate really spurs growth, why not do it for all businesses?

In all honesty, the business tax climate in Michigan is not the worst in the country. It is simply below average and probably a mild disincentive to bringing in new business. In Detroit, one of the few cities in Michigan with the hutzpah to carry an income tax, the climate is very bad. But whether State or City, as demonstrated by the film industry, reducing the tax burden brings development. So again, why not take it to the next level?

There are two reasons why broad and drastic business tax incentives won't be implemented. First, the cynical reason: it shrinks the control politicians have over which industries get started and which don't. This is not to suggest they are sitting around, twirling their mustaches and plotting to keep central control over the peasant economy. It's just human nature in general and the nature of those who get into politics particularly. No matter what your agenda, you cannot implement it without power so protect your power above all else. (Read your Machiavelli.)

The second reason it won't happen is the specific form of the justification they have manufactured to explain their power protection in polite society. To wit: They seem to believe Detroit's problem is primarily one of public relations:
"Without being too romantic and starry-eyed, this is a dream weaver industry and if storytellers can't bring hope to a region, no one can," says Scott Putman, executive producer/unit production manager on "Hostel: Part III."
Unlike jaded denizens of Los Angeles and New York, Detroiters are enjoying celebrity sightings. Last month, Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore, in town to shoot her new movie "LOL," attended a Tigers game. Around the same time, Ms. Moore and actor Gerard Butler, who was in town shooting "Machine Gun Preacher," were spotted at a local bowling alley. Hugh Jackman stopped by the polar bear exhibit at the Detroit Zoo. "That all helps reshape our image and show people we're turning the corner," says Carrie Jones, director of the Michigan Film Office.
"We're done being sad," he says. "We're trying to build a new industry."
This is the sort of thing that presses my button. Whether it's the Ren Cen or new sports stadiums or movie lots, every generation has its own magic pill to save the city by changing its image. We learn nothing. We just ride the loop-de-loop of futility into oblivion.

So what am I, some sort of tea-party type who thinks a tax cut will solve everything? No, a tax cut for businesses will not solve everything. But it's part of creating an environment which allows all sorts for businesses to thrive, not just the glamorous high profile ones that can get politicians re-elected. Included in that environment are public safety, education, and infrastructure -- in all those areas, Detroit is an epic failure. What doesn't help? Celebrity sightings, movie locales, PR campaigns, and other agents of a "change in perception." Put more simply: You're not fooling anyone putting lipstick on a pig.

As to what long term affect these movie shoots will have:
"Hollywood follows the money," says Mr. Belding, the location manager. "If Ohio had a 50% rebate, we'd all head 100 miles south and find Paris there."
In other words, this change in perception amounts to paying people to be our friends.

The bit of good news is that for the first time in recent memory there is a Mayor who seems to have a realistic outlook. I don't know if it's enough -- in fact, I doubt it is -- but I hope Dave Bing can pull something off in the realm of intelligent downsizing that is always discussed.

For a less polemic look at Detroit I highly recommend David Byrne's recent journal post. He spent a fair amount of time biking around the city on a recent visit and seems to have been fascinated by it from an aesthetic point of view - which I heartily endorse. Despite occasional points of naivete, his observations are acute, passionate, and quite well expressed.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Month That Was - August 2010

The Month That Was - August 2010: I am monstrously late, but it was an especially chaotic month, mainly centering around the death of my father. There was no shock or surprise involved; it was a long time coming and everyone was well prepared, which was an inestimable blessing. Still there were arrangements to be made and feelings to confront, most reducing to anxiety over the horrible fate we all share: mortality.

So that, and the associated trip to FL, dominated the month and pushed most everything in my life back a week or two. Work on Misspent Youth continues at the accustomed glacial pace. And the house shopping has resumed. I haven't yet found that one property that just makes jump up and declare myself born again, but there is no need for me to hurry in this market.

I hope next month to do multiple TV and movie reviews, which means I will be reviewing works that are already in the past for you, such as the latest season of Mad Men which will be over by then, and Inglorious Basterds which may be on network TV by then. I just couldn't get to them in a timely fashion. Nothing unusual there, eh?

And now summer slowly passes away, but unlike us mortals, it will return.

[Travel] Swamped in Florida
[Books] Why Did I Ever, by Mary Robison
[Books] The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum
[Cars] A Small Victory for Reason
[Good Links] Link Dump

[Travel] Swamped in Florida

Swamped in Florida: [[Photos on Smugmug.]] Here we go again. On only a few days notice I scheduled my flights down to Florida for my father's funeral. It was to be held in Sarasota, but it looks like Delta rarely if ever has scheduled flights directly into Sarasota anymore, so it was either change planes or fly direct to one of the nearby majors, Tampa or Ft. Myers. I chose Ft. Myers just because it's a smaller, more pleasant airport.

Then I got word that on the following weekend my beloved Miss Anna was schedule to move into her college dorm. That's huge, as far as I'm concerned. Her Mom, Miss Kate, has had some recent back problems, so I was only too happy to extend my trip a few days and meet up with them across the state in North Miami and make myself useful by lifting heavy things.

Of course that meant changing my flight reservation. This gave Delta a prime opportunity to pimp slap one their most loyal customers, namely me, with a draconian fee and they made the most of it. We all expect to pay a fees for such things, which shows just how beaten down we are. There is approximately zero cost to Delta if I change my return flight to Detroit from Ft. Myers to Ft. Lauderdale, but I happily accept that I will be reaching for my wallet. I suppose Delta could argue that they may have lost a seat sale because I had a reserved one and now it would go empty but the fact that they overbook every flight just in case such situations arise kind of belays that argument. Ah well.

But this time they out-absurded themselves. I identified a flight back from Ft. Lauderdale, but it turned out that it was cheaper for me to buy a one way ticket than it was for me to transfer my existing reservation to the same flight. I was being offered the exact same flight for my choice of $200 or $225. So I reserved the one-way and just never even checked in to return flight from Ft. Myers. I suppose some poor guy who was risking getting bumped in Ft. Myers benefitted from this. Victory for me, if you can call eating the fare for a flight I didn't take a victory. Actually if I prevented someone from getting bumped everybody benefitted - the bumped guy and Delta who did not have to pay the bumped guy for his trouble. I'll pass on future such victories. Ah well.

Scott McCartney at WSJ makes a salient point about airline pricing practices and how the inconsistent and completely irrational pricing. It makes customers feel as though they have been evaluated and slapped arbitrarily with the highest price they airlines think they can get. Before the service has even started, they have set up an adversarial relationship with their customers. Ah well.

By "Ah well" I mean there is nothing to be done about it except hand over your cash and bitch about it on-line.

This being Florida in the middle of August, it was rather warm. Pretty much 90/90 every day. That would be temperature and humidity percent both in the 90s. You get weather reports where they say the "real feel" is 112.

I can't count the number of times I've visited Sarasota in my life, but it remains a lovely place. It has grown of course, and gone upscale over the years, but the driving US-41 along the coast with the bay on one side and the glistening buildings on the other can give just about anyone dreams of relocating. Back inland it's mostly just another middle class suburb, as is expected, but the beauty of the waterfront and out in the keys can't be denied. This trip, for the first time ever, we followed the coast road out to the end of the keys to Anna Maria island, a quaint and picturesque little community of rental homes and fishing boats and beach bars. Were I looking for peace and quiet it would be a perfect getaway. I would commute everywhere by bike (or maybe golf cart), hang out on the beach, eat the local fresh catches, rent a Hobie if the breeze was stiff, just completely chill out. There is a tiny shopping area called Bridge Street, about a block long, which terminates in a restaurant called Rotten Ralph's where you can look out over the bay, get that fresh catch, and the beer is always free tomorrow. And if you can take the heat, population is pretty sparse in the summer. Nice.

Next up was the funeral. I suppose the best possible path for anyone is to live long and die quickly. My father did the next best thing. He suffered a series of strokes, but instead of hampering his physical abilities, they just gradually destroyed his cognition and sentience. Over the course of a few years he simply became less and less aware of the world around him, similar to Alzheimer's in that sense, and drifted into a sort of permanent waking dream. No pain. No anguish. None of the indignity or degradation of having your body fail as you watch helplessly. The end came when he developed a rupture in his colon and was unable to recover from the operation close it -- not surprising considering he had only one functioning heart vessel, and that was held open with a stent. I have heard terrible stories about probate and funeral arrangements -- complications, disputes, snafus -- there was none of this. Given the prep time everything from inheritance to grave plot was decided, planned, provided for, and ready to go. The ceremony was simple, graceful, and unexpectedly comforting -- provided by the U.S. Navy (he had served in WW2 on a minesweeper in the South Pacific). May we all be so lucky at the end of our lives.

A couple more days with family, but again, there was no turmoil or terrible anxiety, so with the couple of in between days before meeting Miss Anna, I was off on another brief tour of South Florida.

First stop Sanibel Island. Sanibel (and its smaller sister to the immediate north, Captiva) are essentially island swamps of the coast of Ft. Myers. If you thought it was hot and sticky in Sarasota, Sanibel kicks it up a notch. Honestly, I am a long time veteran of Florida in the heart of summer, not to mention the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Mojave deserts in July and August, but the couple of days I spent on Sanibel were the most uncomfortably hot I have ever survived. The temp was in the mid-90s, but the humidity was so thick it felt like walking through a steam room. And, being a big swamp, humans are beneath mosquitoes in the food chain. And no-see-ums. And spiders -- big ones.

The fee for access to this splendor is a bridge toll of $6. There is no day fee or weekly pass. It's a bridge toll. Want to leave the island for anything? Six more simoleans to get back on. Sounds like a virtual paradise, doesn't it?

In fact, it is. Sanibel is filled with vacation homes, bed and breakfasts, and medium sized resorts, but you wouldn't know it as you drive through. Oh it's clear where the shops and the resorts and so forth are, but they all seem to be terribly well integrated into the surroundings. There are no huge tracks of new development, at least no immediately obvious ones. Everything seems to be surrounded by old growth, as if individual spaces were carved out of the swamp.

I stayed at the Sanibel Inn -- the top rated property for Sanibel on TripAdvisor. Like most highly rated TripAdvisor properties, it has solid quality and good value, especially good for families. It's right on a south-southwesterly facing beach. There's a fine little pool, including a 9-ft deep end that I dove in several times in brazen defiance of the No Diving signs. There's a beach bar which, unlike many properties during the off-season, is actually manned and operated at the advertised hours. An activities hut is on-site for beach gear and, remarkably, free loaner bicycles. They're beat up bicycles, but they function and biking is a great way to get around on the island.

The beach is a shellers dream, as are most beaches on the island. Sanibel is renowned for sea shells. You know that tide line you get on beaches -- sometimes it's gravel, sometimes it's seaweed? On Sanibel it's sea shells. I plunged my hands into it and came up with two thick handfuls of shells. But more importantly you can easily walk fifty yards out and the warm green water will not be over your shoulder. The gulf is not crystal clear, but it is buoyant and clean (no sign of oil, in case you were wondering). I say this every Florida trip, but I could just go out and float around in the water and be as content as a swaddled baby. I spent the remainder of my first day biking around the island to get my bearings, plus an hour or so of swimming and reading and generally being a no-account wastrel.

The next morning I was up an off on a swamp walk. About two-thirds of Sanibel is given over to a protected wildlife preserve, specifically the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. It is, as you have surmised, a big old tract (6400 acres) of mangrove swamp. I had my camera with me, but for all their weird demonic beauty, primeval swamps are simply not readily susceptible to casual photography. I have often tried to get a shot of a certain compelling tangle of trees or some angle to show the Swamp-Thing feel of the landscape and have failed every time. There are skills involved in it that I just don't have.

Swamps are teeming with life. There are gators, but I saw none. There are otters, but I saw none. There are manatees in the deeper areas, but I saw none. There are turtles, I saw none. There are birds -- those I saw, but I think they may have been outnumbered by the birders. I saw skittish fiddler crabs and feeding cranes. The most striking thing I saw were the golden silk orb-weaver spiders. That Wikipedia link suggests that these spiders grow to a leg span of 2.5 inches. Bollocks. One had strung its elaborate web across a narrow path and I was literally inches from it before I stopped myself from walking right into it. The spider sitting at the middle could not have been less than 4 inches across. But the creature that truly owns the swamp is Culiseta longiareolata, the miserable blood-sucking mosquito.

I admit to my own idiocy. I have read stories of African adventurers who kept to long pants and sleeves just to deter bugs, but it didn't register. But it was unimaginably hot, OK? And never has such humidity existed. Still I should have known better than to hike four miles through a South Florida swamp in the middle of August in nothing but sandals and shorts. Besides, did they have to be such greedy little pigs. And stealthy too; I had no idea I was getting so thoroughly chowed upon. I did know that night. I had forty or fifty bites, easily.

After my swamp walk I spent the afternoon trolling around Sanibel and Captiva, taking photos of anything interesting -- the lighthouse beach area, the cute signage, the sunset, etc. -- and generally fantasizing about owning a vacation home there. Plus, more no-account wastrel time. Sleep, when it came, was sparse and fitful, thanks to the barbaric vampire bugs from earlier.

Still, I was up and out the next day, headed for Miami. But first, a stop for lunch at Marco Island. Marco is about as far south as you can go on the gulf before you have to turn east and drive across the Everglades. Like Sanibel, it is a sizable barrier island of the gulf coast. Unlike Sanibel it appears to be completely developed, stem to stern. Many of the houses are quite lovely and some are built around canals with boats docked just outside their doors. There's money here, that's for sure. There is little "character" to any of this, but it all looks clean and fresh and frankly, after my encounter with the wilds of Sanibel, I wasn't disappointed to be surrounded by cement in which mosquitoes could not breed and doorways across which no giant spider webs would be strung.

One find on Marco: Davide Italian Cafe‚ and Deli. Genuine rustic Italian style food (with minor nods to American eaters) in a little storefront shop wedged into a strip mall. Great pepper and onion sandwich. If my vacation home was on Marco this place would be my go to for takeout. And I wouldn't mind a vacation home on Marco, although it would work best if a boat capable of covering the roughly hundred miles to Key West in relative comfort was available.

That's it for the gulf side, now we barrel across Alligator Alley to Hollywood, roughly equidistant from Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, and home of the Westin Diplomat, which would serve as headquarters for Anna's dorm move in.

The Westin Diplomat is a strikingly beautiful hotel. The interior design sparkles with fountainy glitter. There are plenty of seating in the dramatic lobby, with a little lounge area tucked off to the side. An enormous pool complex lives in back, right on the beach. It is pricey, though. It's one of those places where you stop in said lobby bar for a nightcap and walk off to bed $30 lighter. And, of course, wi-fi is only free in the lobby. I could go on a rant about how the cheaper hotels supply wi-fi for free while the "luxury" properties feel the need to gouge you, but I'll spare you.

Anna is starting her freshmen year at Barry University, a college I become more impressed with each visit. Last time I accompanied them down to orientation and while I was generally positive I did express some (mildly snarky) reservations right here on this site (a couple of months back if you're checking). To my surprise I received, completely unsolicited, a nicely worded email from a university official trying to put my concerns to rest. The fact that they monitor the web for new references to Barry University spoke volumes in and of itself. Having seen a bit more of the operation and people I feel pretty good about Anna's education there, and I remain cheered by the explicit Catholic identity of the place, which is an educational plus.

My only concern now is the neighborhood. They are quite blunt when it comes to warnings not to leave the fenced-in campus at night without security. And judging by the bars on the windows of the local houses, that sounds like good advice. But what can you do? 1950 is gone and it's never coming back. At least she should be safe on campus.

These last couple of days were filled with numerous trips to Bed, Bath and Beyond and Target for dorm room outfitting, along with the associated decorating and shelf construction. Essential activities designed to kick start Anna into adulthood. I found myself hoping it would not be the last in long line of little travels I've had with Miss Anna but who knows, she's moved on. Her concerns are her school, her boyfriend, her own tastes and desires. Her life is her's. She is tentatively making her own way, with her own achievements and failures, her own sorrows and joys, covering herself with experiences that she'll wear like armor against mortality to the last.

For now, it gives me another excuse to visit Florida. Maybe even when it's not so hot.

[Books] Book Look: Why Did I Ever, by Mary Robison

Book Look: Why Did I Ever, by Mary Robison: Judging from the blurbs attached to the book jacket, everybody with a recognizable name in the literary world thought Why Did I Ever was a great big handful of chocolate covered awesome. As for me, I just liked it. It's clever and creative and hits the right notes at the right time. Not that I don't have my gripes.

The plot is firmly planted in the post-Oprah universe: Single mom, multiple-divorcee, in therapy, a handful of dysfunctional friends and coworkers, an inability to commit, a daughter addicted to methadone, a homosexual son who has recently suffered a horrific sexual assault. Just like everyone on your block, eh? The lead character, the single mom, is a thoroughly annoying creature nicknamed "Money" -- a self-satisfied smart-ass, who is given to voicing the sort of cryptic quips that make shallow people think she is colorful and that signal that she has hidden depth which you and others just don't have the insight to understand. Meanwhile, her inner monologue indicates she mostly dwells on how much trouble and aggravation everyone else is causing her. God, how I hate such women. If Robison had a real-life model for this character, I'd lay decent odds that I've dated her.

Now, apart from making me sneer disdainfully through half of it, the book is quite good. It is laced throughout with sharp humor. And Money does manage to make a journey from subtle contempt and detached negativity to something approximating gratitude.

Most interesting is the style. Most of the reviews I read of it referred to as minimalist, which is off the mark, or as a diary which is closer but misses the key point. It is in fact web writing in long form. It is presented as what is essentially a series of hundreds of blog posts. In tone, it's the sort of thing you would read on the old school personal blogs folks used to keep (and some still do) (but not me). It has intriguing possibilities and Robison works it well -- indirect thoughts with a spontaneous unfiltered feel to them. Each entry is from one to several paragraphs of events and thoughts that may or may not have relevance outside the ongoing stream. The difference here of course is that they are woven into a coherent narrative. As I said, it's very clever and I suspect it's a good way to avoid any sort of indulgence in delicacy or wordiness (which is all too common in novels), yet it still allows for a striking poetic turn of phrase now and then.

Should you read Why Did I Ever? Yeah. Despite touching on my personal annoyances, it is lively, interesting and entertaining. I'm not going to go as far as calling it chocolate covered awesome, though. Just a good read. Worth your time.

[Books] Book Look: The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum

Book Look: The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum:. Was there ever a time and place when folks understood less about human nature than the 1920s and 30s in the U.S.? It seems like the concept that people respond to incentives was completely foreign to them. The depression was made Great by people with no clue about public reaction to basic economic incentives. And before that there was prohibition -- an idiotic idea made worse by the fact that, in an effort to discourage folks from distilling their own hooch from pilfered industrial alcohol, it was order by the government that all industrial alcohol be poisoned. Yeah, that'll teach them. (Of course, when you consider drug laws, zero tolerance in schools, and government bailouts, we may give them a run for their money in misunderstanding human nature.)

That's just one of the interesting facts I picked up from reading The Poisoner's Handbook, which is a somewhat uncomfortable combination of history, biography, true crime, and science. Using prohibition as a jumping off point, Blum tracks the birth and legal validation of the science of forensic medicine. This involves profiles of its founding father Charles Norris (yes, Chuck Norris, I know...) who expended a herculean effort to fight the corrupt New York City establishment which, for the sake of political favoritism and control, had installed a health official who would famously show up drunk in court. Also, profiled extensively is Alexander Gettler, Norris' chief toxicologist and legendary for his dogged devotion to thoroughness and the scientific method.

We are also treated to some true crime in the form of famous poisoning cases, some for fun, some for money, some for "love". Another interesting truth: Poisonous substances were readily available back then and the only way a number of these murders were solved was through flaky or betrayed associates or because the murderers were just plain stupid. (This may still be true today; most cases are solved via snitches or obvious evidence, aren't they?)

Even with documented proof, legalities got in the way of obvious convictions. (We can relate.)

Scandalous cases, especially if committed for lurid purposes, were tabloid sensations. (Oh yeah, we can relate.)

Some poisons were considered elixirs of health. Radium, for example, was thought to provide energy and was used as a depilatory before people's bones started disintegrating. (You gotta admit this is better today. A lot of the homes I've been looking at have radon detectors. And you won't get intentionally dosed with the stuff except as a last resort against cancer. Most new product scares we have turn out to be the sky falling, and arguably, products are held back from market longer than they should be.)

And it was lucky Chuck Charles Norris was independently wealthy because he often financed a big chunk of the forensic laboratories expenses out of his own pocket, since New York City went through periodic spells of near bankruptcy. (Has happened since and will no doubt come again.)

So here's the main lesson learned: Some things never change.

What about the book, as such? Verdict: So-so. It misses by darting around too much (history/chemistry/biography/true crime) and compromises badly on the discussion of scientific techniques: too shallow to be intellectually interesting, yet really has no place as part of a casual narrative. Blum may have been better served to have just flat left them out. In all cases it would have been better to pick a single angle (history, chemistry, etc....) and pursue it more deeply. A side result of this veneer view is a tendency to paint conflicts in a nice conventional-wisdom black and white, then move along to something else.

That said, should you read The Poisoner's Handbook? Probably yes. It does achieve validity in numerous genres and so will work for whichever one you happen to have a jones for. That suggests shrewd marketing as far as selecting the content -- I mean that in a positive way. If it sounds like something you'd like, it almost certainly is. I also suspect Blum (who is clearly passionate about forensic medicine) could construct a more deep and fascinating look at some specific aspect of this book. I hope a publisher let's her write it.

[Cars] A Small Victory for Reason

A Small Victory for Reason: Here in Ann Arbor, speed limits were raised at three notorious speed traps. You read that right: Raised. These spots have been well known to locals for decades and probably great revenue generators. But recently, after years of efforts, the National Motorists Association successfully argued that raising the speed limit would not make these roads less safe, but would be a sane and rational response to the situation. Bear in mind, this probably means less revenue for the city in speeding tickets. And no doubt someone at some point hysterically argued that raising the limit would result in the deaths of innocent children in flaming car crashes. Yet it was done. It is now two years since and nothing bad has happened.
One thing did change. As was expected, the vast majority of safe, sane, competent drivers who go along with the normal flow of traffic are no longer arbitrarily defined as criminals, and no longer subject to big ticket fines and even bigger insurance surcharges.
The National Motorists Association should win a Nobel prize for this achievement. I thought I would never in my life see a point where a plea to rationality overcame both emotional and financial pressure in politics. And in Ann Arbor no less. Astounding.

[Good Links] Link Dump

Link Dump: I haven't done a link dump in ages, so here's some good reading to distract you from work....

I hate politics, but P.J. O'Rourke is just too good and funny not to read. On a recent trip to Afghanistan, he brilliantly gets to a core issue in all of journalism (and one of the reasons I hate the news media), which is that nobody knows what the real truth is and whatever "angle" is taken on the story reflects the reporter's biases more than any external reality. But I guess you can't write endless stories about how you don't know anything.

Under the heading of things I never thought I'd see, in Brooklyn cops and citizens team up to catch a bike thief. A stolen bike came up for sale on Craigslist and the owner noticed. Cops actually set up a sting with the victim to catch the perp. Awesome. I'm frankly amazed that she didn't just get a "come on in and fill out a form" response. Good on the Brooklyn PD.

Like many people when given a public forum, Roger Ebert tends to spew some embarrassing socio-political commentary. Diarrhea of the mouth, as Rocky Balboa would say. But never ever doubt his ability to write a beautifully crafted and insightful movie review like his recent revisitation of Lost in Translation.

A Shatnerian epic. Gave me the giggles.

And if you still don't want to get back to work, I offer a collection of The Best Magazine Articles Ever. I highly recommend Gay Talese on Sinatra. The one of phone phreaking, Secrets of the Little Blue Box, is great for the retro geek in you. Great stuff.

Monday, August 02, 2010

The Month That Was - July 2010

The Month That Was - July 2010: Outside. I've been outside a lot. That is, after all, the purpose of summer. I haven't been travelling, and probably won't until I get the house thing sorted out. Not that I can be said to be hoarding cash -- I just dropped $1100 on car repairs with only marginal success (more below), but I'm getting my cash balance in shape for pre-approval and scheduling tours and such. And I'm smiling a big contrarian smile as the bottom continues to fall out of the real estate market.

I've also been wielding the trusty old fine-toothed once again. I'm tweaking Misspent Youth hopefully for the last time. There are still a couple of formatting issues to clear up, too -- that never seems to end -- but I finally have a graphic design guy working on the cover so that should yield some tangible progress, which is nice for a change.

Just one time, I'd like something to be simple. Just one time.

[Books] Book Look: Losing Mum and Pup, by Christopher Buckley
[Rant] Surreal Tour
[Health and Fitness] Stroke, Stroke, Stroke, Breathe, *cough*
[Cars] Auto Recovery
[Rant] Get Outta My Head

[Books] Book Look: Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley

Book Look: Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley: I'm a big Christopher Buckley fan. He writes sharp little satiric comedies, based primarily on political or social "issues" with a gimlet eye, but a sympathetic one (he's a "laugh with" versus a "laugh at" guy). His style is smooth and accessible but still very highly crafted and thoughtful. Honestly, it's hard for me to imagine that only one of his books Thank You For Smoking has ever been done up by Hollywood. One of my first book reviews (on Slashdot of all places) was of his underappreciated alien abduction tale Little Green Men.

So when his parents, the redoubtable William F. and Pat Buckley, scions of the New York, Washington, and even global, high society, died within a year of each other, he found himself bringing his satirists eye to bear on something very personal and painful. But as they say, all comedy stems from pain, so who better than a comic novelist to bring such events to life.

I suspect the first thing that most people of a certain age will feel in reading this is something akin to familiarity, but Buckley's experiences are likely to be a bit more extreme. Probate and funeral arrangements are, for anyone, a time-sucking undertaking. Imagine doing it when some of the most powerful people alive need to have their say in the process and when hundreds of big players from around the world are peppering you daily emails of condolence and all of them have to be answered. Now do it twice. Oh, and somewhere in the middle of that, come to terms with your relationship with your parents and your personal grieving. Buckley, a satirist to the core, manages to laugh to keep from crying (at least as far as this narrative is concerned) more often than not. He recounts famous and infamous conflicts and farcical adventures with both parents, for example the sending out regular urine reports on his ailing father to the likes of Henry Kissinger.

Another point of identification is his mixed feelings towards his parents -- both of whom were ferociously loyal to him but unforgiving and demanding in the extreme. For his part he works to reconcile his resentment towards the slights he had experienced over the years -- the seething anger we all feel towards experiences that, if they had not come via or parents, would have been quickly forgotten -- with his foundation of unquestioning love for them.

There is so much to recommend in this book, including hilarious Buckley family stories almost as if this were a Christopher Buckley novel, mixed with harrowing and heartfelt moments, but the best thing that can be said for it is that it could be used as a guide for maintaining perspective and appreciating the absurdities of the process of losing your parents, all in an effort to keep your sanity.

Just a couple of more observations:

First, many years ago I read the elder Buckley's sailing books in which he and Christopher and pack of friends would take voyages across oceans, having a variety of salty adventures and maintaining diaries along the way. One of the voyagers was Danny Merritt, Christopher's best friend (also devoted friend of WFB), who always seemed to me to be a bit of glue in the interpersonal dynamics of the boating parties. It was nice to read after all those years the Christopher and Danny maintained their BFF-ish relationship. It's good to read about such a thing in a world where friendships tend to dissolve over time and distance.

Second, the some of the critical response to this book was flabbergasting. Specifically, I'm referring to the L.A. Times and the SF Gate reviews. In the course of the narrative, Buckley dropped only superficial mention of the domestic problems in the Buckley household over the years, but often went into a bit of gruesome detail about the physical breakdown both his parents faced at the end. These reviews seemed to feel that was wrong way around; that it was somehow disrespectful to discuss their illnesses, but simultaneously unconscionable to leave their personal weakness unexamined.

This is astounding to me: that the unavoidable ravages of time and nature are shaming, but there is a duty to expose our lurid personal weaknesses and neuroses for all to see. What a bizarre notion. I mean to say, WTF? I think Buckley did it just right. The book is a memoir about losing his parents not fodder for Jerry Springer. Anyway, as I am reminded every day, and as I remind you every month: It's not my world.

Should you read Losing Mum and Pup? Yes. It's hard for me to imagine anyone (short of shallow-minded journalists) not liking this book. Despite the dire topic, it is thoroughly amusing and uplifting. If you're like me, you eagerly blast through it in a couple of sittings.

[Rant] Surreal Tour

Surreal Tour: I was probably one of three North Americans who kept up with the Tour de France replays once Lance Armstrong was out of it after the fourth or fifth stage. The race was an extended exercise in Fellini-esque action.

First, Lance crashed. Then crashed again. Then again. Then again. I lost track, but it happened often enough that he found himself many minutes behind the guy he was supposed to battle (and eventual winner), Alberto Contador, who I hate, for reasons I'll get to.

There was a leg with extended segments over cobblestones, and if you have ever ridden a bike over cobblestones at any speed, never TdF speeds, you know the true meaning of the term "pain in the ass." In fact, there were so many crashes and other difficulties early on that at one point a huge mass of riders just decided to stop racing and finish all together in a big bunch as a form of protest. Like virtually all protests, it really didn't have any clear point. It was never stated what they wanted changed or who they were upset with. Nobody was hurt by this protest except the riders who were hoping to make up time on that particular stage. Essentially, it was a bunch of bratty athletes acting out. But it's important to remember, this was in France. Things are different there; they are not meant to make sense.

Why didn't some riders defy the protest out of self interest? Well, the answer to that question is part of what I like about cycling. There are unwritten rules of sportsmanship and communal duties. This is especially true for the riders bunched up in the peloton. It's this air of sportsmanship that I find appealing. Sadly, it was petty boorishness that dominated the tour this year.

Take the aforementioned Contador. First, I don't like him because he hosed Lance last year. Every team has a main guy -- the guy who is supposed to be the focus of their efforts, the one everyone sacrifices for in the interest of him winning the Tour. Last year, when Contador and Lance were teammates, that guy was supposed to be Lance, but Contador defied instructions and usurped Lance's position on the team, thus forcing the team to support Contador over Lance if someone from the team was going to win (it's a complicated situation but that's essentially the jist of it). It may sound like he was just being competitive, but it's the equivalent of, say, a batter swinging for the fences to make a home run record when he's been given the bunt sign in an effort to win the game. Even if it works, it's a dick move.

Another unwritten rule is that once the race leaders are established, they should not lose position because of mechanical issues. The idea is that the better cyclist should win, not the one who got lucky because nothing broke on his bike. This was famously displayed five or so years ago when Lance was leading and got his handlebars entangled in the handbag straps of some idiot spectator. Word was passed and all the other racers slowed to a crawl until Lance caught up. (Imagine something like this happening in NASCAR when Tony Stewart gets a flat tire.)

Well, cruising along about half way through the race, a exceptionally talented young cyclist named Andy Schleck was in the lead with Contador second. Suddenly, Schleck missed a shift and his chain came off. It took a few seconds for him to repair it. Guess who didn't stop? Contador ended up taking the lead for good. After coming under intense criticism and getting booed, Contador prepared an apology and posted it on YouTube. Note: he did not give Schleck a head start the next day or anything. The amount of time Schleck lost due to the malfunction: 39 seconds. The amount of time Contador won by: 39 seconds. The master of the dick move struck again.

Apart from that, there was a fistfight. Or what passes for a fistfight between two 120-lb., spandex and helmet wearing cyclists. The more jaded among us would have called it a slap-fight. An Australian rider got disqualified for trying to head-butt another cyclist while passing him. And at one point, riders had to maneuver their way through a herd of sheep that were trying to cross the road. All that was topped off by streakers along the roadside. Fellini would have been proud.

The worst appears to be yet to come, though. All that vaunted sportsmanship doesn't really extend off the course with respect to doping, and although there weren't any immediate doping disasters this year, the ghost of the previous years were hovering above. Specifically Floyd Landis, a previous miracle tour winner who was stripped of his title because of doping is now the main source for a broad-based investigation into doping in cycling by the FDA. He has accused Lance of doping over the years and claims to have directly witnessed it. He also has a book coming out.

(Aside: I fail to understand why the FDA needs to be involved here. I like the sport of cycling, but the in the litany of things that I would spend my tax dollars on, it doesn't approach notice.)

I fear sportsmanship may go by the wayside in cycling as it has just about everywhere else. We may come to see this year's Tour and the tipping point into crudity. Despite that, I'll probably watch next year. I still marvel at the ability of these guys to go for five or six hours at a rate I could probably only hope to keep up for a few seconds on my Schwinn. And I want to see Contador lose. Maybe he'll fall over a sheep and everyone will just pedal on by.

[Health and Fitness] Stroke, Stroke, Stroke, Breathe *cough*

Stroke, Stroke, Stroke, Breathe *cough*: Speaking of bikes, I have been out on mine a good deal this summer. In fact, it's been my saving grace when I bring my car in for repairs. I can just commute from the Toyota dealer to work or wherever. I need to do a long ride though. At the moment, I don't think I've gone more than 25 miles. I need to take a day to do about 50.

In fact, there were 3 modest fitness goals I had for this summer. A long bike ride was one (not necessarily an organized one). A 10K race was another -- got that covered: I've already run 7.5 on my own and I have an organized one scheduled. The final one was to get comfortable with open water swimming. I have worked my way up to a mile in the pool but, as I have discovered, open water swimming is an entirely different animal.

First, it seems I am incapable of swimming in a straight line without a stripe on the bottom of the pool to guide me. Honestly, I think you could probably add another 25% to the distance I swim just to account for my rather haphazard navigation. There is a technique to gracefully taking a quick look ahead every few strokes to verify that you are on line. Graceful is not in my realm of capability just yet. Awkward gawking and choking on boat-wash is more my style. Plus, there is also the fact that, unlike in the pool, you cannot count on not turning your head to breathe and inhaling air instead of a wave. And where I swim there is a high probability of a collision with a large-bellied man floating on his back while towing a couple of screaming kids wedged into an inflatable dinosaur float (don't ask).

Anyway, I'm getting there. I expect next summer my goal will be to do a triathlon, or perhaps I should just say I want to complete a triathlon at age 50. That is either noble or depressing. Maybe both.

[Cars] Auto Recovery

Auto Recovery: If you have been following along the past few months, you know I was briefly in the market for a new car. My '02 Camry is starting to get a little bothersome. Naturally, like everything else money intensive, that went on hold when I plunged into the house market. I turns out it's just as well. The once-in-a-lifetime buyer's market for cars has passed.

Hamstrung by union requirements to keep workers on, the automakers cranked out cars beyond anything demand could handle because the alternative was to pay them to do nothing. They loaded up inventory pipelines and fobbed off piles of cars on rental agencies. Used domestic sedans were so plentiful and cheap that enormous wholesalers sprang up in places like El Paso to buy cheap used cars for resale south of the border. Manufacturers were axe-ing entire brands - Pontiac, Saturn, Plymouth, Mercury, Hummer - and divesting others -- Saab, Volvo, Jaguar - and trying to clear them from their lots. Combine all that with the recession and a gas crisis that made SUVs into boat anchors; if you were one of the sparse few in the market, "name your price" was not such a huge exaggeration.

Well, if you try to name your price today you're likely to hear, "Too late. Ya snooze, ya lose!" Once the bankruptcy emergencies hit and the cushy fictions of the labor agreements were abandoned, the first thing these guys did was cut back production. Oversupply does not appear much of an issue anymore. The best car website I know of, The Truth About Cars, has an ongoing feature called "Hammertime" about the world of auctions and wholesaling and independent used car dealers wherein they argue this market shift has hit the used car market hardest, especially when you couple the fact that big money loans for new cars are not so readily available anymore and folks are getting more comfortable with good condition used cars (since all cars are of enormously higher quality and durability than they were just ten years ago). Demand up, supply down: do the math.

So having just dropped $400 on general maintenance and another $700 for bearings on the left rear wheel, and facing dropping another $700 on the right rear, not to mention probably another $500 to deal with whatever reason the check engine light is on, what do I do? Kelly Blue Book estimates about $5500 for a private sale. If you figure $2500 of recent and upcoming work, that leaves a $3500 residual which would be a nice down payment on something new or, even more so, a year-old model.

But honestly, as I have discussed before, a new car has pretty much nothing to offer me over and above my Camry when it's working properly. Even if I average $1500 a year on repairs and maintenance going forward, I'm still better off cash-wise with my current ride, and that's before taking into account all the unexpected hits to my wallet that a house is going to bring. I probably could have been swayed into buying if the monster buyer's market was still going on and I could have arranged a killer deal, but that time has passed. No. I'll pay to keep the Camry going another 4 or 5 years. By then, maybe I can sell it as a classic.